Now Playing: Pearl Jam – Vs.
I’m not sure this offseason could get ANY worse. So I thought it best to try and lighten the mood with by giving you my Top 5 favorite hockey moments. These are likely going to seem kind of random and possibly self-aggrandizing, but hey, it might actually make you smile about hockey for the first time amidst a traumatic summer.
The Coolest Day of My Life
Those of you that know me (and haven’t heard this story, so, both of you) will be shocked to know that the coolest day of my life to date involved the Chicago Cubs and the Detroit Red Wings. I’ll pause to let you pick yourselves up off the floor. I know, just hear me out.
I had just arrived at Murphy’s Bleachers before a Cubs game on 22 August 2008, meeting friends and waiting for the rain to subside so the game could finally get under way when all of a sudden the entire bar goes absolutely ballistic. I mean completely nuts. I look over and see Chris Chelios (coincidentally my all-time favorite hockey player) standing atop the bar with the Stanley Cup raised high above his head. I snap a few quick pictures with my phone before sharpening my elbows and deciding to get closer.
I ended up right up against the bar immediately underneath Cheli, mouth agape, body quivering, eyes twitching and tongue likely dragging on the floor. The next thing I know, there’s a gentleman behind the bar wearing a Cubs hat and black Ray-Ban sunglasses pointing to me and saying “Hey Chris, Chris! Ya gotta give this guy some” and pointing right at me. Chelios listens, and pours what I can only assume was a liquid made of unicorns and baby Jesus from the Cup into my mouth. Upon finishing the magic elixir, I looked up and realized the guy behind the bar was none other than Lloyd Dobler himself, Chicago’s own John Cusack. Yeah, he’s in my top 5 favorite actors of all time, so the geeking out continued.
After I composed myself enough to move away from the bar and let others have their moment with the Cup, I relocated to the patio area. I attempted to call, well, every single person in my address book. Being that it was about 2pm on a Friday afternoon, not one of them answered. Jerks. Then I happened to notice a shorter guy at the edge of the patio wearing a Cubs hat with a catcher’s mitt under his arm. As he turned towards me I realized it was Eddie Vedder. (Important sidenote here: Pearl Jam is my FAVORITE band of all time. OF ALL TIME.) He was playing the final show of his solo tour in support of the Into the Wild soundtrack that evening (a show for which I of course had a ticket) and, unbeknownst to me at the time, catching the first pitch that was to be thrown by Chelios that afternoon. I approached and thanked him for sharing his music and gift with his fans and telling him how much I enjoyed his band’s music. He looked at me, smiled, and said: “Hey, thanks man, just… pace yourself buddy.” It’s possible I did something more dignified than drooling all over myself at that point, but highly doubtful.
To recap, I drank from the Stanley Cup courtesy of my favorite hockey player with an assist from one of my favorite actors, then got to meet the frontman of my favorite band in advance of seeing him play the final show of his tour later that evening. Go ahead, I dare you to come up with a cooler day than that.
The Organ Loft
During my playing days, I played with the offspring of several NHL players. One of those progeny was Ryan Tonelli, son of four-time Stanley Cup winner John Tonelli, who had a cup of coffee with the Chicago Blackhawks during the 1991-1992 season. While he played only 33 games and amassed only 8 points, he gave me the thrill of a lifetime… as a healthy scratch.
Tonelli was scratched for a game at which my father and I attended, and we took note immediately. I looked for him during the warm-up skate, then again during the first period, but he was not on the bench. My pops then borrowed the binoculars of the gentleman next to us and we spotted him amongst the healthy scratches next to the famed organ. (Something important to note here: this was in the old Chicago Stadium, and the organ loft wasn’t up in the rafters like it is now, but jutted out from the mezzanine section and hung almost over the glass at one end of the ice.) So between periods, my father and I hustled over to the base of the organ loft (which consisted of a straight ladder directly up into the loft) and shouted up to see if he was there. He answered and invited me up. Yes, I got to watch a period of Blackhawks hockey from the organ loft at the Old Barn. I’m not sure if my mother has yet forgiven pops for the exponential growth my vocabulary experienced that night.
