Four minutes left in the consolation final and there it went, our lead that we had all game was gone. It was 6-6. The right winger on my line looks at me blaming himself saying “I’m going to get that one back” and like it was written in a movie, our next shift he did. We won 7-6. How did I get here? How did I find a ice in the middle of South Florida? A common refrain is “why hockey?”
It’s a question so many fans of our beloved sport are asked time and time again. If you had a time machine and went back to five or six year old, hell even 17 year old me, and asked what I thought of hockey I probably would have shrugged my shoulders and said “It’s alright”. Now, at 27, I don’t think there is a day that goes by where I don’t think about the sport.
So, how did I get here you may be asking? Well it’s a long journey that started in Staten Island, New York. I remember playing NHL 94 (playing as the San Jose Sharks oddly enough) with my Uncle in what is now the heyday of Martin Brodeur and the last time the New York Rangers won a cup. My idols at the time didn’t wear skates though. I looked up to baseball players Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and the list of Yankees could go on and on.
Then in the third grade my life changed; I went from snow to sand. My family moved from New York to Florida and hockey disappeared from my life for a good chunk. My dad would occasionally take me to Florida Panthers games when he could but Sunrise and the ever-changing arena name wasn’t close and money was tight.
Fast forward through my formative years of playing baseball, and finding my first sports love of wrestling and the ups and downs that brought for me, and I rediscovered hockey. After I was accepted into the University of South Florida I joined a fraternity, and I worked a couple of jobs to help pay for school and other things (we talked about money being tight). That’s where I stumbled into (unbeknownst to me at the time) a job that would change “It’s alright” to thinking about it day and night.
It started slow. Being a bartender for the Lightning in 2008 was tough. The fans were excited that some guy named Steven Stamkos had been drafted to the team and that was all they wanted to talk about. So not knowing much about the sport or the team I started reading ESPN previews before I would go into work so I had something to talk about to sound somewhat intelligent.
My learning curve was sped up by a friend and their family being avid fans and hearing them talk about the game. It wasn’t until my second full season working at then the Forum that conversation became easy, regulars became friends, coworkers felt like family and working hockey games became more then a paycheck. The 2010-2011 playoff run was electric. I remember being on the edge of my bar every time I heard the goal horn, I remember walking to the bowels of the arena and seeing the Capitals got swept shirts being put out for purchase, and I remember that same Stamkos guy taking a puck to the face and coming back out because they were that close to the cup.
As history went it wasn’t meant to be. The Boston Bruins advanced and won the Stanley cup that year. As the Bruins moved on so did I. I graduated college, moved away from Tampa, had people come and go from my life but one thing stayed the same I followed and rooted for the Bolts.
After years of following the sport I decided that I want to play. I tossed the idea around in my head and with anyone who would listen. Finally, my sister gave me the push that I needed (thank you Marissa) and bought me my first piece of gear: my shin pads.
And there it was, I had shin pads… and that was all I had from Christmas until February 10th , how do I know the date? I keep the bill of sale in my wallet (told you money was tight growing up. I had to have a way to remind myself that I made the commitment and to stick to it). That following Sunday I started adult clinics at my local rink, it was supposed to be for C players and above (I had no idea what that meant, let alone how to put on my gear) but I went anyway because I wanted to dive into the deep end.
For months I went to clinic and got better but more often fell time after time. After a few months another guy who I had seen at the clinics and became friends with said he was starting a team, so this time without hesitation I said I was in. I had already sunk the money on the gear and the clinics and thought what better way then getting right into the fire. We came up with the team name of the Benders, fitting since most of us had been skating under six months.
The first few games were tough. We had a great goalie some weeks and other weeks… well I was thankful there was at least someone in net. But as the chemistry grew with the team we started to play better, and this funny thing happened: my confidence on the ice grew. I wanted to play center but thanks to Alex (see good goalie mentioned above) I was just worried about keeping the puck out of our net so the neutral zone and the defensive zone were my bread and butter. Get the puck on my stick in the offensive zone and I was playing hot potato.
It wasn’t until June 28th (another key date: my dogs birthday) that I scored my first goal. And I can’t tell you how elated I was. It really is hard to put down in words what my first goal meant, but it came in a win, which made it even better. There came three more in my first season but I’ll always remember that feeling of the first. Want to see that goal? Well here it is: HERE!
Why hockey? Well this guy in the sunshine state can tell you from his experience there are bumps and bruises (yeah, I still fall a lot and I’m thankful for the pads) but the teammates, the goals and the feeling of accomplishment I’ve gotten from one season makes it all worth while.