Sunday, May 18, 2008

How We Got to Hank (Or How Many Post Titles Can I Squeeze Henrik Tallinder Into This Month?)

I've been thinking a lot the last few weeks about favorite players. I love knowing who other fans love and why. I think it's really cool how different things about different players call out to different people. I think it's really interesting how different fans appreciate different skills and abilities. Since my hockey fandom is still relatively young, it's pretty easy to trace my favorite hockey players through the years.

My first favorite hockey player was Ron Francis. I was born in Pittsburgh and still have family there so before I even knew the Buffalo Sabres existed, I had a soft spot for the Penguins. I partly liked Francis because he was handsome - even as a kid I was more drawn to more mature looking men than baby-faced pretty boys so that salt and pepper hair was a killer. I also liked him because he seemed like the low-key, slightly overlooked guy on a very good team. Mario Lemeiux was on one side, Jaromir Jagr on the other, Francis in the middle. My brother once said he was kind of the Penguins' version of Andy Van Slyke who, while popular, was often overlooked in favor of Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla. I also very clearly remember reading this Sports Illustrated article and falling in love with the story of him and his younger brother Ricky and how he asked the Penguins if he could take time off during the season to go see Ricky run in the Special Olympics. As I've become more knowledgeable about hockey, I've been pretty delighted to discover that everything I thought about Ronnie all those years ago is apparently true. I could probably count on one hand the number of games I actually watched him play but I was definitely aware of him and he was the first guy who really brought hockey to the forefront for me even if it was in a kind of a superficial way. I think I've mentioned this before but the first hockey jersey I ever bought was a Francis #10. Even though I'd never wear it now it's still in a box somewhere because I've never been able to throw it out.

The first two Buffalo Sabres I really liked were Matthew Barnaby and Michael Peca. I have to admit that looking back, I'm not sure how this worked. I was thinking that the Sabres weren't on my radar at all until the '99 Cup run but Barnaby wasn't on that team, at least not by that point. Mark said he was pretty integral in the previous season's success and talking over dates and trips to Buffalo with him, I must have gotten attached to Matt during that season. I remember a big interview with him in ESPN Magazine that probably ran around that time even though I was sure it was after we'd actually moved to Buffalo. So it turns out the Sabres were working their way into my blood before I even remember. I liked Barnaby because he was small and scrappy. Looking back I also think maybe his role on the team was easy for a new hockey fan to get a handle on. He was there to bug the heck out of the other team and try to sucker them into doing something stupid. I didn't need to understand a lot of strategy and intricacies to recognize when he was doing his job well. I also thought that little rat-faced grin - you know the one - was totally charming.

Mike Peca is also kind of a surprise looking back because I would swear that I saw him play a fair amount in person while he was with Buffalo but I didn't. The year that Mark and I moved to Buffalo we went to the preseason carnival the Sabres used to do (they should really bring that back, by the way) and Peca wasn't there because he was holding out. And then he never played for the Sabres again. I saw him once on a pre-move trip we made to Buffalo and once on our honeymoon. (We spent our honeymoon in the mountains of Tennesse - absolutely beautiful - and our trip home just happened to coincide with a Sabres visit to Atlanta so we stopped for the game on the way back to Birmingham. I hadn't thought about it until just now but seeing the Sabres on our honeymoon seems pretty fitting in retrospect.) So I mostly saw him via TV, but I think Peca was my first stepping stone towards really becoming a hockey fan even though it still took a few years for the bug to really bite me. There was probably a little bit of "hey, I know what that guy is supposed to be doing!" involved because of his propensity for big hits but he was the first guy that really made me ask a lot of questions about the sport. What's the Selke? How exactly is a forward defensive? Is there an award for offensive defensemen? Why not? But if offensive defensive win the Norris what about defensive defensemen? How come some guys are good penalty killers and some aren't? Even then I was kind of fascinated by penalty killing. My pea hockey brain figured it was easy to be good on the power play - I mean, you have more players on the ice than the other team! - but penalty killing was totally different. It seemed hard and challenging and I automatically liked a guy a little more if he was a penalty killer, something I still feel today.

