What hockey means to me

Even after getting pounded 17-1, our beer-league team was (mostly) all smiles.

Robby Stanley over at Hockey Night in Nashville put a fantastic question out there at the beginning of the weekend, which was, quite simply, "What does hockey mean to you?"

The game of course is so diverse both in the way that people interact with it, and the background from which they come, that answers are sure to be all over the place. For Robby, it's about the bonds of friendship that get built within the community of Smashville, and the lifelong affair that a fan has with his favorite team, filled with ups and downs:

Hockey brings jubilation and sorrow. Pride and disgust. Confidence and fear. All of these feelings have shown up during the course of Nashville Predators history. Winning a playoff series and seeing the city taken over by hockey fever during an extended playoff run shows how hockey can unite a town.

Follow after the jump for my take on the question, and either head over to Robby's place to respond there, or chime in via the comments below...

Hockey as a personal journey

As a kid, I was always a hockey fan, not necessarily first and foremost, but it was always there. Detroit is one of America's great sports towns, and there's enough going on between the four major sports to keep a fan busy year-round. We were lucky enough to have a pond right across the street from where we grew up, which froze over enough to give us at least month or so of good skating each winter. My two older brothers and I would shovel off a rink and have some friends come over for the most informal games you can imagine, but there's really no better way to spend a Saturday in January.

I never played organized hockey at that time, and it wasn't until my early 20's that things took a significant turn. I had pretty much lost my way in college, with little clue as to what I wanted to do with my life, and ended up dropping out for a while. Things could have really gotten off track at that point, but one of the best things I did was to start playing in adult rec leagues around Ann Arbor with some friends. We were absolutely horrible at first, losing one early game 17-1 against a team with just 5 skaters that night. Yup, they couldn't take a breather the entire game, but still kicked our butts.

Over time, we improved, and just a year later we strung together an 11-0-1 record, with largely the same crew. That progress, though relatively quick, became emblematic to me of how hockey can be a constant exercise in self-improvement on a variety of levels:

  • As an individual, you become motivated to get faster, stronger, and develop your skills on the ice. Nothing beats the feeling of doing something new out there that helps your team win, like scoring on a slap shot for the first time, or hustling back for a game-saving back-check that you never would have caught up with before.
  • As a player, you learn the game by experience, and over time it's as if the action slows down, allowing you to process more and play smarter.
  • As a teammate, you learn quickly that nobody can lift the team to victory on their own, and that hard, selfless work partnered with constant communication are the keys to success.

Those lessons helped me off the ice to get things together and rebuild my life one component at a time. A steady office job led to an opportunity to get an entry-level IT job in Ann Arbor, which eventually turned into the career I'm still pursuing today, and enough money at the time to get back into school and complete my degree, a scant 10 years after enrolling as a freshman.

It was hardly a straight and narrow road, but the discipline and motivation that came from playing hockey 3 or sometimes 4 times a week led to a similar mindset away from the rink, a basic drive to see if things could be made better one step at a time.

Even today, while I still play hockey (albeit not nearly as frequently or as well as I did 15 years and 40 pounds ago), the game plays a huge role in so many positive aspects of my life:

  • My kids have been bitten by the hockey bug, and my boys in particular are always bouncing trivia questions off each other and me. Once while I was in the dugout helping with my daughter's softball game, my 8-year-old son walked up and noticed that her team was losing. His comment? "Well, at least it's not as bad as when the Montreal Canadiens beat the Quebec Bulldogs 16-3 back in 1920." And whattaya know, he was right. I rotate through bringing each of them to Preds games, and it's always special to have that one-on-one time together.
  • This site provides a much-needed creative outlet, allowing me to exercise my inner sports columnist, triggering a level (both in quantity and quality) of hockey talk that just wouldn't otherwise exist around the typical office water cooler.
  • Besides the day-to-day Preds coverage, I've got a host of curiosities that the world of hockey stats analysis have opened up, which to a greater or lesser degree I've been able to pursue over time. I haven't a doubt in the world that this stuff can yield useful insights to teams which are seeking a competitive edge, but even just from an intellectual angle it's fascinating material to dig into.
  • Thanks to the reaction from readers here and the contributors who have joined in recent years like Chris, Marc, and Sam, there are always ideas bouncing around as to how we can improve the experience at OTF and better serve the growing hockey community here in Nashville.

So even though my best playing days are well behind me, the game continues to serve as a framework for personal development both on and off the ice.

So to repeat Robby's question... what does hockey mean to you?

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