How the World Championship Renewed My Love of Hockey

As we walked out of Wells Fargo Center before the end of the final game of the Flyers 2018/19 season, I wondered if my love for hockey was dead.  The Flyers had played with no passion, looking as if they couldn’t wait for the season to be over.  Also, I was disappointed because my favorite Flyer had been sent to the minors for the remainder of their season, so I missed the chance to see him play once last time this season.  That seemed par for the course considering how life as a Flyers fan had been going of late.  It had been a Flyers season full of one disappointment after another, and more front office drama than a soap opera.  I could barely gather enough enthusiasm to cheer for the night’s team awards, even though I generally still had good feelings about the players.  It was the organization itself that I felt had let us down.  I convinced myself that the disappointing season was somehow not the players’ fault – that they were the victims of a dysfunctional management group that translated to a poisonous locker room and no motivation to play the game they love with passion and conviction.  However, most fans did not give the team such allowances, and the boos had been reigning down at Wells Fargo Center for months as season ticket holders swore to not renew their plans next year.  My husband and I came to the same conclusion, though I convinced myself it was a practical decision based on the stunning increase in ticket prices and increasing annoyance at making the two plus hour trip up I-95 from Virginia numerous weekends, most times going up and back the same day.  But deep down I was heartbroken.

The Phillies are my husband’s team since birth, but the Flyers are mine.  Though I have only been a fan for about eight years, that fandom has been strong, and going to Flyers games has been one of the highlights of my life.  After the Flyers season ended, I tried to care about the NHL playoffs, and got a little enjoyment out of the fact that a hockey team from my southern state of North Carolina almost made it to the Stanley Cup finals.  But in the end, I was left with a void that I could not fill.  I continued to scroll through social media related to the Flyers, but generally had little interest.  Every post brought out a mix of sadness, anger, and fear that I might never see a Flyers game in person again.  One day recently, however, a twitter post caught my attention. My favorite Flyer, rookie defenseman Philippe Myers, had surprisingly been called to join the Canadian National Team in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Slovakia due the injury of another team member.  I was peripherally aware that a few Flyers were playing in some tournament in Europe and that Sean Couturier was playing for Canada, but that was the extent of it.  But now, as I was missing hockey so much, I was thrilled at the chance to see my favorite Flyer play hockey again.  The tournament had already been going on for a week by this time, but there was still a week left to go.

I watched Team Canada’s preliminary round game against Denmark and was hooked from minute one.  Canada had three Flyers players, all favorites of mine, plus several other NHL players who I had heard of.  Even the players I had not heard of became familiar to me very quickly, and I became I huge fan of this team very quickly.  There was something different about the players in the uniform of their home country.  Somehow, they looked more confident and passionate than any hockey player I had seen in quite a while.  I looked at these familiar Flyers and wondered where this passion was all season in Philly.  But I think I get it.  Playing in the NHL is their job.  Playing for their country is an honor and all about pride and bragging rights.  I watched Canada dominate Denmark on their way to a 5-0 victory with Flyers rookie goalie and fan favorite Carter Hart getting the shutout.  The IIHF website coverage of the games was perfect.  It was no frills, behind-the-scenes (i.e., the players walking to the locker room), and just the facts – exactly the way I like my hockey.  The larger international ice surface seemed to make the game faster and more wide-open with fewer penalties and other stoppages.  It was so refreshing to watch a hockey game and not notice the officials after all of the focus this past NHL season on uneven and sometimes downright horrible officiating.  I was thrilled when Canada won, and was especially happy for young Phil Myers to have such a great opportunity to play for his country under the tutelage of Alan Vigneault, who was recently named Flyers head coach for next season.

Suddenly, this exercise in watching a few familiar Flyers players had become something much bigger.  Not only was I cheering on Team Canada, I was cheering for Team USA, which consisted of one Flyer and many young NHLers and prospects with whom I am familiar, and keeping track of the entire tournament.  I download the tournament app and found myself checking all of the scores, schedules, and stories several times daily.  It was great fun and little by little over a very short period of time I felt my love for hockey return.  I remembered why I love the game, what first attracted me to it years ago as a Capitals fan, and what keeps me invested in it year after year.  I began wishing that this tournament could go on for months, not mere weeks.  And I wondered if the NHL adopted international rules and the larger ice surface would things go better.  I even started entertaining the idea of going to Switzerland for the 2020 IIHF tournament.  Every time they cameras show the fans in the stands cheering with painted faces waving their country’s flag, I wanted to be there in a USA jersey with a US flag painted on my face cheering my heart out.

Just as I was getting in the groove of watching Team Canada play, it almost came to a screeching halt.  Canada played Switzerland during the quarterfinal game and spent most of the game a goal behind.  Switzerland was looking to make it to the semifinals with a 2-1 lead with less than a minute to go.  I was sitting in my car waiting for the end of the game before going into the house.  As I kept refreshing the score page on the IIHF app, it kept saying the same thing:  SUI 2, CAN 1.  I kept thinking that must be incorrect, that the game must be over, and that Canada lost.  But as the ‘80s pop hit “Send Me an Angel” played on the radio, I sent all the positive vibes I had towards the Canadian team, knowing that if they lost, my brief glimpse of meaningful (to me) hockey would be gone for months.  As it seemed that tears might well up in my eyes, I looked in shock and amazement as the score updated to show SUI 2, CAN 2 at the end of the third period.  I would later find out that Canada’s Damon Severson scored with one second left in the game to tie it.   I couldn’t believe it and somehow knew that Canada had this game now.  Sure enough, Mark Stone scored in overtime for the win.  I started watching the game just as Canada won, so I got to see the team’s elation at the victory, their pride when the Canadian national anthem was played, and the sheer joy as the players filed into the locker room whooping and hollering.  I was especially happy to see an overjoyed Myers yelling “Let’s Go!” and grinning from ear to ear.  He seemed so serious the first time I saw him play for this team, no doubt the new kid feeling his way and trying to soak in every part of the experience.  Now, here he was, in the middle of a celebration by a team with its sights on gold.  And here I was, loving hockey again and looking forward to watching some exciting games over the next few days.