In the eighties my dad was a Soviet journalist working in NY for a USSR government newspaper. He was a hockey fan like most Russian men, and my first childhood hockey memory was of the mighty Red Army team (CSKA) touring the NHL around Christmas time and crushing most NHL opposition. My dad would watch those games, me by his side, enjoying the undisputed dominance of Soviet hockey over our Western opposition. I was nine.
Soon after that series ended, I remember turning on our TV and seeing a hockey game intro showing four rotating Stanley Cups. I was watching my first Islanders game. At one point my dad passed by, watched for a minute and said to me "Son, these Islanders are like the Red Army of America. They dominate the NHL!". And I thought - "cool, they’ll be my American team then". That’s how it started.
By the end of the next, 85-86 season I was a die hard fan. I knew every player, every number. I had a good grasp on the rules of the game, but I'd never been to a game in person and kept asking my dad to take me to one. One day, over dinner my parents told me that we'd be moving back to Russia soon. His tour of duty was over and it was time to go home. I was thrilled to go back, but I also knew my chance to see the Islanders was almost gone with only a few games remaining that year. The playoffs were about to start. I kept pleading with my dad and he finally gave in. "Alright. We’ll go. I'll buy tickets tomorrow". I was over the moon.
But the next night he sat me down and said "Son, I know I said I’ll buy tickets, but I had no idea they would be so expensive. We just can't afford it. I'm very sorry". Our family lived on a small government allowance where the socialist state paid for rent, the car lease, gas, bills, but left very little actual cash for disposable income, basically enough only for groceries and essentials.
I'd understand it now, but I was ten then. Tears burst out of my eyes when I heard this. My dreams were crushed. I stormed out of the room, shut the door behind me and launched into a tantrum for the ages.
The next day my dad returned home from work, hugged me, told me to close my eyes and when I opened them he was holding two Islanders tickets. NY Islanders vs Washington Capitals. Patrick Division Semifinals. Game 3. I love my dad. Rest In Peace.
You know in the movies there's that scene of love at first sight? The background falls off, she's in slow motion, music plays... I know it sounds silly, but I swear that's what it felt like when I walked into the arena and saw a hockey rink for the first time: warm ups, the sound of skates cutting the ice, slap shots and some glam rock blasting through the speakers. I was speechless. Mesmerized. I just stood there frozen, staring at the rink. And through this I finally hear " Son, this way…" my dad shaking my shoulder. We start walking up the stairs to our seats. We were climbing those stairs seemingly forever -all the way to the last row. The cheapest seats he could find, but I didn't care one bit. I was at an Islander game!
We returned to Moscow. There were no NHL games on TV. My team is CSKA: Bure, Kamensky, Fedorov. In high school my friends and I couldn't afford tickets. So we'd hang out by the arena and when during the first intermission fans stepped out for a smoke, we'd jump the fence and sneak into the arena because the ushers were too overwhelmed by the thousands of fans returning from their frigid outdoor smoke break. After the games we'd hang out in the players parking lot chasing autographs.
I couldn't watch Islander games, but I tried to follow them from afar. On my way to school I'd pick up sports daily at the newspaper and check the Islanders scores. Once I read about some asshole called Patrick who took out our best player, so I started hating the Rangers.
I never thought I'd live in the States again at the time, but I do now. My six year-old is the loudest fan in the Barclays sometimes, covered in team gear. The 91 on the back of his jersey filled with player signatures. His dream is to be an Islander Captain, like his hero. He asked me once if I will still love him if he gets drafted by another team. My youngest is just starting to speak. We recently passed a bar with a Ranger logo at the front and he said "boo Rangers!" He said that from his stroller!