Dear Jay Beagle–
You most likely don’t remember him, but he remembers meeting you.
The first time he met you was at an arena in Newark. Max and I traveled up to New Jersey to see the Caps play on the road. We made the trip up and back in one night because Max was playing in his championship hockey game the next day. You were on the ice warming up before the game and my little guy had wormed his way into a restricted section to watch–a lone Caps fan in a sea of Devils fans. He banged on the glass and when he thought you were looking at him he told you, so earnestly, about the championship. Maybe you heard him, or maybe you just saw that he desperately wanted to tell you something. You flipped him a puck, pointing to make sure all the New Jersey fans knew exactly where you meant it to go. Max carried that puck in his hockey bag the next day for luck. They won. That puck now sits on our mantel and Max tells the story over and over.
Fast forward to this past Wednesday. Thanks to a magical gift, Max and I had tickets to see the Caps play your rivals the Penguins. Our tickets were right behind your bench, right on the tunnel that led to the ice. As you all marched out onto the ice, so many of your teammates were doing what they do to get ready, getting their head in the game, eyes intensely focused forward, seeing nothing but the ice, blocking out the arena and making only space for the game. It was thrilling simply to be so close. Yet everytime you came out, (or for that matter went back into the locker room), you, Jay Beagle, you high-fived my boy, or bonked him on the head with your stick. Every time you smiled at him. All eight times. Yup. We were counting.
You may not think it was that big a deal Jay Beagle but I am saying that it is. For you did something magical. You, with all your NHL hero status, you took a minute to with your eyes, your hands, your smile to see an individual in a thumping, throbbing crowd. You saw him there with his face all painted red and his sign and his mardi gras beads. And then, with a simple gesture you told him over and over that he mattered. You let him know that his energy, his presence, his excitement meant something to the world, that it changed things. And with that gesture you changed the world. For Max. For me. For every little boy who wants to grow up to be like you one day.
You are a very young man Jay Beagle, just 26 years old. You don’t make nearly what your superstar teammates make. And yet you are wise beyond your years and richer than those whose salary dwarfs yours. You know something that many old men do not. You know that the most important gift you can give is your presence, your acknowledgment. You know that seeing is indeed everything. If I was your mother, I would be very very proud of you, not for your NHL contract but for who you touch now in that role. I would be so proud of how you noticed that little boy who just wanted to touch your hand.
Jay Beagle, thank you. As a hockey mom, I hope all those little boys reaching out their hands across the years, to touch you, to touch the possibility that they too might one day play on the big ice rinks, I hope they all grow up to be wise like you.
It had to start here. In the city of brotherly love, where I first learned to love this game. Well, technically to be accurate, I learned to love the game in a New Jersey suburb, sprawled out on the floor, watching a team with my very big kid neighbor John and my mother who would tell me, “Only God saves more than Bernie Parent”
It had to start here in the city of brotherly love, because my brother does love this team so. He loves them because he was born here or at least born nearby. He loves them because he spent so many of his highschool and college years here too.
It had to start here, because there is no other team that Max and I love to hate more than the Philadelphia Flyers. It started with my childhood realization that the “Broad Street Bullies” were just that–bullies. It intensified when these Flyers knocked our beloved Caps out of the playoffs in overtime in game 7 in 2008.
We had to start here because here is in fact, where it all started.
So, after Max’s karate on Saturday, we threw our bags in the car, hooked up the i-pod to the car stereo and set off across a frozen tundra called I-95 to make a trek north to Philadelphia for our first stop on the “Great Hockey Road Trip”. We were going to see the Flyers play Tampa Bay Lightening.
To be honest, neither Max nor I were excited to see the Flyers play the Bolts. Really, ‘ what we wanted more than anything was to kick off our trip by watching our boys in Red squash those Flyers. We wanted to stand proud and red and feel the wrath of Philly fans as our guys scored goal after goal and we chanted C-A-P-S…Caps, Caps, Caps. But, as luck would have it, we had a conflict every time those Caps played Philadelphia and after a bit of discussion we decided the point WAS to see the Flyers at home and the tickets were cheap and why not? Sometimes the only way forward is just to go.
