It didn't start out this way. Not at all. Not even close. Here I was, a 9 year old kid, growing up in the suburbs of New York, just looking for something on TV (yeah, you had to get up and walk to the TV to change the channels back then.) It was 1973, and I happen upon WTBS on the cable box. And there it was... hockey.
Wait? New York suburbs? WTBS? Isn't that an Atlanta Station? Hockey?
Yes, hockey, the Atlanta Flames, with their bright red uniforms and awesome logo, to a nine-year-old kid, this was amazing to watch. There were teams all over, including two in New York, but I was all about the Flames. Why? Because they were on just about every night. Unlike the Rangers and Islanders, who put their home games and some of their road games on a channel you needed a decoder box to watch, 70 or so Flames games were on every season. All the road games, most of the home games, and all the playoff games. Was it great hockey? Not really, but the Flames were pretty good, making the playoffs most years.
When I wasn't watching the Flames, I was watching the Rangers or Islanders, games, or the syndicated NHL TV package, any hockey I could find. I took skating lessons (I was terrible) I tried playing hockey in school (I was terrible, I made the team because they didn't have enough players to cut anyone), I eventually found a niche as a physical forward who could occasionally chip a puck in the net from the left side (I played left handed, even though I am right handed...) I was also taking face-offs for the line I was on as our center weighed 120 pounds with out pads. My proudest moment was getting kicked out of a game for fighting an opponent after he directed a racial slur towards our goalie. I didn't get suspended for that, but the other kid did.
Then when I was 13, I got to go to my first NHL game. It was at Madison Square Garden and the LA Kings were in town to play the Rangers. And there I was, watching Phil Esposito, Marcel Dionne, Billy Goldsworthy, Rogie Vachon all in person. The Rangers were down a goal with about a minute and a half to go, pulled the goalie and scored to tie the game with about 50 seconds left. Unfortunately, for them, LA came down the ice and scored with 20 seconds left to beat the Rangers. It was so much better than on TV. I actually got to see Atlanta play the Rangers later in that season, after the Rangers were eliminated from playoff contention. That was pretty awesome.
Dad ended up buying half of a pair of season tickets for us after that season, along with one of his long-time accounting clients (who is still one of his clients nearly 40 years later!). Dad made sure he got the Atlanta tickets as well as Boston (he's a Bruins fan). It was pretty awesome.
In the spring of 1980, I was able to see the Flames play a playoff game in the opening round at MSG. Little did I know it would be the last time the Atlanta Flames would wear their away jerseys. Two home games later, they were eliminated, and a month later, they were sold (for about 10 million dollars) to a group of investors in Calgary.
I was stunned. The team was no longer where they were. Yeah, they were remote, but they were on TV every night. Now nothing. The Rangers and Islanders had moved almost all of their games to pay-TV (back when most local sports channels cost extra) and the one team that had more games on was no longer available. Add in the two hour time-zone change and it was hard. We still had the Ranger tickets, so I ended up pulling for the Rangers, but it wasn't with near the same enthusiasm. I had some favorite players through my senior year in high school, in college, but the Rangers were so...sterile. It was like rooting for General Motors or Bank of America.
Still, I loved hockey, and went to games when I could. When I got my first job out of college, working in the Washington, DC area, my second purchase, after finding a place to live, was a 10 game plan with the Washington Capitals. I had seats near center ice in the 200 section at Landover, and the two seats for the 10 games cost me $160. Total. That was it. When the playoffs began, I upgraded to a full season tickets, which cost me $600, total. The deal was you got the 1986 playoff tickets free in exchange for buying a full 1986-87 season.
So I became a Caps season ticket holder, but was still kind of a Rangers fan. But then came the 1987-88 season. Bobby "Can't Miss Kid" Carpenter had fallen out of the good graces of Bryan Murray and David Poile, and was told to stay home and wait until he got traded. And he was traded, to the Rangers, who sent Kelly Miller and Mike Ridley, two of my favorite Rangers, here to Washington. The Caps got me in the bargain. I switched my allegiance to the Caps and have not looked back.
That's more of the "how", but you want to know why. Well, here's why. I love hockey. I love the game, the speed, the action, the ruggedness, the skill, the daring, the shots, the goals. Every goal is a complete emotional release of either joy (when the Caps score) or agony (when the other guys score). Watching the puck go into the corner, seeing guys like Darren Veitch, Mark Tinordi, Joe Reekie out muscle someone for it, or seeing someone like Al Iafrate out-skate someone for it and then taking the puck up ice and ripping a 100 mph shot past a goalie. Watching forwards like Mike Gartner bag 40 goals as season, watching Peter Bondra lead the league in goal scoring, watching a quiet Czech defector (and my SBN name-sake) sneak over to the USA and set up so many of those Bondra goals, then seeing an 18 year old kid, built like a tank, come over from Russia and obliterate every record in the books for the Caps.
That's why. It's hockey, and I've been watching for 45 years. On TV, in person, and for the last 33 years, at Washington Capitals games. It's emotional, it's gripping, it's great drama, it's cathartic, and one day, maybe, there'll be that moment when the Stanley Cup will be raised in DC, by the home team.