The Code of Mario Lemieux
“Every day is a great day for hockey.” - Mario Lemieux
He wasn’t kidding. In a sport where a team can play 100+ games a season between pre-, regular, and post-season through the Stanley Cup, every day has to be a great day. 82 games for a regular season. 31 teams in that season. From October to April, there is no space left for anything but hockey. Every committed hockey fan will tell you the same. There is a game every night. It may not be your game but it’s a game and it’s hockey and that is all that matters.
I didn’t choose hockey; hockey chose me. And I don’t say that to be cliché: I was literally given no choice in the matter. My mother’s maternity leave after my birth was spent carrying me around the house while flipping channels between the Pittsburgh Penguins 1990-1991 Stanley Cup winning season (their first as a franchise) and Operation Desert Storm coverage. That’s right. My team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the men who own my heart, never won a cup until I, Sarah Jane Schostack, was born. That’s 24 seasons as a cupless franchise since they joined the league in the 1967 expansion until I came screaming into the world, bleeding black and gold. Now, a nonbeliever may think me and my family crazy, but I have watched the season winning game all 5 times the Penguins have taken Lord Stanley’s Cup and their win-loss ratio when I am unable to watch is less than favorable. As far as I’m concerned, they gained a good luck charm on 10/22/1990 and I’m proud to claim this mystical.
A common question I get from non-hockey fans is “What’s so great about it? Isn’t it just for the fighting?” I always respond with my mantra: hockey is a lifestyle. I grew up in a hockey family, as you may be able to discern. My mother grew up a fan in Pittsburgh, her hometown. My dad became a true fan around the advent of the Islanders with strong encouragement from his best friend, Roy “Scottie” Scott, one of the founding members of Penn State’s club ice hockey in 1971, which is now a D1 powerhouse NCAA team. Between these three adults and Scottie’s own sons playing hockey from a very young, it was inescapable, a force drawing me in. We went to games as often as possible. I even lost my first tooth in the stands of Madison Square Garden, eating a pretzel and watching the Rangers destroy the Devils. As I held the napkin over the new gap, my dad said “Now you look like a real hockey player.” It was only a matter of time before his prophesy became a reality and I started playing.
In prepping to write this article, I asked my mother “When did you know that hockey was gonna be the sport I would stick to?” and her response was “the night after your second or third day of training camp. Every muscle ached, everything hurt, you could barely move, but all you wanted to do was go back [the next day].” By most measures, I started playing late. I was an athlete outside of the rink, mostly swimming and girls just didn’t have much opportunity for hockey at a young age. But I dabbled. I learned to skate young but refused the requisite time in figure skates that most people, especially girls, go through. I did single day, weekend, or full week hockey training camps with friends. Eventually, in middle school, I started playing. And even further down the road, I spent my final two years of high school as the captain of an all-girls travel team.
I describe all of this history for a few reasons. Earlier, I mentioned that hockey is a lifestyle and there are a few ways to illustrate that. The first is with such a personal history. For many years of my life, my parents and myself were in hockey mode 24/7. I was playing nine months of the year, August to May. In hockey movies, you see players waking up at 4 or 5 in the morning to get to the rink for early practice or practicing late into the night. That’s a reality. During the week, we would be up before the sun, practicing before school or I would be at the rink until late into the night. On a normal weekend, we were driving one and a half to two hours in each direction for a game. I spent the majority of my time in rinks, doing schoolwork in lobbies with half of my gear on.
Hockey is a demanding sport for a variety of reasons and access is one of them. Equipment is expensive, ice time is expensive, and rinks are less common than fields. Getting ready for practice or a game takes a minimum of 20 minutes and that’s just to get dressed in the 18+ pieces of equipment. You have to travel farther and be somewhere longer to have the chance to play. As my mother so aptly put it, “hockey isn’t like town soccer. The field isn’t around the corner next to four other fields.” My parents made as much of a commitment to my ice time as I did. Someone have to drive me to the rink before sunrise. Someone had to be in the stands in winter clothes in the middle of the summer to cheer. Someone had to teach me to tie my skates and re-tape my sticks when I was too young to do it well. My parents, like most parents of hockey players, did more than that. However, they didn’t just cheer at games but would often stay to watch practices. They did stop tying my skates early on because, as my father put it, a hockey player should be strong enough to lace up for herself.
My parents’ commitment to my team and my own play was as fervent as their commitment to the Penguins. Life revolved around the hockey schedule of both. And it still does. Hockey is a lifestyle because my story as a young player is not unique. In Canada, Russia, Sweden, the US and any other hockey playing country, this is every young player’s story. And when your playing days are mostly over, after you obviously don’t go pro as so few do and are relegated to adult recreational leagues or pick up games, you transfer that passion to your pro team. You’ll drive hundreds of miles for one night to see a preseason game, as my father did earlier this year when he traveled to State College to see a Penguins preseason game at his alma mater. Just because you’re a fan now doesn’t mean the daily need for hockey goes away. The camaraderie shifts. It’s replaced with names of players you’ve never met but love the same way you loved your childhood teammates. They are your family as much as the girls who drove hundreds of miles with you and shared snack bar French fries before the long drive home. Your NHL team’s coach is your leader, like your beloved coach who screamed at you from a place of love and determination.
Thus, we have arrived at my last point. What about people who didn’t play? Well, simply, the mindset of a former hockey player is infectious. Almost anyone who gets close to a former player turned fan is swept up into the mentality. My mother and my father both never played ice hockey. In fact, neither can even skate. But most of their best friends in the world, their lifelong friends from college, were collegiate hockey players. I earlier referred to my Penguins as the men who own my heart. It’s 99% true except I have an amazing boyfriend who also owns a big part of my heart. He played hockey for one season as a kid before giving it up. He can barely skate. He is now one of the most rabid hockey fans you have ever met. All 82 regular season games and throughout the post season, for the Rangers and his obligated commitment to the Penguins, his phone buzzes with minute-to-minute updates. He spends a portion of his down team searching for cheap tickets, hoping to go to as many games as his schedule will allow. He caught the infection.
You don’t need to have played hockey to love hockey but you have to love the sport the same way a player does. You have to have the fervor to want to watch every day. To watch when you lose and to watch when you win. To scope out the competition and watch games of your rivals and opponents to prepare for when you meet them. There is no such thing as a casual hockey fan because it isn’t a casual sport. The commitment it takes to even begin to understand what’s happening as players skate around at top speed, chasing a small piece of galvanized black rubber on ice that you can barely see on a TV screen can feel like a foreign language. It can feel like a mess, like a disorganized expression of chaos. And then you learn. You learn the players names, then the positions, then the rules, then the styles of play, and so forth and so on. One morning, you’ll wake up an expert. For the non-player meeting the game for the first time, there is the awe that comes from watching the non-stop action and appreciating the skill required to balance on slivers of metal while whirring around the rink to find the smallest opening past the goalie. Once you when you catch hockey fever, every day really can be a great day for hockey.
I’m so excited to be writing for 3 Up, 3 Down, for you about the NHL and what will be nothing short of an incredible season for you. If you are deep in the crazy fervor I’m talking about, welcome, we’ll get along great. If you don’t know anything about hockey, don’t worry, we’re gonna have great fun anyway and soon you’ll know even more than you thought there was to know. I’m happy to be an ambassador into the madness, the culture, and the sport. I’m not just here for the established fans, but for the novices too. I hope that everyone who reads these posts leaves this season feeling like they could own a team tomorrow. And it’s gonna be a blast the whole way through. Me and the whole NHL are here til someone hoists the Cup above their head in June. But by then, we’ll all be counting the seconds til it all starts again.