by B.J. Jones
Where I grew up, this was the order of sports ranked by importance: high school football, NASCAR, and the Atlanta Braves. I grew up in the South, more specifically in Appalachia, an area of the South known for its mountains, country music, and its distinct accent. What Appalachia is not known for is ice hockey, and I was a ice hockey fan.
I was not the only person at my high school to follow hockey, but I was the only one to do so with a sense of pride. I was and am still a fan of the Detroit Redwings. No one knew that the red and white tire, with wings protruding from its spokes, was the logo for a hockey team. My classmates thought it was some kind of automotive design. I never took shop class and did not even look like I could change a tire, so my classmates thought I was just being weird.
I became a fan of hockey when I spent two years of my childhood in Kokomo, Indiana, where hockey was more popular than it was in east Tennessee and southwest Virginia, where I would spend the rest of my childhood. I can thank my dad for introducing me to the sport through a table hockey game he got my brothers and me one year for Christmas.
Another year for Christmas I got NHL ’95 by EA sports for the Super Nintendo. Many systems later this is still my favorite sports video game of all time. I chose to play season mode, which meant I played the same calendar year that the actual NHL played, with all the teams and players. I was not just going to play five minute periods, but the full twenty. I was an average high school student with a lot of potential, so I had plenty of time using that potential to play video games.
I had to pick a team for the 95-96’ season. I did not want to just pick whatever team had Gretzky or whatever logo looked the coolest. I was going to choose the team who had my least favorite color, so I choose the Redwings. I knew a little bit about Steve Yzerman, but honestly I thought Yzerman was an interesting name to pronounce. It made me sound like I knew what I was talking about.
One of the game’s features was “create your own player.” That season had the entire 95-96’ roster of Redwings, including the very talented Mike Vernon, but I decided to make Vernon my backup goalie in order to create a new player. I had to name my player, so I named him after someone who was not a hockey player, and definitely not an athlete—myself.
My teammates and I had a good season. We were the best team in the entire NHL. As I played those hour-long games on my Super NES, I also watched the actual Redwings on TV. By watching the games on TV and playing the game at night, I got familiar with the rules of hockey and the names of the players. After a couple of weeks I could rattle off names like Fetisov, Larionov, Federov, and Konstantinov with no stuttering.
That year, under my leadership, the Detroit Redwings won the Stanley Cup. I do not know who we beat, but I do remember that I got the Hart Trophy for the league’s most valuable player. Obviously, I was also awarded the Vezina Trophy for the league’s top goaltender. Until that point in 1996, only one other player in the NHL accomplished this, and that was Jacques Plante during the 61- 62’ season with the Montreal Canadians. During the actual 95-96’ season, Detroit lost to the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Finals but on my Super NES we were the champions!
What is so fascinating about a stocky, shaggy haired, 5’5, bespectacled Caucasian? Why am I so interested with myself? It was not just NHL ’95 that I inserted myself into the game. I also saved Hyrule and the Triforce from Ganondorf in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I am not the only one in the gaming world to win MVP’s or save kingdoms because most of the gamers I know have named a video character after themselves.
Nintendo and X-Box have capitalized on this phenomenon of people importing their identities into video games. You can create an avatar in your own image and have it in the games. You can dress your avatar to look just like you, or you can give it a gelled haircut and skinny jeans that you would never wear in real life.
Often the complaint is heard that more kids play Tony Hawk than actually know how to skate. It has been encouraged that kids should turn off their systems and go outside for fresh air and sunshine. My own Nintendo Wii often preaches this to me. My Wii Fit lets me know that I have not worked out in so many days, then insults me.
I do not know how to skate. I would not even know how to properly step on a skate board, but my avatar can stick a double roll. I have never learned to play guitar, but I can blister my fingers on the green, red, yellow, blue, and orange plastic tabs on the plastic neck of a Guitar Hero’s Gibson. I do not know how to shoot a gun, but on first person shooters like Halo, I am an expert shooter.
My own interest in actual physical sports came too late in life. It was not until the eighth grade, and by that time it was too late to have certain fundamentals ingrained. Like learning to play the piano or learning a language, it is always best to start when young. Despite my inexperience, I joined a Babe Ruth league baseball team. As long as you had the money for the uniform you could be on the team.
Everyone around me was taller and more athletic than I was. They probably assumed I was the ball boy, but when I stepped up to the plate with my brown khakis and Redwings t-shirt, they knew that I was serious. I did not pay attention to the snickers and the relaxed muscles in the outfield. I focused on the baseball lobbed nonchalantly at me that I then knocked to the center field fence. What followed was one of the top ten highlights of my sports career—cheers and wows.
The pitcher started to actually throw the baseball and each time I answered in the same way. I really could hit a baseball! This was due to all the backyard games I played with my brothers and father. Unfortunately, I was not able to repeat this in actual games. At the plate I was nervous and did not keep my eye on the ball. Instead, I was looking at the people in the stands and the players on the field questioning why I ever decided to play a sport when I was not athletic.
I was even worse in the field, so the most logical place to put me was in right field. Whenever a fly ball came in my direction, I would instantly charge forward instead of backing up. Each time I did this the ball sailed over my head so I had to run around frantically to find it. The batter was always guaranteed a double or even a triple when I was put in the field. Luckily for my team, I was only put in during the last innings when we had a considerable lead. But I did finish the season and even went on to play a year of junior varsity baseball with my high school. Once again, if you had money for a jersey you were on the team.
In my father’s garage are a couple of trophies. My dad was a very good running back in high school. He has had these trophies all of his life. He never showed them off in a special trophy case or even stuck them in a bookcase, but they were in the garage on a jerry-rigged shelf along with a collection of baseball caps and license plates from all of the states we had lived.
This always made me wonder if I would have been a better athlete if my family had not moved around so much. I had my father’s stocky size, which meant I probably could have been a decent football player. I was even told by a few people that I looked like I played football. The two times this was actually said was part of my top ten sports moments.
My dad never looked down on me for not playing sports. He discouraged it and wanted me to focus more on my studies, but I was an average student with potential to do more, so I used that potential elsewhere—videogames. If I ever have a “Field of Dreams” moment with my father, it will not take place in a ball field with a whimpered “do you want to play catch,” but a “do you want to play Madden?”
In my parent’s basement are all my old video game systems. If I ever get the urge to have a classic video game night, I can plug in the old Super NES, hope it still works, and marvel at the year I earned the Stanley Cup, the President’s Trophy, the Vezina and the Hart. It was the year of my greatest sports triumph. On my own personal top ten, this ranks as number one. This was the year that I was a winner.
B.J. Jones writes about rogue pharmacists, phantom limbed windmills, quidnuncs, Luciferian calories, amorous bowling shoes, Funkhousers, martyred coupons, Nietzschian wire hangers, invisible tomatoes, and pen clicking adversaries while living in Dubuque, IA with his wife. Some of it even gets published.