FanPost

The J-Mill Story: How Disappointment, The Trap, YouTube, and My Father Made Me Love Hockey

In the thread of Carnie's post last week, Brad brought up the idea that everyone on the site should post their stories of how they became fans, even if they weren't as purely awesome as hers - which mine surely is not, but still.  No one else has posted theirs yet (that hadn't already), so I thought I'd go first. 

WARNING: It's kind of long - deal, bitches. 

Like I'd imagine many of you guys, my sports fandom was kindled by my father.  Unfortunately, I have grown farther and farther from my dad in the 8 years since he and my mother split up (though mostly through the 7 that he's been re-married), which is especially sad when you consider that my mother was the one with the 9-5 job in our household while he was a stay-at-home dad for me and my sister with the occasional midnight job in shipping.  But I still remember most of the good times growing up, doing community theatre with him, playing N64 and watching Dragon Ball Z when I got home from school, and of course, playing and talking about sports. 

Maybe Mike Keenan Did Something Right? Never mind - fuck that guy.


However, while I've lived in the St. Louis area most of my life, I was born in Dallas, where my dad was born and raised LONG before the North Stars migrated south.  So needless to say, hockey wasn't on the radar too much, especially compared to football, which I played and was pretty much obsessed with for a good four-five years.  So the first time Blues hockey came into my life was when the Blues traded for Wayne Gretzky, who - even though I was only 7 and knew nothing about hockey - was one of those names that I knew were famous, but didn't really know why (like Madonna or Princess Di).  I remember watching his first game on TV, and the seeds were sewn.  Everything about the game was fast and unlike anything I had seen much of before.  Also that night, my dad told me about this guy who had been a great hockey player for the Blues for a number of years and was kind of a big deal...perhaps you've heard of him?  I think his name was Brent Hell or something?

But that was pretty much it for me and hockey for a few years - I tried to follow the Blues in the postseason that year, but wasn't allowed to stay up late enough to watch most of the games.  Then a few years later I went to my first Blues game late in the 2000 season.  I went with a group from my school spear headed by our two PE teachers, and my dad came along.  I don't remember who we played or if we won, but I do remember the pleasant chill in the arena, the goal horns and organ playing, and especially me and my friends obnoxiously yelling "I WANNA DRIVE THE ZAMBONI!!!" during the intermissions.  On the way home, my father and I rode with the two PE teachers, who were listening to a sports show talking about the upcoming playoffs.  One of the talking heads mentioned how the big favorite for The Cup was the Dallas Stars, to which PE teacher #2 took offense.  His reasoning: "I understand why they'd be the favorites, being defending Cup champions and all, but the Blues should be favored since they've been the best team in the league all year!"  This told me two things my Rams-Super Bowl-saturated brain didn't know at the time: 1) the team from my birthplace were defending champs, and 2) the Blues were actually pretty damn good!  Between the game and that knowledge, I decided I HAD to follow the Blues in the playoffs that year! 

The Never-Ending Story Games: The 2000 Playoffs

Unfortunately, we all know how that turned out for the Blues.  I remember watching the first period of Game 7 with my parents, being told that I had to go to sleep at first intermission.  After Owen Nolan "scored" his fluke goal at the end of the first, I begged to stay up for the rest of the game, to no avail.  To this day, I still say if I had stayed up we may have come back! 

Having been unsatisfied with the end of the Blues season, I still had an itch to watch the playoffs.  Being from Dallas, I easily picked up the Stars as my back-up team, but I watched whoever was on, especially the overtime games - that was probably THE year to be a fan of multi-OTs.  I remember catching on towards the end of the 5 OT game between the Penguins and Flyers, though I don't remember off the top of my head who won that night.  Then it got to the finals - Stars and Devils.  By the time they got there, I had moved from Bridgeton, MO to Edwardsville, IL, so we were still adjusting to our new house, but since it was summer, I'd stay up as late as I needed to catch the games, which that year meant pretty late.  I know a lot of people complain about The Trap and how boring Devils games are, but I sat there by myself in the basement glued to the TV for hours, afraid that even my slightest movement would be death for my adopted team.  Around the fourthor fifth intermission I'd move upstairs to the living room to watch the next OT with my dad, who was usually up late watching Hogan's Heroes or Howard Stern or whatever.  Even though I couldn't get enough of the sport, I was still rather iffy on all the rules - I remember one night my dad and I tried to figure out what exactly offsides was.  Eventually, Jason Arnott scored in Game 6, and while my father and I were disappointed, I remember all the ceremony, pageantry, and pure, unadulterated joy throughout the Cup presentation.  I didn't like who was doing the raising, but I loved everything else.  I knew that I wanted to be there one day - preferably with the Blue Note underneath The Cup.

CAAAAAARRRRRRRR!!!!!! 

