Friday, May 16, 2008

How We Got to Hank (Or How Many Post Titles Can I Squeeze Henrik Tallinder Into This Month?)

I've been thinking a lot the last few weeks about favorite players. I love knowing who other fans love and why. I think it's really cool how different things about different players call out to different people. I think it's really interesting how different fans appreciate different skills and abilities. Since my hockey fandom is still relatively young, it's pretty easy to trace my favorite hockey players through the years.

My first favorite hockey player was Ron Francis. I was born in Pittsburgh and still have family there so before I even knew the Buffalo Sabres existed, I had a soft spot for the Penguins. I partly liked Francis because he was handsome - even as a kid I was more drawn to more mature looking men than baby-faced pretty boys so that salt and pepper hair was a killer. I also liked him because he seemed like the low-key, slightly overlooked guy on a very good team. Mario Lemeiux was on one side, Jaromir Jagr on the other, Francis in the middle. My brother once said he was kind of the Penguins' version of Andy Van Slyke who, while popular, was often overlooked in favor of Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla. I also very clearly remember reading this Sports Illustrated article and falling in love with the story of him and his younger brother Ricky and how he asked the Penguins if he could take time off during the season to go see Ricky run in the Special Olympics. As I've become more knowledgeable about hockey, I've been pretty delighted to discover that everything I thought about Ronnie all those years ago is apparently true. I could probably count on one hand the number of games I actually watched him play but I was definitely aware of him and he was the first guy who really brought hockey to the forefront for me even if it was in a kind of a superficial way. I think I've mentioned this before but the first hockey jersey I ever bought was a Francis #10. Even though I'd never wear it now it's still in a box somewhere because I've never been able to throw it out.

The first two Buffalo Sabres I really liked were Matthew Barnaby and Michael Peca. I have to admit that looking back, I'm not sure how this worked. I was thinking that the Sabres weren't on my radar at all until the '99 Cup run but Barnaby wasn't on that team, at least not by that point. Mark said he was pretty integral in the previous season's success and talking over dates and trips to Buffalo with him, I must have gotten attached to Matt during that season. I remember a big interview with him in ESPN Magazine that probably ran around that time even though I was sure it was after we'd actually moved to Buffalo. So it turns out the Sabres were working their way into my blood before I even remember. I liked Barnaby because he was small and scrappy. Looking back I also think maybe his role on the team was easy for a new hockey fan to get a handle on. He was there to bug the heck out of the other team and try to sucker them into doing something stupid. I didn't need to understand a lot of strategy and intricacies to recognize when he was doing his job well. I also thought that little rat-faced grin - you know the one - was totally charming.

Mike Peca is also kind of a surprise looking back because I would swear that I saw him play a fair amount in person while he was with Buffalo but I didn't. The year that Mark and I moved to Buffalo we went to the preseason carnival the Sabres used to do (they should really bring that back, by the way) and Peca wasn't there because he was holding out. And then he never played for the Sabres again. I saw him once on a pre-move trip we made to Buffalo and once on our honeymoon. (We spent our honeymoon in the mountains of Tennesse - absolutely beautiful - and our trip home just happened to coincide with a Sabres visit to Atlanta so we stopped for the game on the way back to Birmingham. I hadn't thought about it until just now but seeing the Sabres on our honeymoon seems pretty fitting in retrospect.) So I mostly saw him via TV, but I think Peca was my first stepping stone towards really becoming a hockey fan even though it still took a few years for the bug to really bite me. There was probably a little bit of "hey, I know what that guy is supposed to be doing!" involved because of his propensity for big hits but he was the first guy that really made me ask a lot of questions about the sport. What's the Selke? How exactly is a forward defensive? Is there an award for offensive defensemen? Why not? But if offensive defensive win the Norris what about defensive defensemen? How come some guys are good penalty killers and some aren't? Even then I was kind of fascinated by penalty killing. My pea hockey brain figured it was easy to be good on the power play - I mean, you have more players on the ice than the other team! - but penalty killing was totally different. It seemed hard and challenging and I automatically liked a guy a little more if he was a penalty killer, something I still feel today.

