From the Raleigh IceCaps to the Chicago Blackhawks: A Journey into NHL Fandom
Just two years ago, I would have thought you were nuts if you suggested that I would be writing a hockey blog. It just wouldn’t have made any sense. After all, I was raised from childhood in the Raleigh, North Carolina area. This was before the Carolina Hurricanes were even a sparkle in the NHL‘s eye. Needless to say, the local populace didn’t care much for this winter sport. There was much more focus on college basketball, NASCAR and whatever Michael Jordan did, being as he was a native son.
There was one glimmer of hope for the aspiring fan, though. That hope was the East Coast Hockey League franchise nicknamed the IceCaps. Already it’s difficult to find anyone that even remembers the team. But for me, it was the only game in town.
It wasn’t the only live sport for everyone. The Durham Bulls were the minor league affiliate for the Atlanta Braves at the time, and they had a great stadium that was featured in the Kevin Costner movie, “Bull Durham.” The Carolina Mudcats were another option, playing their games in the country town of Zebulon, NC. It was a nice experience going out to the ballpark. But it never held the same thrill that a live IceCaps game would provide. There was simply no substitute for the excitement it provided. So, at that very young age, I became a hockey fan.
Attending IceCaps games became my favorite activity. And much the same way a six-year-old asks to go to Chuck E. Cheese’s to celebrate something special, my answer was always, “Let’s go see the IceCaps.”
There were some great times. It didn’t matter that I was still trying to figure out what the hell “Icing” meant even after a dozen games, and that my wishes for a fight to break out were not always obliged. It didn’t really even matter if we won the game. It was all about the experience—that, and getting to stay up past my bedtime.
As time wore on, I became distracted. We received the Carolina Panthers expansion team in the mid-90’s. The Charlotte Hornets were becoming a quality team worth watching. And my absolute favorite team at the time, The Baltimore Orioles were on a role with winning seasons. School was also becoming more of a priority. Suddenly I did not have time for hockey anymore. The stakes just weren’t as high. We are talking about a very low level team on the NHL minor league scale. It just didn’t capture my interest the same way.
I moved to the Chicago area (Naperville specifically) during the summer of 1997. From the second I was able to receive a signal, I was already listening to local sports radio. We had WGN in North Carolina, so the baseball transition wasn’t a tough one (Sorry Northsiders, I chose the Sox.) And the Chicago Bulls team might as well have been the “Planet Earth Bulls”, as their games were televised across the globe. So once again, not a tough transition to become a fan.
The one team that did not catch my interest was the Blackhawks. I knew of them, being a pretty dedicated Sportscenter fan at the time. There just did not seem to be a decent reason to root them on, especially considering I had no regional allegiance. There was no press coverage and games were scarcely on television. As much as I remembered loving the sport, there just wasn’t anything to latch onto. After living here for quite a while, I realized that I only knew one person, out of everyone in my social circle that was a fan.
It’s funny to think about now, but we actually made fun of him for talking about the likes of Alexi Zhamnov and Toomu Ruutu. Tough to care about a team in a city with such an undetectable level of enthusiasm that it bordered on disdain. Even at the games, the half empty United Center completely took the wind out of the building. So hockey was never really a consideration.
Now let’s take a leap to the 2008-2009 Blackhawks season. As I mentioned earlier, I was a pretty committed sports fan. I lived and died with my teams performances. Recently, there had been an undercurrent of excitement about the Hawks’ new ownership and their two new stars—Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. My interest was certainly piqued. I wanted to love hockey again, and this looked like a golden opportunity.
After all, I was still in search of a championship from one of my teams. I don’t count the UNC Tarheels’ titles because college is a notch below the pros. And I was only in town for the tail end of the Bulls dynasty. I actually refused to support them until they finished their second threepeat, because it would not be right to jump on the bandwagon. There are rules, folks. So a new team with a chance to do something special was something I would not turn down. Not only that, it was a chance to watch the compelling sport of hockey again.
