Totally pucked up

As hockey season ends, a fan struggles to get a grip on life without a rink.

I'VE HAD A GOATEE since April 1. I haven't left the house after 4pm in almost as long. I've been pretty productive with my writing, but, alas, I don't get paid (at least not until this very sentence) for comparing Eric Lindros to J.R. Richard or wondering if a twentysomething gal with a thing for Guy (as in 40-year-old Dallas Star Carbonneau) has father issues.

But these topics and many others have occupied my e-mail box of late, along with the ones that turned up on May 27th bearing subject lines like "Sorry for your loss."

My name is Jason, and I'm a hockey fan.

This is not a hobby. It's a lifestyle choice. Each April, May, and early June, approximately two or three hundred hours of my life—call it 10 or 11 full days, if you wanna keep score that way—are given over to the most intense, unpredictable, and maddeningly drawn-out drama pro sports has to offer. I love it all, even if it's only Ottawa-Toronto in the first round (hey, it's an intense intra-Ontario rivalry). I'm from Philadelphia, so the Flyers, born in 1967 just like I was, have always come first. But living in Austin, Texas, I've also logged nine or 10 thousand road miles traveling back and forth to Dallas' Reunion Arena in recent years, a commitment made easier by the fact that in '98 and '99 the Flyers screwed the pooch in the first round while the Stars made serious Stanley Cup runs.

So besides my Flyers sweaters in all three shades, I've got the green Stars jersey I bought in '98 (the arena was kind of chilly that night, I rationalized at the time), a white '99 Stanley Cup Finals replica bearing the name and number of unlikely minor league call-up Blake Sloan, and a black #14 Dave Reid, game-worn (real sweat stains!) during that same season. The Stars and the Flyers only play each other once or twice a year, barring the finals match-up that almost happened this season (hence the expressions of sorrow from my e-mail friends; the Stars, who beat the Colorado Avalanche in a seven-game semifinal, wound up playing the New Jersey Devils, who beat the Flyers in a seven-game semifinal). So it's easy to double-dip.

It puts a serious strain on your schedule, however. It was one thing to commit my full attention to the Flyers every other day while casually following other games—"casually" meaning I might look at a newspaper during the commercial breaks or make a phone call between periods—the rest of the time. And as long as the Flyers exited early I could just switch my focus. But oy, this year! It. Just. Didn't. Stop. Almost every day one team or the other was on the tube. My hard drive bulged with downloaded articles from newspapers in four different markets (yes, four—can't just read the Philly and Dallas coverage, gotta see what the spin is in the opposing team's city). I guess I should just be resentful—did I say resentful? I meant grateful—that the NHL had the two teams scheduled on alternate nights.

WHICH ISN'T TO SAY I can't miss a game now and then. I mean, yeah, I once scheduled an interview with Matthew McConaughey around the 1996 first round (Tampa Bay) Lightning-Flyers series. But if some sort of business or cultural obligation comes up, I can deal with that, no problem. That's what VCRs are for. Now, I'm not so nutty that I scrutinize every little detail of a game when I already know the final score. Nor am I one of those boors who is constantly sneaking away to check out Headline News or ESPN.com.

No, my strategy has always been tape the game, avoid finding out the score while I'm in the real world, then watch in blissful ignorance later, carefully shunning the answering machine in case someone has unwittingly spilled the beans ("That was the greatest overtime goal I've ever seen! How come you're not home!?"). This approach works for me only because I don't live in a hockey town. The streets of Austin don't exactly chatter with NHL talk. But I remember coming home from a concert in New York City the same night the Flyers were facing the Rangers in the '97 playoffs. As I went through the Lincoln Tunnel, which runs right by Madison Square Garden, I realized that several of the cars around me had Pennsylvania plates. If I accidentally saw the expression on the passengers' faces, I would know how the game went. Should have taken the Holland.

My customized delayed broadcasts have other logistical pitfalls. For example, last week I flew to Newark to attend my sister's bat mitzvah (itself a source of several hockey-watching conflicts, but since the trip home also got me to the Meadowlands three times I'm not complaining). I scheduled my flight for a day the Flyers weren't playing and got my mom to fire up the VCR for Game 5 of the Dallas-Colorado series. I got in around 10pm. Then the dance began.

See, like baseball, a hockey game can go on forever, and it frequently does, especially in the playoffs. Already this year the Flyers had played in the longest game in postwar postseason NHL history, a seven-hour, five-overtime whopper. Now, it's hard to explain to non-hockey fans how five or six hours of action with absolutely no scoring can make for one of the greatest sporting events you've ever seen. But aside from the levels of physical courage and mental focus involved, hockey is a game where so much of the really great action revolves around missed opportunities, writ large by the noise of a crowd's anticipation—Aaaah-aaah-aaaaaaaah. . . . Mmmmmhhhhhhh!—followed by the inevitable downbeat Ohh! Susan Shepard of the Austin fanzine Geek Weekly perfectly captures why hockey goals are so much more precious than home runs, touchdowns, or three-pointers with the following analogy: "Goals are much like the elusive female orgasm: You work carefully hard to get them and when they come there's a really loud noise. Sometimes you think that the setup's perfect, it's gotta come now, and then you're denied! Other times you aren't even expecting it and boom! There it is!"

Anybody got a light? Anyway, when you're taping a game, first you have to make sure it has actually ended. You close your eyes and turn on ESPN, hoping the sound (is it "Sportscenter" anchor Dan Patrick or hockey announcer Gary Thorne?) will tell you what's on without giving anything away. On this night I waited until 11, heard the dulcet tones of "Baseball Tonight" and settled in with the video. Which was all well and good until there were about six minutes to go in the third and the score was 2-2. I already knew the game had ended, and in a relatively timely fashion. When the Avs got a power play with less than three minutes left, I just sat there waiting for the other shoe to drop. When it went to OT, every time one team got possession in the offensive zone I figured, here it comes. The purity of the experience was compromised.

But the Stars won and eventually took their series. The Flyers did not, in truly Shakespearean fashion. Being a Flyers fan these days is a lot like being a Red Sox fan, and that they came so close this year makes it harder for me to enjoy the Stars, even if they manage a repeat. Oh well. Only a hundred-some baseball games left till hockey season.

Jason Cohen is writing a book about minor league hockey in Texas. For more information, check out www.zambonirodeo.com.

 
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