Twenty-three years ago tonight, I fell in love.
Not with a person, no. That had already happened about a decade earlier, when I'd fallen for the man I would later marry and then divorce when what had begun with love, tenderness, and shared goals turned to bitterness and betrayal as bad luck and our true characters were revealed. This love was not for a person, or a pet, or even an object.
I fell in love with a sport.
My former husband had been born and raised near Boston, and like every Boston boy of his generation he lived and died by the fortunes of the Boston Bruins. After many years of mediocrity, they'd drafted a brilliant young defenseman named Bobby Orr, and a series of smart trades and draft picks had brought them the supporting players this stunning young talent would need to lead Boston to glory: Phil Esposito, Gerry Cheevers, Derek Sanderson, and all the rest. My ex had idolized them, and since his grandfather was a long-time season ticket holder, he'd gotten to see many, many games at the filthy, magnificent wreck that was the old Boston Garden.
My ex's grandfather was gone by the time we met, but his love of hockey was still strong. We attended games when we could at the Garden, and if I was less than happy with the obstructed views and the long, long, long climb to the seats we could afford, I usually enjoyed the games themselves. When we moved to Springfield a few years after our marriage, Wingding found himself in the position of finally being able to afford season tickets of his very own to the local minor league team, the Springfield Indians.
The Indians, who played in the American Hockey League, were a storied franchise that had fallen on hard times. Named after the legendary Indian Motocycles, the team had originally been owned by Bruins Hall of Famer Eddie Shore and had played for many years at the old Coliseum at the Eastern States Exhibition in West Springfield. This small arena, which doubled as a site for horse shows, ox pulls, and the Big E six-state fair every September, was a marvelous place to see a game, with excellent views from every seat, a huge domed roof, and what were purportedly the worst locker rooms in the AHL (would you believe one showerhead for the whole team?).
Alas, the locker rooms, and a playing surface that was both smaller than regulation size and built in such a way that it could not be expanded, were why the Indians eventually were forced to move across the river to the new Springfield Civic Center in the 1970s. This building, which was larger, more efficient, and had not one speck of the romance of the Coliseum, was home to the Indians when we scraped together the money and purchased our very own season tickets about a year after we made the big move from Malden to Springfield itself. And if the team itself was a far cry from the glorious teams of the past, which had won multiple Calder Cups and produced several excellent big leaguers, the games were usually entertaining enough to make up for the lack of skill.
Then came the spring of 1990.
The Indians had spent most of that season wallowing in their usual mediocrity. The few good players who had begun the year in Springfield were quickly called up to the parent New York Islanders, and the role players the Islanders were willing to sign to pad out the roster weren't all that good. The Indians were mired in last place in their division, and were deemed unlikely to make the playoffs at all. Most commentators thought that the mighty Rochester Americans, farm team of the Buffalo Sabres, were a lock to win it all.
Few noticed that the Indians were finally starting to bestir themselves.
The first glimpse that Springfield might, just might, have an actual hockey team instead of a band of individuals all jockeying for that elusive ride back to Nassau County, came in a game against the Utica Devils. Down 5-1 at the beginning of the third period, the Indians, lead by a diminutive center named Greg Parks, scored five unanswered goals in the last ten minutes and held off the shell shocked Devils to win for the first time in several games. They didn't go undefeated after that - far from it, we're talking the minors - but between career minor leaguers like defenseman Shawn Evans, enforcer/checking forward Rod Dallman, and power forward Derek Laxalt, prized prospects like Wayne McBean (boyfriend of TV star Alyssa Milano, who sometimes attended games to watch her honey play) and Tom Fitzgerald, and talented goalie Jeff Hackett, the Indians started to climb back into contention.
They made it into the playoffs on the last day of the season, and much to everyone's shock, won their first round series against the Cape Breton Oilers. I admit that I didn't attend most of those games, but I did see the series clincher in Springfield, won 5-3 on April 17th.
I was enthralled. I'm not sure if it was the idea of the Cinderella team coming from nowhere to win, the gritty teamwork of the Indians as they gutted out a victory against the odds, or the playoff ritual of the two teams lining up to shake hands and thank each other for a good series bare minutes after doing their damnedest to check each other into next week, but I could babble of nothing else for days. I started reading Wingding's copies of The Hockey News as they arrived each week, plowed through back issues of the local papers to find out what I'd missed, and even wore the Indians' team colors of blue and orange to work.
Wingding, who'd long wished that I shared his love of the game, was thrilled.
The second round of the playoffs was tougher. The Indians' opponent, the Sherbrooke Canadiens, was the farm team of Montreal, the hockey equivalent of the New York Yankees. Les Habs always either won or were in the mix, and their minor leaguers were equally dominant, especially their goalie JC Bergeron. They'd racked up the best record in the AHL that season, with 102 season points to the Indians' 80, and most pundits didn't give Springfield a chance. Little did they know that the gods of sport, who more often than not give victory not to the most gifted but to the hardest working, had decided otherwise.
That's right. The Indians, through a combination of grit, good goaltending in the clinch, and an utter refusal to roll over and die like good little underdogs, beat the mighty Canadiens in OT at home, in a game that was so exciting, and so terrifying, that I developed a rash after the first period.
It got better. Really.
The next, and last opponent, were the Rochester Americans. This storied franchise, one of the true legends of the AHL, had nearly as many points as the Canadiens (95), and had blasted through Utica and Adirondack on their way to the finals. They had a deep and skilled roster, a fine coach, and a fanatic fan base, and though Springfield had surprised everyone by dispatching Les Habs, once again it looked like Cinderella was about to get a nice dose of reality. This was especially true since the Indians' then-owner was threatening to move the team if he couldn't get a sweeter deal with the Civic Center, meaning that the team not only was facing a much better opponent, it might not even be in Springfield that fall.
