The first round matchup between the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings is my nightmare hockey scenario.
When I moved to Boston in 2008, my love of the Red Wings was a rare constant in my life. I wore red to TD Garden when Detroit was in town and cheered for them, alone, when their games were on in sports bars. Being a Detroit fan in Beantown was a lonely undertaking, but I clung to my fandom as an assertion of my identity and my past.
Hockey represents my dad’s Swedish heritage. Detroit’s roster always features a slew of Swedish superstars, which we felt was no coincidence. My love for hockey also identifies me as a Michigander. I went to the University of Michigan, whose hockey team has won more national titles than any other, and my dad took me to every home game of the Western Michigan University Broncos. We established rituals—my dad wore lucky underwear, my brother brought his red vuvuzuela, and I wore sparkly pinwheel deely boppers and gave players high fives as they went on and off the ice.
I’ve often wondered whether my love for hockey is attributable to nature or nurture. Nurture is the obvious answer, but I didn’t know hockey existed until I was four years old. On the way to the rink that first time, dressed in my pink footed pajamas, I didn’t even know where we were going.
I instantly noticed the smell of popcorn, nachos, hot dogs, but the smell of frozen water overtook those; my nose knew we had arrived at a temple of ice. My dad carried me down to the front row. I sat on his knee, smudging the Plexiglas with my palms, watching men skate in snowsuits and smash into each other. I don’t remember if the Broncos won—I only remember the feeling, the speed. That was it. I imprinted on hockey immediately.
My dad would give me autographed hockey sticks from the Broncos players. I didn’t play hockey, except occasionally pretending that the space beneath my desk was a goal and letting my brother shoot racquetballs at me, but I collected those sticks the way other kids stockpiled baseball cards. At night I’d put them to bed, resting their blades on a pillow and covering them with a blanket.
In retrospect, this seems odd, although most children can fall instantaneously and completely in love with anything. But hockey was more than puppy love.
Hockey belonged to my dad and me, and being Red Wings fans connected us and became bedrock of my identity. When I lived in New York, everyone salivated over the Yankees, sometimes noticed the Rangers, and ignored the Islanders. Loving the Red Wings meant I’d never be mistaken for a New Yorker. When I went to graduate school in Vancouver, I maintained an outspoken fealty to Detroit.
When my dad died shortly after I finished graduate school, hockey became even more important. I moved back to Michigan to be with my family, which allowed me access to the hockey of my childhood, the hockey my dad and I had shared.
In one of the last conversations we had, my dad recounted a semi-final game seven between the Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche. My dad, brother, and I had gone to a bar where we watched Detroit dismantle Colorado 7-0. We cheered and threw popcorn at the screen when Colorado’s goaltender, Patrick Roy, typically a stone wall in net, got pulled. When you love a team, it’s with you when you die. It will be the same for me.
The winter after he died, my brother and I drove to Detroit for a game. We knew it would hurt, but we needed to confirm that the Red Wings were still the Red Wings. We crept east on I-94, the snowy trek to Joe Louis Arena symbolizing our weariness. Even then, entering the arena soothed me— the big foam fingers, AC/DC blaring over the loudspeakers, the smell of the ice. Hockey hadn’t changed, even if the rest of the world had.
A few months after I’d cheered Detroit’s 6-1 stomping of Boston, the 2011 playoffs began. Boston and Detroit both finished third in their conferences; Detroit lost in the second round while Boston won series after series, most in seven games, and made it to the finals. Lead by underdog goalie Tim Thomas, who at 37 was considered a fossil, the Bruins kept winning. I got swept up—it was impossible not to.
In the Stanley Cup finals, Boston met Vancouver, the clear favorite, and though I’d never grown attached to the Canucks while I lived there, the series was a symbolic duel between past and present. In true Bruins fashion, they played the Canucks to seven games. I watched them all in a neighborhood bar, corralling even friends who claimed to dislike hockey—the Bruins could have inspired anyone to pound the Plexiglas. Surprised by how desperately I wanted the Bruins to win, I thought back to those early WMU games in which I, a pint-sized nonbeliever, actually prayed for goals.
Winning felt like destiny for the Bruins and, in some ways, for me. Boston’s 4-0 win surpassed the championships I’d watched Detroit win. Surrounded by delirious Bruins fans and raising a pint with my friends was the first time any place had felt like home since my dad died.
I’ll always love the Red Wings, but the Bruins are my team now. Sometimes I feel unfaithful, but my dad would understand why I have to root for Boston and for my favorite player, Brad Marchand, whose nickname, “little ball of hate,” sums up everything I adore about the Bruins. My dad’s favorite players were always the grinders—the guys with guts, missing teeth, and high plus/minus ratings. My dad understood that both love and hockey reward those who keep moving, who pick themselves up, who aren’t afraid to start again.
Joelle teaches writing and science fiction at Boston University. She maintains a blog, www.couldthishappen.com, about the relationship between science and science fiction, for which she received a 2012 Somerville Arts Council Fellowship Grant and a 2013 Nonfiction Fellowship from the Writers’ Room of Boston and she writes for www.giantfreakinrobot.com Her work has appeared in Slate, Guernica, Carousel, Briarpatch, Sycamore Review, and others. Her collection of essays, Letters to Ray Bradbury, will be published by Aqueous Press in 2014.