#BringDownTheBarricade (an open letter)

To whom it may concern,

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So to start, I’ve included a photo that defines happiness:

Welcome Back Clarky!

Just a few super fans, showing some appreciation for a former member of the New Jersey Devils.

Why? To us, hockey means much more than the stats on the scoreboard at the end of a game.

To us, the players aren’t just a number on the roster. They are human beings.  They may not be our friends or family directly, but we do have a relationship nonetheless.

The connection we share is what makes the game special to me and countless others. The relationships we build with the players and our fellow fans are the reason we buy tickets, even when the game isn’t particularly well played, our favorite team loses, or our home team didn’t make the playoffs.

That connection has been jeopardized at The Prudential Center this week. Where once we could interact with our favorite players, now stands a giant black fence. Spaces too small to fit a piece of memorabilia, the top so high you couldn’t shake a player’s hand even if he sought you out, with sight lines obstructed as to ensure no photos can be taken.

There will be no more home comings for guys like David Clarkson. No more handshakes or photos with our favorite out of town stars. The chance to build a relationship or have a truly memorable experience, destroyed.

I’ve stood outside in the freezing cold on more than one occasion, hoping for a handshake, a quick photo, maybe an autograph. Players I thought wouldn’t give me a second glance, seemed as excited to be sought after as I was to have the privilege of just saying hello.

To the NHL and the New Jersey Devils,
I ask you…
Please,
#BringDownTheBarricade

You’re not only punishing your best fans; you’re punishing the players who thrive off the attention. It’s not all about the product on the ice. Sometimes, the human experience is worth far more than the game itself.

Sincerely,
Kim Sakevich

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#BringDownTheBarricade, Volume 7: Aly’s Story

Being a goalie herself, it’s only natural that Aly is a fan of other goaltenders. She told me, “you can’t help but love what you are!” Whenever she knew one of her idols would be playing at The Prudential Center, she would get tickets to the game and convince a friend or family member to wait outside by the visitors’ entrance with her.

The following is her story about meeting Darcy Kuemper:

“I have been a fan of his since last season. He crept up on my radar when I watched a Minnesota Wild vs. Colorado Avalanche game. I couldn’t stop staring at him. I love goalies  like him that play an offensive instead of defensive game. He was also so sweet in his interviews and to fans that had met him.

I begged my brother to wait with me after the upcoming Wild/Devils game. He reluctantly agreed, since this would also be Zach Parise’s first game back since he left. We knew the visitors’ entrance would be crowded. I wasn’t to be swayed. I wanted Kuemper’s autograph. I shoved a puck in my bag, and off we went.

It was packed! People were waiting for Bryzgalov, Suter, Parise. I had to be the only person waiting for Darcy. I still wasn’t swayed.

I’m a little person. It was hard, but I squeezed in with my brother behind me.

Bryzgalov was the first player out. He had started that night. Though he didn’t stop for autographs, he responded to all the fans screaming his name (myself included, I love him.) I’ll remember this for the rest of my life. Someone asked him if he was still afraid of bears. He replied ‘I love you all! Not afraid of bear, anymore!’ I died laughing.

Then this tall blonde head popped up. He was six inches from me. He wasn’t going to stop, but I managed to squeak out his name. ‘Darcy!’ His eyes snapped up and he saw me jumping up and down to try and get his attention. I didn’t get a picture with him, but I got one of him. AND he signed a puck for me. I cradled it the whole two hour drive home. It still has a place of honor on my shelf.”

Darcy Kuemper autographed puck

Aly’s puck, autographed by Darcy Kuemper.

Moments like these are priceless. If the NHL and the New Jersey Devils #BringDownTheBarricade, everyone has the chance to enjoy something a little more meaningful than just a professional hockey game. While we may not be friends in the traditional sense, the fans and the players certainly share something special. It’s a tragedy to have that taken away from us.

If you’ve got a photo, a story or want a shout out on my blog, send me a tweet  (@shadowpwny) with the hashtag #BringDownTheBarricade!

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#BringDownTheBarricade, Volume 6: Michelle’s Story

For every reason I can give the NHL to #BringDownTheBarricade at The Prudential Center, I know they can give me a million reasons why it should remain. So, again, people ask me (and I’m forced to ask myself), “What’s the point?”

