Sunday, June 06, 2010

From the Back of the Bandwagon
I actually first came to sports fandom through ice hockey. A bit embarrassing to admit, it started with cards: one night, my dad went into the drugstore, meant to get me Battlestar Galactica trading cards (this was 1978, I'm pretty sure, so we're talking the original Lorne Greene iteration) but couldn't find them and got me National Hockey League cards instead. I was upset for a couple minutes--then decided that the sports cards were awesome. I began to follow hockey, then baseball, then football.

By the time I was six or seven, I was hooked; the Flyers tore off a 35 game undefeated streak during the 1979-80 season that I think is still a record, and lost in the Finals to the New York Islanders in six games, largely owing to an offsides call that wasn't, of which you can still hear Philadelphians of a certain vintage complain. Actually my parents claim my hockey fandom actually predates my memory: during the 1975 Finals, won by the Flyers, I pronounced players' names, including unusual ones like "Orest Kindrachuck."

I think this is the first time I've ever written about hockey on this blog, but it might have been my favorite sport through my early teen years. I probably went to at least three or four games a year. The Flyers made it back to the Finals in 1985 and 1987, losing both times to Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers. (One of the cards I got among those early packs my parents bought was Gretzky's rookie card. It's under plastic somewhere in my mom's house to this day; I don't know what the value is, in part because I don't know what its condition is.) Then the team went into a multi-year skid, really the first in a solid history dating back only six years before I was born, and I developed my deeper attachments to baseball and football. The Flyers stayed at the periphery of my attention through the '90s, making it back to the Finals in '97, but never quite recaptured the dynastic heights they'd once enjoyed as star player Eric Lindros became better known for injuries and familial drama than for his on-ice accomplishments. Worse, one of my dear friends, who was an absolute hockey fanatic to the extent that he started a 'zine in 1998 and acquired a press pass, dropped dead one night in December 1999. When the Flyers blew a three games to one lead in the conference finals the following spring against the hated New Jersey Devils, I pretty much gave up on hockey.

Now they're back in the Finals, currently tied at two wins apiece with the Chicago Blackhawks, and I'm finding myself a bit drawn in. I watched big chunks of Games Two and Three, after peeking in at different phases of the earlier rounds of the playoffs. I think I'm more drawn to the unlikely story of how they've gotten there than to the game itself; as I said to Annie the other night, I generally find watching hockey simultaneously boring and stressful. But the Flyers, a preseason favorite in their division and conference, suffered through a season so disappointing that it took a win in a shootout after overtime in their last game of the season just to get them into the playoffs. Then, as the seventh seed, they upset the second-seeded Devils in a satisfying five-game series.

At that point, things got really improbable: they lost the first three games in a best of seven series against the Boston Bruins, came back and won three straight to tie the series despite losing their starting goalie to injury in Game Five (in all, they've dressed seven goalies this season), fell behind 3-0 in the deciding Game Seven in Boston in the first period, then came back to win that game 4-3. They made the Finals by defeating the fabled Montreal Canadians--the eighth-seeded team in the conference, against whom the Flyers improbably enjoyed home ice advantage--in five games, to take on the heavily favored Blackhawks. After narrowly losing the first two games in Chicago, they won both at home to knot the series, which continues tonight.

I'd like to think that my generalized snobbery is rooted in, if not expertise, at least solid familiarity. But I'm not sure I could name more than nine or ten players on the Flyers, and no more than one or two if that on Chicago. I still won't watch the whole game tonight, and going forward if there's a choice between Game Six or (maybe) Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals or a rather less important June Phillies game, I'm probably going to watch baseball. But I would get a thrill seeing my childhood heroes, or rather their much-younger-than-me successors, skating around the rink holding aloft the coolest trophy in sports. For me, for my late friend Jeremy and his family, for the city of Philadelphia which, even after the Phillies' recent win, could use an injection of joy. With all that in mind, the bandwagon isn't so terrible.


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