Barnaby and Peca led to Jay McKee who was probably my first genuine, real-thing favorite Sabre. I saw him play a lot on TV, I saw him play a fair amount in person, he was here while I was in Buffalo, I read all those daily game interviews and quotes from him, I saw him on the news... all those little ordinary things that you take for granted that somehow add up. I'm not going to lie. At first I liked him for two reasons. One, I thought he was handsome in a slightly off-beat kind of way. Two, he's the same age as me which was pretty young at the time. I thought it was cool that someone my age was in the NHL full-time. Eventually I did come to like the way he played and my fondness for defense fully bloomed. I was especially taken with Jay in the 2005-2006 season. The New NHL favored speedy skaters and puck carriers and that wasn't his game. He did a great job of finding a way to make his skills work in a changing game by becoming one of the best shotblockers in the league. I think shotblocking can be overrated sometimes but I admired his fearlessness and how he he would just show up and play with some pretty gnarly bruises and cuts. I know he's hardly the only hockey player to play through pain but he was a toughie. Since I was actually in Buffalo for a chunk of his time here he was also the first hockey player I loved who I really connected with the community. He was fully embedded in Buffalo by that point - we loved him and he loved us - and I thought that was very cool. Remember I didn't grow up with professional sports teams so I'd never really seen that firsthand before. The only reason I never bought a McKee jersey is because by the time I decided I wanted one it was his last season here and Mark suggested I wait to see if he re-signed. Even though he didn't and I wouldn't have gotten much use out of it, I'm a little sorry that I didn't buy that jersey anyway. It would've been right for Jay to be my first Sabres jersey.

Instead it was Tim Connolly. I know, weird, right? Mark said one day a few months ago, "I always thought Timmy was just a fling for you," and I guess that's what he was. Sometimes you have to date the bad boy to know the bad boy isn't your thing. I had to cheer for the flashy offensive player to realize that flashy offense isn't my thing. Don't get me wrong, I definitely enjoy seeing Sabres score - kind of hard to win games when that doesn't happen - and I do think Timmy is amazingly gifted (when not hurt) but I really am more thrilled by an awesome defensive play or a nerve-wracking penalty kill. When the 2006 playoffs started I, like most of the city, was totally swept up and decided I had to have a jersey and I had to have it stat. Mark had scared me off the McKee so I had kind of decided a Connolly would do and one day while walking through the mall I saw one hanging in the window of Laux. I think sometimes an impulse buy like that is pretty indicative of how you really feel but sometimes an impulse buy is just an impulse buy. If I'd waited until a few months into the next season I wouldn't have made that purchase but now I'll always have a memento of my short but intense love affair with Timmy.

When the 2006 season started, Jay was gone (::sniff:::) and Timmy was still sidelined with his concussion. While I missed Timmy and worried about him at first, eventually I... kind of forgot about him. That was my first hint that I was probably not as attached to him as I thought. And before I knew it, bam! I was in love with the unassuming Swedish d-man who was coming off a great postseason. I've written many a post, including one mini-opus, about why I love Henrik Tallinder but the short story is this: beautiful skater, often unnoticed and underrated, smart, and super pleasant. I think Hank is partly a reflection on my growth as a hockey fan - understanding and appreciating defense requires a little more knowledge, I think because it's not always obvious and easy to miss - but I also think part of me has always been drawn to guys like him. Barnaby to Tallinder seems like a bit of a leap but Barnaby to Peca to McKee to Tallinder makes some sense. And I suppose it comes as no surprise that Mike Weber is the youngster I'm most excited about. As Mark said, "Yep, you have a type."

How about you guys? Who's your favorite now? Whose jersey do you don at game time? Who's your all-time favorite? Who was your first favorite? Do your favorites have similarities? Or are you all over the map? Can you articulate why your guy is your guy or is it just a gut feeling that can't be explained? Please share if you're so inclined. Like I said, I love knowing who other people love.

17 comments:

Jennifer said...

My hockey fandom is very new. I've watched the occassional game here and there and always admired the ability of players in general (mostly how they can stand upright while shooting a puck and slamming into people). I began seriously watching the game in February 2007 and have been hooked since then. A friend of mine turned me on to the Sabres and I LOVE THEM, although I live in Virginia and have never even been to NY, which is something I really want to do. (Please don't kick me out of the Sabres fan club!)

Heather, I'm sure you already know that I am your competition for Hank, should he become available. He is just a beautiful person. He is such a graceful, yet powerful skater, and that cute little lopsided smile of his melts my heart. He is often in the background and only stands out to a very few "special" people who have the ability to notice a great player when they see one.

I finally got MY first jersey not too long ago. I've been holding out for a Tallinder jersey and I am so happy to say that I am now the PROUD owner of a game worn Henrik Tallinder jersey. (I refuse to say what it cost me, but it was for a charity and a good cause, Hank!) I can't wait for the season to start and when the Sabres come to play the Hurricanes, I will PROUDLY wear my Tallinder jersey!!!

dani said...

I was in love with Peca. I think, from what I vaguely recall, my first Sabre was Miroslav Satan. I saw "devil" and a scary "beast head" everywhere. I was scared at an early age. McKee and Barnaby are definitely other faves.I loved Janik too.

Jaime said...

