Monday, December 23, 2013

Tales of a Second-Grade Something

On the morning of Friday, May 15, 1987, some time in between homeroom and first period, I stood in the hallway of Waldron Academy with one of my former second-grade teachers, eagerly awaiting the spoils of a winning bet.

The take was only a dime (because Catholic grade schools frown on wagering, wink wink), but the thrill wasn't just in the transaction: it was the pleasure of not only having seen the Philadelphia Flyers win and gain a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals the night before, but it was a triumph of the Patrick Division over the Adams Division, of good over evil and most importantly, managed to shut up a die-hard Hartford Whalers fan while providing two die-hard Flyers fans with thousand-watt soul glow.

Sole loser of this monumental wager was my primary second-grade teacher from the previous year, a Connecticut native and overall tough cookie, Ms. McGeehin. She taught by the maxim of raising up with one hand and knocking upside with the other, never one to let the kids under her control get out of hand, but quick with praise when warranted.

She also provided me with my first glimpse of the hockey world outside the insular kingdom of Philadelphia.

It's been highlighted in multiple posts here, at Flyers Faithful and on social media over the years, that my introduction to the game occurred during the transformative 1984-85 season. That was first grade. I'm sure Sister Patricia had no idea how to deal with a 6-7 year old whose moods changed with the seasons along with the next day's box score, and I don't know if any of that experience was shared in the teacher's lounge in preparation for the next school year, but something must have stuck by the time second grade rolled around. Maybe it was taking notice of as much devastation as a second-grader could show at the loss of Pelle Lindbergh just two months in, and probably the pure whimsy of a mandatory Pollyanna gift I gave a classmate that was simply a re-print of the Inquirer's NHL stat leaders on the morning before the last day of classes.

Whatever, it finally stuck that I was, like, totally into hockey.

So, when we came back from Christmas break more than two weeks later, imagine my surprise when I was presented with two gifts: a Goal magazine (not unlike the one depicted above) and Whalers logo pin.

I wore the pin proudly on my school-issued blazer -- but on the opposite side of my other hockey-related Christmas gift, a Flyers logo pin -- should anyone question my allegiance. The magazine is what opened my eyes to the hockey world beyond the issues of why Dave Brown is so quiet off the ice but so fierce on it. Sure, Flyer Magazine was ahead of its time in production values and information compared to other in-house entities, but the only non-Flyers news or advertisements contained within, were a half-page explaining referee's body signals for penalties and the color half-page for the 21 NHL team logos.

"Goal" was devoted to the rest of the league. I learned that the other teams weren't just cannon fodder for the unstoppable orange and black force under Mike Keenan. There were feature stories about Hartford players who talked about their approach to playing, which was a total contrast to how they pretty much failed to show up in Flyers games. I learned about the culture shock of the then-relatively-new influx of European players like Ulf Samuelsson, in a more literate, engaging and permanent format than Bobby Taylor attempting to lob softball questions in simple English at a shy and reticent Ilkka Sinisalo during intermissions.

I received another Goal after the Easter break was through, though this one, I think, had a Washington Capitals player featured prominently on the cover, fighting through a Whalers check in front of the net. The end result of that gift was my staring at it blankly during the long Spring which followed the Flyers' shocking defeat to the hands of the fourth-place Rangers in the first round of the 1986 playoffs.

Despite nurturing a child's interest in a sport which had a greater resonance in her native territory than in his own, it wasn't all heart-warming bonding moments between teacher and student. At the same time the Ron Sutters of the world were planning what to do with four extra weeks of unplanned rest, the Whalers were announcing their arrival after seven years in the NHL by knocking off first-place Quebec and then taking the Montreal Canadiens to overtime of a Game 7. I can recall her reaction as more elated than heartbroken, because her favorite team finally won a playoff series and put a scare into the eventual Stanley Cup champions.

Being a young, naive and idealistic kid with a short memory, I thought I could bank on that good will when the time came. 

When the Wales Conference Finals arrived the next season, I was shocked that she flat-out refused to cheer for her "hometown" team. Even after the Canadiens derailed the Whalers' run the year before, she remained rooted in her principles, and using the logic of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," was confident enough in her choice to make not one, but two separate wagers on Montreal to win that pivotal Game 6 at the Forum. I'm sure that Hartford winning the Adams Division and then being dumped by the fourth-place Nordiques in the first round had something to do with it, and I could sympathize, but other than that it was a shock not to receive support in my hour of need.

As we all know, destiny was on the side of good, and the Flyers rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win, 4-3, and make a return trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. Me and Miss Nicolella (surely a very happy Mrs. with a great house and multiple kids and a great life at the moment) were completely in cahoots and "rich" the next morning.

The Flyers pin and Whalers pin are gone. So are the Goal mags, and so are the Whalers themselves. The dime wagers have ballooned to 20-dollar handshake agreements with people in Rhode Island. And the dozen or so Flyer publications had to be chucked to ease clutter in moves throughout my life. Thanks a lot, eBay, why couldn't you exist in 1996? Waldron appears...smaller...every time I go back to visit, but I can still remember which homerooms were which. All I have to do is go through the lunchroom, hang a left at the foyer and it's the third door on the left if I want to peer back into 1985.

I only saw Ms. McGeehin one other time since leaving Waldron after fourth grade, and, without foreknowledge of where that love of hockey could lead, never got to properly thank her. I hope this will do, along with the knowledge that I've turned that childhood obsession into something of a career.

I also hope she's not trying to root against the Carolina Hurricanes -- unless she decided to settle in Philadelphia and finally adopt our team -- though I know she's gotta be one of the thousands who wish the Whale would be allowed to come back home.

Here's further proof that the gift of hockey, once bestowed, can be eternal when placed in the right hands.

Last year at Christmas, I wrote that parents and siblings shouldn't deprive kids of the joy of the game no matter how they viewed the greed of millionaire players and billionaire owners during the last lockout.

This year, a call for hockey-loving adults to pass on the wonder to a youngster who's not from your city. Give the gift of another team's history. They might grow up wanting to travel to the towns that stoke the fires of the sport like Johnstown and Kingston, or try find the backwaters like Macon and Mobile, heeding advice to gain as much experience and knowledge you can before thinking you're ready for the big time.

I'd advise against bets, though. And sour grapes.

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