"Oh great, the Blackhawks fans are here."
Every woman in the locker room before our beginner ice hockey class paused when someone said this.
"Wait, aren't we fans too," we asked?
"You know what I mean," she said. "The fans."
We got it. She meant the fans that were here just as spectators.
It was our early morning class at Johnny's Ice House, and a Blackhawks team practice, free and open to the public, was going to happen afterward. The bleachers were mobbed up, people were wrapped around the boards and the on-street parking around the rink was crammed. Since the NHLers were in the house, everyone else was kicked out of the parking garage.
On some Blackhawks practice days, it was hard to get your bag through the crowd of people milling around, but the absolute worst thing is that there is a large, bored crowd packed into the rink with nothing better to do than stare at our beginner class.
Various classmates would say it didn't bother them, claim they ignored the crowd and some laughed it off. I have no idea how they could really convince themselves to block out the hoard hovering over us. I sure wasn't managing that skill. It was super-distracting and I feel we did worse as a group on those days.
On most mornings, the only people around were those enrolled in our hockey class. We filtered into the locker rooms and the stands stood practically empty. Normally, there may be a lone wife-or-girlfriend in the stands, dozing half awake or browsing the web on an iPad, and hardly watching us. Blackhawks practice days brought a mob of people. Whole families arrived like it was a summer picnic. I tried not to look at them but still caught them raising their cell phones to record video.
Maybe this would not have bothered me at all if the fans were polite, but the incidents of outright derision were hard to miss. Why did they think they need to take pictures or shoot video of our beginner hockey class? All the pointing and smirking was rude. Someone in the locker room said a group kept laughing at her. Maybe we were being too sensitive. I asked, do you think maybe they were laughing at something unrelated and maybe the timing was incidental? No, she was certain, they were clearly laughing every time she fell.
Derision peppering the stands, even in small bursts, was infuriating. I always wanted to tell them, "Why don't you get your butt down here with us? Let's see how well you skate. Then you can see how hard this is."
I know I'm terrible but it had taken me a year and a half to achieve my current level of suck. I felt angrier and more protective of classmates with physical struggles. The fans didn't see the asthma inhaler tucked next to the water bottle on the bench shelf. They don't know that the guy next to me never skated prior to his 50s -- the one who has been working out like mad to cut weight -- while another is muscling through chronic back pain every time he hits the ice. Making comparisons between us and professional athletes in the prime of their life was as ludicrous as it was cruel.
Every person who struggled and did not give up gave me tremendous inspiration. Seeing classmates get a little better every day meant a lot to me. We were a peer group in a mix of ages that spread across people from their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s and yet we were all newly learning to play. Our coaches had incredible patience as they shepherded us through drills week after week. I respected every single one of my classmates for having the guts to try ice hockey. Having been there class after class was to witness how much work making improvements took. Having total strangers snicker at our group and act like we were ironic entertainment stung.
It took me some time to process that many fans only have a visual connection to a particular sport. The sport exists in the realm of entertainment and spectatorship for the fans who have never played it. Their knowledge of the sport is superficial even if it is very detailed. Thinking you know everything about a saucer pass is a huge leap from actually being able to do one. Having actual physical experience in a sport will temper your criticisms of others, even the pros.
Blackhawks fans don't necessarily love hockey. They love watching hockey. And that is a major difference.
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