I am sitting on my front porch drinking coffee (a situation in which I frequently thank aloud the Saurage family for having brought Community Coffee to the world) in Nashville, TN, on this lovely November morning; it is birthday week for me. I am in long-sleeve jammies and wool socks and also in my robe (now it is just my fingers that are chilly), but I am trying to maximize the time I can spend on the porch before it gets too cold to comfortably sit out here. It feels like just yesterday that merely going outside was an affront to your very being, an assault on your skin and your nervous system. The kind of heat that makes you wonder if you are going to develop cancer on the 15-step trek from the house to the car, or dehydrate and pass out and maybe not even survive the hundred-yard dash from the car to the air-conditioned safety of Target. (Luckily, I was able to avoid a lot of this Summer’s heat by working in an air-conditioned office from dawn til dusk for 58 days in a row to help deal with (a) flood (of) paperwork on a gubmint contract.) The up-side of such a blisteringly hot Summer is that it enhances one’s appreciation of the cooler Fall, Winter, and Spring days.
I guess it was sometime around mid-October when I finally stopped remarking to 17WfY and my friend TJ and colleagues (and anyone within earshot, really) that it feels great to be able to exist outside again without feeling that my skin was going to actually burst into flame. This Summer’s was a searing heat, but not the continual pressure-steamer kind of heat that I grew up with in Baton Rouge, where not only is it oppressively hot, but there is also the extreme humidity that keeps sweat from evaporating and performs so well at making sure your socks and underwear and shirt and pants are continually damp. The differences in my descriptions are nuanced and may be lost on my friends who have come here from other climates, many of whom try and fail to convince me that Nashville is remarkably humid.
This part of TN typically experiences one of the most magnificent seasonal changes I have ever viewed, and it increases in spectacularity the further East you go. There wasn’t enough rain (nor a prolonged period of evening-time temperature shifts) late in the Summer this year to fully stock this Fall’s color palette; instead, much like the past few years, we have gotten a representative fraction of the possible array of colors, just enough to know that Fall hasn’t forgotten how to turn green into multiple shades of purple and red and orange and yellow on the way to brown. But many trees seem to have gone on strike against the heat and the minimal rains by just moving directly from green to brown to bare.
The shift into Fall, since sometime in 1994, also gets me excited about hockey season. Since my friends and colleagues all know me as someone who couldn’t care less about football and baseball, and are usually reminded of that when they try to get me to discuss the latest sports news, I have been asked repeatedly how a boy who grew up in Baton Rouge gained such an affinity for hockey. (People who ask that always seem to stress it as ice hockey, though.) I have now been asked that enough times that I find myself wondering about the answer to the same question.
Here’s what I know:
- The first event I recall buying my own ticket for was an exhibition ice hockey game that was being held at the Baton Rouge Centroplex in late July 1985 as part of the National Sports Festival. (I also saw Aldo Nova there, and Van Halen, but that’s a different post for another day.) I had pretty much no interest in sports back then (too), but hockey was unheard of that far South in that day, so it piqued my interest that it was coming to BR. All I knew about hockey back then was that it was played on ice by guys with sticks who seemed just as likely to be hitting each other as the puck that you couldn’t see on TV, even on the rare occasion it was featured on the Wide Wide World of Sports. Also, it was late July, and I figured if the floor was made of enough ice for hockey to be played on, it HAD to be cool in there, likely the coolest place in town. I don’t remember trying desperately to get anyone to go with me, and I went to the game by myself. I remember breaking the ticket price down in my mind, amortizing the expected coolness of the experience over however long it took to play a hockey game. My memory of the game consists of these details: The “ice” seemed slippery, but even I could tell that this ice was less icy than was customary for ice hockey. A layer of water was visible on the ice, and it obviously hindered the movement of the players and of the puck. The players were totally soaked, every turn and every hit spraying water off the ice on player who was part of the action. The players seemed like they had to work their asses off just to get any speed up, and when they were gliding across the ice, their skates left rooster tails. Refs were continually stopping and re-starting the game as rules I had no understanding of were broken and enforced. There were no fights. I don’t remember the score, but I think it was a tie. (When I left there, I took myself to see Louisiana’s LeRoux, a band which I imagine I will be the only reader of this post to remember, play a gig somewhere in a hotel ballroom near the river.)
- A dozen years later, I moved my family from Louisiana to Huntsville, Alabama. University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH), I was told before even unpacking our stuff, had a KILLER hockey team. As live music options were very limited, and as many of my closer colleagues were in the habit of going to the games, I started checking them out and ended up going frequently when the team played in town. I cannot recall the team name, but they were consistently champions of whatever league they were in at the time. It was here that I started to understand more about the rules of the game and the strategies that could be used by the different positions on the team.
