The frigid December air was thick with excitement in San Jose Monday night. Eager fans flocked by the thousands into the dusty seats of HP Pavilion to watch the San Francisco Bulls take on the Stockton Thunder in a Northern California ECHL showdown. This was just the second time since its inception in 1988 that an ECHL game was played in a current NHL arena. Fueled by a ravenous lust for live hockey, and the irresistible lure of free tickets, a crowd of 12,881 hockey-crazed fans showed up to witness the historic event.
As I settled into my seat, the same one I’ve sat in over the last seven seasons since the 2004 lockout, an intoxicating chill ran down my spine. The icy air inside the arena tingled my nostrils and I was instantly reminded of all the years of great hockey I’ve witnessed in that very seat. All the game winning goals, the breath taking saves, the bone chilling hits, the saucy dangles, the impassioned fights, the pain, the glory, the passion; all of it surged through my head in a few divine seconds. Then I felt empty, for even though I was about to watch the sport I love, from the seat I call home, I knew it would only last for one night.
The arena erupted when the puck was dropped; there was an overwhelming sense of brotherhood amongst the fans. Robbed by greed of the game we so passionately love, we were finally given some small compensation. When Bull’s defenseman Mikael Tam netted the first goal of the night with an impressive wrister from the left point, all twelve thousand fans sprung out of their seats in celebration. The unmistakable sound of San Jose’s foghorn filled the air, and together we let out all the emotion we had been holding in over the last seven months. When Shark’s left-winger, and now Bulls assistant coach Ryan Clowe appeared on the jumbotron the crowd exploded into applause, letting them know just how much we missed him and the rest of our beloved team.
The game was a back and forth battle. Stockton scored two unanswered goals before Kris Belan was able to tie the game for the Bulls. The crowd was treated to three fights in the first period alone, including an absolute thrashing given to Stockton’s Cameron Abney by the Bull’s 6-5 220-pound left-winger Jamie Devane. Abney left the ice dripping blood and the crowd roared as he walked towards the dressing room. The Thunder netted the next three goals of the game, building their lead to 5-2 before entering the third period. San Francisco scored on the power play to start off the period, and then again on a beautiful back handed cross crease pass from the hands of Andrew Crescenzi to the soft mitts of Alex Tuckerman, who tapped the puck in for the easy goal. Down by only one with three minutes left to play the Bulls made a fatal mistake by turning the puck over in their defensive zone. This lead to an early Christmas present for Stockon’s Cameron Abney who picked up a juicy rebound to seal the score at 6-4. Despite the disappointing loss the crowd of disheartened Bulls fans, and deprived Shark’s fans, still cheered on their team as they lifted their sticks in the air and skated around the ice acknowledging the passion of the fans. As quickly as it started, what could be the only night of professional hockey in HP Pavilion this year came to an end.
I left the arena feeling fulfilled, but vacant at the same time. The night was one of the best experiences I had all year, but it left me with an unquenchable thirst for more. The lockout was more real than it had ever been that night, and my heart ached in the absence of this incredible sport. As I walked through the parking lot I came to an uplifting realization that I believe is a valuable for any hockey fan. I had taken the sport I loved more than anything for granted. Instead of enjoying every moment that I was privileged enough to watch, I was meticulously scrutinizing my team’s play. Instead of appreciating every game of the regular season, I was anxiously awaiting the playoffs. Instead of admiring the speed and skill that is constantly exhibited by every player in the NHL, I was too busy playing armchair GM on HF Boards. I was only 15 during the last lockout, but now at 23 I think I can learn much more. Whether the season starts in January, or in October, I know one thing for sure. I will relish in every second of NHL hockey that I am lucky enough to watch. I suggest you do the same.