Inspired by a recent discussion on the excellent “Set Lusting Bruce” podcast (a must for any Bruce Springsteen fans out there!) about our spouses’ at times uneasy relationship with our hobbies/obsessions (delete as applicable), I thought it was worth reposting this piece that I wrote a few years ago. It originally appeared in Voices in the Crowd, a charity collection of stories from UK ice hockey fans that I and a group of good friends released back then in aid of Cancer Research UK.
Hopefully it will resonate with anyone (I suspect particularly any man) who has performed that old juggling act of partner and interest, whether that is sport, music, trainspotting or whatever.
How Bruce Richardson stopped my wife watching hockey…
You know how it is with a new relationship. Things are going great, then you get to that difficult and awkward point where you have to introduce the new special person in your life to your family. Cue nerves on all sides – “What if they hate each other?” is a fairly typical worry I would guess. But if you are a sports fan you will be familiar with that other nervous episode when embarking on a new relationship, namely taking the person to see your team for the first time. And if you’re a fan of a minority sport like hockey, which many people have never even seen, it’s even more daunting.
Anyway, in early 2000 I reached this point in my new relationship with the woman who is now my wife. Ever since we’d known each other (we’d been colleagues and friends for some time before we started dating), she’d known about the hockey but now she got to see for herself what the fuss was all about. She’d already met the family without too many issues, but now came the real crunch. What if she thought I was a fool for following such a frivolous game? What if my team let me down with a horrendous performance (a definite possibility with the 1999-2000 roster if truth be told)? The game I took her to was a Sunday afternoon fixture against Newcastle (I think they were going by the name Riverkings at that time).
Abandoning my regular spot in Block 2, I got us a pair of tickets in Block 10 behind the opposition bench, so the unfamiliar location only emphasised the “differentness” of this particular match. Well, it wasn’t a classic by any means but it was entertaining. Both teams appeared to have left their defences at home, resulting in a see-saw shootout of a match that ended with Panthers grabbing a narrow 8-7 win. All in all, I felt it was a reasonable introduction for my girlfriend – lots of goals, end to end action, no excessive violence or controversy and a home victory. Indeed, as we drove back to Birmingham after the game she told me she’d had a good time, although she didn’t really get the intricacies of the game and found it a bit stop-start. Best of all, she had recognised a universal hockey truth in her first match – “Netminders are cool” I recall her telling me. Signs were good.
I didn’t really know how I wanted things to pan out to be quite honest. Hockey had always been my thing, a place where I could go and lose myself in following my team, let out the frustrations of the week at work when necessary, share the fan experience with family and friends. Did I want to share all that with my girlfriend? Did I want her to fall in love with the game and the Panthers and start coming to home matches and road trips with me? What if we split up but had season tickets next to each other? I know loads of couples who go to hockey together (plenty who have met there and even some who support rival teams), but I wasn’t sure if that was what I wanted.
Which was just as well. Although she did come a couple more times that season, including the cup final at the Docklands in London, I soon realised she would never be more than a casual fan, who would come to the odd match with me to share my interest but nothing more than that. To be honest, it has worked out pretty well. Over the next few seasons, she came to occasional games in Nottingham, always enjoying it. And as someone who feels the cold, she liked the much warmer NIC – I think it’s like a sauna and if it weren’t for the necessity of wearing my Panthers shirt I’d probably go in t-shirt, shorts and sandals every week. But hockey remained my interest, my obsession. In fact, how involved I got in the games was a source of entertainment and amusement to her, she’d sometimes be watching my reaction as much as events on the ice. Although she didn’t like my tendency to unconsciously squeeze her hand almost to bone-crushing point when things got tense.
The trend continued after our wedding in 2005. Like all married couples, we had to face the classic Christmas dilemma of whose family to visit when. But thanks to the hockey, it was easy to sort out. Her family on Christmas Day, my family and the big rivalry match-up against Sheffield Steelers on Boxing Day. And for the first few years of our marriage, that was what we did – lunch at my sister’s house then on to the game, either at the NIC or Sheffield Arena. That all changed in 2009.
As usual, Panthers and Steelers lined up for the traditional festive fixtures, with the first instalment in Nottingham. Look up this game on YouTube and you will see right away that the most memorable incident was not a great piece of skill or a fantastic goal, it was a fight. Not all that rare in hockey games, but it turned out that by sheer coincidence my wife had not really seen a proper, old-fashioned, full-on, toe to toe punch-up in her previous matches. So the encounter between Panthers’ Bruce Richardson and Steelers’ Jason Hewitt that day was something new for her. It might be relevant at this point to mention that my wife is a gentle, kind and loving person who is not a fan of violence at all. Generally speaking, and at almost all times in my day-to-day life, I am pretty passive and laid back too. But hockey is different. As those who were in the NIC that day may remember, this particular fight was the latest instalment in a running battle between the two players over the course of the season. They fought in nearly every Panthers v. Steelers game, and we play them a lot. The atmosphere in the packed arena was charged and when Richardson and Hewitt squared up at centre ice, it was electric. In common with almost all my fellow Panthers fans (including my sister, sitting on the other side of me from my wife), I leapt to my feet to roar my encouragement to our man who, after a bad start, handed out something of a beating to the Sheffield player. Hewitt headed off to get treatment for his cuts, Richardson headed to the penalty box to a hero’s cheer from the home supporters, and off-ice staff came on to clear the blood from the ice. It was splendid.
My wife was appalled by the whole thing. She said she had never known an atmosphere quite like it (and she used to go to football in the 1980s), and described it as being like the Roman Coliseum. She couldn’t understand how something that would have you up before the judge if you’d done it on the street outside got you nothing more than a five minute sit down in a hockey game. Not just that, her normally gentle and non-confrontational husband was loving it and joining in, baying for blood with the best of them. It’s something I had done umpteen times before and I’ve done it another umpteen times since – it’s part of hockey. I’d never thought before how it might seem and look to a casual observer – and despite her occasional games over the previous few years, that’s what she was. I don’t think she thinks less of my character as a result, but she hasn’t been to a game since then. Maybe she will at some stage, I’d certainly like to think so but if she doesn’t that’s fine too. I loved those occasions when she was sitting next to me in the NIC, although I was constantly nervous that my team would put on a poor show for her. But hockey could never really have been something we ended up sharing – it’s always been my passion, not hers.
With hindsight, it’s probably just as well she didn’t come to Sheffield the following day, when I was heartily yelling along with the whole of the Panthers blocks “Hewitt, how’s your face?” during the pre-match line up.
So that is how former Panther Bruce Richardson, with a little bit of “help” from Steelers’ Jason Hewitt, stopped my wife coming to hockey matches. I still have a season ticket, I still love the team and the game. I go to fewer games than I did when I was single, and hardly any road trips, but that’s OK as I spend time doing things with my wife – things we both enjoy equally. She does still think netminders are cool though, so that’s something.