So go we did. I booked us a hotel room in walking distance to the mighty Wachovia Center, there on Broad Street, next to the old Spectrum. I filled our itinerary with plans to visit the Franklin Institute, the Mummer’s Museum, other places from my childhood. But as we pulled into South Philly, Max had a request. “Mom–can we make this trip all about the game and skip that other stuff?” It was as though he had read my mind. A late-ish start combined with an agenda that was way overpacked was beginning to stress me out. The other wonders of Philadelphia could keep for a warm summer getaway. This wintery weekend was about one thing–hockey–and we would stay in South Philly.
To top it off, Max is at an age where nothing is more exciting than a hotel room. Even a shabby one like this Holiday Inn. A giant bed that faces a TV with movies on demand. Pure bliss to this 8 year old. So we cuddled up and rented Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs while we practiced our Tampa Bay chants and looked at the hotel restaurant menu.
We started to walk over to the arena at 5:30. The wind was bitter cold, numbed our legs and stung our ears. But every block held a wonder. All of Philadelphia’s sports teams play in this South Philly neighborhood–it is a big playground of gigantic playing fields and parking lots. The walk to Wachovia took us past Citizen’s Bank Baseball Field, Lincoln Financial Field where the Eagles play, the old Spectrum.
Max had heard stories about Flyer fans. The legends told of rough and tumble men who would throw beer at you for routing on the away team. He wrestled about whether he would stand and scream his support when Tampa Bay scored or whether he would just cheer from his seat. He decided to stand and made a plan for how he would react when the inevitable barage of beer and hotdogs rained down on him. He told me he would stand and face the perpetrators with his arms spread out and yell…”Show some class will you–I hate the Rangers too!” He was in for a full experience of Philly fans he explained.
We were not disappointed. When we took our seats we found ourselves surrounded by die hards. Two grizzly season ticket holders to our right, a women’s hockey team behind us. In front of us was a row of 4 women who all wore signed jerseys and talked about a young prospect as though they were his family. And at last, as the game started, two huge, 20-something guys, exactly like the guys Max had heard legends about, sat to our left. They had thick accents. They carried multiple beers. They were serious about the Flyers. They started talking to us and didn’t stop. Max didn’t find them scary, as he thought he might. He found enchanting. They made him laugh. They were polite and apologized to me for swearing. They talked to Max about the players. They assumed we were all family. Before we knew it we were yucking it up with the whole lot.
And then, in the second period, Tampa Bay scored. You could hear a pin drop in the arena and so when Max jumped up and screamed, “Wahoo” our new friends noticed.
One of the women’s ice hockey team members was the only one who spoke.
Max did not experience a rain of beer or hotdogs as he imagined. He was not boo-ed. He wasn’t even treated unkindly. His new friends were simply surprised and stunned into silence. They had no idea he was supporting a different team. He was crushed though, thinking that he might disappoint them. He buried his head in my shoulder for a minute.
And then he spoke. “Mom,” he said, “Do you think maybe we should cheer for Philadelphia?” We had an emergency conference. I didn’t want him to feel pressured to switch sides for the love of strangers, even for the love of me, but on the other hand–we were in Philly and maybe this was a teachable moment about trying out new things.
“I think we should do what you want to do, sweet boy” I said, wanting to support him. But he was clearly confused. “I don’t know what to do, Mom. I want YOUR opinion.”
“Well,” I said. “On the one hand, I am proud of you for standing up even though you were all alone. That took guts. If you want to keep cheering for Tampa, I will cheer with you. On the other hand, truth is, we don’t really like Tampa. We are only cheering for them because they are NOT the Flyers. Maybe that’s a good enough reason, but you know, it might be kind of fun to try out what it feels like to be a Flyer fan. I mean…this might be our only chance. We could shift perspective and see how it feels to cheer for the orange, what it feels like to be a Philly fan here in Philadelphia. It could be good for us to see life from the other side. Just this once.”
“Well…I do like Mike Richards…” Max said. He was conflicted but intrigued. Maybe we could try it on–see the world from the perspective of the hated Flyers. We could go back tomorrow. Or maybe we would cross over into a murky world where all sides are just illusions anyway.
