Monday, August 10, 2015

Hockey: Why the Utah Grizzlies?

Everyone who knows me has learned that I love hockey. My enthusiasm for it bursts out at odd moments, and once I start talking about it, I have a hard time stopping. I have literally stood in the freezing cold of a wintry Toronto afternoon for an hour because a friend and I couldn't stop talking about hockey.

5-4 OT win, February 2014
Another thing people learn about me fairly quickly if we talk about hockey is that I'm a Utah Grizzlies fan. This often leads to even more confusion and curiosity than my being a Habs fan - probably due to their greater obscurity and geographical distance. So why am I a fan of an ECHL team that is based in Utah and comes east about once a year, usually no further north than Florida?

It's kind of a long story.

Enter my dear, dear friends, the aforementioned Jasmine, and the mutual friend we generally call Penny (or Noodle. But that's a long and entirely unrelated story). At some point around 2009, Jasmine and Penny were doing their level best to get our whole friend group into hockey. About this same time, Penny started photographing for her local team, the Utah Grizzlies.

If you look at Penny's website, you rapidly see that she is a first rate photographer and artist. What is not as instantly obvious is that she is a master storyteller. She could probably make watching paint dry sound like something everyone should do because she would make it interesting. Anyway, she turned this considerable storytelling prowess to stories about hockey and the players she was starting to work with. I was hooked. What can I do. I really am a sucker for stories, and Penny's are always among the best.

At this point I knew nothing about hockey other than it was a sport played on ice, and that there were skates and pucks and that you scored if you got your puck into your opponent's net. I knew the NHL existed, and I had a hazy memory of seeing the name "Mighty Ducks" in the Sports section of the New York Times from the days when my brother and I were devoted baseball fans, but that was about it.

From the fifty odd players who suited up for the Grizzlies at various times in that 2009-10 season, I remember maybe eight, but I was really new to the whole thing. My first favourite hockey player ever, defenceman Brock Wilson, played on the Grizzlies for two years, and was unfailingly kind. Penny sent me several videos of him saying hi and thanks for cheering for the team, and brief as they were, they meant the world to me (the team photo that he and the others signed is probably to this day one of my favourite hockey related possessions). It was an amazing experience, and one that hasn't got less amazing with time.

I remember the 2010-11 team a lot better, and got much more attached to them as a group. In addition to Brock there were Chris Donovan and Brett Parnham, Tuzzolino, Nyren, Engelage, Armstrong and the rest.

I had no TV, and even if I had, obviously games from Utah weren't going to be televised in Boston, so I listened to every game on the radio - still with almost no idea what a game really looked like. However, through the amazing commentary of Adrian Denny and Tim Montemayor and Penny's stories and photos, it came alive for me. Wilson elected to play in England after that, and so I had my first experience of losing a favourite player. The curse of following an ECHL team is that the turnover is quick. Guys get called up, or go to Europe, or retire, and you have to learn to love a rather different team every year. I've been pretty lucky with my favourites in that regard.

Junior year of college sucked on so many levels. Basically it felt as though everything that could go wrong did go wrong in my personal life, in one long, unrelenting stream. But I needed something to pour my heart and soul into that would distract me and, as that amazing quote says, give me something to root for when rooting for myself seemed totally impossible.

Enter Danick Paquette. Though he played a mere nine games with the Grizzlies that season before being traded, his presence was a bit like a bolt of lightning out of a blue sky: quick, violent (he racked up 64 penalty minutes in nine games!!!!), brief, and above all, memorable. Which was good because he wouldn't be back for a whole year. That's not to say that the rest of the team wasn't exciting to follow, because they were, and I'd been paying attention long enough to know who the "core" players were, and to have a much clearer idea of what was going on in the games.

That whole year I basically did schoolwork, watched Doctor Who, listened to hockey, and survived. It's hard for me to put into words exactly what hockey meant for me that season, but that quote basically sums it up. Hockey was something of a lifeline, and it was easier to handle everything else when I could look forward to a hockey game - even if they lost, since there was always another game after that that they could (and often did) win.

Penny was among a small and stalwart group of friends that also helped me through that year, both with her constant support and with her hockey stories. And, unlike my experience so far as a fan of the Habs, my connection with the Grizzlies as a fan was (and is), through her, much more personal. I was able to express to my favourite players, almost directly, how much the team meant to me, and that meant a lot to me that year especially.

Everything seems to come back to Eller & the Habs with me
The 2012-13 season was a great one for me as a fan of hockey but not yet of the NHL. The lockout (of which I was blissfully unaware) drove players like Trevor Lewis (of the LA Kings) to the ECHL. There were also a number of ties between that team and the Habs, though, again, at the time I was completely oblivious to them. Riley Armstrong is the brother of former Hab Colby Armstrong, and in an interesting twist of fate, Ian Schultz had, a few years earlier, been traded to the Habs for Jaroslav Halak... together with Lars Eller.

By that time I was a senior in college, back on even footing from an emotional perspective, and unbelievably busy with the (entirely insane) amount of work I had gotten myself into. However, I still managed to follow the Grizzlies. Since I could only listen to the games, they were a lot less distracting than they might have been had I been able to watch them, since I could listen while I worked (the amount of translating I did while listening to hockey games is astonishing to think about).

