I Think I Love Hockey: How a Capitals Fan Overcame Barriers to Embrace the Ice

K. D. James@KDamanJCorrespondent INovember 13, 2009

While watching the Washington Capitals eke out a 5-4 win over the New York Islanders at Verizon Center, thanks to an 11th round shootout wrist shot by captain Chris Clark on Veterans Day Wednesday night, I wondered when I started liking the sport of hockey. 

I’m sorry. I can't hide it from my brothers or my homies any longer: I do think that I love hockey.

I don't think it started when I rented that god-awful Mike Myers film The Love Guru and saw a Toronto Maple Leafs character by the name of Darren Roanoke, played by actor Romany Malco (Weeds, The 40-Year-Old Virgin ).

No, it didn't occur when witnessing Alex Ovechkin, the reigning NHL MVP and superstar left wing for the Capitals, for the first time either.

Those two examples must not have been legitimate factors as to why I'm proud to reveal my love for the sport.

By the way, if you're reading that statement and looking at my skin color simultaneously, don't laugh. Instead, be sure to check Kanye West in said film ("I love hockey!" he exclaims at the end). Only until then will you begin to realize that the population of black hockey fans has increased two-fold. (I stand corrected: Maybe it's a lot more than that now. Say...10?)

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The provenance emerged possibly way back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, while going to school at St. Augustine in Washington, D.C. Quietly, at home, I was enamored of the Pittsburgh Penguins, particularly Mario Lemieux, a dynamic yet oft-injured center forward, who took the team twice to the Stanley Cup finals—and won—in 1991 and 1992, respectively.

I did not want to let too many people know of my closet affair, because the Pens were the enemy in the neighborhood. They were (and still are) the archrivals of my hometown Caps, who seemed to lose to Pittsburgh in the playoffs almost every time, including a demoralizing, six-game series in 1996. (Let's hope the result of the 2009 Eastern Conference semis is not a renewal of an old trend!)

Also, seeing that I went to a rough, predominantly black Catholic school, where topics relating to basketball and football reigned supreme, I might as well have kept my mouth shut—or risk the ultimate beatdown or constant dogging throughout each and every class.

Now, do not get me wrong. I grew up loving almost every sport and played soccer and basketball in elementary school and junior high. But the mere fact that people could don "sweaters"—and fight in them, too!—was ultimately gangsta to me.

In addition, how many people could take a hard, six-ounce rubber puck to the mouth, have most of their teeth knocked out, and still play with razor-sharp, Ginsu knife-like skates—on ice? Hard. Core!

But yes, an even stronger intrigue in Canada's primary national sport did not start officially until mentioning it to my good friend Kenawa one day.

Kenawa, or Ken for short, who is of Sierra Leonean heritage and my all-time rival in academics and sports, confessed to me in the fourth or fifth grade how he, too, loved hockey (the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, in particular).

Seeing how we shared this fascination with a sport not represented by too many people of color did not faze Ken and me; otherwise, it made us more competitive—his rooting for the Los Angeles Kings, and I, the Pens.

The coup de grace in hockey's piquing my interest though came in the form of a video game, EA Sports' NHL Hockey 1994. I had never purchased a hockey game for my Super Nintendo console before. Yet due to my rivalry with Ken (he got the game before me) and my overall love for sports, I decided to take a chance and learn how to (virtually) play the game from scratch.

As soon as I opened the box and started to play, the game did not disappoint: The moves were fluid, the puck (highlighted in a bluish hue) was easy to follow, and the fighting seemed real.

But this feature took it to a hol' nutha level : organ music in the background that sounded so authentic ("Hava Nagila" blasted from New York’s Madison Square Garden, the instrumental version of "Drunken Sailor" was prominent at Nassau Coliseum, and the theme song of Jaws spooked you a bit at San Jose Shark home games).

Plus, with your controller, you could raise the crowd volume (I think deep red indicated the maximum noise level of 120 decibels) to disrupt the visiting team, the precursor to a feature which the NCAA Football series (also designed by EA Sports) perfected years later.

After homework, I would go straight to my SNES and play and play, learning infractions like icing and boarding, maneuvering line changes, and developing the ability to "deke," the equivalent to the "cross-over" in basketball, with panache.

Back then NHL Hockey 1994 was one of the hottest video games I’ve ever touched and remains unrivaled even today.

I am sure that fellow Washingtonians, mad at first, will calmly place down their clubs to find out that I converted to a full-fledged Caps fan before Lemieux retired and Ovechkin left Russia to come to play for the nation’s capital in 2005.