I started really getting into street hockey with a few friends down the street - we'd usually play as much as four-five times a week.  Sometimes, it'd just be me and one other kid, in which case we'd take turns playing goal and have a best-of-7 shootout, the winner getting to skate around with our make shift Stanley Cup - a Blues souvenir cup taped to a plastic bowl.  Every now and then, this guy who lived next door to my friend - and who used to play for the River Otters - would come out and join us! 

I followed the Blues closely the next year.  I remember The Greatest Comeback in NHL HistoryTM in Toronto.  I remember the Tkachuk trade.  And I remember where I was when Bryce Salvador scored in OT of Game 5 against the Sharks in the first round (once again watching alone in my basement).  

And then, just after Christmas in '01, my mother had a talk with me and my sister.  She told us that they'd be trying a separation.  I was rather blank for a while, but I escaped by watching the Blues and the Rams (luckily it was a good time to be a Rams fan - I don't know what I'd do if it'd happened today).  He did move back in on New Year's Eve, without much fanfare, and stayed for a while.  I remember sitting as a family stunned when the Rams lost Super Bowl XXXVI - all five of us (my father, mother, grandma, sister, and I) were completely silent for nearly fifteen minutes.  That may have been the last real moment we ever had as a family. 

I've Always Depended on the Kindness of Strangers

Before he did eventually move out for good, though, we went to Game 5 of that year's first round series with the Blackhawks - we clinched that night, booed the out-of town updates of the Sharks and Redwings winning, both Prongs and Mac scored, we got tacos (god, I miss those 35 cent tacos!), Brent Johnson's nearly three-game shutout streak ended to a standing ovation, and the Hawks fans in the building went home with their tails between their legs, having to sit in traffic listening to a few thousand cars honking in the streets!  (I tried to convince my dad to join them, but he wouldn't)  But what I remember most about that game was a woman sitting next to my dad.  He was still having trouble understanding the game (especially offsides and icing), so this woman tried to explain it to him.  She wasn't very successful, but she tried.  I have a feeling someone at a Rams game wouldn't have wasted their breath, and though a Cardinals fan might have, they'd be just as likely to simply turn to the person on their other side for their in-game conversation.  Hockey had already captured my heart - now hockey fans had, too. 

Darkest Before the Dawn

A few years later came the dark times.  The Lockout was hell for me at first, until I sadly got used to the void left by the NHL.  But the biggest blow to my fandom came in August of 2005.  It was appropriately a dreary, rainy day when I picked up the paper that day - the Blues had traded Chris Pronger.  Once I read that - especially the quote in the article where Pleau had admitted he had just traded away "the best defenseman in the league" - I knew harder days were ahead.  I still followed the team in the standings, but rare was the day that I'd watch a game on TV. 

Until one summer night in '08.  I was up late watching TV and was about to go to sleep, when out of nowhere, I had a strange urge to watch and/or play hockey.  I started watching old Blues highlights on YouTube: The Monday Night Miracle, Dan Kelly calls, Hull and Oates, 50-in-50, CuJo vs. Cheveldae, the St. Patrick's Day Massacre, BEELLLLLL-FFFOOOOOUUURRR, everything!  Next thing I knew, it was almost 7 am!  That fall, I bought a ticket to the home opener against the Preds, a 5-2 domination.  I knew that the Blues were probably still at least a year or two away from contending, but I kept watching them every chance I got through thick and thin last year and this (and, as we all know, there were a lot of both the last two years).  Along the way, I discovered SLGT, and have been a devoted reader for nearly a year now. 

Unfortunately, I'm unable to share this new found love with my dad.  I did get to go to a game with him last year (Stempniak's last home game as a Blue, btw), but he still seemed as lost as ever.  He's had some health issues the past few years, but he's still going.  I only get to see him a few times a year, now, since I'm away at college and occasionally travelling around (last summer I spent two weeks in China and most of the rest in North Carolina) and he has trouble just paying his bills.  In fact, in the past 10 months, I've gotten more chain text messages from him than I have actual, face-to-face conversations. 

All in all, it may have taken me a while, but I love hockey.  I love the chill in the arena.  I love the crisp sounds of the game - the cutting of the blades on the ice, the smack of the perfect slapshot, the crash of a great check into the boards.  I love the bonds between the fans, even of different teams.  I love the pure hatred in a great rivalry - "Fuck" and "Detroit" were among my most common words used in my Facebook status updates in 2009.  I love the history of the game, even if I'm still learning (what the fuck's a 'rover?').  I love the speed of the game, which even at it's slowest still brings back memories of The Greatest Show on Turf, which conversely brings back memories of my family being together and happy.  But most of all, I love the Blues.   

PS - I swear to Plager when if we trade away Erik Johnson, I won't leave the team again. 

Please make sure that any content you post is appropriate to Game Time, which means that it pertains to hockey, the Blues, frosty adult beverages, or puppies.

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