- A couple of years after moving to HSV, a semi-pro team was brought to the city: the Huntsville Channel Cats. I started splitting my hockey-watching time between the college and the semi-pro teams, and the difference was like contrasting ballet and boxing. The college team was much more about finesse in execution as a team, obviously setting up and finishing plays they had studied in practice; their motivation was about maintaining a a name as a team that worked together to win games. There were never any fights, and there were rarely penalties in the college games; penalties were usually quickly capitalized on by the opposing team and spelled defeat for whichever team was most oft-offending. The semi-pro team, however, was made of guys whose futures depended on making a name for themselves compared to other players on their team and in their league. There was lots of showboating, lots of penalties, and lots of fights. It soon became evident that the crowd coming to see the college team play was out to see the former, and the crowd coming out to see the semi-pros were out to see the latter. It was at this point that I first started to question what drew me to hockey games that didn’t draw me to other types of sporting events.
- My parents attended their first and last hockey game with me and my family on New Years Eve. It was a Channel Cats game in Huntsville. It was not their cup of tea to begin with, and I suppose in hindsight I was (much) more persistent/insistent about them seeing a game than I should have been (much like the Thai food outing on another visit). As the game drew on, I could easily tell they were showing their watches their how-much-longer faces. Throughout the game, there was a guy in the crowd who was being more obnoxious than I can convey without video and audio accompaniment, standing up and making lots of noises and taunts whenever a particular player of the opposing team took was on the ice, and particularly when that player got the puck or got sent to the penalty box. One one of that player’s many trips to the penalty box that night, the obnoxious guy made such a racket that the player lost his cool, stood up and grabbed a sealed 1-liter bottle of water, and threw it over-handed at that guy in the stands –2 rows of seats down from the penalty box– like a pitcher throws a baseball. The bottle hit someone else, who didn’t see it coming, barely missing that person’s geezer-age old-timer. Our seats were just a few rows behind the penalty box that night. As I watched the bottle fly through the air, I noticed that I was heading toward the penalty box. When I got there, I kicked the glass at the back of the box and the player looked up. As I saw him look up, I watched myself pour my large cup of water on the guy as I heard myself say “HEY MAN, YOU CAN’T COME IN HERE AND DO THAT SHIT!” About half-way through my outburst was when the announcer said loudly over the PA: “SPECTATORS SHOULD PLEASE REFRAIN FROM THROWING OBJECTS INSIDE THE ARENA AND FROM INTERFERING WITH THE PLAYERS OR OFFICIALS. VIOLATORS WILL BE SUBJECT TO EJECTION AND POSSIBLE ARREST.” I turned around to go back to my seat to notice that my son had missed the entire thing, and that everybody else who was with me were all busy reading their programs face-down or rummaging face-down through purses, making it look overly as if they were just randomly sitting next to my seat. Before anybody could say anything, I was approached by uniformed securityfolk with badges and police batons who told me they had been instructed to remove me from the premises, and asked if I was going to give them any problems as they escorted me up the stadium stairs and into the concourse. I said no problems, and the head guy told them to let me go and walk out on my own. He followed me for a while til they were out of ear-shot, then he stopped me as I approached the doors and told me he watched the whole thing, thought my actions were highly inappropriate but well-deserved, and that his boss said I have to go. So I walked back to my Dad’s truck and listened to the rest of the game on AM radio while everybody who had been ready to leave had to stay til the end so as to seem unrelated to the guy with the cup of water. It was a quiet ride home, except for a few exhortations on how my hot head was going to get me into trouble.
- I moved my family to Nashville before the start of the Predators’ 3rd season as an NHL team, and it has been interesting living in a hockey town. I have tried to attend as many games as I can justify to myself, which is becoming less and less easy to do. These days I usually try to attend about 10 games per season and to keep up watching other games on TV when I can. Know that I “know” hockey, I can “see” it from a well-done radio feed, so I will sometimes listen to an important game on the internet if TV is not an option. I have a small collection of Preds jerseys curated on the cheap through ebay (and the team wins most often when I wear the black one), and I am in my second year managing an online “fantasy hockey” team that I let consume too many of my coffee-drinking minutes throughout the day. 20 years ago, I never would have imagined that I would do nor talk about those things, and it still seems weird to me in an unexplainable way that I do. I’d miss it if it were gone; I’ve usually had enough without having to watch every single game of the post-season playoffs, but I eagerly await hockey season from the vantage point late Summer each year.
- Hockey games in Nashville have been the scene where several of my friendships have been strengthened, where I have seen my son smiling and laughing and looking to give me and his friends a high-five, where (I later learned) someone I used to know says a sign delivered from God heralded the eventual end of our relationship, where I anguished quietly with hockey-therapy support from my friend TJ hoping for an evening’s distraction from the heaviness of divorce-related strife, where I fell in love with a mysterious girl made of concrete and spray paint, and where I have had the best first date ever. Hockey reinforces that it is the nuance in life that makes all the difference, and it has provided example after example on how quickly things can go from being steadfastly one way to heading in some other direction at the last possible moment.
So, in summary, I prefer my Fall to have lots of colors, but my Preds win more when I wear black. Go Preds!