When I first moved to Buffalo I was fascinated by the number of kids who played hockey in the street and in their driveways. I know that sounds ridiculous to people who grew up in hockey areas but I didn't hold a hockey stick in my hands until I was 19-years-old and I was a pretty athletic, sports-obssessed kid. It's safe to say that when I was a child, kids in Alabama did not play hockey. I would sit out in the yard of the apartment we were renting at the time with a book and just watch for hours. I loved it. I loved that a whole group of kids would congregate every day and play a game and if for some reason the whole gang couldn't come, a couple of kids would just shoot around. I loved that they all had jerseys or t-shirts of their favorite players and I loved that they were all Sabres players. I loved that if they were short-handed they'd prop a couple of planks up in one of the goals. I loved the way they would, with a total lack of embarrassment or self-conciousness, call their own highlights, pretending to be playing with the pros. I loved hearing their little tiny voices doing their best Rick Jeanneret impressions - "He shoots, he scooooooooooooores, top shelf where mama hides the cookies!"
My husband has a big family - six siblings and fifteen nieces and nephews - and where one or more Bermingham is gathered, a hockey game is likely to break-out. I love watching him and his brothers playing around like they're 10 again (and moaning and groaning while limping and holding their backs a few hours later). I love watching my nephew, in the throes of a goalie phase, waddling out to net with full padding and a baseball glove. I love watching the kids laugh and celebrate with each other when they make one of the dads look like a fool with a deke or a great steal. I love watching the grown-ups pretend to be put out while patting the kid on the head as he runs by, little smiles and lots of pride on their faces
And I love playing. I go to gym with my class every day and the hockey unit is by far my favorite. Ed, the gym teacher, Kevin, the aide for the class who takes gym with us, and I all run around like we're one of the kids and I think we have as much fun - if not more - than them. We hack away at each others ankles, taunt each other good-naturedly, turn the kids against the other adults ("Okay, guys, under no circumstances does Heather score!"), and compare ourselves to our favorite Sabres and do our best impressions of Rick and Jim ("Dylan Francis robs him blind!"). You've should've seen me the day I shot from pratically beside the net and lifted the puck over the goalie's shoulder and into the top corner of the net. I ran around that gym screaming and yelling in a celebration that would've made Maxim Afinogenov proud while Kevin and Ed rolled their eyes and shook their heads and the kids giggled and high-fived me.
I think I love it because I know, in my heart, THAT'S hockey. It's not salary caps and free agents and players moving on to new teams and bigger contracts every three years. It's not fans calling sports radio and griping about what management has or hasn't done. It's not newspaper story after newspaper story about a deal that went bad and who's to blame for it going that way. It's not even really about finishing at the top of the conference and lifting the Cup at the end because let's face it, only one team gets to do that. Hockey is Max Afinogenov belly-flopping on the ice because he can't think of any other way to celebrate scoring the biggest goal of his life. It's the guys on the bench dropping their jaws and hooting and hollering at the amazing move Tim Connolly just pulled off. It's teammates passing puck after puck to Jochen Hecht because they want so badly for him to get that 20th goal. It's that little tiny smile sneaking across Ryan Miller's face after he just shut down the opponent during a shoot-out even though you know he doesn't want to look too excited. It's Derek Roy, Brian Campbell, and Paul Gaustad hanging around after practice and playing one-on-one keep away, shoving each other and giggling, just like my kids in gym class. I love that stuff. I love it so much.
The Sabres put together a little video to play before every playoff game this season. I don't have any idea if people outside of Buffalo find it touching at all, but I find myself choking up at the same point every time. It starts with the kids running around playing hockey and it culminates with the cut from the row of kids in their little helmets to the Sabres getting ready for a game. I think it gets me because the pros are the most fun to watch when they're still that little boy that ran around in the street or skated around the rink. In those moments, hockey is practically perfect.