Speaking of No. 8, Ovechkin possibly energized the entire National Hockey League in 2008 (after scoring the most goals and points in the regular season and taking the Caps to the playoffs for the first time in a while).

Around that period of time, people finally noticed the team as perennial playoff contenders.

But Ovechkin had me sold a lot earlier than that, when he scored a YouTube-worthy, mind-boggling goal in 2005 against Phoenix—brushing past one defender, evading another, and, while falling down on his back on the ice, slipping the puck slowly past the goalie into the net.

Because of that impressive, highlight-reel footage and several other reasons, now I only cheer for him, Niklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, David Steckel, Brooks Laich, Mike Green, and the rest of the squad. (Pittsburgh Penguins who?)

The team is consistent and sound, and one day, I fully expect them to go far into the postseason and bring home a Stanley Cup to D.C. One day.

As weak a plot as there was in The Love Guru, there stood one main reason why I really wanted to see it: the super-hot Meagan (Mmm...! Mmm...!) Good. Malco’s Roanoke, a talented, Tiger Woods-like player on skates, through the help of an inane love counselor (Myers), had to win back his estranged wife (Good), from an L.A. Kings goalie, Jacques "Le Coq" Grande (Justin Timberlake).

I would even hack off my leg like Cary Elwes or commit any other ridiculous, self-inflicting task of torture that Billy/Jigsaw of the Saw movie franchise would force me to do in order to save Meagan, man!

But seeing a black man on ice (in a movie) reminded me of pioneers such as Willie O'Ree, the first black player in the NHL (Boston Bruins), and Grant Fuhr, one of the best goalies in the 1980s (winner of four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers) and the first black player inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame in 2003.

And did you know that there are currently over 25 black players in a league of roughly 850-900 members?

That miniscule three percent is not as promising as the NBA's or NFL's ratio, but includes none other than my favorite, Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames.

The son of a Nigerian father and a Canadian mother, Iginla has scored over 400 goals in his career, made the cover of EA Sports' NHL Hockey 2003, and in 2002 amassed the highest number of points in the league with 96 points. He's not as wild and aggressive as Ovechkin and doesn't receive nearly the same amount of fanfare that Ovie (or current Pens captain Sidney Crosby) receives.

I believe that his lack of popularity is not based primarily on his race; I think it's due to the sad fact that the Edmonton-born right-winger plays for the city of Calgary in Canada, and not, say, New York or Philadelphia or Detroit.

However, if Iginla does get a ring before Ovechkin, I’ll be very happy for him. He’d deserve it. Although it might never happen, I would be even more glued to the tube if, via trade, Ovechkin and Iginla played together. (But I'm quite content with the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Semin first line, thank you.)

I haven't attended a game as yet, as much as I tout the sport like I do with basketball, football, soccer, and the Olympics. I wonder if I can withstand the cool temperatures for the three 20-minute periods that a hockey game lasts.

Yes, I've been a spectator for years, but I keep getting occupied with premeditated intangibles at my first game—such as if I should wear a red t-shirt, a red, Mr. Rogers cardigan, or a red hoodie Bill Belichick style; or how to say "Tell Putin to suck it, Ovie!" in Russian.

Or the ultimate scary thought: if head coach Bruce Boudreau will get very hungry during a time out, spot me in the stands with a juicy hot dog in my hands, and force me to send it down for him to devour at the bench.

When the time comes, it’ll be nice to finally witness that game at Verizon Center. I just hope that that time comes very soon.

The team is great at home (also called the Phone Booth) so far since the 2007-2008 regular season, with a rather impressive 58-25-9 record and rabid "Rock the Red!" legion of fans, some of whom have fled from their allegiance to the frustrating Wizards and Redskins.

With that said, maybe Tarik El-Bashir, the Caps' beat writer for the Washington Post, might need someone to cover for him one day when he’s sick.

Maybe Meagan Good will make a rare appearance in D.C. at the Phone Booth, and instead of Romany, she’ll need me to save her.

Or maybe a sympathetic season-ticket holder may donate his ticket and allow me to experience a game right next to the personable owner Ted Leonsis, sharing sports business tips during breaks.

Who knows?

But what I do know is that I will stay tuned to the next Winter Classic outdoor fest in January, the Olympics in February, and the Stanley Cup finals in June. And the next ones, and the next ones after that.

You know why? Because I think I really love hockey.

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