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Loving the Game: An Object Lesson

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Every now and then, we are reminded why the game of hockey and the people around the game are simply the best. Over the past two weeks, the All Star Game and a sojourn to Ottawa drove the point home for me.

As we go through the twists and turns of an NHL season, our focus inevitably is drawn to the minutiae -- wins, losses, Corsi, Fenwick, cap numbers, trades, injuries, injuries, injuries . . . sorry, I digress.  We agonize with each loss and start playoff projections sometime around November 1.  All of that is terrific and part of being a fan.  However, sometimes the tunnel vision we all develop keeps us from appreciating the larger scenario.  You can certainly put your nose to the canvas of Starry Night , with magnifying glass in hand, in order to assess the brush strokes.  However, to really appreciate the work as a whole, you need to step back several paces, lose the magnifying glass, and rely on your eyes.

As fortune would have it, over the past two weeks I've had the chance to step back a bit from the statistical assault we regularly perpetrate on the game of hockey, and regain my attraction to the game itself -- and all that surrounds it.  This opportunity came in the form  NHL All Star Game in Columbus, as well as an ensuing road trip to Ottawa to see the Blue Jackets take on the Senators.   Each experience provided a slightly different perspective, and drove home some of the core elements that make the game of hockey so special.

Of course, All Star Weekend confirmed the fact that the skill required to play the game of hockey at the NHL level is other-worldly.   Sure, the game itself is a "dumbed down"  hockey exhibition, with the speed and physical elements surgically removed.  However, even at the glacial pace the game was played, you could gain some appreciation for the ability of these guys to do things on ice that most of us could not do on the sidewalk.  The Skills Competition merely served as further affirmation of those facts, again tinged with the elements of humor and silliness that pay tribute to the celebratory nature of the event.   While baseball fans will argue that hitting a baseball is the single most difficult feat in sports, and football fans will tell you that their game represents the supreme test of athleticism, neither can compete with the unique combination speed, skill, finesse and toughness that is played out on hockey rinks around the world every night.

The physical attributes of a given game can always be debated, and aficionados of given sports will always find compelling arguments supporting the supremacy of their favorite game.   What the last two weeks have demonstrated to me, however, is that the hockey community at large -- the players, fans, etc. -- is unique in the combination of  enthusiasm, dedication, grace and class consistently demonstrated throughout the sport.  (For clarity, I'm talking team sports here -- the individual sport counterpart would most likely be golf, but that's another article).  Let me share a few anecdotes to help illustrate the point.

During All Star Weekend, I spent three days taking in the sights and sounds -- watching the passing parade and speaking with scores of fans, media and players about the game they love.  The fans were predictably enthusiastic, of course, but what was more impressive was the enthusiasm and presence of the players themselves.  The best players in the world were uniformly gracious in manner, generous with their time, and fully adopted the celebratory nature of the event.  From rookie like Filip Forsberg to veterans such as Patrik Elias and Alexander Ovechkin, the players were well-spoken, demonstrative and freely shared their enthusiasm for the game, and their appreciation for the event itself and the fans in attendance.  Even the jaded media were effusive in their praise of Columbus as a host, of Nationwide Arena as a facility, and of the event as a celebration of hockey.  Everyone was willing to share their favorite hockey stories, from Charlie Finley introducing white skates for the California Golden Seals to their favorite Wayne Gretzky on-ice miracle.  I've had the opportunity to spend a fair amount of time around professional athletes from other sports over the years, and have never seen anything quite like it.

Of course, one would expect a certain amount of decorum and perhaps some orchestrated enthusiasm at an event such as the All Star Game.  So, let's fast forward two weeks, right after the Blue Jackets' 7 - 1 shellacking of the Blues. My wife and I joined 45 other marginally sane Columbus fans as we climbed aboard the bus for the 13 hour journey to Ottawa, all orchestrated by the Jacket Backers.  The wisdom of spending a total of 28+ hours in a bus over a 50 hours span, simply to see a hockey game that was just Game 51 on the schedule may seem suspect, but that's really part of the point.  Hockey fans do that stuff.   Several years ago, we were at a hotel in St. Louis, waiting to go see the Blue Jackets take on the Blues, when a contingent of four bleary-eyed young men entered the lobby, donning hockey sweaters of various allegiance, and bearing a few severely depleted cases of beer, which they promptly deposited on the lobby tables.  The explained that they were from Winnipeg, and drove down for the game.  So, these gentlemen were willing to drive 850 miles to watch two teams to which they had no allegiance, and were frankly not very good.  Got it.  In comparison, this venture was the epitome of sanity.