There was something special about the 2013-14 Utah Grizzlies. Maybe it was the new coach,  Tim Branham, or the presence of so many Anaheim Ducks prospects, whatever it was, it was electric. And that's not just some dreamy-eyed fan's perspective. They were the best team to play on Grizzlies ice in fourteen years. When I think of "my team" I think of this one. This was the team that I knew front to back, knew what positions everyone played, knew what their numbers were, remembered the names of the whole team - loved the whole team. It was that season that I also started watching NHL games, and therefore finally understood exactly what was going on. It was also the year that Paquette returned to the Grizzlies. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that there was never a dull moment with him around.

Paquette lead the team in penalty minutes by a country mile, and was forever getting into scraps, but he combined those mean fists with a scoring touch that saw him end the season second on the team in goals and points with 23 of the former and 49 of the later. He was a fan favourite (and my favourite) almost instantly. The Grizzlies were 17 and 3 when he scored. Quick, gritty and able to score, Paquette embodied what the 2013-14 Utah Grizzlies were to me. Vinny (Scarsella) and Val (David Vallorani), Aubin and Pelech were always scoring as well, and the team had a pair of excellent goalies in Aaron Dell and Igor Bobkov. Between them they were named Goalie of the Month for three months running - a franchise record.

Great shot, crazy uniform.
On a sillier note, they had some of the best special occasion jerseys, their Halloween themed skeleton jersey was even sent to the Hockey Hall of Fame where it was displayed for a while. Have I mentioned that the Grizzlies are really awesome?

2013-14 was a hard year for me again, and again this team, on the other side of the country, was the nearly constant bright spot in it. Penny was, at this point incredibly busy, photographing for several teams, olympic trials, and horse races, as well as taking care of her family and dealing with health issues, but she still had time to tell me about this crazy thing that happened at a game, or show me that hilarious photo that was so bad she couldn't use it for anything. She also still got my favourite players to say hello via video. She sent me posters, beautiful black and white prints of portraits she'd done of Bobkov and Paquette, a calendar, and even a whole set of the team's hockey cards that she got permission to take especially for me.

She even got my two favourite players, Paquette and Galiardi, to get in the photo booth that was present at an event and take a whole series of hilarious photos just for me - a fan living all the way on the other side of the country who they'd never seen. She's amazing like that, and so are the guys on the Grizzlies.

And it isn't just the guys on the ice. At the end of the regular season, I wrote an email to Adrien Denny, expressing my thanks for his work in bringing these beloved Grizzlies to fans like me who couldn't be at the games, I wrote without expecting a reply - after all, it was about to be the playoffs, and in addition to being the voice of the Grizzlies, he headed up, what seemed to me, most of the fan oriented media, blog, email, you name it. He did write back and it wasn't just a few words of formal thanks, it was a proper, even lengthy, reply.

The Rocket, present in spirit.
I wish I could say that magic season ended in the story book way all magical seasons should, with the Grizzlies marching their way to the Kelly Cup in triumph, but it didn't. The Grizzlies got the one team who'd had their number all year in the first round of the playoffs. Then Mathieu Aubin (coincidentally a former Habs draft pick) got badly hurt, and there was a hole on the bench where he should have been. There was also an actual hole in the Maverik Center ice which forced the game to be finished the next day at the nearby olympic arena. Then Laurent Brossoit and the Bakersfield Condors broke Grizzlies fans hearts on their way to an appearance in the Conference Finals.

But Aubin was back last year, and so were quite a number of my favourites - Paquette, Scarsella, Boe and Bobkov. I was a lot more occupied with school - moving to Toronto, doing my Masters - but though I wasn't able to listen to every game, I kept a wary eye on my twitter feed, where the Grizzlies' twitter, and that of beat writer David Vito Winkworth kept everyone updated whenever they were playing. I also started paying much closer attention to the affiliated AHL team (at that time, the Norfolk Admirals, now the San Diego Gulls) and the Anaheim Ducks, because quite a handful of former Grizzlies now play for the Gulls, and hopefully will one day earn spots on the Ducks roster as well.

The Grizzlies of the 2014-15 season seemed like the walking wounded - between captain Channing Boe and his assistants (Paquette and Gwidt) alone, they missed 95 games, and they weren't the only ones hurt for huge stretches of the season. Despite that, they made the playoffs, going to the second round for the first time since 2008, and dominating their former previous season boogyman the Bakersfield Condors, going 9-4 against them during the year. Because if nothing else, this team always has heart.

This year all of my favourite players are gone, Paquette to the Missouri Mavericks, Scarsella traded mid season last year to the Condors, and Bobkov to Admiral Vladivostok of the KHL. But Aubin, Gwidt and Armstrong (remember him?) are all back. Moreover, after two excellent seasons, I have every reason to believe that Branham is going to ice a roster of exciting and talented guys who, come October, I can love and cheer for. Because, after all, that is the nature of an ECHL team - always changing, but always loved.

And that, my friends, is why I am a Grizzlies fan.

N.B. Happy birthday, dearest Noodle. Stay awesome, and thank you for the Grizzlies. This is for you.

No comments:

Post a Comment