Hockey at Wrigley
I woke up on New Year’s Day 2009 without a ticket to the NHL Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. However I knew of an establishment that was running a raffle for tickets that morning, so I bundled up as if I was leading an Iditarod sled team and headed out to Wrigleyville to win myself a spot in the building. I got to the bar with such high hopes, only to have them dashed as the manager told me that the tickets were yanked out from under them at the last moment and the contest had been cancelled. Ouch. So I awaited the arrival of my dad and his friends (all of whom had tickets) to have a few drinks before the game.
As luck would have it, one of the guys showed up in jeans, tennis shoes, and a North Face jacket for a 3-hour hockey game, outside, on January 1st in Chicago. “Bill, it’s [expletive deleted] COLD out there!” he told my father. “I’m not going to that [expletive deleted] game. Take Ryan, he’s dressed for it and practically foaming at the mouth.”
So because my dad’s friend had a brain cramp, I got to experience the majesty of hockey at historic Wrigley Field. The cold winds were vicious, and the line to the men’s room seemed to stretch to the moon, but as the teams walked out of the dugouts, through the fireworks, across home plate, and on to the ice, none of that seemed to matter. Even though the game was not at the traditional home of the Blackhawks, when the anthem started, it was as if nothing had changed. The Hawks ended up losing the game, but when Kris Versteeg became the answer to a trivia question and scored the first ever goal on Wrigley Field ice, I think I actually felt the Friendly Confines lift a few inches off the ground. Sharing that experience with my father who introduced me to the game and coached me for so many years is something I’ll never forget.
The 1991 NHL All-Star Game
Chicago was chosen to host the 42nd annual NHL All-Star Game during a time of great conflict, as we were smack in the middle of Operation Desert Storm. As you know, the national anthem in Chicago is a bit different than anywhere else, the crowd sings and cheers along, as they have done since the early 80′s. Being in the building for this one was, well, beyond words. Take the two minutes and watch it here. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
I really can’t express what that felt like, but the Chicago Stadium was an old building at the time, and I definitely felt it shaking, and I probably should have been more worried about its structural integrity than I was at the time, but I was awash in a flood of pride, jingoism, and such intense awe that I really could not be bothered with such trivial concerns.
The Triple OT Thriller
I don’t remember what the tournament was called, but I was playing for the Downers Grove Huskies organization, and we were the host team. At the time, I was in the Squirt division, which is players at the ages of 9 and 10, and we had advanced to the finals to face the Flames. We hated the Flames. This was like a Ducks/Hawks, Coach Bombay/Coach Reilly type of hatred. (Also, I ended up playing for the Flames like two years later, so I guess I’m the bizarro Adam Banks.) The game went back and forth, each team taking the lead twice, but coughing it up just minutes later.
At the end of the game the score was 4-4, so sudden death overtime was needed to decide a champion. Although each overtime period was only 10 minutes, it felt like an eternity. Scoring chances on both ends, shifts getting shorter and shorter, goaltenders making seemingly miraculous saves. We didn’t clean the ice between periods, so it was getting pretty rough, which only added to the physical demands of playing so much extra time. Players on both benches were slumped over, gasping for breath as moms and dads ran back and forth refilling water bottles to keep us hydrated. We were already eating up time earmarked for the next game, which was the Bantam level championship game, so players from both teams had congregated and were watching our game.
With about 5 minutes left in the third overtime frame, we had managed to set up in the Flames zone and sustain a bit of pressure as we worked the puck along the boards between myself at the point and the winger down low. Our winger got taken off the puck, but managed to swing his stick and knock the puck free towards the high slot, where Tony Daniels ripped a one-timer past the goaltender for the win. The crowd (OK, our moms and dads and the other teams waiting to take the ice) went crazy. We players on the ice, however, couldn’t even raise our arms in celebration, and most of us fell to our knees and rejoiced. It was an unbelievable war of attrition and just epitomizes everything I love about the game of hockey.
Hopefully this little trip down my memory lane has reminded you of some of the great things about the greatest game on earth and re-ignited or kept alive the fire of anticipation for the approaching NHL season. With all of the tragedy the game has seen lately, I thought it was important to remember why we love it. Please, feel free to share some of your favorite memories in the comments section, and LET’S GO HAWKS!!!