|Nancy Koenig has been an NHL.com contributor since 2000. She will share her thoughts regularly on NHL.com's Blog Central.
Hockey runs in the family
Many moons ago, before I discovered through a host of admirable role models that honesty really is the best policy, I was an excuse giver. The dog ate my homework, my typewriter (remember those dinosaurs?) broke ... you catch my drift.
I guess I can thank karma for the technological events that have unfolded the past two months; I just wonder why it took so long to catch up to me. Watching me continuously add to my list of broken or malfunctioning items (which, no joke, includes two computers) has been an unfortunately endless source of entertainment for friends. And I've had to laugh a lot myself because really, what else can one do when life is in prankster mode?
I sat this morning to write a blog entry, which was a mere spell check away from completion when my computer froze. I had no choice but to reboot and did so with cautious optimism, knowing Microsoft Word comes with that nifty document recovery option. At least that was the case with my last computer.
Needless to say, it's not with this one. My entry vanished into the abyss of the cyberworld, as if creating it had been a figment of my imagination.
I have received a plethora of e-mails asking how I got started with hockey and while many inquiring minds are, I suspect, interested in blazing their own writing trails, I am not one to start a good story in the middle. Therefore, I feel compelled to paint the background before I discuss the various writing gigs I've held through the years.
Like many players I've interviewed, I was introduced to the sport by an older brother. Prior to hockey, Steve and I didn't have much in common, other than our fondness for arguing about a variety of topics we disagreed upon. Nine years my senior, he viewed me as a naïve high school kid.
In turn, I found him jaded. When he took me to my first game at Madison Square Garden, I started to understand why. The Rangers got creamed by the Sabres and the negativity that circulated the blue seats that night was like nothing I'd experienced. I would later come to understand the passion which at the time, I could only deem as madness.
I watched the clock as Steve tried to explain the game over the heckling of the fans, praying the minutes would pass quickly enough for me to escape with my sanity intact. It was far from love at first sight, but the Rangers didn't exactly make a good impression that night.
As they skated off the ice, the negativity inspired fans to demonstrate their displeasure by means of the plastic cups that were handed out (before teams learned that giveaways of the tossing variety are better distributed on the way out of the arena). I watched in amazement as players dodged the cups showering the ice. My brother recently reminded me of my reaction.
"Is it always like this?" I'd asked. He laughed. We discussed the game all the way home and I found myself oddly looking forward to the next time Steve invited me to a game. As he was and still is a season ticket holder, it was only a matter of time.
While I was somewhat intrigued by on-ice happenings, what I really looked forward to in the early days was spending quality time with my big brother. And so it began.
To think at one point I saw Steve as cynical is now quite comical. Looking back, I realize he was just a Ranger fan, believing in the curses and hexes that were so prominent before the Cup came back to town.
Hockey provided something for my brother and I to talk about. And talk about, and talk about. We've had differences of opinion throughout the years but we've learned to respect one another's view even when we don't agree with it. This has spilled over to the topics that were once taboo; from politics to social issues, we can now chat with ease and usually even find the middle ground between our opinions when they conflict.
The hockey memories I have shared with Steve since that strange beginning are countless and priceless. To this day, I can't wait to get his reaction to the latest NHL drama, although I can usually predict it with great accuracy. I love listening to his opinions because I learn from them, for he is a deeply intelligent fan who knows the game like few I've encountered.
Thanks to my brother, I found hockey. So in case I've never said it, thank you Steve!
Thanks to hockey, I discovered that my brother truly is the greatest one on earth. Thanks, hockey.
Funny, this came out nothing like the version I wrote earlier, in fact it went in a completely different direction. I can honestly say I'm glad I lost the original.
Keeping a stiff upper lip tougher than it soundsAs I was leaving Madison Square Garden after the festivities last night, I listened to a message from my friend Mara, I left several hours earlier. She asked me to call back and hold the phone up, so she too could be at Mark Messier Night.
I wish I'd gotten the message when she'd placed it, because I would have held that phone up during the entire ceremony. Experiences like that are meant to be shared with other fans and last night I remembered what it's like to be one, not only at heart but also body, mind and spirit.
It started hours before the game, watching a replay of Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals with my brother Steve, a longtime season ticket holder in section 425, who took me to my first game (a story for another blog) and my friend Tariq, who took me to this one. I have shared volumes of special hockey memories with the two of them and was grateful for the opportunity to share such an extraordinary night with them.
