Know Thy Neighbors

Phot via www.UprootedPhotographer.com

[Consol Energy Center, home of the Pittsburgh (#Pgh) Penguins, by www.UprootedPhotographer.com]

I hail from the rolling hills and Three Rivers of Western Pennsylvania. My athletic allegiances are easy to spot given that black and gold(*) are the only two colors I need to represent three pro franchises and their 14 world championships, spanning from 1909 and baseball’s Pirates winning the World Series(**), to the NFL’s Steelers and NHL’s Penguins both hoisting their respective trophies in 2009. I cheer for Pittsburgh.

(*) – Yes, I’m well aware that the Penguins’ current “Vegas gold” is no longer an easy match to the good ol’ gold they once shared with the other two teams; however, people wear Pirates or (more often) Steelers gear into the Civic Arena Mellon Arena Consol Energy Center all the time and simply blend in as “retro.”

(**) – Yes, I cheaply worked in a Pirates reference to an article that is, at its heart, about hockey. If your favorite team was currently riding an 18-season sub-.500 drought and then found itself in first place during this year’s second half, if only for a day, you wouldn’t hold a grudge.

Cheering for a team also means jeering its most despised rivals, not all of whom are created equal. Many are born (borne? Bourne? Buehler?) of geographic proximity, match-up frequency (especially with hardware, not just bragging rights, on the line), or vicious encounters that turn an otherwise run-of-the-mill game into a franchise-changer.

I can feel Bruins fans burning a hole through my spleen in the name of Cam Neely right now. A perfect storm of familiar foes, a conference championship, and bending of rules (and bodies) intensified a rivalry for years to come. It’s the kind of thing that, as ridiculous and hyperbolic it can get in retrospect(***), you miss like crazy when life, for whatever reason, picks you up and plops you somewhere else entirely.

(***) – Says the guy who, to this day, can’t help but laugh at Mike Milbury anytime I see him on TV getting fired up about this or that without slamming sticks against the boards. YAWN: it just isn’t the same if his quaff isn’t waving in the gusts of a tantrum.

The whole relocation thing is probably tougher when you don’t have as much control as you’d like. If work takes you elsewhere, you don’t have the time to weigh the pros and cons of moving. If your rooting roots don’t have a job for you, your poor self can’t afford to go to the games anyway. So, off you go. Just remember to pack your jersey(s) carefully.

Charlotte, North Carolina, has been rather welcoming to my wife and me, but the sports scene definitely left a gap. During football season, it feels like home: before Carolina had a NFL team, the Steelers captured part of the market share with the Redskins and Cowboys. Steelers bars and fans, relocated or NC-natives, are everywhere, so that’s great. But then I discovered a strange (to me) phenomenon: there are a lot of Steelers fans who don’t give a damn about the Penguins (or Pirates – last reference, I promise). What’s a guy to do during hockey season?

First, I’m not abandoning the Penguins. Far from it. If I adopted some “all Penguins or nothing” mantra when it comes to life in Charlotte, I would have to abandon hockey completely. Think about the deflated feeling you have when your team isn’t one of the Stanley Cup finalists. Sticking around for the following series can be tough, but the quality of the postseason product is hard to pass on.

A season with only a handful of games isn’t an option, as far as I’m concerned, so I decided to follow the Hurricanes in order to stay connected and develop a sense of how another franchise and its fans do it. It hasn’t been an easy task. With DirecTV two seasons ago and local cable giant Time Warner for service this past season, I’ve had a hard time consistently finding Hurricanes coverage on television. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Canes play in Raleigh and I live in Charlotte, so the three-hour drive is both time and cost prohibitive when your irrational, engrained fan urges won’t make the price tag seem easier on the wallet.

I know Carolina won one Cup last decade and its fans had their newly-transplanted hearts ripped out in 2002 at the hands of the Red Wings and a triple OT thriller. I know the captaincy has passed from Primeau to Francis to Brind’Amour to Staal (though I didn’t know Dineen until wikipedia told me so). But it felt difficult to find people to talk to, face-to-face, about draft-pick needs and fourth-line depth, and the opposing scourges of the Canes seasons, current and past.

[photo by Carolina Hurricanes via ScoutMVP.com]

Enter the Charlotte Checkers. A respected ECHL team during my first season in town, the brand, arena, and city got a shot in the arm when the Hurricanes AHL-affiliate in Albany, the River Rats, was moved to the Queen City. I’m sure geography, finances, and a host of other important, practical matters dictated the change; what mattered for fans, though, was that it brought a better brand of hockey to town, an increased interest in the games, and a refreshing energy to town regarding the sport in general. Personally, it put the Checkers on my calendar more often because I was interested in seeing the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins in action.

The Cable Box, as many locals call the Time Warner Cable Arena, became a destination as the Checkers charged into the Calder Cup playoffs during their inaugural campaign. I initially cheered for the Checkers for one reason – if the chips fell correctly, they’d play the Baby Penguins in the second round and host “my” AHL team a few more times. I got lucky, kind of. The Checkers and Penguins did, indeed, face off in the second round; unfortunately, I saw “my” team lose.

