The Stanley Cup Final is here. Here's why hockey fans are the real MVPs
Hockey is a way of life in Minnesota and for my family, watching the game is as much an active sport as actually playing it. I've been attending hockey games since I was still a baby, watching my older brother play goalie for his Mite (7-9 year olds) league. I've only attempted to play the sport once when I was 9 and after one season decided to hang up the sweater and remain an avid fan. I realized quickly that I did not have the drive and aptitude to fully commit and play the game, a feeling that was not helped by the fact that most kids start playing at 5. Despite not playing hockey, I learned that fan participation is equally important to the game. We have the ability to uplift our team through our energy and engagement.
My family has had season tickets to the Minnesota Wild since their inaugural season in 2000, and when I was younger, all four of us would go together. It was one of the most common ways we could spend time together. It helped me most of all connect with my dad and my older brother. And now, it's a family tradition I can share with my daughter, who will get to go to her first game next season. We could argue about everything else, but we always agreed on hockey, waiting patiently for the day when we could watch our team hoist the Stanley Cup and celebrate.
The Minnesota Wild were eliminated from the playoffs earlier this season, but our state was well represented throughout the season. There were 56 Minnesotans actively playing in the league this year — the most of any state in the National Hockey League. This year the Florida Panthers and the Vegas Golden Knights are facing off for the title.
We call Minnesota "the state of hockey" and true to our name, we celebrate this cold winter sport at every age and league level. Every year, the Minnesota Wild hosts "Hockey Day," featuring high school and college teams from across the state playing on outdoor rinks during the all-day event. From our local community hockey team all the way up to pros, we absorb hockey. Probably because it snows nine months of the year in Minnesota (it really doesn't, but we joke that it does!), but hockey has become a huge definer of our cultural identity.
Pond hockey and pick-up games are a common sight in winter. Families all across Minnesota will make backyard hockey rinks, clearing the snow and flooding the surface continually with water until it's frozen enough to hold weight. Despite the bitter chill, you can see kids playing outside for hours.
One of my favorite memories of watching community hockey was my brother's EMS Memorial Hockey Tournament. Most of the guys were decent skaters, a few could barely skate at all, and of course, there's always one or two who definitely played college hockey; but all of them were having fun. It was only a fundraising event featuring four EMS teams, but the arena was packed. Families, friends, and anyone else who happened to be there were cheering, laughing, and enjoying the game together.
I love sitting in the Xcel Energy Center feeling the collective energy of everyone around me while the Wild take the ice. The ringing sound of the puck hitting the post on a missed shot followed by the "Oh!" from the fans. Anticipating the sound of the foghorn, a blaring noise that used to scare me as a child, when we score a goal. The foghorn is designed like a lighthouse for all the lighthouses that dot the north shore of Lake Superior. We call it "lighting the lamp" because a goal scored turns on the goal light behind the net.
Of course, it would not be hockey without the hockey fights, jeering at the other team's players when they land in the penalty box, and yelling at the referees when they make a bad call; which gets everyone going. These moments are what make the fan base essential to a hockey club, because it is our way to participate in the game, using our collective energy to bolster our team's confidence and let them know we have their backs.
Yet, one of my absolute favorite parts of the game is during intermission, watching the Mites or Mini-Mites (6 years and younger) playing. Yes, because they are small, adorable, and always clump together when chasing the puck. But also because the crowd still cheers for them like they're the pros. We get excited when one of the kids gets on a breakaway, and whether they make the goal or the goalie saves it, we rally them on. It doesn't matter who's playing, why, or what level — if it's hockey, the community is always part of it.
I walk into the Xcel arena, which seats over 18,000 people, and get settled in my seat like it's my living room. For three hours, everyone near me is a friend — we talk, we cheer, we yell at the referees together. In this space and time, we forget about the chaos of our lives, we forget about our differences, and we rally behind our team. We don't need anything else in common to be connected.
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