By JESSE LIEBMAN
I have a confession to make.
It’s tugged at me for ages; I’m not ashamed to admit it, though.
I was born to love hockey.
The first book that I taught myself to read was a biography of Wayne Gretzky, one of dozens of books my grandmother brought home from her volunteer position in the children’s ward of a local hospital, where she read to kids.
On a day when my mother had dropped me off at my grandparents while she was at work, instead of watching the television, I picked the book up and never relinquished my hold until I had pored over each page.
I was three years old.
Somehow, out of all those books, it had to be the “Great One.”
When the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994, I remember watching the game with my father in our temporary home in New Mexico — a brief, one-year hiatus from the Empire State for my family — not fully comprehending the overwhelming magnitude of what this moment meant for the millions celebrating back home in New York, some who had been waiting over five decades for this to happen.
Somehow, I still knew that I was watching something extraordinary; something truly unique and awe-inspiring that only appears once in a lifetime, and stays with you.
When my family returned to the east coast, I finally had a chance to strap on a pair of skates and give it a try myself.
Every time I lace up my skates and take that first step out onto a fresh sheet of ice, be it on a rink or a frozen pond, my mind goes blank, and I dissolve into an almost zen-like state. It’s when I am at my best, without the burden of distractions that life invariably drops in my lap.
That’s not to say I’m anything to look at on skates. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve got feet of cement and hands of lead; I am not an empty vessel, however.
A deficiency in offensive skill evolved into an ability to block shots and throw my body in harm’s way to protect my teammates, and it’s an occupation I wouldn’t trade for anything.
I relish the opportunity to make an impact. I savor it. The pain is validation that I did my part; it is only a temporary reminder, a small price to pay. The failure to act and do what’s necessary for the people that matter to me — both at the rink and in life — lingers.
The game has left me with bruises and scars. Some cut deeper than others. Others affirm that I did the right thing.
It is therapeutic for me; purifying, even. It’s an affirmation that nothing worth winning in life is supposed to come easily.
Hockey taught me a number of life lessons: the value of teamwork, of setting goals, putting in your best effort and being gracious in both victory and defeat.
It also taught me to be tolerant of others, to follow directions and to think critically and objectively.
Hockey made me who I am today.
What started as a choice, ultimately became an obligation.
I don’t know whether this passion is my attempt at trying to compensate for social skills that I admittedly lack, or it’s simply a primal instinct that I inherited, but hockey has left an indelible mark on my life. And it all started with a book.
And now, two decades after picking up that book, I find myself working in the industry I have supported for so long. For that I am grateful.
Hockey has given me so much, and now I finally have an opportunity to give back. I have a chance to teach, to contribute, to articulate and to inspire.
Somewhere out there, there’s a boy or girl like me who is picking up that book, or watching that game or lacing up the skates for the first time.
Hockey saved me.
Now it’s time for the powers that be to save hockey.