Then a story like Michelle’s hits my inbox…

Michelle grew up a Devils fan. Unfortunately, her family did not have the opportunity to be season ticket holders. The Devils played at The Meadowlands back then, and the trek to the arena from where she lived was a good ninety minutes. Seeing a game live would be a rare treat for Michelle, but the TV was always tuned in to the Devils game at home.

Some of Michelle’s earliest hockey memories are of sitting in front of the TV, enamored by the Devils and mesmerized by their rookie, Scott Gomez. She told me she can clearly remember turning around and shouting, “MOM! He can RUN on the ice!” Other fans were focused on Brodeur, Elias or Stevens. However, for her it was always about Gomez. Precision passes, speed on the ice, and his ability to bait a goalie and let a shot fly, Michelle couldn’t stop being amazed by (or describing to me) how amazed she was (and still is) at his skill.

Michelle always dreamed of seeing Scott play in person, but every time her family made that ninety minute trek to the Meadowlands, he was injured or a healthy scratch. She would never see him play in a game there.

Eventually, she moved to Tampa to attend college. Whenever the Devils were in town against the Lightning, she would either have work or a class to attend.

Then, every Devils fans’ nightmare occurred. Scott Gomez signed with the Rangers (for a lot of money, I might add). Michelle reluctantly accepted that she might never see him play with the Devils, but she held out hope she would someday see him play elsewhere. So, while most Devils fans were cursing his name, she was merely sad to see him go. Though disappointed, she couldn’t help but feel happy that his talent had been recognized in a big way.

Eventually, the day came when Michelle moved back to New Jersey. Around the same time, Scott got traded to Montreal. Then, he went to San Jose (who The Devils would not see at home that year). Michelle was beginning to lose hope that she would see her favorite player on anything other than a television screen.

Fortunately for Michelle, her luck would begin to change. Scott was signed to a team back on the east coast, The Florida Panthers. She had also, finally, become a season ticket holder. The Devils were scheduled to play the Panthers, at home, twice that season. She and her friends declared January 11, 2014 “Scott Gomez Day.” Overwhelmed with excitement, she set the date on her calendar and prepared for the big day.

Scott Gomez Day Text message

Jamie sends Michelle a text on the big day.

January 11 arrived, and (of course) Scott was scratched from the line up. Not ready to give up hope yet, she held her head high and went to the visitors’ entrance. Injured or scratched players often travel with the team, it couldn’t hurt for her to see if he had made the trip. She and her friends stood at the waist high crowd control barrier in the pouring rain, but there was no sign of Scott.

Michelle before the game

A disappointed Michelle has a pre-game drink after waiting in the rain, finding out Scott was scratched from the line-up, and having been unable to meet him at the visitors’ entrance.

It was time to head inside The Prudential Center for the start of the game. She and her friends did a few laps around the arena, soaking wet and dreary, just to see if he had wandered down from the player’s suite. Sadly, there was no sign of Scott Gomez.

Michelle's instagram post.

Michelle expresses heartbreak on instagram.

The game ended, and Michelle was ready to throw in the towel. It was no longer raining, but it was cold and windy, and she felt she had suffered enough disappointment. Her friend Jamie, figuring there was nothing worse than regret, suggested they go out to the visitors’ side one more time, “just in case.”

Clemmenson, Mottau, player, after player filed by the gathered fans. The girls had positioned themselves at the end of the line, away from the group so they wouldn’t miss anybody. It was starting to look like he had not traveled with the team that day.

For Michelle, the rest is a bit a blur…for wouldn’t you know it? The last team member out the door would be Scott Gomez! Head down, minding his own business (since most Devils fans wanted nothing to do with the “traitor” who went to the Rangers), he almost walked right past Michelle and her friends. Jamie was ready though, and she called his name.

