May 10, 1995.
That’s the day everything began.
It was late in the school year, my junior year at Bishop Maginn High School in Albany. During a lunch break, there was an announcement about discounted River Rats playoff tickets for high school students.
Sure, I knew who the River Rats were, thanks to a friend who had season tickets with her parents. I knew they played downtown at the Knickerbocker Arena, a building I barely went to other than my mother getting Knicks preseason tickets (stop laughing). I would sometimes watch the pregame show Fox had on back in the NHL on Fox (never forget the Glow Puck!) days, where John Hennessy, the radio voice of the River Rats at the time, would have players on for interviews.
I came home from school with my team photo and flier, and pretty much made my mother go with me that night. We got seats in row DD (I can’t remember the section number), which I didn’t know till I got inside was four rows from the glass. I remember watching the Rat players skate around during warmups and instantly finding a favorite…hey, that’s Mike Dunham from the pregame show!
I even won a prize in a special student drawing, and went on the ice during an intermission to choose a mystery envelope…it was a Walkman (yes, I am showing my age here), while the kid standing next to me won the grand prize, a night in a suite for 20. The Rats didn’t win that night, but to 16-year-old me, it didn’t matter. I was hooked on River Rat hockey. I still remember watching on TV the night the Rats would finish off Fredericton in Game 4 of the Calder Cup finals just a couple of weeks later…and throwing a fit when my mom wouldn’t let me go to the parade (single mom rules…if she doesn’t want to go, you’re not going either) downtown a couple of days later (luckily my Math 12 teacher did attend and filled me in…and showed off her autographed towel).
Naturally, I had to be at the 1995-96 home opener that October. Of course Mom waited till the last minute to get tickets, and we were in the upper deck (you know, back in the day when the upper sections didn’t need the black curtains) by the press area as the Calder Cup was lowered from the ceiling, and the red championship banner went up. Sitting upstairs that night did have one perk…I got to meet Corey Schwab, who drove north from New Jersey where the parent Devils had an afternoon game earlier in the day, and was standing near my seat. He signed my program and talked to me for a couple of minutes.
As I got older, the involvement increased…a handful of games turned into going every other weekend, joining the Booster Club, venturing out on the road, and finally, full season tickets once I was out of college. There was a few years stretch where because of my insane work schedule I didn’t go a whole lot, but eventually, I found my way back to full time status.
I even got some college credit as a result of my fandom…for the first three months of the 1999-2000 season, my final year at The College of Saint Rose, I worked as an intern in the Rats front office, helping with press packets, scout passes, working at the fan relations table, and I even got to wear the iconic Rowdy costume a few times at a couple of school functions.
22 years and thousands of games attended later since that night…this book is closing.
I find it hard to believe that for more than half my life, I’ve been involved in Albany AHL hockey. So many life milestones…graduating high school, getting my degree from Saint Rose, losing my mom to cancer, moving around the Capital Region, real world jobs…but the River Rats, and later the Devils, were always my steady presence. Now…how to best fill that void?
So many players, so many names to remember that came through this area that started their professional careers. I can turn on a random NHL game and probably know a few names that either suited up for the Rats/Devils or I saw play as opponents.
I’ve been through a lot with this journey…that lone Calder Cup just weeks after I got started, the Red Wings days, the lean early 2000s where wins were few and far between, saying goodbye to New Jersey the first time around and saying hello Carolina, five overtimes, the Mass Pike bus accident, saying goodbye to the Rats as they moved to Charlotte, figuring out the second New Jersey coming, more lean times, finally getting back to the playoffs. Now I’m saying goodbye for a 3rd time.
Before hockey, I had a very limited social circle (it’s what happens when you’re an only child and you stay inside a lot. And not talk a lot to others…okay fine my social skills were very limited). Now, some of my best friends I’ve met have been because of this sport. I’ve seen kids grow up, others get married and start families, and sympathized as some lost loved ones along the way, including alumni (Coach Cunniff, Peter, Alex, Dave, and Sasha…you are all missed).
I could say the same about the players that have come through here too. I still remember Patrik Elias coming here as a 19 year old in his first North American season, before he became a legend in New Jersey. I’ve seen players start out as young party types grow up and become family men, go on to have long careers. And even if I haven’t seen a player in years, they still remember who you are.
When the Devils returned in 2010, I had no idea that just practicing how to use my BlackBerry at a preseason game in Glens Falls would launch another phase of fandom. Or a possible new career. Writing was something I’ve always loved doing since I was about 7 years old…since I wasn’t much of a talker back then, it’s how I communicated best. I thought that would be my future career when I chose to be a communications major at Saint Rose…either writing for a newspaper or maybe doing books. I kind of lost that career track, but starting this blog was a way to get me back in the game, so to speak. Especially when it’s a topic you really couldn’t find much news on (good old Lou keeping everything under wraps!).
Thanks to these teams, I went to cities I probably never thought I’d get to see, from as far north as Glens Falls (never made it to Portland or Manchester), as far south as Norfolk, as far east as Providence, and as far west as Rochester. And in between: Syracuse, Binghamton, Utica, Springfield, Worcester, Hartford, Bridgeport, Lowell, Wilkes-Barre, and even Atlantic City. (Still have to get to Hershey…Allentown was for All Stars but I wouldn’t mind a return trip.)
So what does the future hold? Where will I be?
My heart is still with the AHL. It’s the only hockey I’ve known for 22 years. I can’t see myself walking away from it. Since I refuse to set one foot in Binghamton (unless a certain person in their hierarchy apologizes for more or less treating us Albany fans like we don’t exist…he knows who he is), I’ll most likely be splitting my time between Springfield and Utica, with at least one or two visits to a few other arenas (i.e. Syracuse, Rochester, Hartford, one of the PA teams schedule permitting). I’ll also be making a few visits to Adirondack as well, since they’re really the only game in town in the winter. We’ll see what non-hockey life allows me to do.
As for New Jersey…you may have screwed me over with the minors, but I just can’t quit the NHL on ice product. I still plan on at least one or two trips to The Rock next season to visit everyone. I’ve made so many friends over the last seven years I just can’t walk away. And I’d miss the snark too much.
Even though I won’t be covering the Devils prospects on a full time basis anymore, I still want to see them do well.
Thank you all for following along this journey with me…and stay tuned as I decide what to do next.