Last week, I did something that I expect I will remember for a long time. Everyone else has already written about it by now, but I have a day job and also I'm busy, so I'm writing about it now. Pick your favorite "Deal With It" meme and just imagine I put it here.
I find it hard to believe that you don't know what Operation: Hat Trick was, but just in case: Brad Richards and Scott Hartnell organized a charity game in Atlantic City, to benefit the Empire State Relief Fund and the New Jersey State Relief Fund, and they invited all their friends. And it turns out that they, and all their friends, are very good at hockey (rosters here), so a lot of people came and watched.
So 10,000 hockey fans descended on Atlantic City for what was Broadway Hall's first sellout game since 1933. Mostly Flyer fans, with a whole lot of Ranger fans - the makeup was pretty similar to the Winter Classic last season (was that only last season?). The atmosphere was all about hockey - this was a group of people whose home states had been totally ravaged by this storm, but it was immediately clear that these people were all here because their NHL season was gone. I chose not to wear a jersey, as I have been refusing to wear any NHL or team gear since the lockout began, but most attendees were in some kind of team apparel.
From the moment the doors opened, it was clear that everyone just wanted to be a hockey fan again. I've been to some pretty big hockey games before, but I've never been to one where the crowd outside roared like this when they saw the arena doors open. It was a night that united all fans in our desire to bring hockey back. But what struck me most was that it united us like hockey fans. It was this bizarre feeling whereby Flyer fans were screaming "Let's Go Flyers" and booing Brad Richards, and Ranger fans were shouting "Henrik" and calling Jody Shelley a bum, but -- it's hard to describe -- it felt like we were all rooting for the same team while we were doing it. It was like, "Hey NHL, look how badly we want to call each other assholes again; why won't you let us?"
As for the game itself, it was pretty much what you'd expect: the skaters all played like it was a charity game, Lundqvist was in mid-season form, and Brodeur outpaced Bernie Parent's performance in the Winter Classic Alumni Game. Top 3 chants by popularity: (1) "We want hockey" (2) "Fire Bettman" (3) "Maaaaartyyyyyy!" Honorable mention: "Crosby sucks" (he was neither in the building nor mentioned previously; some Flyer fans just wanted to make sure everyone remembered).
Old man goalie-bashing notwithstanding, it was a pretty great environment for everyone. Fans behind the benches were throwing stuff and markers over the boards, and players were signing and throwing them back. After the first period, a guy near me yelled at Kerry Fraser (did I mention that Kerry Fraser officiated this game?) "Hey Kerry, nice hair!" and Fraser turned around and gave us an Arthur Fonzarelli hair-touch-and-thumbs-up.
And the thing is: the players were having that much fun, too. It felt a little like the All-Star Game (in level of talent, as well). At some point in the third period, Bobby Ryan took a completely unreasonable dive to try to get at a puck that was way out of his reach, and when he found himself on the ice, he started using his stick to "kayak" his way to the boards. A few minutes later, Brian Boyle came in on Brodeur all alone in the slot, and his shot was saved high into the netting. Boyle circled with a grin on his face and put 2 arms in the air to indicate that his Field Goal kick was good (Canadian readers, that is an American football joke - don't worry about it). The players never stopped grinning the whole time.
And that's really the takeaway - for one night, the players and fans were able to come together and enjoy doing what they're supposed to do. It was clear that everyone involved in the event had a ball, and everyone just wanted to be able to continue doing their thing. Steven Stamkos wants a third chance at a breakaway on Lundqvist. Fans want to continue to tell Marty Brodeur how much he sucks. It was a night wherein, despite lockouts and weather, everyone was united in the only way we know how to be. We want hockey.