Startled that someone WANTED to see him, he looked up at the girls and saw Michelle, hugging his old Devils jersey. A huge smile spread across his face and he walked over to them. Michelle can’t remember exact details, but she said he expressed surprise that anyone in New Jersey still had his old Devils sweater. She nervously replied that she had waited fourteen years to meet him, to which he joked that she shouldn’t tell people that, because it made him feel old! Michelle was instantly put at ease by his sense of humor. They exchanged a few words, he signed her jersey and posed for a few photos. She doesn’t know exactly when, but during the exchange she started to cry with happiness. She was finally meeting her favorite player, and not only was he kind to her, he genuinely seemed happy for the experience.

Michelle with Scott

Michelle gets to meet Scott, after all!

Over the summer, Scott would be invited to attend the Devils training camp. Eventually, he would be signed and play for New Jersey once again. Of course, Michelle would be one of the first to purchase his NEW Devils sweater! Exactly one year after meeting him for the first time, Michelle would have the opportunity to attend an autograph event as a Season Ticket Holder.

Michelle and Scott at a STH event

Michelle with Scott at the New Jersey Devils Season Ticket Holder Event on January 11, 2015.

The universe makes up for fourteen years of rotten luck and bad timing.

Scott Gomez 21 Jersey

Michelle with her NEW Scott Gomez jersey. Now, complete with an autograph!

I’m glad that Michelle will always have these memories.

If the NHL and the New Jersey Devils #BringDownTheBarricade, everyone has a chance to enjoy such a special and heartwarming experience.

Have a story for me? A photo or a quick note? Look for me on Twitter (@shadowpwny) and use the hashtag #BringDownTheBarricade

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#BringDownTheBarricade, Volume 5: Amy’s Story

Amy’s story is short and sweet. Today, so too is my commentary. The feeling she expresses after meeting one of her favorite players (and an undisputed super star in the NHL) represents much of what I am trying to convey in the #BringDownTheBarricade series. I want the NHL, its players, The New Jersey Devils, and hockey fans to know that a small gesture or a chance encounter can mean the world to somebody. Before the introduction of the big black fence, moments like the following were possible for everybody.

Amy writes:

“If anyone has been over on the away team side of the Prudential Center when the Penguins are there, they would know how many people go over there just to see them. For a few seasons now, I have been trying to get a picture with Sidney Crosby, and I was quickly learning how hard that would be.

I knew I would have to settle for an autograph if I were even going to be lucky enough to be chosen. I knew it would be a long shot. So many people want an autograph from Sidney and there are only a few moments for him to sign for people.

It was a freezing and windy night. Sidney was one of the last players out. He was walking down the line, and he almost walked passed me. Usually, Sidney just walks down the line and signs for fans, head down, just signing. That night when he got to me he actually looked at me. It may sound stupid to some, but I felt pretty special for that split second that he actually looked at me. I asked him to sign my jersey and he took it and signed. Euphoria. I was on top of the world. It wasn’t the picture I wanted, but it was something! And, more importantly, I shared a moment with one of the best players in the NHL.”

Autographed Sidney Crosby jersey

Amy’s (now) autographed Sidney Crosby jersey.

To Sidney Crosby I would say, your actions off the ice might not mean much to a whole lot of people. But to at least one person, they were extremely important and memorable. Thank you, and thank your colleagues for taking that moment to take someone’s cold and windy night and make it extraordinary.

This is why the NHL and the New Jersey Devils should #BringDownTheBarricade.

If you have a story, I’d love to hear it. If you just want to share a tweet, a photo, a thought, find me on Twitter (@shadowpwny) and use the hashtag. Thanks for reading.

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#BringDownTheBarricade, An Intermission Report

#BringDownTheBarricade you say? Impossible. The NHL and The New Jersey Devils will never listen. I’ve been told many times, “You know you aren’t going to accomplish anything, right?”

Perhaps.

However, while it would make many incredibly happy if the fence were removed, that isn’t really what this is about.

When I started the project, I feared that the negative response would far outweigh the positive. I almost let it crush the idea before it had a chance to grow some feathers. While I haven’t had an overwhelming response (one way or the other), the amount of attention I have gotten has been inspiring.

This series isn’t necessarily about taking down a big black fence at The Prudential Center. It’s a celebration of the human experience. This series is about the fun, the friendships, the little ways in which we all can make a difference in each others’ lives.