“You see…” he explained to his new found friends from Philly, “I am from Washington. I am a Caps fan.” They all looked a little pained but nodded. “Truth is,” he admitted boldly, “I really am not a fan of the Flyers. Especially after the 2008 playoffs.” His friends nodded sympathetically again. “But I think,” he said, “that I can be a fan just for tonight.”
Philly scored twice more that game. Max jumped up and high fived every one around us, hooted, hollered and sang. He even got beer spilled on him. He had the full Philly fan experience.
As we dashed back across the parking lot to the hotel I asked him, “What was it like to be a FLYER fan tonight?”
“You know Mom,” he said, “It wasn’t all that different. Just being a fan.”
“And does this change how you feel about the Flyers, babe?”
“Not one bit–but it changes the way I think about Flyers fans. They are nice–even if they are rowdy. I guess we are not all that different. Just fans lovin’ the game…”
At that moment I knew, every penny I spent on tickets, on the hotel, on the Mike Richards T-shirt was worth its weight in gold for the lesson of walking in someone else’s shoes…or skating in someone else’s skates.
Max looking worried as the Caps lost their two goal lead and we headed into overtime…
Last Easter weekend Max and I went out for Mexican food at our favorite restaurant. Many of our friends were away for spring break. The beach. The mountains. They had all fled while we decided to stay. Money. Work. I have to admit, I was envious.
And so my mind was on travel. I started telling Max about some amazing trips friends of ours would take this year. Vacations that had been dreamed about for years. Ari was going to China. Jackie and family to Guatemala. I wanted to start dreaming with my boy, to make a plan to go someplace amazing. I wanted to be able to sit and look at books and smile wistfully and say, “Someday…”, scrimp and save. So I asked Max, my wise old 8 year old, the question that was burning in my heart. “If you could go anywhere in the world…ANYWHERE…If you could plan your dream vacation…Where would you go?”
Max sat and contemplated this very important question. He furrowed his brow. He was uncharacteristically quiet. He looked up and said with great seriousness:
This was not the answer I had hoped for. I wanted him to say “Italy” or “India” or maybe “Vietnam”. I wanted him to speak of far away places, of the exotic, of the new.
“What?” I said. “Detroit? Really?”
“Yes mom. My dream trip. Detroit.”
“Wow Max, that’s interesting.” I tried to sound excited about Detroit, about the wonders it might hold. I was failing terribly. “Why Detroit?”
Max looked crushed. How could I, his mother, the woman who gave him life, NOT understand this dream. His voice got strained. “Because MOM…Its my second hometown.”
Now I should say for the record that, to the best of my knowledge, no member of my family (or Juan’s) hails from Detroit. We have never been there. We have never even flown through the airport with Max. But I also need to say for the record, that while Max’s heart belongs to the Washington Capitals, his second favorite team in the NHL–his favorite team in the Western Conference, is the Detroit Redwings.
I must still have looked confused, because Max’s voice rose a bit and sounded strained. “Duh…mom…the REDWINGS….”
As it turns out, all Max really wants to do is go to the arena and watch his boys play. And then, come to think of it, he wouldn’t mind seeing the Blackhawks play in Chicago or the Rangers play at Madison Square Garden.
And suddenly, the dream trip that I had been salivating about started materializing before our very eyes. Not as one fantasy vacation but as a journey, a quest. To go home, see them play at home. Over and over again. Route for the home team. At home.
“Mom,” said Max. “Lets try and get to all 30 NHL arenas before I graduate from college.” I thought about it. Fourteen years. This could be doable. And even if we didn’t do all 30 arenas, we could try. It could be an excuse to see parts of America we would never have dared go, explore cities we would have long ignored. Its an excuse to find old friends in New York, Vancouver and Minneapolis/St. Paul. To uncover old stories and tell new ones as we drive. I started to think of all my old friends, long lost, recently found who live in great hockey cities. I think about the stories I would tell Max knowing we would see them soon. Stories I might never have thought to tell. All the ways this journey would lead me home to some hidden part of myself. It could be a quest. Not for the Holy Grail, but for hometowns. And for finding our loved ones, our heros, our enemies, perfect strangers at home.
Max declared that all the previous games we had been to at the Verizon Center did not count. No–it had to start in October. And it had to start at home. So last Monday, it did. Because in the end, its really all about returning there.