It sounds like we started our love of the Sabres around the same time. I saw my first game back in Dec 1996 with my boyfriend, now husband, Mark, and really liked Matt the Rat! But I would have to say that my first real favorite hockey player was Rhett Warrener. It started out because he was cute but I realized he made such an impact on the game. He was a steadying force with Jay McKee, could throw a big hit, and was great on the PK. I have his jersey and it's signed. I don't wear it anymore but it hangs with honor, lovingly wrapped in plastic in the closet. I had no room for any other favorites until he left for Calgary. I still have a soft spot for him and love watching the Sabres play Calgary.

After that I kind of flitted around with my favorite. McKee, Hecht, Dumont... and now it's Paul Gaustad. He wasn't even on my radar until after he got hurt in 2007 with the sliced tendon. My first memory of him was hearing he'd be out for the season and feeling sad. Then he worked so hard to come back against all odds and I was hooked! He has alot going for him. He's so animated and works so hard on the ice(PK, PP, and full strength). When you hear an interview with him it's not the same canned snip-its that others guys spew out. He works hard for the community, plays big, and is cute on top of it. I know I'll be very upset if he doesn't re-sign with the team but that I will follow his career where ever he turns up because that's just the kind of fan that I am (somewhatover zealous and off-kilter to non-hockey loving people).

LeeAndrew said...

CHEEEEE CHOOOOO

Amy said...

Awesome idea for a post, Heather.

I answered your questions on my blog, since I was getting wordy.

Mark B said...

I think you know my favorites, but for others, here is the interesting journey I've gone with my faves:

Gilbert Perreault. Saw him at the end of his career and what can I say? He's Gilbert!

Phil Housley. My first jersey. Loved to watch him skate.

Alexander Mogilny. Just so electric on the ice. I got the feeling that he wasn't the greatest team player or leader, though.

Wayne Primeau. This was a weird one. More based on potential than actually liking his game that much.

Curtis Brown. Such a likeable guy and well rounded player.

Chris Drury. I've mostly dealt with his leaving and Bucky has helped me dislike him now, but every once in a while, I get a little sad when I see him in a Rangers jersey.

Drew Stafford. Not a great year for my new fave but I have high hopes!

I don't think there's an underlying theme here. Some flashy guys (Alex, Housley) and some reserved, character guys (Chris, Curtis). I think when it comes to favorite players for me, something just has to click and you just know that they're special to you. Kinda like falling in love!

Katie said...

This is such a great idea for a post, Heather; it really got me thinking.

My first favorite Sabre was Barnaby as well...My cousin used to have a muscular deterioration problem. One summer he had surgery, which thankfully cleared everything up, and Barnaby came to his house to just hang out and play video games. It was then that I first saw the genuine involvement between hockey players and the community - and I was hooked.

My favorites have all been pretty much the same type of player - the "muckers and grinders" (hence the name of my blog). I like the guys who just do the dirty work and really provide the heart of the team: Lindy Ruff, Michael Peca, Jay McKee, Mike Grier, and the Goose.

Gaustad is my first jersey and probably my ultimate favorite. He exhibits all that I love about hockey - the grit, the determination (coming back from that injury), the intensity, and the community spirit.

Heather B. said...

Wow, I just realized how long this post was. It didn't seem that long when I was writing it. You guys should get a medal for reading the whole thing.

I've mentioned this before but in case anyone missed it, I do now have a vintage Tallinder jersey.

Jennifer, I don't think we need to kick you out of the club!

Dani, I know Satan has a terrible reputation around here now but he was one of the nicest players at the Sabres carnival I mentioned in the post. I'll never forget that.

Jaimie, I remember Rhett Warrener although he was gone before I was really, really paying attention. I do like him though. He's funny.

Amy, I'm glad I'm not the only who got wordy on this subject! I read and enjoyed your answer. (Everyone else go read it too.) I didn't really think of Lindy since I was focusing on players and I don't remember him playing here but I do love him too.

Mark, I knew you liked most of those guys but never really knew why so thanks for elaborating.

Lee, Cheeee Chooooo indeed.

Anyone wanna take bets on who Vanek's Hair's favorite player is? I'm gonna say... Toni Lydman!

Heather B. said...

Katie, I love that story about Barnaby. I love when the rats are sweethearts off the ice.

Bowl of Pork said...

The first player I ever felt some sort of dedication to was Pat LaFontain, but that may have waaaaaay more to do with Rick Jeanerette than with Pat himself. I never did get a LaFontain jersey, but that's ok. Right about the time it might have become appropriate for me to get one ('92-'93) I really began to appreciate Alexander Mogilny.

