Walking through the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minn., brought back memories of sitting in front of a black and white TV, watching a screen so grainy it was seldom possible to actually see the puck sliding across the ice. Not many kids growing up in Kansas in the late 1960s ever watched a hockey game on TV. I did. I remember staring at the screen, spellbound by such a strange and interesting game.
I had never seen a pair of ice skates, never visited a hockey rink. I had no idea where they even existed, but I was intrigued by a sport that was so fast and graceful, played on such a slippery surface.
The sports I knew were staged on grass or dirt or hardwood, and supplied plenty of traction. My friends and I could run and turn and expect the surface to support us, to provide a solid base. It was a world we dealt with everyday, but the players on the ice seemed like they had entered another existence. I wondered who could even walk on that ice, let alone move in smooth arcs and make abrupt stops that launched a snowstorm.
Televised games were rare, but I watched them when I could. In high school, I moved to Nebraska and saw my first frozen pond. I tried skating and realized that it was even more difficult than I had imagined.
I went to a small college in western Nebraska, and in 1976, when the Colorado Rockies, the NHL team not the current baseball team, came to Denver, they gave out stacks of free tickets. I snatched two of them, and my roommate and I drove six hours to McNichols Arena, long since replaced by the Pepsi Center, to watch the Rockies play Phil Esposito and the New York Rangers. I don’t remember the details of the game, but the thrill of watching a live professional hockey game is clear in my mind.
I tried to watch more hockey, but it wasn’t often available. Then, in 1980, I found a TV schedule and made sure I got to watch each of the U.S.Olympic team’s games in Lake Placid. I was watching, with millions of others, on February 22, when the U.S. beat the Soviets in what became “The Miracle on Ice.” I was working in Wyoming then, and showed up Monday morning to find out that no one else had watched it or cared.
In 1995, I moved to Montana to teach high school English. That same year, the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche. Hockey had become more popular and finding games on TV was no longer so difficult. I started following the Avs on TV, since they were the closest professional team, even though they were two big states away. I watched a few live Junior A games played by a handful of teams across the state.
I saw enough hockey that the mystique I felt watching the early games began to disappear. I started to understand the game better. I developed even more respect for the strength, speed, and skill of the players moving on ice.
I didn’t have enough opportunities to see hockey to become a diehard fan. I didn’t meet any of those until I moved to Minnesota just over a year ago. Since then, I’ve had the chance to watch the Wild at the Xcel Center and attend sessions of the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament in the same venue. I’ve watched the Gophers at Mariucci Arena and from these recent experiences, learned what real hockey fans are, and what it means to live in the State of Hockey.
During my stop in Eveleth, I stood in front of the tribute to Herb Brooks and the 1980 Olympians, and relived the Miracle. I paused at the Great Wall, and even with my limited exposure to the full history of the game, felt a sense of satisfaction at how many names I did recognize.
At the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum, I enjoyed seeing the old skate models, the historic uniforms, and the many awards representing both teams and individuals. On the second floor, I walked through the gallery of hockey art. Those paintings capture the combination of power and finesse that made the game grab my attention decades ago, and make it hold my respect even more today.