It all started with the Calgary Flames series. Playoff wins were hard to come by in this city at the time. That was about to change. Our young guns dispatched the Flames with relative ease. No one was convinced yet. The next series against the Vancouver Canucks was one that would represent the beginning of a changing of the guard in the NHL. It was a six-game blood bath, highlighted by Patrick Kane’s hat trick comeback win against Roberto Luongo. These guys meant business. This was a team with serious goals, and the talent to realize them.
Of course we were dispatched by our evil rivals, the Detroit Red Wings in five games that next series. The disappointment did not last long, however. There was a feeling around town that next year was going to be our time to shine. The bitter pill of losing to Detroit was not quite as tough to swallow knowing that our future was very bright. This would not be our last chance at glory.
I believe we all remember what happened last season. The Hawks roared out of the starting gates, and I became a virtual hockey junkie. I spent my days reading blogs and watching replays of the games. Wikipedia was always by my side as I wanted to learn everything I could about the sport. And what an incredible season it turned out to be.
The Olympics were absolutely enthralling and the Stanley Cup playoffs even moreso. And when Patrick Kane finally snuck that last shot behind the net in Philadelphia, it became apparent that what we were all experiencing would never be forgotten. Finally one of my teams was on top. I had waited 20 years.
But my transition into hockey had one more twist remaining.
I attended both the Blackhawks parade and the fan convention at the Hilton during this past summer. And it was at that fan convention that I noticed an engraving error on the Prince of Wales Trophy. What seemed pretty innocuous at the time turned into 15 minutes of fame. I posted photos of the error on Twitter—The Washington Capitals were wrongly inscribed instead of the conference championFlyers.
Someone eventually picked up the story, and it appeared on a Capitals fansite. Shortly thereafter, I happened upon an article about the trophy mistake. The only problem was that the article by CSN Philadelphia accused me of trying to start a hoax. My snapshots were discounted as being “photoshopped.” Even more unbelievable was that a spokesman for the NHL Hall of Fame actually came out and said they were fakes.
I will include links for more details, but basically I wrote a blog on the subject trying to convince the doubters, and the story was eventually rectified by Yahoo! Sports NHL blogger Greg Wyshynski. But suddenly, people knew my name. And they knew it in the context of the sport of hockey. I had done nothing really noteworthy. Nonetheless, it became big news (mostly because it was the offseason). I was interviewed by the Toronto Star, NBC Philadelphia and Puck Daddy himself, Greg Wyshynski. What a strange turn of events. But now, in a small way, I feel linked to the sport forever.
Maybe hockey was sending me a signal. After all, I used all my new undeserved Twitter followers as an audience in my current attempt to begin sports writing. And who knows, this could turn into something big. Yes, even bigger than noticing a dumb error on a funny-looking trophy. I can’t predict the future.
And here we are now. I’m barely done wiping my eyes from the banner ceremony (Don’t tell ANYONE), and the new season is upon us. We look primed and ready for another run at the Cup. If all goes well, we could have ourselves a dynasty. And during this run, I will continue with my blogging. It seems that everything is going swimmingly in the world of the Chicago Blackhawks. Not just for now, but for the foreseeable future as well. I really hope that’s the case.
But let’s not forget the first time I fell in love with the sport. There was once a team in Raleigh that made up for their lack of talent with sheer youthful tenacity. When they drew penalties, they would go on the “Wendy’s Power Play.” And during zamboni intermissions, Cappy the Bear would shoot t-shirts out of a cannon.
Who doesn’t love all that?
The Raleigh IceCaps packed up and left town as soon as the new Carolina Hurricanes franchise had been announced. I was already gone at the time—on to greener pastures.
Hopefully the Blackhawks are too. I’ll definitely be along for the ride.
*Links to the Prince of Wales “Hoax” Story provided below.
CSNPhiladelphia Article (Hoax Accusation): http://www.csnphilly.com/08/09/10/Debunking-the-Prince-of-Wales-Trophy-Hoa/landing_flyerandice.html?blockID=286541&feedID=6572
Puck Daddy Article (Vindication!): http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/blog/puck_daddy/post/No-hoax-Capitals-mistakenly-engraved-on-Prince-?urn=nhl-261871