by B. Michael Gennington
The National Hockey League’s San Jose Sharks have taken a five-year-old boy and I want him back!
If you were at the NHL Playoffs second round home opener against the Detroit Red Wings game, there is a chance you noticed me. The fact that I was wearing a red and white jersey may have gotten me slightly noticed. Good natured taunts and ribbing flew my way, as two of the NHL’s most disciplined teams have built a strong rivalry over the past several years.
As a longtime Southern California-based Michigan transplant, I have followed my hometown’s hockey team during their incredible two decade reign as hockey royalty. Following the Red Wings has been easier since the fan-friendly NHL front office placed the Midwest team into the Western conference years ago. I try to attend at least some of the games within reasonable driving distance when the team plays twice each regular season in Los Angeles, Anaheim, and possibly Phoenix or San Jose.
This year has been particularly fun for me. I am two years into a relationship with a remarkable woman, however, the crowned jewel to our relationship is her young son. He and I clicked from the beginning. We are the best of friends.
It was not true from the start, but he has developed into quite a sports fan. I have done my best to expose him to a variety of sports as a participant and a spectator. Of course, I have tried to steer him toward my beloved Red Wings. But that is the one path on which we diverge.
My first mistake was to take him to our local arena for the Anaheim Ducks versus the Pittsburgh Penguins. Second hand tickets were cheap and I thought we would at least be assured of watching some skilled play. He enjoyed the atmosphere, intensity, and statistics. He even claims that he learned to count backwards by watching the clock countdown throughout that game. But his fan loyalty was fickle as he struggled to choose a favorite between the Ducks and the Penguins, eventually settling for the night on the winning Ducks team.
A short time later, the timing was right to take him to another game. The Red Wings were coming to town, but my brother had already secured prime tickets for us to see that game together. I decided to take the boy to another game as an unbeknownst consolation. That was my mistake.
In an effort to see another quality matchup, I chose the upcoming game for the visiting Sharks. It was love at first introduction. Sharks are cool. Sharks are the fiercest, toughest, baddest, most feared silhouette in a deep ocean full of creatures. Make no mistake, sharks rule. And for a developing, sports-minded boy, the choice was clear.
Besides, what exactly is a red wing? A spoked wheel attached to a wing hardly conjures fear in an opponent on its own. And without a firm understanding of history, tradition, and a twenty-year playoff record streak, it just does not grab at the heartstrings of a boy like the ocean’s most feared.
And for a boy who relishes winning, he did not really seem to mind at all when his newly beloved Sharks lost both games witnessed on the Ducks home ice. Even my repeated stories about recent Red Wings championships and the revered Stanley Cup have not dissuaded him from his pursuit of Sharks fandom.
So there it is. A boy and his shark. Love at first bite. Shark bites boy. Boy bites shark. Whatever you would like to call it.
In his constant quest to understand the world and a near obsession with needing to know who would defeat who in any contest, we get to the Sharks versus the Red Wings. I have told him stories about recent past and playoff history. And with regard to the question about who would win in a contest between our two beloved teams, I made a promise that if they met in the playoffs I would take him to a game. And he was hooked even more.
The only way he would even root for the Red Wings now was when I explained that both teams needed to win their opening playoff rounds in order to meet. But he has since declared that if the Red Wings went on to defeat the Sharks, he would not be cheering for them in later rounds, as I had pledged to do with his Sharks.
I told him about my last playoff visit to the Shark Tank where the near thirty percent or more level of Red Wings jerseys familiar on road trips seemed to have dwindled to roughly three percent. I explained how a shark head was lowered onto the ice and the team entered the rink through his mouth. And then he heard about the seventeen thousand other Sharks fans who would be on his side. Keeping them apart would amount to sports cruelty.
So with his mother’s full cooperation and enthusiasm about our trip, I bit my lower lip, packed my red jersey and boarded a plane for a quick flight to San Jose. As the day progressed and we made our way closer to the arena, he constantly asked me about everyone on the streets of San Jose, “Is he a Sharks fan?”
Finally, several blocks from the arena, we began to see black and teal. “Sharks fans!” he would announce.
“More sharks fans.”
“Across the street...more Sharks fans.”
People were greatly amused. This continued more than a dozen times. Most did not notice that he was wearing a turquoise polo shirt with an attacking shark silk-screened onto it, but they certainly noticed my red jersey.
When the arena finally opened, we headed directly to the team store, where we purchased an authentic teal jersey of his very own. Outside the store, we put it on him and immediately drew stares.
Sometimes you will notice a married couple with opposing team jerseys on and you simply assume they met late in life, after their sports loyalties had been declared. But this was completely different and not one person could seem to understand. To me it was easy, sharks are cool to young boys. At least I hope that is all it is.
We became a quiet spectacle at the game. People approached me with perplexity. Others gave shouts that at least I was bringing up the boy right. He received more high fives than I have ever seen. An approaching woman in a Sharks jersey looked directly at us and bluntly declared, “That, I do not understand.” She was the first of several to say that.
We seemed to have been noticed by nearly everyone.
The game itself was grand. Although I felt going in that one of us would leave disappointed, that was not the case. The Sharks fell behind early and remained that way well into the third period. In fact, I thought I was about to lose the young boy to sleepy time, even though the Sharks had buzzed around the opposing net several times. But when that red light began to flash, the place erupted, exactly as I had described.
And the buzz continued into overtime, where the Sharks eventually pulled off a hard fought victory. The boy was ecstatic, as was I. It was the happiest I had ever been that my team lost. I know that it was just the first of several games, and I hope that my dear Red Wings take back control of the series.
At the end of it all he declared, “this is the happiest I have ever been in my life.” And the taunts continued from a one-boy chorus all the long way home.
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For more tales about life with this remarkable young boy, look for the author’s forthcoming unpublished book “Say Leafy: Adventures Of A Five-Year-Old.” For details email Info@SayLeafy.com