I was eight years old when I first felt the sweet sting of cupid's arrow. Her name was "Britney" and her sun-kissed blond hair and soft blue eyes were so elegant that they made angel's weep and dove's spontaneously combust. Suffice to say, even in the third grade she was way out of my league.
We were in the same homeroom, not because we shared the same age but because my parents -- under the encouragement of my teachers -- thought it would be best for my development if I joined the advanced courses of those older than me.
The transition was neither smooth, nor enjoyable. There was nothing more damaging to my psyche than having to leave my friends who were occupying their time making collages, singing songs and playing games for my personal higher learning. I loathed agreeing with the decision, but as a subordinate, assumed that falling in line was the best recourse to take.
The adjustments I had to make became more difficult with each passing day. Not in course material -- that was the easy part -- but rather in social networking. In a class full of a dozen of your peers who feel like you're infringing on their turf, I faced a regiment of constant bullying. Words. Fists. Humiliation. It was all just part of the daily routine. Luckily, I still had a small cluster of friends now a grade lower which kept me optimistic that better times lay ahead.
That entire year, I would spring out of bed bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to sit next to Britney in class. When she finally did find out that I had a school-yard crush on her, she distanced herself. I can't blame her, it likely would have been social suicide for a girl like her to be seen eating lunch a geek/loser/dweeb/etc. like me.
Before the age of ten I was already self-loathing.
Growing up, I always loved the sport of hockey. It never mattered who was playing -- though I was partial to the Winnipeg Jets at the time -- or what the score in the game was. Every Saturday night my dad and I would convene in the basement of our country bungalow home to entrench ourselves in its ultimate whimsy. My sisters already asleep and my mom working weekend night-shifts so she could be around to raise us during the week, Saturday's became a ritualistic event. Bowl of popcorn and soda's in hand, dad and I would trudge downstairs and spend four hours bonding around the game we loved. I never told him, but I think he knew he was my best friend.
The Jets' packed up shop in 1996 and I became a tad bit jaded towards the sport. No longer did hockey appeal to me in quite the same way. Players didn't seem as fast, or as strong, or as skilled. The whole thing just seemed blasé.
That was before I met the second love of my life; the Washington Capitals.
For reasons unbeknownst to even me, I was a Joé Juneau fan as a kid. I couldn't be bothered by collecting the hockey cards of Gretzky, Lemieux, Roenick, or Jagr; if it wasn't Joé Juneau (or Teemu Selanne), I had no interest in it.
The spring of 1998 was as exciting a time as any for a Capitals fan as they made their trek towards the Stanley Cup Finals. Living in small town Manitoba meant I wasn't privy to cable TV or an Internet connection, so it was difficult to religiously follow any NHL team not named the Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens. But those playoffs changed things. I still vividly remember being sucked into a second round game between the Caps and Ottawa Senators and seeing names I never thought I'd see on the same roster flash across the screen: Juneau, Bondra, Oates, Bellows, Hunter, Tikkanen, Miller, Berube, Housley, Johansson.
I was in love... again.
That Washington team took me on a wild ride as I travelled through the abyss of personal uncertainty. My parents planned to move our family to the city where I would be forced to make new friends and form new relationships heading into junior high.
Unnerved, those playoffs kept me sound. Juneau banging home the overtime winner that sent Washington to their only Stanley Cup Final appearance shot me over the moon. At the age of twelve, I figured this would be the happiest moment of my life. My mood shifted quickly after they were dispersed by the Detroit Red Wings in a four-game sweep.
Just like Britney before them, the Washington Capitals had shattered my fragile heart.
In October of 1998, we moved to the city where I again struggled. More taunting, teasing and bullying. Again, I stayed optimistic that my peers could really get to know me that things would change. Then I wore a Minnesota Vikings "Purple Pride" shirt to school and it was game over. I just couldn't deal with it anymore. I convinced my parents I was sick for three weeks straight so I wouldn't have to go to school. The pokes and prods from the doctors trying to assess my non-existent condition were uncomfortable, but nowhere near as painful as the verbal sticks and stones hurled toward me on a daily basis.
When it came time to finally go back to school, I realized it was fight or flight. Over the years I had developed a mouth that was now getting me in trouble with the teachers I lashed out on in order to gain credibility with classmates. I hated myself for it, but it seemed to work as I was often left to recluse. As my grades sunk lower and lower through junior high and into high school while trying to be a different "me", I was as depressed as it got. I trudged forward in my daily world of self-loathing. Each morning after brushing my teeth and washing my face, I would stare intently in the mirror and question which "me" I was going to be on that day. It was a routine I wish on no one. As I tried my best to fade into the peripheries of the hallways, I began to wonder if this world was better off without me.
It's funny now, but I couldn't help but draw parallels of Bruce Cassidy's then-sinking Washington Capitals of the early 2000's.
I met the love of my life in the fall of 2004. Though it took us a few years of bouncing around our own failed relationships to realize it, we were made for each other. April 17th, 2007, we finally began dating. An overwhelming wave of happiness enveloped the darkness of my life and like a strong rip tide, tore it from the clutches of my soul. Coincidentally, the Caps began their meteoric rise and were now garnering further exposure in Canada (thanks, Ovechkin). Now in my final years of university, I could afford the NHL Centre Ice package for all games not aired on TSN, which meant the days of Steve Kolbe in my house were officially over.
Almost six years after we started dating my wife and I were married in March, usurping Juneau's OT goal on the happiness totem pole. Though I wouldn't say it, I firmly believed that the Caps would win the Stanley Cup this year as though our life cycle's coincide or something.
Let it be known, I'm imperfect; as are the Washington Capitals. Like a rickety, old porch chair, we both require tender love and care to strip down our rust and restore what was once new in hopes that tomorrow's version of ourselves is better than yesterday's. We are both synonymous and in some cases impervious to pain. Neither of us have lived up to the expectations we put on ourselves, nor have we achieved the goals we've set out for. But my optimism in this team is as strong as it's ever been. From the depths of despair, we have risen and continue to push forward. The story is long and we have yet to write its conclusion, but trust that it's coming.
Today, I have three loves in my life: my family, my wife and the Washington Capitals. Until the day I die, that love will remain unwavering. That is, unless Joe Juneau has anything to say about it.