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As an early Christmas present to ourselves, one of my hockey-loving girlfriends from Mott, Liz, and I made the trip from Flint to Detroit on Monday, Dec. 15, to see the Red Wings take on the Avalanche.  It was the first NHL game I would attend as a fan – no press box, no laptop, no agenda – in 19 years, and it was the first hockey game that I would attend without credentials since the Chill departed Columbus in advance of the Blue Jackets in 1999.

I was particularly eager to see former Notre Dame player, Brett Lebda (2000-04), for the first time in person in a Wings’ uniform.

Two minutes into the first period, the Avs led the Wings 2-0.  At the 1:51 mark of the third with the score tied 2-2, Lebda was called for covering the puck in the Detroit crease and Colorado’s Jordan Leopold (University of Minnesota, 1998-2002) beat Chris Osgood on the ensuing penalty shot for the game-winning goal.

The gentlemen that surrounded me – “gentlemen” is a loose term, but it’s Christmas – loudly protested the penalty shot and wondered aloud – “wondered aloud” is also a bit generous – about why it was called.

I said, “Because Lebda covered the puck in the crease, and no one but the goalie on the defending team can do that.”

They all paused, turned, looked at me.  One asked, “Is that a new rule?”

“Not as far as I know,” I said.  “It’s like, Rule 55 something.”  

The debate ended, the gents nodded appreciatively, one offered to buy me a drink.  The fact was that I had looked it up the week before because someone had asked me about it.  

Moments later, the 30-something guy sitting two down from me blushed when his attempt to embarrass me backfired.  I said something about Detroit’s inability to penetrate the Colorado defense, he said, “She said, ‘Penetrate,’” and everyone laughed at him when I didn’t blink.  He mumbled something apologetic about Beavis & Butthead, another offer of alcohol was made and Liz – who missed the penalty shot and my quiet (and totally lucky) conversion of the locals, and who had feared for my safety in her absence – arrived just in time with fresh vodka-tonics.

I learned several things from this game:

  • It was fun to sit in the stands again and pull for one team over another, as long as I made it clear to fellow fans that I was rooting for their team, too.
  • It was fun to know more about hockey than the guy fans with season tickets.
  • It was fun to have a friend deliver vodka-tonics during a game.
  • It was fun to see a penalty shot converted in an NHL game, even if the infraction that led to it was made by a former CCHA player and the shot scored by someone who once graced the WCHA.
  • It’s always more fun in the press box, even without the vodka-tonics.

It’s Christmas Eve, and I’ve left snowy Flint for unseasonably warm and sunny Beverly Hills, Fla.  For every year that I travelled from Ohio to Florida to spend Christmas at Hacienda Weston, I seemed to bring the chilly weather with me.  My family would complain about the temperatures in the 50s, which were not much warmer than what Columbus experienced.

It was seven little degrees in Flint last weekend, and it was 80 here today.  I can only believe it’s the Universe’s way of balancing things out – especially since there’s no one from the CCHA playing in Florida this week.  Cornell, Maine, Colgate and St. Cloud round out the Florida College Classic in Estero just after Christmas, and the Tampa Bay Lightning abruptly withdrew its sponsorship of the fairly new Tampa College Classic earlier this year, forcing founder Notre Dame to reinvent the tourney as the Shillelagh Tournament in Hoffman Estates, Ill. Jan. 2-3.

This also forced me to look up the word shillelagh, which is a short club meant to be used as a weapon.  I like it.

This year, I’ll be returning to Flint in time to see the second day of the Great Lakes Invitational – and that genuinely will feel like coming home.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, folks.