"Should we go enjoy the present day?" I asked, realizing the three of us could easily have sat there all night, watching the past. The television was turned off but the reminiscing continued for the duration of the drive into Manhattan as we interrupted one another with an endless supply of stories and memories that hadn't been spoken of in far too long.
The conversation, which revolved mainly around Messier and 1994, continued over dinner. Steve used the term "surreal" to define the fact that we were eating outdoors in January, but we all knew the word reflected more than the deliciously mild temperature. It was going to define the entire night.
As I'd had some difficulty establishing whether or not I had a seat in the press box, I took Tariq up on his typically generous offer to get me a ticket. It has been a long time since I've watched a game from the stands and to be sitting three rows off the ice for the ceremony was...surreal.
While images of Messier's magical New York moments danced on the Garden Vision scoreboard, I found myself experiencing emotions long forgotten. This is a man I've interviewed as a media member, but this is also one of the players that inspired me to become media in the first place. He's one of the players that took my growing interest in the sport and turned it into a full-fledged passion. I wore a Messier jersey on my back long before I held a tape recorder in my hand. And had he not introduced me to the concept of visualization, I may never have seen the inside of a locker room.
So image be-damned, I spent the next 75 minutes traveling back in time to my happy fan days.
When Messier took the ice, my hands recalled how to come together in the act of applauding, surprising my mind in the process. Oh yeah, this is what you do when you're a fan. You clap. I still remember my first night in the press box, how difficult it was not to jump up when a goal was scored. It had felt so unnatural to pretend I didn't care.
It took years to unlearn being a fan as I attempted to fit myself into the mold of a professional hockey writer. Words can't express how much fun it was to abandon that role for one night. As exciting as it is to be a media member, there is nothing like being a fan, with that pure emotion rushing through your soul to be part of a powerful collective, where people who wouldn't ordinarily say hello to one another on the streets are hugging like family.
And last night, we were all family. Mark's family. From the impressive amalgamation of players from the '94 roster lined up across the ice to the sea of fans chanting, "Mes-si-ER! Mes-si-ER!"
I don't know if I could have chanted in the press box so I'm glad I was sitting with the fans. This night was about emotion. Mike Richter joked that it was "sponsored by Kleenex" and Messier himself unleashed more tears than I've seen some people allow themselves in a lifetime. So how would I have been to stifle my feelings?
Heartfelt tributes delivered Richter and Adam Graves, who also played roles in inspiring my media dreams, brought up many emotions. So did Brian Leetch's prerecorded speech, which was sometimes drowned out by the crowd cheering, "Bring him back!" Seriously.
The lovefest between the Garden faithful and the man that taught them how to believe was unreal, particularly as Messier paused during his own speech, choked up and pausing between thoughts. A moment of silence was followed with one of the loudest eruptions of the night.
The ceremony continued with Dana Reeve singing an emotional rendition of "Now and Forever." And just in case there were some dry eyes left in the house, there were still a few sights left to behold.
Like the Captain holding up the Stanley Cup on Garden ice again. And that "11" banner floating toward the rafters as Messier, surrounded by family and holding his son, watched from below.
As the tears streamed down his face, Messier looked like a mortal watching his spirit ascend to the heavens, where it will live on forever.
The current Rangers and Oilers then hopped over the boards; there was still a game to be played.
When Steve Rucchin scored the first goal of the game, my first instinct was to jump up and cheer, but I sat back down almost instantaneously, catapulted back to the present day by the sight of an Oiler I interviewed a few weeks ago.
Oh, that's right. That's what you do when you're media. You sit and watch.
In between the first and second periods, I stopped down at the press room to discover I was missing a press conference I incorrectly assumed would follow the game. I also learned my season press pass was about as valid on this night as a ticket stub from 1994. Fortunately, the diligent PR assistants (who incidentally looked like they hadn't taken a break since '94) got me the credential I needed quickly enough for me to catch the tail end of the conference.
As I didn't want to make a spectacle of myself walking in so late, I stood by the door, listening to Messier answer the final two questions of the evening and watching as he was whisked off by the head PR guys. Luckily, I was in the path of the whisking and consequently, got the chance to shake his hand.
"Congratulations," my media self said.
Had the spell not already been broken, the fan in me would have done the talking. I only would have uttered one sentence, but it would have been spoken on behalf of all fans that haven't yet had the pleasure of meeting him.
Thank you, Mark Messier.