To be sure, there are some terrific hockey cities in the United States.  Boston, New York, Detroit and Chicago comprised two-thirds of the Original Six.  Minnesota is a hockey mecca, and cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have become emblematic of NHL hockey.  However, just as American sports fans would not want others to judge baseball or (American) football without having attended a game in the U.S.,  I submit that your hockey experience is incomplete until you have attended a game in Canada.  In 2013, my wife and I did a tour of QMJHL venues in Sydney (Cape Breton), Halifax, Charlottetown and Quebec City, catching a game between the Remparts and Moncton there.  However, this was our first NHL-level experience, and it proved to be one that brought home everything good about hockey -- in spades.

Canadians have a well-earned reputation for politeness, and those affiliated with the game of hockey.  It begins with a phalanx of sleep-deprived Blue Jackets fans plodding across the parking lot in single digit temperatures toward Canadian Tire Arena.  As we near the front doors, a cheerful gentlemen nods at our Columbus jerseys, and says "Welcome to Ottawa.  We hope you have been treated well on your visit so far."   Now, this guy didn't have to say a word, and by all rights should have been seeking a warmer location, but instead was there to cheerily greet the advocates for the opposition.

Once inside, we were not greeted by even the good-natured ribbing you customarily encounter as a visiting fan at U.S. arenas.  Instead, it was a repeated chorus of "Welcome to Ottawa!"  "Do you live here?"  "Oh, you came all the way from Columbus?"   "Oh, you drove all the way from Columbus?  Just for the game?"   Keep in mind that with the Blue Jackets being only in their second season as an Eastern Conference team, Ottawa fans are not yet fully accustomed to regular visits by the team, much less the fans.  What we found, though, was a universal level of appreciation for the fact that we made the effort to come all the way to Ottawa for a hockey game.  It is the same response we saw in our tour of the "Q" -- an appreciation and respect for the fact that we are taking time to appreciate their game, on their soil.  For most, the love of the game -- in any form -- transcends the love of a specific team, no matter how ardently you might root for that team.

Whether it be hockey specifically, or curling -- or just skating -- there is a distinct sense of family about the entire community.  As we walked around Ottawa, entire families were making an afternoon of skating the canal, frequently hauling toddlers behind them on plastic sleds.  Judging by the skates and sticks carried by the guests at the hotel, many traveled some distance to share in the experience.  As Ottawa is situated within easy driving distance of Montreal, there was a robust blend of French and English along the canal and throughout the city.

That sense of family translated into the arena.  As Blue Jackets fans well know, it can be really annoying when you are surrounded by opposition fans at your home rink.  While the fifty of us hardly represented an invasion, there were a few unlucky locals that had the misfortune to be seated among us.  Among those was a father of two boys and a girl, seated directly in front of us.  The father immediately introduced himself and his children to us, and we conversed about Columbus, the All Star Game, Daniel Alfredsson and a wide spectrum of other topics as the evening progressed.  There were good-natured exchanges of thumbs-up or thumbs-down when our respective clubs did something good or bad, and the boys made an effort to outshout the "C-B-J" chant whenever it began. During sixty minutes of hockey, including the period breaks, nary a cross word or menacing glare was directed at us. Instead, it was more of "Wow, you came all the way from Ohio to see the game?  That's great."

The highlight of the evening for many came after the game, when Nick Foligno came out to sign autographs, take pictures and express his appreciation for our attendance.  Two of our group had won a contest, receiving the trip free, and the meet and greet was intended just for them. However, Foligno expanded it to include the whole group.  Now, consider the fact that Foligno was coming off of an All Star Weekend were he spent more time on camera and behind microphones than on the ice, had just played back-to-back games, and probably wanted nothing more than to get on Blue Jackets Air and get home to his wife and daughter. Yet, he went out of his way to put on a tie and come out and spend some real time with the assembled throng.  That's class.

As great as that act of kindness was, the most memorable moments for me came after the game as we were crossing the concourse.  Not once -- but twice -- I was stopped by fans who shook my hand, saying "Thanks for visiting us. Congratulations. Well played."   Wow.  When was the last time you heard that after an OSU/Michigan game?  When was the last time you said that to a visiting fan after a home loss in any sport?  It was simultaneously rewarding and humbling.  Would I have the class to do that?   I probably need to try.

As we departed after the Blue Jackets' 4 - 1 we shook hands with our new friends, and the father said "I hope you can visit us again . . .under more favorable circumstances."   We agreed that we would come up again to see the Senators play Toronto. After all, everybody hates the Leafs.  You gotta love this game.