Mogilny is the only player I've truly followed, regardless of which team he was on. I can distinctly remember a number of times my friends and I stayed up late into the night during junior high to watch him play for Spartak. He's also the only player who's jerseys I own from multiple teams (Sabres, Canucks and Devils... I will NEVER own a Leafs jersey!!)The scary part is that watching him at camp last year(entering his 21st season) Mogilny was still faster than anybody on the Devils ice.

Other than that, I've really dug watching Jay McKee, Rory Fitzpatrick, and Lindy Ruff.

Ok, watching Lindy might be a bit of a stretch for my years, but I stand by my statement and you can't prove me wrong. Pbbbbbbbbbt!!

dani said...

That's funny you mention carnival. My friend met Brad May when she was little and he held her hand and walked around with her just because! She told me that the other day. I need to start attending more carnivals.

Amanda said...

I've been a Sabres fan since 1994, and I'd say my first favorite player was Michael Peca, for the reasons everyone else has listed. I'm over him now, though.

My next favorite player became Rhett Warrener. I've got a soft spot for d-men, since I played D in soccer for years & understand how hard it is to play. Plus, you had to love Cheese & Crackers (McKee & Warrener).

After Warrener left, *sniff sniff*, I started rooting for Al Kotalik. It was a short-lived love affair, but I'm still a big supporter of Al's. I think he's gotten a bum rap here in Buffalo.

After Al & I decided we had to part ways, Jason Pominville became my favorite and remains so today. Reasons are too numerous to mention, but I think we all know why he's so popular.

I have four, yes, four, jerseys. Two are no-names, one is a signed Warrener jersey, and one is a signed Pominville jersey. None are game-worn - my hubby would kill me if I paid that kind of money for a jersey. All but the Pommer jersey are retired.

Yes, I know Pommer isn't a d-man, but he's still my favorite.

Kirsten said...

I'm from MN, so obviously hockey is everywhere in my world. I seem to like random players for random reasons, but I rarely like the star of the team. I ADORE Joe Sakic, but that's a rare thing. My favorite Wild player is Mark Parrish. He's the guy that sits in front of the net and deflects shots. My all time favorite player from the Wild is Brad Bombardir. He's a very cheerful defenceman, perpetual rotating captain, and all around nicest guy ever.
I also love to watch Vinny Lecavalier own people, Scott Niedermayer skate, Marty Turco make a sick save then shove someone on their face, and I used to love watching Shanny kick the crap out of people.
I seem to like all types, since I like the hard working guys, the stars, but I especially seem to like the guys who seem to be nice guys off the ice too.
I like Peca too, so many people seem to dislike him. Holding out seems to have that effect on people.

Vanek's Hair said...

Jay McKee was one of my favorites for a long time. It is evidenced by my wearing #74 in my bar league.

Now it is Vanek. It began in the Frozen Four when he was with Minnesota. It was in Buffalo and he completely dominated. Buffalo had a high pick and I was hoping for once, my favorite team would pick a player I liked in the draft. They did. Then I watched a lot of the Amerks in the lockout, and he was frequently a man among boys in those games. One move in particular, he passed the puck off the wall skated by the defender and received his pass and slapped it by the goalie. I spent the rest of the game saying "DID YOU GUYS JUST SEE THAT!!!"

And he has very good hair. Maybe not as good as Roenick's, but close.

Kevin said...

Holy God, you people are young (or newer fans).

Favorite now - Mair, Stafford, Roy

All-Time - (There's lots) LaFontaine, Bert, Foligno, Vaive, Gare, Martin, Edwards, Ramsay, Ramsey, Ray, Korab, etc. But Patty is my all-time.

First - Don Luce

Trends - If they are involved in the community and not full of crap, they make the list.

Not to bust on anyone, but Mogilny was a total tool. I used to caddie for Gerry Meehan back in the day (great guy - nice as they come) and mogilny would show up at the Country Club of Buffalo every now and again. His life revolved around burning blunts and being an ass. But mostly around the hippie lettuce.

And when he tanked his last season here (how many "missed" breakaways in a row? Twenty?) that just ended it for me. Although his 76 goal season with Patty was one of the best in sabres history.

Becky said...

As far as special memories go, I'd like to mention Marcel Dionne.

A few years back I was in his store with my kids,looking at the merchandise. I pointed at his signed card and stuff and asked the kids if they knew who that was, and after they said no, I pointed to Dionne standing by the counter and said "That's him". They looked at him, looked at the card, looked back at him...

He came over and spent some time talking to both my kids, and gave them a moment to remember (no free cards though).

Later on we saw him skating with the Sabres alumni as an honorary member for a benefit. When someone inquired as to why he hadn't done so before he replied "No one ever asked" until Gilbert picked up the phone. Now I believe he's a regular contributor.

Laggalanne said...

My favorite player would be Gaustad. Definetly Gaustad.