Hockey history was made twice this week. On Saturday approximately 1200 people crammed into a high-end rec rink deep in Fairfield County to watch the first profressional women’s hockey game on American soil, a sell-out crowd and then some in facility that was never intended to host a professional league of any sort. The stands, such as they were, were packed to the gills with young girls wearing a plethora of assorted youth hockey jerseys and waving hand-made signs featuring a slightly modified version of our beloved mascot Pucky, at least half of them featuring the hilarious and cute malapropism “LET’S GO WHALES!”. About half of the crowd crammed into whatever space they could, standing up against the glass wherever there was no seating or watching from the organic smoothie bar which overlooked the rink. Dani Rylan, the infant league’s new commissioner, made her way through the crowd looking awestruck by what she’d built and even younger than her scant 28 years. After a brief delay while league officials assembled a runner on the ice with various floor mats they had clearly confiscated from every corner of the building, Ms. Rylan made her way out to center ice, dropped the puck and so it began. Within a few moments, captain Jessica Koizumi scored the league’s first goal and the Brass Bonanza blared. The Whale drew first blood. Seconds after play resumed one of our girls threw a punch and the first instigator penalty was ours as well. Two hours from home in the unlikeliest of rinks, I’d found a familiar place. This was home.
New York fell to Connecticut 4-1.
Three days later in Hartford, a crowd of roughly the same size dotted the stands of the old barn sparsely, like weeds in a sand dune, to watch the Wolf Pack play the Providence Bruins. Officially reported at 1585 (though in reality closer to two thirds of that), it was the smallest crowd to ever attend a hockey game in Hartford.
I walked the concourse with my son, through halls I’d walked as a child with my father. I remembered seeing Gordie Howe play in an alumni game on that ice, I remembered the mall, and I remembered a city that was full of life. The same concourse I walked in then was mostly empty now, except for a few scattered Bruins fans and a card table full of t-shirts for sale. The same team that had banned Pucky the Whale from Hartford a few days earlier was selling an abomination of a t-shirt that could have only been designed as some sort of middle finger to the fans:
We sat in our regular seats in 110, beneath the old banners. Ley, Ulfie, Howe, Francis, Dineen and McKenzie . After a few minutes of sloppy play and a t-shirt toss, Hartford scored first. Some awful modern rock song played on goal and my son suddenly started crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “We scored!”
He looked at me and said “I don’t know who I’m supposed to root for anymore, Dad.”
I didn’t know what to say. I looked up at the old banners again, and wondered how it came to be that I felt more at home three days and two hours away from here. We left after two periods.