Monday, August 20, 2007

Years in the Wilderness

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Years in the wilderness…I’ve always liked that phrase as it relates to sports. It evokes the notion of a team that hasn’t won anything for years but keeps on persevering. It has a nostalgic feel to it. Images of beleaguered players with the thousand-yard stare, half empty barns and the significance of lesser things that otherwise get swept away when a winning aura surrounds a team. For the fans especially, it means someone who loves the game and rides out the storm no matter if it’s 4 seasons or forty.

The hardcore fans make a virtue out of losing. With the requisite rage, disappointment and heart break that goes with losing, they somehow grasp some remnants of enjoyment and pride from the depths of the accompanying shame and embarrassment. They learn to live with the possibility that they might die without ever seeing their team win it all.

The true, the proud and the never say die-ers who make the best of losing and standing by their team. The ragged warriors who cheer each little victory, whether it’s a hard-earned win, a thumping laid on an opposing team’s goon in a loss or simply limping into the playoffs only to be eliminated in the first round.

The phrase is part of the tradition of romanticizing the teams you follow and the path your own life has taken. It definitely reflects on my life for the past number of years as I’ve been in a position that has made it quite difficult to follow hockey with any degree of meaning. My own journey regarding hockey that brought me to this point started over 30 years ago.

That was the year I received my first Boston Bruins jersey, and for no other reason they became the first team I cheered for. The thin material and the stiff, felt logo stitched on the front had a far less authentic feel than the replicas of today but it was luxury to me. Even as a 7 year-old I considered it a special day when I donned my Bruins sweater in the morning before heading off to school. I continued to acquire various Bruins garb over my childhood years, including pyjamas, bedspreads and numerous jerseys.

A few years later, our family moved to Winnipeg and with the proximity and thrill of attending the occasional game, the Jets became my primary team. I still wore my Bruins jersey with pride and cheered for them once the Jets were eliminated in the playoffs (which was early and every year.)

At the same time, the Toronto Maple Leafs had drifted onto my horizon as a team with some kind of special attraction and mystique. We made the trip to southern Ontario to spend Christmas at my grandfather’s farm every few years. The atmosphere and surroundings helped those few Leafs games televised over the holidays take on a significance in my mind. In the lead-up to Christmas or in those few days before New Year’s, there was usually one or two games shown on television. The seriousness with which my grandfather would sit in his chair and watch the game while others were sure to remain silent or stay in another part of the house added to the mystery of this team with the royal blue jerseys that contrasted so starkly against the ice. I never became a Leafs fan in any sense of the word but those fleeting images are still burned in my brain.

I continued to follow the Jets through the years they iced some truly competitive teams but had the misfortune of sharing the Smythe division with the Oilers. Hawerchuk came and went and then Selanne arrived and with him a new sense of hope. I left Winnipeg in 1994 and have never been back since with the exception of a brief few days almost 10 years ago. I watched from a distance as the Jets packed up and left town for good as well.

I was living outside of Canada and had little opportunity to follow hockey. I worked in Switzerland for a few winters during that time, lacing up the skates on one occasion as the employees from the mountain where I worked played another group of workers from a neighbouring town. I witnessed a great international game played between the Swiss team and Slovenia one evening in Chur, a medium sized town in Switzerland. Those were my only connections to the game at that time.

The internet wasn’t in full swing yet so no real outlets existed for the overseas fan, especially one not remaining in the same place for any length of time. Together with the departure of the Jets I told myself that I wasn’t really interested anyway. I mouthed the usual platitudes about the game changing, “it’s all about the money,” etc. but it was probably just a way to deal with something that I actually did miss.

In 2000 I returned to Canada and lived in Vancouver. With the hassle of getting settled and finding a job, funds were tight and during my 2 years there I failed to see a game at GM place where the Canucks play. I watched NHL games on the big screen at a few pubs I frequented but it was hard to feel the passion I once had for the game. A few years later I left Canada and haven’t been back since.

This past season I started to take a renewed interest in big league hockey. Watching games online and the wide availability of quality websites and discussion boards devoted to the game helped things along. In the interim, during the time when I first left Canada almost 15 years ago until now, other things that were once important to me have fallen by the wayside.

I haven’t looked forward to a hockey season with this much interest for a long time.

It’s good to be back.

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