The entire exchange may be something so simple as a smile or a hello. It may be a mere signature on a scrap of paper or a piece of memorabilia. Some interactions may go beyond that. All of them have the same effect. They bring people together. Face to face. As human beings.

When we get a chance to talk to one another, we get a chance to know one another. For me, getting to know the players has changed my entire perception of the sport of hockey. These guys are not numbers on a roster. They are people. To some of them, I’m no longer a drop in a sea of humanity cheering or jeering at them depending on the outcome of the game. I’m a person. Frankly, it’s a wonderful feeling to be acknowledged!

On some small level, we have formed a connection. One I believe to be very valuable to both the professionals and their fans. When we know the players as people, we treat them better. I’ve witnessed the behavior first hand. We become more committed to the sport, the team, and the individual players. Our words and our actions become less critical and far more supportive.

Since the NHL likes to think in terms of dollars, let me put it in terms they can understand. If you foster loyalty and good will, you are going to have customers for life (regardless of a team’s record). Not all of us are, or even realistically can be, millionaire business owners. While it would be ideal for them to have fans like that who can spend indiscriminately, that isn’t reality. Most of us are average people with average salaries. At the end of the day, I spend my money and my time where I feel it is appreciated and when I am treated like I matter.

Simple exchanges like the ones described in these stories make myself and others feel like we matter. It’s a feeling that is hard to explain and can be scary to talk about.

I have gotten feedback and stories from people who, up until a week ago, I mostly just said “Hi” or waved to on the street (if I even knew them at all). Their stories have warmed my heart, fostered conversation, and opened up the possibility for a friendship where one didn’t exist beforehand.

Maybe I’m just a sentimental idealist, but if I can break a few barriers on that level alone, I think the project is serving its purpose.

I’m glad I’ve let my fledgling idea take flight.

Stay tuned, more stories are on the way! As always, I can be reached via Twitter @shadowpwny. Thank you for reading.

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#BringDownTheBarricade, Volume 4: AnnMarie’s Story Continues

For volume 1 of the #BringDownTheBarricade series, I chose to introduce AnnMarie. A huge fan, not just of the Devils but of hockey in general, she has spent a lot of time watching and attending games of various teams throughout the NHL and its affiliates. Her social media time lines consist of an impressive array of photos featuring herself and smiling hockey players of all backgrounds.

Given what we know about her, it should come as no surprise that she is one of the fans most disappointed in the appearance of the fence at The Prudential Center. I’m humbled by the sheer volume and depth of the relationships she has developed with some of these talented players. I am saddened for her that moments like the one I am about to share with you will become a thing of the past if this barricade remains in place.

From AnnMarie:

“I have always been a fan of Erik Karlsson. For 2 seasons I wanted a picture with the Senators’ Captain. He is kind of quiet, keeps to himself, doesn’t usually stop for photos but will sign a few things.

I am not much for autographs, so I wanted a photo. A few friends who meet opposing teams said he doesn’t take them. So I made a sign and sent it to him via tumblr where he interacts with many fans.

AnnMarie's sign. "Erik, please take a picture with me!"

Screen shot of the tumblr post sent to/showing the sign AnnMarie made for Erik Karlsson.

He didn’t respond to it before the game but when the bus pulled up he walked right over to me.”

AnnMarie with Erik Karlsson

AnnMarie with Erik Karlsson.

Although she doesn’t usually request autographs, he is one of her favorite players (in a long list!). She had his sweater with her, and he gladly signed it in addition to posing for the photo.

Autographed Erik Karlsson jersey

AnnMarie’s (now) autographed Karlsson jersey.

Always appreciative, AnnMarie was sure to send him a “thank you” via tumblr, to which Karlsson responded, “My pleasure.”

AnnMarie and Erik Karlsson interact on Tumblr

AnnMarie thanking Erik on tumblr.

I have gotten to know AnnMarie over the last few seasons. I’ve seen her photo albums on social media. So I had no doubt in my mind that she was serious about the fact that Erik Karlsson “walked right over” to her. But, for giggles, I watched the video her friend Amy posted on YouTube, anyway.

I love the friendly rapport she and Amy seem to have with various members of the team.

