I’m not exactly an open guy. I try to be as genuine as possible and it's important to me to let others know what they mean to me when I can, but I tend to keep people, even some of those closest to me, at a slight distance. According to the people who know me; my friends, my co-workers, even my family, I am not a "crier". The truth is I am one. I'm a big, blubbering baby who can go from pleasant smile to soggy mess in a matter of seconds. I just get emotional over different things than other people.
My fiancé, Niki, was sitting at the kitchen table, adamantly ignoring the closing ceremonies of this year’s Olympics when she heard it. A small sniffle, followed by a wet snort. She looked over the top of her computer and glasses to find one Mason Masters melting on the couch. A rousing recap of the USA-Canada gold medal game had just left the screen.
"Are you… crying?" She asked, clearly confounded by this sudden revelation.
"Yeah," I said softly, after sucking a large amount of snot back into my face, "It's just hockey. It doesn’t matter."
It’s not just hockey though, not for me. The emotional effects sports have on us are obvious, but the way those emotions manifest themselves in each of us is often unexpected.
Speaking of unexpected, let’s talk about the Vegas Golden Knights, a team that made hockey fans feel a wide variety of things as they blew past the rest of the Western Conference to their first Stanley Cup Final in as many years of existence. Just about anyone who watched hockey, myself included, thought this team would be very bad and the city might be even worse, at least for the NHL. Boy, are we idiots. After the first month of the season those concerns left me. The Golden Knights riled up some mirthful admiration in me, due to their superhuman netminder and their kinetic style of play. But by the 3rd round of the playoffs, those things had become normal. The Vegas Golden Knights unlocked some deeply held emotion in me this year and it had nothing to do with their play.
My first hockey game was in the notoriously dismal hockey town of Atlanta, Georgia. I don’t remember it. The upstart Atlanta Knights, an IHL expansion team and Triple-A outfit for the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning rolled into town in 1992. I was a year old. We actually rolled into town together. As my mother likes to joke, the Knights were the perfect babysitter.
“You’d be awake in the 1st, sleep through the 2nd, and wake up to watch the 3rd.”
I don’t remember my first game, but I remember plenty of others.
I remember Sir Slap Shot, the mascot who would always give me a high-five or a hug in the concourse. I remember Rock & Roll Part 2 playing after every goal (it was the 90’s), I remember Reggie Savage beating a man so badly in a fight that the game had to be stopped to chisel the bloody ice off the rink. I remember seeing a woman stand her ground between the pipes. I remember yelling KNIGHTS! Following the words ‘Gave Proof Through The,’ before every game. I remember the agony of the Detroit Vipers knocking us out of the playoffs. I remember the joy of watching my team win a cup (the Turner Cup) which happened at such a young age I could barely understand the concept of objects having meaning beyond their shininess. I remember my team packing up and leaving when their arena forced them out while being renovated. I remember my family doing the same, not too far behind them.
Fast forward almost two decades, through birthdays and graduations, through funerals and hospital visits, through new teams and new titles, to a Thursday night in early June, where a young (and handsome) man is sitting on his bed, staring at his television.
I know it’s coming. I’ve heard the Vegas crowd do it all year, a little louder each night. When I’ve heard it before, it’s stirred up a fondness in me, one that has grown as this plucky team no one believed in just keeps pushing what's expected to the side. It’s a few seconds away now.
“…Gave Proof Through The…”
I yell it. 17,000 people in the arena yell it. We yell it all at once. We yell it for very different reasons. We yell it for the same reason. The Anthem ends, and suddenly, a large frog is living in my throat.
Then they get me. Those SOB’s in charge of parading the various Vegas novelty acts to the siren they sound off just before faceoff. The camera pans to the platform to find Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player, and Manon Rheaume, the NHL’s first woman player standing together. They are waving and smiling, being introduced by a hype man and acknowledged by a crowd who probably couldn’t have told you anything about them. That frog in my throat has magically turned to tears.
For only existing six years, the Atlanta Knights made a lot of history. They hired the first black head coach ever in professional hockey at any level, John Paris Jr. That’s something the NHL still hasn’t accomplished. Paris Jr. was behind the pine for Atlanta’s only hockey championship. Manon Rheaume might be remembered for her stint with the Lightning, but she played in Atlanta. She played in my city, for my team.
I don’t have to say anything about the familial power of sports. If you don't know it's power, let T.J. Oshie explain it to you. For me, hockey is as much about my parents as it is about power plays.
I get a text from my dad. “MANON!!!!” it reads. At that moment, my dad and I were both flooded with the same memories which had stuck with us for different reasons. I really thought it was only us who remembered, or hell, even cared that these things had happened so long ago. Turns out they mattered to a lot of people.
That’s why I cry over gold medal shootouts or overtime Stanley Cup winners or even a Disney movie with Kurt Russell doing a passable Minnesota accent. In every one of those moments, the outcomes, and the grander things they are tied to through time and space, matter so much that it can change someone’s life like it did mine.
It’s just hockey… but it does matter. It matters an awful lot.