In the opening scene in the iconic Southern California tribute movie La La Land, a traffic jam clogs the freeway. The drivers take the congestion in stride, and dance on the blacktop to “Another Day of Sun.” Stops and starts are a hallmark of the California driver’s reality, and we locals are nothing if not honest about our chances of getting anywhere on time. Our punctuality has become a running joke in the hockey world, as other teams’ fans poke fun at our late-filling seats. Twitter rapidly fills with jests, some from other teams’ fans and some from famous personalities, but all decrying our honest rejoinder that traffic does indeed stall our journey to the Honda Center.
Sun-seekers, too, are part of the fabric here in California. They are as much a part of Orange County’s fabric as the star-seekers in Hollywood. Some of us notice the stars and clamor for their attention, their autographs, and click selfies to memorialize the moment. Some of us are more blasé and accept their presence naturally, happy to have greatness among us. It’s a Cali thing, after all.
Thus, under a beautiful sun-drenched sky on a Thursday afternoon, a few thousand people headed to the Honda Center to stand among their own stars. To stand with them on a black-topped boulevard, near Stanley Cup Way at the annual Face-Off Fest. The event is held exclusively for Season Ticket Holders, who are fondly dubbed “The Orange Alliance.”
The October afternoon was golden. A rich Indian Summer with 50 degree mornings and 80 degree afternoons. Wearing shorts, flip-flops and baseball caps with an array of Ducks graphics, the fans arrive armed with jerseys, photos, hockey sticks and other paraphernalia that they wish to have signed over the next three hours.
I noticed some fans who I had watched last year, and one family in particular stood out: the Stairs Family. Their little daughter was busily running under and over the guide ropes and trying to pull down the orange cones creatively at an angle. After all, what else is a toddler going to do in a long line? Any of us who visit Disneyland regularly understand the bored but accepting child who has discerned that waiting is part of the deal in SoCal. I realized that I had watched this little lady last year, struggling to take her steps, while her beautiful, patient mother and father, decorated with Violent Gentleman Hockey Club (VGHC) and Ducks’ colors, shared their love of the game with her. Who knows, maybe she will grow up to be a Lady Duck, or play with her S.C.O.R.E team at school? For now, she runs around the orange cones, laughing. One learns to entertain, to accept the crowd, and to make friends.
Southern Californians are familiar with lines, and we tolerate them with good humor. After all, the famous street that runs past the Honda Center continues down a few blocks to the home of the Angels and the House of the Mouse who is connected with our origins. We understand lines and settle in for a wait. While standing in the 40-row deep entrance line, I chatted with Ducks fan Jeffrey Archer, who claimed: “We’re the most dedicated fans. We are willing to wait in a long line just to get inside... and then wait in other lines even longer.”
While those eager to gather a signature or have a momentary chat with the Ducks’ players stood in the long lines, the DJ JoMaestro spun his tunes, the Power Players socialized with fans, and kids moved from game to game outside on the parking lot. Just another day under the sun.
The Anaheim Ducks’ Face-Off Fest offers a multitude of options for the Orange Alliance members, above and beyond just standing in line for a signature. One can tour the Ducks’ dressing room and the Press Box. One may skate on the same NHL ice that the Ducks themselves skate upon, or play outdoor hockey at the Hockey Spot. Attendees may experience the Ducks Augmented Reality Area presented by COX. My nose for journalism led me to the Press Box, where I put my imaginary hosting skills into action, looking down the impressive height from the box to the ice and dreaming of calling those plays. The ghost of my college-self, with the former dream of being an anchor on a newscast, easily slipped into action:
“Coast to coast, like buttered toast!”
“Silfverberg behind the net. Rakell goes to the front. Fowler takes a shot......SCORES! It’s a one goal game!!”
“What a save by Gibson! What a stop! This is as good as you will see... John Gibson with just absolute larceny!”
“Are you watching this?”
I might lack the lingo to call the plays with the honeyed voices of Ahlers and Hayzie, or the ability to lie about the fancy stats being important, but one can dream, right?
