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When your favorite isn’t a superstar - hockey fandom

May 27, 2023, 9:50 PM ET [9 Comments]
Jeremy Laura
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In my last post I asked about favorite moments. I laid out a 5 goal game by Fedorov and there were some nice moments remembered for different reasons. I also got a reminder that there is a fandom to not just the sport, but the organizations. Seeing Chris Chelios half cheered/half booed (or whatever the exact divide was) in Chicago a few years back was tough. Fedorov’s exit from Detroit still hits a nerve. And sometimes, a favorite player is someone who isn’t in the “top 100” lists or “best of the best”. Sometimes, it’s just the person that makes a connection with a fan in a way that lasts for a lifetime.

I’ve said it several times, but I’ll do the rewind: my wife and I went to Training Camp in Traverse City every year from 2009-2015. We met friends there, learned where some of the best pizza is, and learned how much that city loves seeing the pro players. Because of the timing of the first year, that’s when we noticed it the most. Lines of people outside (hundreds) around a roped off area hoping to get autographs or pictures. These were all people who couldn’t get tickets to go into Centre Ice Arena and would wait for 4 hours or more just for the chance to see someone.

Here’s what I learned. The 3rd and 4th line players would come out every day and shake pretty much every hand. They’d take every picture, sign every autograph etc. the top players at the time were a little tougher to find, with a glaring exception. Nick Lidstrom would go out of his way to do most of the signings. He was often flanked by Holmstrom. “Homer” is one of those players that has a near “cult like” following. What he put his body through in a role that not many could do for that long was impressive. I had a “hockey gear blog” at the time and was sent a pic of homer’s favorite padding. He had a special pad made for his lower back (right in the cross check area), and small caps for his shoulders. He didn’t wear chest protection. The caps were attached to suspenders. I’ve seen pics of his leg braces (I think titanium) and missing chunks of paint and metal from goalie sticks swung in lumberjack fashion. It redefined my thoughts on toughness for sure.

We’d see Holmstrom jerseys, McCarty jerseys, Draper, Maltby, Miller, Eaves (this was as the years went on) and many of them signed. McCarty even had his band playing local venues during some of the later camps (never went, sounded like people squeezed in and 2 days of tinnitus.). Even the staff couldn’t avoid crowds. One of the trainers/physical therapists was surrounded as he tried to get to the arena. “I’m not even a player!” He actually shouted. Those were crazy times.

There was at the time (I haven’t been to a camp since 2015) an underlying love and loyalty to everything about the organization. Kettle Drives in December that were basically autograph sessions. Meet and greet events at Meijer, even a live cooking class with Maltby once. The Alumni game was always huge at camps. Dallas Drake would get surrounded by fans. Doug Brown, Maltby and Draper all played in one of them. Holland even donned the goalie pads for one of them. There was a “silent auction” for player jerseys and it got so big they would do a first period and second period jersey. Several breaking 4 figures on the sheet.

Probably one of the most humble and nicest guys in line every day was Helm. He’d be wearing a Charlie Brown T shirt or something like that and just smiling and signing. Even while other players were yelling at him to get in the car and head out. So many players that make these connections and in a few years will probably be at the alumni games. I got to talk to and hang out with a couple different players and it was always fun. They turned into a human being and just shot the breeze. For the star players that didn’t hang out, some of it was a matter of safety. Their vehicles would get rushed, identified, stalked (I think one year Z drove a Ferrari). To see a lot of those players you’d have to pay for the “wine gala” or season ticket holder events etc. It still shocked me to see Lidstrom make himself available as much as possible.

I know a few of you have that favorite player. Someone you met in passing, or who scored a big goal at a big time, or who just struck a chord with you. Let me know some of your every day faves.
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