On January 16, 1991 I was still in my teens. The previous August, Iraq had invaded Kuwait and at that time America was in the midst of Operation Desert Shield.
At that age if the country goes to war halfway around the world, you don’t think all that much about the politics of why.
Instead, you think about re-instituted drafts, consequences of friends’ prior enlistments, and of guys your age being sent to fight a war of debatable necessity. It wouldn’t be the first such conflict our exceptionally brave men and women would fight in, nor the last.
In any event, at that time I was a huge fan of my hometown Hartford Whalers. I loved hockey from before I could even speak the word. As such the NHL and the Whalers had always been welcome companions throughout my short life. And then also served as diversions from the constant coverage of overseas events.
On January 16, 1991 Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings were in Hartford. Over the years the Whalers were mostly a losing team, but they were ours. And that month we were close to .500 and still over a month from GM Eddie Johnston giving Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson away to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
And when you attended a game, for its duration at least, you didn’t think about wars. Just pucks and goals.
Except not that game.
In 1991 no one had even yet heard the concept of an “internet” or a “smartphone.” You got most news from radio, TV or the paper. But that night as people filed into the Hartford Civic Center it began to make the rounds that Operation Desert Shield had just become Operation Desert Storm.
And you could see it in some faces of those who were, like as not, suddenly thinking about someone close to them. As word spread, some patrons seemed unsure if they should stay or go home.
Updates weren’t easy to come by. Once you’ve entered an NHL arena, if you choose to leave you can’t return. In Hartford, you could wear radio headphones in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum to hear Chuck Kaiton call the game on the house signal. But that was about all.
Right before the game started, those of us who were in our seats stood up to hear Tony Harrington sing our National Anthem.
You’ve likely not heard one of Harrington’s remarkable performances of the Star Spangled Banner, so I’ll tell you that I’ve only ever heard one version better than his. And ironically it was sung less than two weeks later by Whitney Houston, just prior to the New York Giants playing the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV.
And on that January night, his usual outstanding rendition of the song seemed to give the arena permission to cry.
By the time Harrington had finished there didn’t appear to be too many dry eyes. Or maybe it just seemed that way because I too was looking around through my own welled-up eyes. Needless to say, Whalers’ fans were very vocal that game and were rewarded for it when Hartford pulled out a 4-3 win.
When the final horn sounded though, reality quickly returned. All anyone could do was hope beyond hope that nobody there, or anywhere else for that matter, would be shipped to a place thousands of miles away only to never return.
I’ve tried to relate this the best that my memory allows. And I’m not sure if recalling it through such a long lens of time allows for any hyperbole of the emotion many fans shared during that game. But I don’t think it does.
I couldn’t tell you now if Marty McSorley was on the bench with Gretzky that night. Or even remember if their greats Dave Taylor and Bernie Nicholls had retired by then. But I am almost certain that I saw an ex-Boston Bruins goon named Jay Miller play for L.A. in that game. It’s funny sometimes, the things you forget and the things you remember.
I’m not old enough to have seen first-hand any of our wars preceding the Gulf, which is why it’s the one I’m writing about today. But in the end it’s irrelevant. Because on Memorial Day we justly honor the lives of every veteran of every war who sacrificed all so that people like me can freely type words into a sports website.
Those men and women deserve every single honor that has ever been bestowed upon them, and then some.
I myself have never served in the military, and I wanted to write a piece this weekend in which I could thank those who have. And as this is an NHL page, I sought to tie that appreciation into a hockey story somehow. I sincerely hope that reading this was worth your time.
Words of praise sufficient to adequately convey the gratitude owed to our fallen veterans, our fallen heroes, do not exist.
But I’ll try my best with these:
To the families and friends of those lost while serving in the United States and Canadian Armed Forces; how deservedly proud you must be. Their sacrifices will be forever revered, and never forgotten.
To the Americans and Canadians who are currently serving in uniform and to the veterans who may be reading this now; your courage is humbling, my respect for you is enormous, and I thank you for literally everything.