Through the Toughest Times, Hockey Was Always There

Hockey is life. It’s a common sentiment among die-hard fans. For me personally, it is so much more than just a saying. I am not particularly athletic. I can barely stay on my feet on ice skates. Even if I could, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in western Pennsylvania, there weren’t really many options for budding female hockey stars. But looking back, I honestly don’t know where I would be today or how I would have coped through some of my toughest times without the game I love.

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I more or less stumbled upon my first experience with hockey. It was the mid-1980s, long before the days of streaming services or even cable television as we know it today. I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. If you wanted to watch hockey, your primary option, of course, was the Penguins. However, not all of their games were broadcast, even locally, and in the days before Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr became household names, not many people really paid attention to them.

Jaromir Jagr Pittsburgh Penguins
Jaromir Jagr (Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images)

For some reason, our cable package included the channel WWOR, out of Secaucus, New Jersey. One day I was flipping through the channels and stopped on a New York Rangers game. I can’t remember who they were playing or even who was winning, but I will never forget that game. It was late in the third period, and it was a classic 1980s National Hockey League bloodbath. It got so bad that the game ended with a minute or so left on the clock because neither team had enough players remaining to put on the ice. From that first brief glimpse of the game, I was hooked.

After that, I started tuning in to a few Penguins games, wanting to take a look at the local team. By the time the aforementioned stars led the team to back-to-back Stanley Cup victories in 1991 and 1992, I was a bona fide hockey fan.

Homesick No More

So, I promised to talk about what a huge influence hockey has had on the tougher times in my life. The first time the game truly helped change my life was when I was a junior in college. I had gone to a local branch campus and lived at home for my first two years before heading to Penn State’s main University Park campus to finish my degree.

Since childhood, I had always been an anxious person. I had a very tough time socially throughout elementary school and high school. I was extremely shy and didn’t have many friends. Sleepovers were simply not a part of my formative years like they were for so many others, and I always felt safest and happiest in the comfort of home.

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So, when the time came to move nearly four hours away for college, I was not excited… I was terrified. The school was huge, I knew so few people, and I was unbelievably homesick. I was miserable for the first couple of months. One thing that helped was the rare treat of finding the TV lounge empty when a Penguins game was on.

One night I was watching a Pens game and another girl came in. She asked if I was actually watching the game, clearly surprised to find another fan living in the very same all-girls’ dorm. Not only did I find someone with a common love for the game, but also someone from my neck of the woods.

We bonded over the Penguins and found a smaller TV lounge in another part of the building. We watched every single game. And, we checked out Penn State’s club hockey team. Soon, we were regulars behind the glass in the ancient rink that was also used for public skates, ice shows, physical education classes and myriad outside events.

Andrew Sturtz (16) during the game with St. Lawrence. The Penn State men’s hockey team skated to a 2-2 game with No. 16 St. Lawrence on Oct. 29, 2015 at Pegula Ice Arena. Photo by Mark Selders

It may have only been club hockey, but the Icers, as they were called, had a cult-like following. The place was packed and jumping every Friday night and Saturday afternoon, and the team was good. Really good.

I suddenly didn’t want to go home every weekend. I couldn’t miss an Icers game. To this day, there is no doubt my fondest memories of my alma mater revolve around those games. In 2012, Penn State at long last got a Division 1 NCAA hockey team and a brand-new arena with all the bells and whistles to go along with it. But the smell of stale popcorn and the ice (yes, you can smell the ice, at least I can), and the sound of roaring standing-room-only crowds, will always remind me of college and will always make me smile.

Husband, Teacher

A few years later, I met the man who has now been my husband for nearly 21 years. One of the things we had in common was a love for hockey. The catch was, he was from Massachusetts, and a die-hard Bruins fan. I admittedly hadn’t had a lot of time to devote to hockey after graduating college, and I soon found the members of the Penguins team I’d cheered for were all gone.

But this guy was as dedicated to the game as I had been a few years earlier, if not more so. In fact, my husband has truly taught me the ins and outs and technical aspects of the game. I absolutely would not be knowledgeable enough to write about the game if not for his in-depth explanations.

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It didn’t take long for me to become a Bruins fan. And, after a brief time where hockey and I had drifted apart, I fell in love all over again. It’s been 22 years, and now I honestly can’t imagine how I lived without it thanks to my husband. In fact, we went to Toronto for our honeymoon in May 1999, and, of course, we had a day at the Hockey Hall of Fame on the itinerary.

‘Did the Bruins Win?’

One of the most recent chapters in this lifelong fandom was set in what was without a doubt been the most difficult period of my life. In 2017, my husband was extremely ill. He was in and out of the hospital, and his condition was rapidly deteriorating. On April 20, 2017, he was admitted to the hospital once again as doctors continued to try to get to the bottom of his issues.

Needless to say, I was a wreck. I was drained physically and emotionally and extremely worried. As all of this was transpiring, the Bruins were playing the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. My heart wasn’t really into it, but I knew my husband would want me to continue watching the games, and I was looking for something to take my mind off everything else, however briefly. When I visited him or talked to him on the phone when he was first in the hospital, one of the first things he would ask me would be whether the Bruins had won and how the game had gone. It kept a faint sense of happiness and normalcy in both our lives.

Most Bruins fans need no explanation to describe what happened in Game 5 of that Ottawa series. Sean Kuraly, a prospect who was fresh off his first season with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Providence, Rhode Island, found himself in the lineup with the team dealing with a huge spate of injuries up front. No one knew much about him going into that game.

After that one first-round playoff game, Kuraly was an unknown no more, at least among the Boston faithful. He scored the tying goal and eventual game-winner in overtime, allowing the Bruins to stave off possible elimination. The mental image of him jumping up and down on the ice, bounding into his his waiting teammates’ arms is one for the ages.

Boston Bruins Sean Kuraly
Boston Bruins center Sean Kuraly (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

I think what will always stick with me about that night was watching the post-game interview. Here was a young kid who looked like not only was he still digesting the fact that he was playing in the NHL playoffs in his first season of professional hockey, but that there was no way the reality of what had happened in that game had even come close to sinking in.

Granted, we were in two completely different situations, but I remember thinking to myself that his kid looks as overwhelmed as I feel. And I was able to be happy for him, and for the team, even in the toughest of times.

Fortunately, my husband is a fighter. After months of hospitalization and rehab, he was able to make a full recovery. But the one part of a conversation I had with him the night before he almost died that always sticks with me is talking about how the Bruins had been eliminated that day. We agreed the cards had been stacked against them in that series. I am glad that conversation did not turn out to be the last one I ever had with him, but if it had been, it would have been so fitting that it was about the Bruins.

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And, of course, Kuraly, the kid nobody had ever heard of, made the big club out of camp the next fall and never looked back. He’s thrown in several more clutch goals to boot. And he may never know it, but he helped me through personal tragedy. He has a fan for life.

One Big Family

Hockey is such a huge part of who I am. I have made so many friends on social media over the past two or three years because of our shared love for hockey. I may never meet most of these people face-to-face, but the hockey community still feels very much like family to me.

Together we have had near nervous breakdowns over countless high-pressure games, argued about who should be scratched or traded and celebrated victories. We mourned when lives were lost in the tragic Humboldt Broncos crash. We all cried and grieved right along with Colby Cave’s young widow.

Colby Cave Edmonton Oilers
Edmonton Oilers Colby Cave is congratulated by the bench. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

As I said, I cannot imagine what my life would be like today without hockey. I miss it dearly, as we all do, but I know there are countless more memories to come. So, in that way, hockey is once again helping me get through the tough times.