It was a tense and unhappy time, especially after the Indians, who had shocked everyone by winning the first two games on the road, promptly squandered their lead when they were back in Springfield, each time by several goals. Worse, several key players were injured even before the game; defenseman Marc Bergevin had a broken bone in his wrist and assistant captain Rod Dallman had torn a knee ligament and could barely walk. Goalie Jeff Hackett going down with a groin injury in the penultimate game was the climax of what was looking like the end of the dream, especially after his replacement, journeyman minor leaguer George Maneluk, barely had time for a warmup before the team doctors shipped Hackett off to the local medical center for treatment.
And somehow, through a miracle I have never questioned, the Indians won.
With their backup goalie.
I think you can imagine the atmosphere in the Springfield Civic Center five days later.
The ice was a mess - no lie, the Shriners' circus had just finished up its annual visit and the wooden boards they put over the rink to protect it against elephant hadn't quite been up to the job - and Hackett was on crutches, but that didn't stop the Civic Center from being jammed to the rafters with fans, fanboys, fangirls, Amerks faithful who'd driven six hours from Rochester, several friends of ours who'd come up for the weekend from Long Island, and Alyssa Milano and her entourage. The sight lines weren't as clean as across the river at the Coliseum, but the atmosphere was every bit as charged as during the days when Eddie Shore's team had skated to victory after victory.
It was a close game. Hackett was still out, but Bergevin and Dallman both taped up their injuries and played. One team scored, and another, and I nearly broke out in another rash as the teams headed into the third period with Rochester up by two goals. Springfield managed to even up the score by the end of regulation, but anything can and does happen in OT, so what would happen next was anyone's guess. The Amerks were fighting for victory and for their pride, but the Indians were fighting for their lives, and everyone in the arena knew it.
What happened next is something I will never forget, not as long as I live.
The Indians had a power play heading into OT, thanks to a stupid late penalty by Rochester. Defenseman Shawn Evans, quarterbacking the power play, passed to center Greg Parks. Parks in turn flipped it over to Wayne McBean, who smacked it toward the net....
Right past Rochester goalie Darcy Wakaluk and into the net.
I screamed and threw my arms around Wingding, who screamed back. The Indians on the ice shrieked and flew into each other's arms in the corner, quickly joined by their teammates on the bench. Sticks, gloves, armrests from the stands, helmets littered the ice, and as the dazed Amerks drifted through the debris before lining up to shake hands with the men who'd just showed that character counts just as much as talent, the arena shook with cheers and chants and cries of joy. Hackett, who could barely walk, somehow hobbled out to accept the playoff MVP trophy, and then the team was finally given what they had worked so hard to win, and what no one but them had ever believed they could achieve.
Hockey teams take turns handing off the championship trophy from one to the other. No trophy is more storied than the Stanley Cup, which has been used as a horse trough, chucked into the Rideau Canal, lofted off a balcony into a swimming pool, served as a flower pot and a baptismal fount, and battered to the point where it needed to be replaced by an exact replica a few years ago, but to those of us in Springfield nothing could have been sweeter than the silver loving cup hoisted by one Indian after another. Hugs, tears, more hugs - it was lovely to watch.
And then Marc Bergevin, cast discarded so he could play, snatched up the game sticks from the bench and began handing them to the crowd. Another defenseman, Chris Pryor, did likewise, and when the sticks were gone Bergevin, head thrown back, arms lifted to the ceiling in ecstasy, danced at center ice and exhorting the crowd to a frenzied roar that nearly blew the roof off the building. By the time the last player (Bergevin, who then skated back out for a final wave) exited, it was almost ninety minutes later.
Is it any surprise I didn't fall asleep until nearly 3:00 am that night?
My love affair with Springfield hockey continued for several years; the Indians did stay in town, and went on to win the Cup again in 1991 despite a new affiliation (Hartford) and only two returning players (Dale Henry, a checking forward, and - of course - Marc Bergevin). I played in a fantasy league one year, got to see a goalie score, and even saw a bit of history when I drove all the way to Glens Falls to seefuture USA goalkeeper Erin Whitten-Hamlen try out for the AHL.
Wingding and I continued to attend even after our marriage began its long, bitter slide to ruin, and I have to say that one of the things I missed the most after he left was attending hockey games. I finally, reluctantly gave up the season tickets a few years after he left, but I still watch the occasional NHL game on TV, and I keep up with what some of those now-middle aged Indians are doing. Some (Tom Fitzgerald, Rob Dimaio, Wayne McBean, Jeff Hackett) went on to the NHL, while others (Rod Dallman, Greg Parks, Shawn Evans) stayed in the minors. They've all done well with their lives, at least as far as I can tell, and they all seem reasonably content.
The most successful of the old Indians is probably - you guessed it - Marc Bergevin, who played over a thousand games in the NHL, became an assistant coach and then director of player personnel for the Chicago Blackhawks, and helped the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup a few years ago. He's now the general manager of the Montreal Canadiens and a finalist for GM of the year, and after watching him dance with joy all those years ago, I can't help but root for him.
Twenty-three years, and how my life has changed...but as I said above, I will never, ever forget May 18, 1990, when a team that had no right to win, did. As public address announcer John Forslund (now with the Carolina Hurricanes) put it:
Have any of you ever rooted for a sports team? Been at a championship game? Do you bleed Dodger blue? Red Sox red? Have you ever forgiven Walter O'Malley for moving Dem Bums to LA? The Yankees for moving to a new stadium? Tonight's a night to remember the glory, so don't be shy....
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