Let’s keep the positivity flowing! If you have met your favorite player (or players) and have a story to share, please reach out to me on Twitter (@shadowpwny). I will also be starting a “shout out” page for followers who just want to share photos and tweets in response to the #BringDownTheBarricade series. Thank you for reading! Together we can let the NHL and the New Jersey Devils see why it is important to #BringDownTheBarricade. Just because professional hockey is a business, it doesn’t mean it has to be cold and impersonal.

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#BringDownTheBarricade, Volume 3: The David Clarkson Story (part 2)

Welcome back, readers! I mentioned in my previous post that the story of David Clarkson is one of the biggest reasons the NHL and the New Jersey Devils should #BringDownTheBarricade on the visitor’s side of The Prudential Center. I felt it was important to share the foundation of his relationship with his New Jersey fans before getting into his time as a Maple Leaf.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll let the photos featuring our preparations for Clarkson’s return in March of 2014 speak for themselves:

Fans host a poster making party for David Clarkson

All of us decided to get together and make posters to hold during pre-game warm ups for Clarkson’s first game back at The Prudential Center.

Welcome Back Clarkson Banner

On a separate day, Diane and I got together to make a banner to hang at the visitor’s entrance. We wanted to surprise Clarkson before he even entered the arena.

On the big day, we gathered at the visitor’s entrance before the Toronto buses arrived:

Diane, myself and Lauren wait for Clarkson

Yes, we had t-shirts made, again. I was too cold to take my jacket off for the picture! A few of our other friends were present and helped us hang the banner/took photos for us.

We had no idea how this was going to turn out. We spent hours decorating posters, coming up with witty expressions, and putting together the massive banner hanging from the crowd control barrier. Would Clarkson be embarrassed? Would he appreciate all our hard work? Would he even have time to stop and talk to us? As it got closer to the team’s arrival, quite a few people had gathered to greet Clarkson. The nervous excitement and press of the crowd kept us all warm in spite of the bitter wind.

We (im)patiently waited when the bus arrived as coaching staff, trainers and his teammates started passing by the banner and the crowd. Many of them had looks of bewilderment and amusement. Some stopped and signed autographs for the Toronto fans that were gathered along beside us.

Finally, David Clarkson turned the corner. The crowd burst into a chorus of cheers and chants. I wish I had a video of him as he rounded that corner and saw us all there. It’s one moment I’ll never forget. His expression was a mix of disbelief, humility and gratitude.

I can’t remember exactly what was said or what happened after his entrance. The activity was a whirl wind of enthusiastic re-union and heartfelt thanks from David. He stopped to take pictures with all of us, and we retrieved our jerseys, pucks and other memorabilia which he gladly signed.

Diane with David Clarkson

Diane with David Clarkson.

Diane and I both had brought him gifts this time. Mine was very fragile, as I had created a stained glass piece for him. He wanted to open it in front of the crowd, but since it was breakable I warned him that he should probably hold off on digging it out of its protective wrappings. He insisted I show him the photos of my creation. So, I nervously pulled up the photos I had saved on my cell phone.

My Present for David Clarkson

Stained glass piece I created for David Clarkson.

Clarkson leans over the wall to view photos on my cell phone.

Clarkson leaning over the wall to see the above photo on my phone.

After Clarkson went inside, we carefully removed and put away our banner. We went inside the arena with our bundle of posters and prepared for pre-game warm ups.

Our posters took up a good half of the visitor’s side of the rink.

Fans at the glass with David Clarkson support posters.

Our group at the glass with the posters we created.

Not only did we receive a look of gratitude (and a puck or two) from Clarkson, but a few of his team mates slapped the glass in appreciation as well.

At the end of the game, we went out to the visitor’s side one more time to say goodbye. I don’t have a photo, because it was too dark by that time, but David leaned over the barrier to give Diane a hug before he left to get on the bus.

I do, however, have a photo from this year’s visit from the Toronto Maple leafs:

Clarkson greets Diane with a hug.

Clarkson reaches over the barrier to greet Diane with a hug.

It’s not too often fans develop friendships like this with their favorite athletes.

