Hockey
(Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports)

I’ve been a casual hockey fan since moving to the United States in 2009, watching games on TV whenever I happened to come across it. I didn’t go out of my way to find it, but as an Irish Immigrant raised on Football (Soccer for all the Americans out there) I liked the physicality of the game compared to the other sports I could find like Baseball and Basketball. There’s only so many times you can watch James Harden flop before it becomes more than just an annoyance. So when I got a chance back in 2010 to go to a game with my brother in law I jumped at the opportunity, even if it was the San Jose Sharks v Los Angeles Kings. I was living in the Bay Area at the time and the Sharks were the local team.

To say it was an experience would be an understatement. As a casual I wasn’t aware of the heated rivalry between the teams, but when a fight broke out on the ice it was easy to see and feel the intensity. The old lady beside us (probably in her 70’s) was the first out of her seat yelling to “punch him in the f-ing face” as the two players went at it. Having watched the slow paced nature of Baseball and the stop start nature of Basketball seeing these two mammoths throw down was absolutely amazing, but I still wasn’t hooked.

The only team I got on TV regularly was the Sharks and despite being local I found it difficult to cheer them. I can’t tell you why except they just didn’t feel like ‘my team’. So I stayed a casual fan catching the odd game when skipping through the stations looking for something to watch. Then in 2016-17 I decided to dedicate myself to a team and really start following. It came down to the Boston Bruins and Colorado Avalanche and despite it being the worst season in Av’s history something resonated with me and I had my team. I mean, after a 48 point season things could only get better right!?!

Welcome to the NHL Martin Kaut… Maybe

Luckily for me the Avalanche bounced back in 2017-18, making the playoffs for the first time since the 2013-14 season and signaling their intent for the future.

Before the season started they drafted Cale Makar as the fourth pick in the first round and just after the season began they traded one of their star pieces, Matt Duchene, to the Ottawa Senators in a three team trade with the Nashville Predators, getting Defenseman Samuel Girard, Centers Shane Bowers and Vladislav Kamenev and a number of draft picks in the process. The plan was for the future, but nobody told Nathan MacKinnon that as he ended the season just three points shy of 100 and announced himself to be the elite player everyone thought he would be when drafted first overall in 2013. They also went on a ten game winning run between 29th of December 2017 and 22nd January 2018 which, along with a last day win over Central Division rivals St Louis Blues sealed their playoff place. They lost in the first round to the Nashville Predators 4-2 but damn was I hooked. They were fast, skillful and going places.

The next season(2018-19) I watched every game, whether live or on replay, and marveled at this young core and what they could do. However, most analysts believed they needed a deeper scoring core. A nasty, gritty, no nonsense second line center. Even without this they were one game away from the Western Conference finals, finally succumbing 4-3 to the San Jose Sharks in the second round of the playoffs. Despite no one giving us a chance of winning the Stanley Cup the loss in the manner it happened just plain hurt. It was then I realized I was in for the long haul. When a loss can ruin your day at Disneyland, the happiest place on earth, you know you’re attached.

It wasn’t all negative though. The emergence of Cale Makar in the playoff series against Calgary was more than even his biggest admirers could have imagined. Straight from a loss in the frozen four finals with UMass he signed his first professional contract and joined the team, scoring his first NHL goal in the first period of his first ever game. Not bad for a 20 year old.

Sorry @NHLonNBC but there is a wrong answer

The future looked bright and even with the loss of fan favorite Tyson Barrie in an off-season trade with Toronto that saw Nazem Kadri come the other way, there was a reason the odd-makers had the Av’s as one of the favorites. That all led to Friday night in Anaheim. My first ever Colorado Avalanche game.

The excitement kicked in a few hours before and by the time the players hit the ice I was a nervous wreck. The Honda Center staff were some of the nicest people I’ve come across at sports venues. My son had a sign that said first ever Av’s game and they made sure he enjoyed it, from picture taking to certificates. The Ducks fans were also a jolly bunch who got behind their team, but were also willing to interact with the Avalanche fans in the vicinity.

Our seats where right by the tunnel for Colorado and my son was over the moon that he got to fist bump the players. He also received a puck from one of the Avalanche equipment managers which absolutely made his night. That’s all he kept saying on the way to the game “Dad I hope I get a puck”.

Here’s hoping Jay Bouwmeester is okay

Since I already did a recap of the game I won’t go into details of the action, but what I will say is that a couple of thing stood out for me. Firstly, Pierre-Édouard Bellemare is Mister Professional once the game starts, but in the pre-skate he was the guy keeping everyone loose, interacting with the Av’s fans and just generally having fun. Secondly, these guys are built like brick walls. You see them on TV but don’t realize just how big they are until you are standing feet away from them. And lastly, Nathan MacKinnon is not just fast… He is lighting quick. The speed at which his hands and feet move is “scary” and “unfair” to quote a young Kings fan who was seated behind me on Saturday night’s game.

Speaking of Los Angeles, that was definitely a little different from the Ducks game. Firstly the Kings fans are definitely a more vocal group, trying to intimidate the Avalanche players and put them off their game at every opportunity, including banging on the glass and calling JT Compher some unrepeatable names. Secondly, you could tell the Staples Center is a multiple sports venue whereas the Honda Center was built specifically for the Anaheim Ducks and Hockey. The arrangement inside the Honda Center means you have a great view of most of the action. The Staples Center arrangement was less hockey friendly but still wasn’t horrible. Just a noticeable difference. Lastly, there is an hour between the two Southern California teams but it might as well be a whole different country when it came to the production. Watching the player announcements on Saturday night was like watching a Steven Spielberg movie with the effects and production value. Anaheim on the other hand just had pictures on a screen.

Avalanche dethrone Kings

The weekend was a magnificent experience and if you haven’t gone to see a hockey game in person you should do so as soon as possible. As a fan it was edge of my seat stuff, given the close nature of the games, but it was also one of the better sporting events I’ve been too. Even the casual fans in attendance, and there seemed to be a few, looked to enjoy themselves. That’s the sort of atmosphere you want to help grow the game in America. As a non casual fan with a vested interest in one team I apologize to those L.A. Kings fans who had to watch me celebrate Joonas Donskoi’s penalty shootout winner like I had just won the lottery. Actually, no I don’t. Instead I’ll take a quote you fans chanted a lot on Saturday night and change it slightly. Kings, you suck. But thanks for the memories.

SUBSCRIBE!