I wonder what Bob would be saying right now....
Good friends have asked me over the past ten days how I have been doing, now that the National Hockey League has cancelled its season. It was a jarring question at first, since I have been "doing without" for so long: the announcement seemed a mere formality.
As a huge fan of the "coolest game on earth," I learned to survive the lockout this year because the game itself has survived. Oh, maybe not in the way that I am used to or in the way that I'd like, but it is definitely alive and well. Just ask anyone who attended the Mid-States Challenge and Wickenheiser Cups at Savvis Center last night. I am now in a funk, because I just realized that it was the first and last time I set foot in Savvis to see a hockey game this season and my appetite is back in full force. Some might say that high school hockey can't compare with the NHL, but I would say that you were clearly not at last night's matchup between the CBC Cadets and the Oakville Tigers: man, what a game!
Back to Bob. Bob was a good friend who convinced me to get season tickets to the St. Louis Blues, back in 1998. We were walking out of Savvis Center after the final playoff game that year, and we were both glum because we were officially done with hockey for the year. We were sad that the Blues had lost a tough match, but we were also really bummed hockey was over for us. To talk then about getting season tickets was good for our post-playoff depression, but when August came, we actually bought four seats to twelve games. Over the years, our ticket packages and the friends we brought to the games changed, but the whole thing has evolved into a wonderful tradition. I came to love everything about the St. Louis Blues experience, and my appreciation for the game of hockey grew exponentially. I miss Bob, who died a few years ago: he taught me a lot about the game (I finally understand "off-sides" and I can easily identify all penalty calls), and I will forever be hearing his witticisms and seeing his grin in memoriam whenever I encounter an unruly fan, bad nachos, a terrific play on the ice, or a stupid one, for that matter. Bob loved hockey more than I do, if that is possible.
So just how did I survive this year? There were big plans, to be sure. My season ticket mates and I were prepared for the worst, so, late in August, when we were supposed to be hearing about training camps for the coming season, we drove to Columbus, Ohio, for a pre-tournament World Cup game between Team USA and Team Canada. It was truly awesome to see so many great players in one place. We went to several practices, got some great photos and saw a wonderful game that was fun to watch. Little did we know that it would be the last "big time" game we would see.
Back in St. Louis, we watched the World Cup games on TV for two glorious weeks, and the Disney movie Miracle from time to time. I nearly managed to catch an Ice Cats game in Worcester, Massachusetts, (where my brother lives), but fifteen inches of snow put the skids on that trip. Alas, where does one find a live hockey game in St. Louis? I hit the jackpot when I found a great website in early December.
My salvation this year came in the form of high school hockey: I had no idea that there was so much hockey in town! The games that I attended were amazing for three bucks you can see some great hockey action, up close and personal, with checking but without the fighting. All that makes the game of hockey great can be found at the Afton rink, for instance: these kids play a stellar game, and you can actually see their eyes light up when they score without a JumboTron.
What makes me sad about the NHL players' and owners' inability to get the CBA signed is the same thing that makes me sad about life in general: it's the little people who embrace the game of those in power who are going to suffer most when it disappears. I make just enough to get to Savvis Center twice a month, and if the CBA is not signed, I am really going to miss those glorious tape-to-tape passes, the artful checking, the phenomenal goaltender saves that makes you think he must be double-jointed. I am going to miss the awesome skill (the quick poke-check that breaks up a play; the slap shot that scores; the solid, determined defense that melts scoring chances into nothingness), the amazing skill (the drop pass; the wrap-around goal; the back-hander that scores with 14 seconds left), the unbelievable skill (scoring at breakneck speed with two guys trying to take you down). After last night, I have hope for Everyman's hockey survival because I saw examples of such greatness at the high school cup championships.
While I hope to catch a River Otters game or two in the coming weeks, you can be sure to find me at the local rink in the fall, watching the high school lads skate, regardless of what happens at Savvis Center. If, as some suggest, the NHL as we know it disappears, I will watch the young men play because many of them, like the best of their NHL brethren, love the game: it's in their blood. I hope to be watching the Blues play in the fall, but you can bet that I will continue to go to the high school games as well. Hockey will be around. And I am sure that Bob will continue to smile on us all.
Eva Barringhaus still bleeds, ever so slightly, blue.