29 August 2019

One Memorable Night: The Great One and Mr. Blake

As I touched on during my Developing a Hockey Fan series, I had a tough time grasping the sport as I went through high school - the influence of the other sports I followed was too great, and the lack of media coverage didn’t help either.  Thankfully, the burgeoning fan that I had become was now playing hockey video games and periodically watching games on ESPN as I approached graduation in 1993.  That was a magical spring: I finally got my driver’s license as I was completing the rigors of high school, and that year’s Stanley Cup playoffs were absolutely amazing (I still contend that those postseason games played one of the most significant roles in turning me into a hockey fan).

Living in the Eastern Time Zone in Kentucky made it somewhat difficult to stay up late enough to see the games from the west coast, but I tried my best because I wanted to see the Los Angeles Kings, who were making an improbable run though the playoffs.  After years of hearing his name, I was finally able to watch Wayne Gretzky play on a regular basis and I was completely stunned - his fluid skating and effortless passing was a thing to behold.  Though he was surrounded on that Kings team with prolific scorers and veteran role players, it was a young 23-year-old defenseman named Rob Blake who also caught my attention, due to his powerful slap shot and ability to throw perfectly-timed body checks with vicious force.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching Gretzky, Blake and company as they won three consecutive series over higher-seeded opponents to make a surprise appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, where they would ultimately fall to the most-storied franchise in the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens.

Though the Kings’ Cinderella run had abruptly ended, I still enjoyed each moment of that Final series - so much so that I even stayed home to watch one of the games instead of attending my Senior Prom (not that I had a date anyway).  When my family moved to Illinois that summer, I soon adopted the nearby St. Louis Blues as my favorite team since I could watch all of their games on television - but I still made it a point to tune in for as many Kings games as possible, so I could see “The Great One” and the dynamic young blue liner.


October 6th, 1993.  It was a day that many sports fans remember: Michael Jordan, basketball’s greatest player, announced that he would be retiring from the NBA after his Chicago Bulls team had just won their third consecutive championship.  That night, I vividly recall tuning into ESPN2 - which was brand new at the time - to watch a roundtable discussion about legendary athletes and their lasting impact on sports.  Following Jordan’s retirement, the panel was asked: “Which veteran athlete on the verge of retirement should sports fans go see in person as soon as possible?”  While the most common answer was quarterback Joe Montana - who was wrapping up his Hall of Fame career with the Kansas City Chiefs before retiring at the conclusion of the 1994 NFL season - one panelist mentioned Wayne Gretzky, passionately instructing fans to feast their eyes on the dazzling playmaker before he soon walked away from the game (his point still remains, even though Gretzky would go on to play SIX more seasons!).  Now that I was living close enough to St. Louis to see NHL action in person, I specifically perused the schedule to find out when The Great One and his teammates would be in town during the upcoming season - that day would be April 7th, 1994.

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