Spectrum Memories: Life is a Carnival

To celebrate my 25th year of hockey fandom, I will occasionally step into the way-back machine and write about events in the Flyers’ past. For the balance of the season, I will be dipping into the well to ruminate about some things related to my love of the Philadelphia Flyers, and in general about the fan experience as a youngster.

This is the eighth in the series of Spectrum Memories.

For this bi-monthly installment, I promise there’s no description of anger, violence, vulgar cheering or potentially-fatal illnesses. It’s all about the purely fun aspects of being a Flyers fan.

The annual Flyers Carnival was actually my first live exposure to the franchise and its history. Three weeks before I first got to see a game at the Spectrum, it was another in the series of random sports-related surprises my dad sprung on me.

Back in 1985, Mike Keenan had led the baby-faced Flyers to challenge the Washington Capitals for first place in the Patrick Division and for the best record in the NHL. At this point, my pops was just getting his doctoral practice squared away after two years of residency and three long years of start-up, and I was old enough (1st grade) to start being planted in front of the TV when they were busy.

I think it was a stroke of luck that my babysitter at times was the Flyers on Channel 6 and 29, and that they were so damn good. It got my dad’s attention pretty quickly. Years later he used to tell me quite a bit that when he was in medical school and then in residency, the only things he’d watch were "Barney Miller" and the Flyers…until he had to finally be the breadwinner with a successful practice and shut even that out.

It was apparently a long 5 years, but by this time, how good the Flyers were and my own interest in that was enough to get him involved again.

Anywhoo…that bitterly-cold night in late January, 1985 arrived and all three of us (mom usually didn’t attend these things except in rare cases) trundled off in the 1980 Mustang for the short trip to the Spectrum parking lot.

I don’t know if my parents were impressed or not, but I sure as hell was once we paid up and went inside. The whole arena looked twice as big without the ice laid down and with all the events on the arena floor.

The waiting in what seemed like endless lines was torture for a seven-year-old, but it was good practice. It was basically Disney World without the saccharine-sweet characters, but the anticipation and boredom that crept in before my time came was just the same.

The lines for pictures for the players was waaay too long. Clogged up with other wide-eyed kids with Flyer jerseys and teenaged girls from both sides of the river with that typical hair piled high into the sky with bottles of Aqua Net, whispering amongst themselves who was hotter — Rick Tocchet or Peter Zezel.

That mountain at center ice, piles of boxes that looked like unwrapped Christmas gifts, still gets me to this day. I don’t think any single thing to that point in my life amazed me more than thousands of free gifts stacked in a pyramid, easily 30 feet high. They had four people on ladders to bring them down.

At the center of it all was Joe Watson. Nicknamed "Thundermouth," you could hear him coming a mile away, and we all heard it. So, naturally, my dad being from 3rd and Ritner, just yells out "Hey Joe, how about a box for my son…" before he even has a chance to finish the sentence "You got it, man," and a minion in an orange drape goes scurrying up and back down a ladder with my prize.

Damned if I could remember what was inside. I don’t think I kept whatever was in there too long.

I never did get to shoot on the goaltenders. That line was the longest of all…and those of you with young kids know, anything over 10 minutes staying in one place is like Armageddon for keeping them focused, forget about 30 minutes or more. Bob Froese got in some work, but of course, everyone wanted a piece of Pelle Lindbergh — and he wanted a piece of everyone and reveled in the attention he got and gave back. Almost two hours later and the line barely moved.

I think I would have tried to go five-hole, but that’s only in dreams now.

One of the bona-fide ripoffs of the whole thing was the Dunk Tank. Promoted as a chance to test your arm strength by throwing the ball at a small rubber target, the idea is, you hit it with any speed, and your favorite (or least favorite) player gets a bath in a 2-foot pool of water.

Granted, as a "pitcher" in T-ball by then, I didn’t have the chops to mow down a batter, but at least I knew how and where to aim the ball at a target. For the kids, they let us go up within 15 feet or something and let fly.

First ball…right on target. Nothing happens. Second ball, just misses. Third ball…right on target again and the dude won’t go down, so the person who oversaw the whole process goes over to me, brings me up and I just give a punch to the target. Lindsay Carson goes straight into the drink and everybody’s happy.

Looking back, it was a grim replay of his career. He’d get into 10 fights a year and never won once because he’d just unclench every time the other guy started winning.

Player autographs were pretty much the only thing left to do, and since the clock ticked away towards 9 PM, it was almost time to leave. At that period, there were kiosks all around the concourse with two players to each, and a line each for whatever player you wanted to sign something. It was nothing short of a cluster**** and far worse than anything I encountered during matinee sell-outs.

Roughly 10 minutes in once again the line is moving with all the speed of dark, I’m pretty much dead on my feet, so I get the great boost onto my dad’s shoulders. We’re finally like four people away from Brad Marsh and Brad McCrimmon, and even pops is getting tired from my weight on his back.

It’s then that this little smart kid who got picked on in his neighborhood because he was small had his first famous moment…I just blurted out "YO BRAD" and leaned right over the people waiting in line with my hand extended and ready to shake.

Over the years, when other people tell my parents that I seem like a quiet lad, they like to add that pretty much everybody at the front of either line, and both players stopped what they were doing and looked right over to me. I got that handshake from McCrimmon with a captive audience and we left after that because it was past my bedtime.

The most lasting image I have from that first Carnival is a near-crumpled Polaroid.

It shows rookie forward Derrick Smith, himself just a teenager, in an orange carnival apron, lifting a very tired looking me. I guess this was on the way out at one of the gambling/games of chance booths because he isn’t wearing a jersey or a wet suit.  It’s stuck in the top-right corner of my bedroom mirror. I’ve woken up to it every day for the last 11 years.

It’s now 2011, and I’ve only been back three more times since then.

Two years later, in 1987, I finally got my revenge on that damn Dunk Tank, and gave J.J. Daigneault what I figure was a much-needed bath. Ten more years passed, and the first year in a new arena, I was lucky enough to shake hands with Gene Hart — who looked much, much smaller in person than his voice portrayed. Another four years forward, and I’m sick of paying through the nose for every little thing so I vow that I’ll never be back.

Seems like the Flyers are doing all right without my assistance.

If you want a snapshot of childhood innocence, there you have it. It’s often said that hockey is a children’s game played by men and the Carnival was the best way for everyone involved in the team bring some of that magic face-to-face with the loyal paying customers.

It got me hooked, enough that 26 years later I spend 1400 words describing the experience. I know there are countless thousands who feel the same way.