Entering yet another long line that dropped down from the concourse and criss-crossed the seats around the ice to get into the players’ dressing room, I watched as two little boys zoomed around the rows. They lifted the retractable cup holders so they could swing their imaginary hockey sticks around from zone to zone. As they played, they called out plays to one other, using affectionate nicknames like their hockey idols. Peering into the future, I can see a little Gibby or Getzy budding in those young fans. Just like tiny Elijah Froton, posing here in his miniature Kesler shirt, proudly sporting the number 17 in front of his idol’s larger and more impressive digits.
This event is about dreaming. Yearning for what is possible.
In the children, we see the yearning personified. That the Ducks make it possible to build their dreams, to open their eyes to a future of infinite possibilities, and to provide a concrete proof that their dreams are in reach, is worthy of the highest praise.
Personally, I had just a few goals for the evening and only planned to stand in a couple, specific, lines. When my time came, I talked. I tend to do that a lot. I get shooed away if I talk too long, but I was determined to share my thoughts: about the power of names, the changing of a roster number and the importance of having fun. Most important to me were the smiles, the laughter and the conversation. The autograph was a bonus, but a valued gift nonetheless. While settling into Rickard Rakell’s massive line, I talked with two young men about what it means to be a hockey fan. Their father was gently teasing them about liking other teams, and other sports, but the boys were adamant that hockey was the right sport for them. The older boy, Issac Bourque, declared that “Hockey is real fast. There’s always something going on. In some other sports, it’s too slow. Or they fake getting hurt. But, in hockey you’ve got to dodge pucks flying at 100 miles per hour. It’s kind of crazy!” His little brother, Gabe, shown here with Rickard Rakell, excitedly assured me that hockey is the best sport because “You get to fight! In football if you fight you get fired, but not hockey. There, you skate on ice. They are warriors!”
My other reason for attending the Face-Off Fest was to continue what I began at the red-carpet opening day. I have tried to speak with each of the rookie Ducklings and to encourage them to have fun on the ice. All Ducks fans are familiar with the injuries which stacked up last season, and those which are stacking up this season. Injuries which have offered these Baby Ducks an opportunity that they might not have otherwise been offered so soon. From among the rookie class that arrived in Anaheim back in July, a few names that were once unfamiliar are now starting to be heard among the crowd: Max Comtois. Sam Steel. Isac Lundestrom. Kiefer Sherwood. Troy Terry. Jack Kopacka. Antoine Morand. Max Jones.
I endeavored to meet each of them and wish them well. To share my hope that they find their moment in the sun. That radiant sun that shines so beautifully here in Anaheim, and may, should the hockey gods be willing, shine on them inside the massive round building, with its treasure of ice, behind them. One by one, these rookies have been assigned elsewhere: be it back home, to their respective junior teams, or to the glittering jewel in San Diego that houses the Gulls (Let’s Go Gulls!).
For these young players too, there is yearning. Their chance to be kept here beckons. Some of them may earn their keep, even as the veterans become healthy and return to claim their spots once more. I want to give them the hero’s welcome, these dreaming Ducklings, and offer them the promise of a fan, a person who asks for their signature and vows to maybe wear their name on my back.
To draw shamelessly from La La Land again, “A little chance encounter could be the one you’ve waited for. Just squeeze a bit more… Someone in the crowd could be the one you need to know.”
Later in the evening as the sun set in vivid hues of orange (of course), I visited with a seasoned veteran with a penchant for gaudy socks. A charmer who has spent his glorious time on the ice. This conversation was my favorite out of all those I’ve had this year and those of last year. I thanked him for his legacy, and for returning to this venue again and again as a mentor. He, like so many others, returns to assure us that the game matters, and this community matters. As I walked away, I thought about his words. I carried them upstairs and downstairs, and ruminated on what we get and what we give back. Even driving home on the 57 freeway, in traffic at nine o’clock at night, they lingered. Some of those who gathered in the Honda Center’s halls today might be looking for an autograph or a selfie, and bragging rights that they have been there, done that. Look at your own phone. You get it. Then there are those who yearn for a brief moment with their hero. A moment to say “Thank you.” A chance to wonder if maybe, just maybe, they too may one day be playing for the team they love. That they may one day, too, have the joyful faces of kids like them gather in long lines eager for their autograph, or to watch them play.
Warriors. Gladiators. Knights jousting with sticks. Vikings. Ice gods. Call them what you will in this age-old game. We are all players, really. We chase the puck like we chase the clock. If we are lucky... if the gods of chance are kind, then we get another day of sun.