Barnaby and Peca led to Jay McKee who was probably my first genuine, real-thing favorite Sabre. I saw him play a lot on TV, I saw him play a fair amount in person, he was here while I was in Buffalo, I read all those daily game interviews and quotes from him, I saw him on the news... all those little ordinary things that you take for granted that somehow add up. I'm not going to lie. At first I liked him for two reasons. One, I thought he was handsome in a slightly off-beat kind of way. Two, he's the same age as me which was pretty young at the time. I thought it was cool that someone my age was in the full-time. Eventually I did come to like the way he played and my fondness for defense fully bloomed. I was especially taken with Jay in the 2005-2006 season. The New favored speedy skaters and puck carriers and that wasn't his game. He did a great job of finding a way to make his skills work in a changing game by becoming one of the best shotblockers in the league. I think shotblocking can be overrated sometimes but I admired his fearlessness and how he he would just show up and play with some pretty gnarly bruises and cuts. I know he's hardly the only hockey player to play through pain but he was a toughie. Since I was actually in Buffalo for a chunk of his time here he was also the first hockey player I loved who I really connected with the community. He was fully embedded in Buffalo by that point - we loved him and he loved us - and I thought that was very cool. Remember I didn't grow up with professional sports teams so I'd never really seen that firsthand before. The only reason I never bought a McKee jersey is because by the time I decided I wanted one it was his last season here and Mark suggested I wait to see if he re-signed. Even though he didn't and I wouldn't have gotten much use out of it, I'm a little sorry that I didn't buy that jersey anyway. It would've been right for Jay to be my first Sabres jersey.

Instead it was Tim Connolly. I know, weird, right? Mark said one day a few months ago, "I always thought Timmy was just a fling for you," and I guess that's what he was. Sometimes you have to date the bad boy to know the bad boy isn't your thing. I had to cheer for the flashy offensive player to realize that flashy offense isn't my thing. Don't get me wrong, I definitely enjoy seeing Sabres score - kind of hard to win games when that doesn't happen - and I do think Timmy is amazingly gifted (when not hurt) but I really am more thrilled by an awesome defensive play or a nerve-wracking penalty kill. When the 2006 playoffs started I, like most of the city, was totally swept up and decided I had to have a jersey and I had to have it stat. Mark had scared me off the McKee so I had kind of decided a Connolly would do and one day while walking through the mall I saw one hanging in the window of Laux. I think sometimes an impulse buy like that is pretty indicative of how you really feel but sometimes an impulse buy is just an impulse buy. If I'd waited until a few months into the next season I wouldn't have made that purchase but now I'll always have a memento of my short but intense love affair with Timmy.

When the 2006 season started, Jay was gone (::sniff:::) and Timmy was still sidelined with his concussion. While I missed Timmy and worried about him at first, eventually I... kind of forgot about him. That was my first hint that I was probably not as attached to him as I thought. And before I knew it, bam! I was in love with the unassuming Swedish d-man who was coming off a great postseason. I've written many a post, including one mini-opus, about why I love Henrik Tallinder but the short story is this: beautiful skater, often unnoticed and underrated, smart, and super pleasant. I think Hank is partly a reflection on my growth as a hockey fan - understanding and appreciating defense requires a little more knowledge, I think because it's not always obvious and easy to miss - but I also think part of me has always been drawn to guys like him. Barnaby to Tallinder seems like a bit of a leap but Barnaby to Peca to McKee to Tallinder makes some sense. And I suppose it comes as no surprise that Mike Weber is the youngster I'm most excited about. As Mark said, "Yep, you have a type."

How about you guys? Who's your favorite now? Whose jersey do you don at game time? Who's your all-time favorite? Who was your first favorite? Do your favorites have similarities? Or are you all over the map? Can you articulate why your guy is your guy or is it just a gut feeling that can't be explained? Please share if you're so inclined. Like I said, I love knowing who other people love.

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