Going in cold: Learning hockey by throwing myself in the deep end


photo by Caleb Reed

The Dallas Stars win 2-1 against the Las Vegas Golden Knights, showing off their preparation for the quickly approaching Stanley Cup playoffs.

I have never watched a hockey game before in my life. I don’t know a single hockey player. I don’t know the lingo. If you asked me to name five NHL teams off the top of my head, I could, at best, name three. Of course, this is not uncommon for my upbringing: as a small-town kid from West Texas, I have always been more accustomed to football, basketball and baseball. In a place where summer temperatures frequently top 100 degrees, the idea of a sport played on ice seems as foreign as Tim Hortons.

When my dad floated an offer to see the Dallas Stars take on the Las Vegas Golden Knights, I jumped at the chance. Not only would I get the opportunity to see a professional sporting event, but I’d also get to experience something brand-new in the best sports city in the state. On top of that, I would have an excuse to catch up on my podcast listening as I drove.

After waking up bright and early the day of the game, I drove to the American Airlines Center, navigating downtown Dallas and eventually arriving at the stadium. My first thought was that I had made a wrong turn, or that my GPS had lied to me. Despite being the home of two of the “Big Four” sport franchises, American Airlines Center is wedged between skyscrapers and office buildings on an unassuming, slightly uneven two-way street. After navigating an incredibly short security line, I was in. The wrap-around concourse was unexpectedly small, though it made sense when looking at the stadium capacity of just 18,532. Looking at AT&T Stadium’s absurd 100,000 maximum, American Airlines Center’s halls feel cozy by comparison.

The matchup of the Dallas Stars (43-21-14) and Las Vegas Golden Knights (49-22-8) was a clash of powerhouses, as both teams had clinched playoff berths with less than a handful of games left in the season. A Dallas win would help them close ground to the Colorado Avalanche, while a Vegas win would help them extend their gap in the Pacific over the Edmonton Oilers.

Thanks to helpful fans around me, I very quickly learned two things as the game got underway. The first was that hockey is fast, with every play being an all-out sprint. Substitutions happen mid-play, making it difficult to tell who’s on the ice. In addition, the breaks were few and far between. Media timeouts went by in a blur, which was a surprise. The second thing I discovered was that, unlike football or basketball where contact is discouraged, hard hits in hockey are rewarded. If your opponent has the puck and you want it, you’re well within your right to flatten your opponent into the wall like a mosquito. Players regularly launched at the opposition like guided missiles on ice skates.

Despite an early goal by Vegas, the crowd was electric. The “Let’s Go Stars” chants were picked up by everyone, and it was almost impossible to not join in. The rough and rowdy reputation of hockey fans never reared its head, and I felt the atmosphere of the game despite knowing nothing about what was happening. I found it easy to join the crowd’s chants, cheers and mid-break sing-alongs. In addition, I found myself surprised by the noise level throughout the game. I had expected to experience an unending roar from the crowd but was shocked when I could hear sounds like the skates sliding on the ice or the puck pinging off the crossbar. When Dallas finally broke through with a gorgeous goal by Joel Kiviranta, the crowd exploded with a cheer. A back-and-forth third period saw no goals scored, and a final overtime period couldn’t resolve a winner. My first-ever hockey game would go down to a shootout.

The fan-favorite goalie, Jake Oettinger, proved to be lights-out in the final shootout, stopping all three shots by Las Vegas including a brilliant outstretched block. A second-shot goal by Roope Hintz sent the crowd into a frenzy and gave Dallas a critical 2-1 victory over the Knights. The team and fans celebrated after Oettinger’s final block, which gave him his 35th win of the season.

After spending a few moments to take in the post-game atmosphere and add a smattering of pictures to my camera roll, I followed the crowd out of the stadium. Thanks to the small size of the stadium, I was out of my seat and on my way to the parking lot within a minute. As I sat in the post-game traffic, I reflected on the experience of my first hockey game. On one hand, the bottled water was $5.50, and the hamburger I got for lunch was nearly $15. But, on the other hand, the atmosphere of the stadium was something I’d never felt before. AT&T Stadium has a Texas-sized Jumbotron and Globe Life Field has a fancy roof, but American Airlines Center has a Texas-sized character. The fan atmosphere was unlike anything I’d felt before, and a few kind strangers even helped me learn the game. I left the game with a slew of curiosities about the fans, the game and the culture, all of which I’m excited to research and discover answers to. I can’t say whether I’ll become a lifetime hockey fan, but if I do, I know who I’ll be supporting.