After that visit in March of 2014, David had this to say about his fans: “Just walking in I was a little bit nervous, and there were some fans out there to greet me as I walked in with a sign. That was really nice and heart-touching. When you have those [fans] that are out there [with] signs made, it means something to you. It’s nice. And there’s things about here I miss as well. So, for the way everything’s gone, it was a nice entrance to the rink and to have them cheering me on.” (source: NorthJersey.com)

It’s a shame to me that moments like this are a thing of the past at The Prudential Center. These interactions clearly mean as much to some of the players as they do to the fans that follow them. It is heart breaking to me that the NHL and the New Jersey Devils have allowed a handful of incidents to ruin the wonderful human side of this business. Guys like David Clarkson will no longer see the smiling faces or receive the warm well wishes of their biggest fans when they return to our arena. Unless we #BringDownTheBarricade, another touching human element is lost forever to the cold, impersonal business that has become professional sports.

Thanks for following! Stay tuned for more special stories as the series continues. If you have a story you would like to share, please feel free to contact me via twitter (@shadowpwny) or leave a message in the comments.

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#BringDownTheBarricade, Volume 2: The David Clarkson Story (part 1)

When talking about fan appreciation, if there were a dictionary definition, David Clarkson’s photo would be front and center. I never thought waiting outside to say hello or cheer for a professional would mean much to a multi-millionaire, until I had the privilege of getting to know David.

As a Devils fan, I was lucky enough to get to meet Clarkson many times either through season ticket holder events or outside after game days. He would often stop to talk with fans, sign autographs and take pictures. It never seemed like a chore for him. Even when the weather was at it’s worst, if he had the time to spare, he’d stop his truck, come out and work his way down the line of admirers.

My friend Diane, in particular, is a huge fan of David. She got to know him as she had worked with him for a charity event. As a result, the rest of us learned a great deal about Clarkson’s work in the community (particularly with children, such as the Hockey In Newark program and the Clarky’s Kids charity).

He always entertained us when he played, but our respect more than doubled when we learned how invested he was in his community.

Eventually, we started a bit of a fan club for him. We would all meet in the bottom corner on the Devil’s side for pre-game warm ups. Diane and I made a few posters, and Jenn spear-headed a project to get t-shirts made. We called ourselves “Clarky’s Corner.” Every game, Clarkson would skate by our “corner” and pretend he wasn’t trying to read the signs we created. We received thanks in the form of smiles, stick taps and a few pucks tossed over the glass. (I had mine signed at a season ticket holder event, but that’s a story for another day.)

Eventually, we all had the opportunity to wait outside for him after a game.

David Clarkson with Clarky's Corner

Clarkson stops for a group picture with his “fan club,” Clarky’s Corner.

That night also happened to be his birthday, and quite a few people hung around to sing to him. Diane even made a special gift for him. Despite her slight embarrassment, he insisted on opening it in front of everybody.

Clarkson opens his birthday gift.

David Clarkson opens a birthday gift from one of his biggest fans, Diane.

It's a photo book!

It’s a photo book! Diane collected photos from various games and events so that David could share them with his family.

The memories from that night alone could fill a few pages worth of blog posts. I’m sure if I reached out to my friends who were present that night, each would have a different detail or special moment to share from that one encounter.

Few things feel as awesome as one of your favorite players telling you that they appreciate you (Clarkson is sure to tell us this every time we see him). If you haven’t experienced this before, I sincerely hope you have the opportunity.

I know that hockey is a business. Guys like David Clarkson certainly aren’t obligated to give us anything more than a strong showing during game play. I can honestly say that it makes me feel better about spending my money with the NHL when one of it’s employees tells me they appreciate me, though. At that point, it becomes personal, not just business. I cheer for Clarkson now because he’s a good guy, not just because he occasionally puts the puck in the net. Myself and many others continue to stand in “Clarky’s Corner” even though he is no longer a member of the New Jersey Devils.

Tomorrow, I’ll share more about Clarkson and one of the biggest reasons why I feel the NHL and the New Jersey Devils need to #BringDownTheBarricade.

If you have a favorite story or memory, I invite you to share it with us in the comments! If you want me to write about your experience, please feel free to contact me on Twitter (@shadowpwny). Thanks for reading!

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