I grew up in Mississippi in the days before minor league seeped into our southern borders. Hockey was not a sport that got much talk in my household. My childhood was surrounded by football and baseball. I don't even remember the 1980 Miracle on Ice (I would have been nearly 7 at the time). The only exposure to hockey that I got was the occasional game that may have slipped in while my dad was flipping channels.
For some reason, I bought the first NHL game put out by EA Sports on the Sega Genesis. I had just started college. I even remember my dad chortling derisively when I bought it. I played it and I was hooked. The best team on the game was clearly the Pittsburgh Penguins. They had just won the Stanley Cup.
I had heard about Mario Lemieux on ESPN and how this phenom had carried an unlikely team to the top. Now, through the game, I was able to understand just how good he was. I then dedicated myself to getting as much hockey in my life that I could. I subscribed to Hockey Digest. I bought a replica Penguins jersey on a trip to Memphis (they had a minor league team at the time). Dad gave me grief even then. I was an oddity. I was a hockey fan in Mississippi.
Fast forward to my sophomore year in college. The Penguins had won their second Cup in a row over the Summer. I was clearly pulling for the right team. While at school, I met a girl from St. Louis whose father worked for a company that had 2nd row seats behind the Blues' bench. The wheels were set in motion. I checked the schedule. The Penguins were going to be in St. Louis for one of the first games of the season. With some begging, I was able to convince my friend to get the tickets for the game in St. Louis. I was set - nearly. I had to diplomatically convince a professor to let me out of a test in order to go to the game. Thank you, Dr. Alford.
With a friend in tow, we made the 8 hour drive to St. Louis. We endured a traffic delay just outside of town (really, how could someone have a car fire on the night of MY hockey game?), and just managed to get seated in time for the opening faceoff. I was blown away by the speed of the game in person. I was energized by the rabid Blues fans. I was wide-eyed in awe of the skill on the ice.
The Pens lost the game that night, but it didn't matter. I had made a connection with a sport that resounded deeply with me. It may not seem like a big deal today. Minor league teams are peppered in some of the most remote areas, hockey gets broadcast on a somewhat regular basis and the internet can connect even the most casual fan. Back then, being a fan in the middle of nowhere was a chore. But, like the blue collar attitude of the Penguins, it was a job that I gladly undertook.