Extra Baby Pens games produced more positive results that I hadn’t anticipated. I connected with season ticket holders on the train talking about tailgating for the next game, saw Canes and Checkers gear worn on the street, heard the games promoted and broadcast on radio AND television. I found a place to be a hockey fan, again, and I’m looking forward to building on it this season.

There’s a lot going on this season for both clubs, including Charlotte’s realignment situation – they’ll now be in the AHL’s Western conference and play only a few games against established rivals in Hershey and Norfolk. I’ll be following along to document how new rivalries are made from the Piedmont to the Mississippi valley. The Canes, in their own right, will look to reestablish a winning tradition that has them and their fans in the postseason once more, with a host of new faces and, in all likelihood, midseason call-ups from Charlotte.

photo via www.JamesWillamor.com

[Charlotte (#Clt) Skyline via www.JamesWillamor.com]

I’ll be cheering for the Penguins as I always have and will, but I’ll also be investing my time in learning the history, moments, and players that make Checkers fans and Caniacs believe in their team through the season-long grind. And I need your help. I will be finishing one post each week with a question to all fans out there. Selfishly, I hope folks in Carolina will help plug me into what makes them tick.

But we're all neighbors here on The Checking Line bench, so I hope you chime in with your hockey memories and rituals no matter where you're from or for whom you cheer. I hope to follow up on each question with my own reply and (fingers crossed) connections I've made from my days in Pennsylvania to the experiences that link my North Carolina neighbors with their Hurricanes. Happy yappin'!

First things first: Describe the moment that hooked you as a hockey fan. Where were you, and who was there? Were you playing or watching? What happened that made you realize this game would stay a part of you life?

4 Comments

George Prax's picture

Great blog Ryan. As for your question, I would say that while I was always a hockey fan since I was young, I only remember really getting "hooked", believe it or not, as the lockout was starting. I would say before that I watched hockey casually and occasionally, but the fact that it was no longer there really bothered me, so during the time off I really started researching the NHL and its rules and getting into it, so the first post-lockout season was the first I was as rabid as I am now. So I guess it was the fact that I didn't have it anymore that made me really want it.

Gwinzi's picture

Love this post- I was also transplanted from Pittsburgh to Charlotte, and have adopted the Checkers as my hometown team, but it's still Pens first in our house too. The highlight of the hockey season for us is always getting up to Raleigh when the Pens are in town, although I like the Canes enough that it hurts a little to be cheering against them.

Anyway- the moment I was hooked as a hockey fan? I was six years old in 1987 and living in Nova Scotia, and on a class trip to the ice rink, I got to see a teenager from my church practicing with his hockey team before my class got to go out and skate. I think it was the sound of hockey that I loved- the skates on ice, the players yapping back and forth... it's still one of the happiest sounds on earth as far as I'm concerned. That was also the year I discovered I was a Penguins fan- I consulted my dad about which teams were good, and since he grew up in SW Pennsylvania, he informed me we were Pens fans. Turns out, he was right!

Anonymous's picture

I really like the idea of these questions. I'm actually a Charlotte area native, though we've had pro hockey here since the 50's there hasn't been much of an influence until recently. I remember my brothers and I loving the Mighty Ducks movies and show so my Grandpa bought us this awful super cheap street hockey set. We had no clue what we were doing so we played our own weird version of hockey in our driveway and in the warehouse at my mom's work. We played until we broke most of the sticks and lost the ball... which didn't take long. My brothers soon moved away so I had no one to play with even if I could so it all kind of died down around me. Every so often I would catch re-runs of Canes games on tv after school though, I'd stay glued to the tv and I definitely knew I loved the sport. Later however, when I was 12, I went to my first hockey game. I had a teacher from Philly and he set up a small field trip for about 20 of us to go to a Checkers game. That night I fell in love, no question about it. At the end of the game they tried to rush us back to the bus but I made sure grabbed a pocket calendar on my way out of Bojangles Coliseum (where they played at the time). I begged my parents to take me to more games, as I got a little older I begged my friends to go to games. They never did, but I was hooked for life. From 12 on I was kind of on my own to learn the sport and follow teams. Now at nearly 20 I've been a diehard for quite a few years now. I guess it's pretty infectious too because my friends have become hockey fanatics... and keeping in tradition nearly all of their first games have been Checkers games as well.

Chuck Gaston Jr's picture

This is one thing I have been really stressing about. After looking at Law Schools all I can think about is moving away from the Pens broadcast and not being able to watch them. I have been praying that I get into Pitt or Duquesne because I would go insane without watching the pens.

I have been hooked since my first game, Straka netted a hat trick against the Canadiens, loved this game ever since. Loved the Penguins ever since. I couldn't imagine leaving my area and continue to follow this team the way I do now.

At the same time, I have a ton of respect for fans that find a way to adopt a love for teams in their transplanted city, while at the same time still keeping their homerage!
Great article!