Falling in love is wonderful. It can be all-consuming, and everything, and terrifying, and…just full of wonder. Have you ever tried to pinpoint the exact moment – or series of moments – in which you fell head over heels in love with someone…or something?
You see where this is going.
It was 1996. I was nine-years-old. I had already been playing hockey for a year, mostly because my best friend was playing, too. It was fun enough – I still hadn’t scored a goal – but I had yet to really fall in love with the sport. I could take it or leave it.
All of this was about to change.
The Colorado Avalanche were battling the Florida Panthers for the right to lift The Stanley Cup. It was Game 4. My family and I had been watching the series and slowly growing more and more enamored of the game. The Avalanche were up in the series three games to none, but Florida had managed to push the fourth game to triple overtime. The score was knotted at zero.
Then, on a nothing play, Uwe Krupp scored on a slap shot from the blue line, and everything changed.
* * *
Life is much simpler when you’re still pre-pubescent. The first two conscious thoughts I can remember having about NHL hockey were probably something like the following:
“Holy cow, those are awesome-looking jerseys!”
“That goalie’s name is spelled Roy, but pronounced ‘Wah.’ That’s weird. And that other goalie’s name is Vanbiesbrouck. That’s even weirder. This is cool!”
Not the speed or the grace or the physicality of the game. Not that these men were utterly physically and emotionally depleted, and still were playing their hearts out. Not that the a championship could be decided with one, single, solitary mistake. Not that the trophy they were playing for is the oldest, most prestigious, and hardest to win in all of sports.
No. Nine-year-old me was concerned with “awesome-looking” jerseys and the relative “cool-ness” of last names.
But that didn’t last very long.
I came to understand the rest of it later, as I grew to know and love the game in a more mature way. I came to understand the historical context of this series: that just a year before, the Avalanche hadn’t been the Avalanche at all, but a team from Quebec called The Nordiques (whatever the heck that was). That the season before they became the Avalanche, they already had a pretty darn good team, and that many thought they were just a goaltender away from being able to legitimately compete for the Stanley Cup – and that they got that goaltender, ironically, from their former cross-province rivals in a trade demanded by said goaltender.
That Florida was still in its infancy as a team and indeed had only been in existence for three years. I can’t imagine what the hockey purists of the time must have thought as they watched a team from Florida - Florida - compete for the Stanley Cup.
Even though I wasn’t able to articulate it at the time – at least not very eloquently beyond a simple, “this is rad!” – I know that I understood the drama and tension inherent to a Stanley Cup Playoff overtime game. I felt it. That every tiny detail mattered – that a single mistake could destroy hopes and end a season, or even a career.
I like to think of the playoffs that year as my courtship period with hockey, and the moment that Uwe Krupp scored on John Vanbiesbrouck through a screen on a shot that, by all accounts, Vanbiesbrouck should have stopped – the moment that Uwe Krupp made the Colorado Avalanche Stanley Cup Champions – as the moment that I completely fell in love with it. Everything that I had seen and liked about hockey up until literally a second before Krupp’s shot found the back of the net, crystallized in the moments immediately following the puck beating Vanbiesbrouck and everyone else realizing what had just happened.
The sheer jubilation of it all. The grown men reduced to tears of joy, jumping up and down like little boys. The reaction shots of Avalanche fans going berserk back home in Denver, watching the live feed from the McNichols Sports Arena. The counterpunch of a mother comforting her young Panthers-jersey-wearing son. The rats flooding the ice at Miami Arena. The handshake line. The impossibly shiny and cool-looking trophy that everyone seemed so eager to get their hands (and their lips) on…
Every single emotional, noble, historical, idiosyncratic, kooky thing about hockey – at that instant, I fell in love with it all.
For years afterwards I cherished an old Topps Uwe Krupp card I had found somewhere or another, thinking that this Krupp character a) had a truly terrific name and b) must be some kind of Super Star to have scored a Stanley Cup winning goal. It’s funny what kids are capable of rationalizing.
The next season, I decided to pick a hockey team to be a fan of, and being that I lived in Southern California, I seemed destined to root for either the Kings or the Ducks. I lived closer to Anaheim than LA, so I decided to become a Ducks fan. I also decided that I wanted to be a good hockey player, so I took to the quiet street we lived on, and to our paved backyard, skating and skating and skating, and shooting and shooting and shooting. Dangling through patio furniture. Working on trick shots. Pretending I was one of the players I was rapidly coming to know and appreciate and look up to…and love – Paul Kariya, Teemu Selanne, Jaromir Jagr, Joe Sakic, Sergei Fedorov.
I had a sense, even back then, that by choosing to become a hockey fan, I was entering a special fraternity – one bound by common experience and a shared understanding of just how wonderful our sport can be. Remember that: it may not seem like it at this juncture, but hockey is special, and so are its fans. It may be trampled on from time to time by its own keepers, but know this: it’s special. And so are you, for loving it.
No, it may not have been the sexiest Final in the history of the sport, but the 1996 Stanley Cup Final turned me into a hockey fan for life. And I’m proud of that.
Can you pinpoint the exact moment you fell in love with hockey? Let’s have a conversation in the comment box below.