Here’s a story that shaped my life. It's not a sob story. Not a story to show how hard my life was, but a genuine story. A story that changed me. The events that occurred are entirely accurate, every last detail. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Since birth, my father has drowned me in sports — specifically, the great state of Michigan sports. Growing up in Detroit, my father’s happiness came from playing, but especially watching sports. I think my dad believed that he was part of the team. When I was born, I don’t think there was anything he enjoyed more than introducing me to the game. It's been a part of my life since birth. Hell, I grew up in a crib painted Honolulu blue for the Detroit Lions.
Watching games together on a Sunday afternoon, searching local sports stores for the incredibly slim chance they carried any Detroit memorabilia, was our way of bonding, and nothing brought us closer. Growing up in the heart of New York, Detroit was an interesting city to root for, to say the least. Birthday parties at Yankee Stadium? New York Giants-themed activities? I didn't care for it, and that was fine. I did feel a bit out of sorts having to explain my love for the Detroit teams to my friends. They could never really understand it. And that was fine. It didn't matter to me. I was happy, and that was all that mattered.
My eighth birthday rolled around. There was only one thing I wanted. My parents knew there was nothing more I loved than sports. Coincidently, the Detroit Red Wings were playing the New York Islanders the night before my birthday. When any Detroit team came to play in New York, it was nothing short of a national holiday — something out of a fairytale — for the Bernhardts.
Now imagine this — you're wrapping up your year as a seven-year-old, and to celebrate, you don't want to go out with your friends, see that new movie with your fourth-grade girlfriend. Instead, go on a two-hour car ride with your mother and father to watch a team located 600 miles away come and play in a hole-in-the-wall, shitty, outdated arena on Long Island.
There was nothing more I wanted to do.
In all truth, it didn't take much begging for my parents to say yes. I didn't have to ask my dad twice. It was hard for my mom to say no once she saw the passion in my eyes. The day came, and I was preparing like it was my wedding. I took a shower and used shampoo and conditioner twice. I washed every inch of my body. I laid out four different pairs of black sweatpants to match the stitched cream-colored jersey that went down to my knees. I placed two lines of red face paint — which I decided was necessary to pick up from a party city store eight blocks away from my house — on both sides of my face. I put on my dad’s 12-year-old blood red beanie, with a small white line on the bottom and a disproportionately large Red Wing symbol. I was so ready.
It was my first ever sports game in person. When I walked into the arena, my palms started to sweat. My left leg started to twitch. We got to our seats about 18 rows behind the ice, but because it was a random game on a Tuesday night against Detroit, the arena wasn't exactly filled to a brim. The game started, and my naive father noticed there was no one in the third row, so he decided to take an upgrade for himself.
Our new seats were about ten feet from the Detroit bench. I was ecstatic. The cool temperature of the ice, the scent of the hot popcorn that I made my dad get at a stoppage in play, and seeing “my boys” playing in person — it was perfect, everything down to the last detail.
On the other side of the rink, I spotted an Islanders player flip a puck to a fan. At that moment, everything stopped. When you're an eight-year-old, you think your life will forever change by obtaining one of these pucks. I thought it was the coolest thing in the history of human civilization. It was all I wanted.
I made my way to the edge of the rink for the entire game and stood alert. At a stoppage in play, #13 on the Detroit Red Wings was heading off the ice. This wasn't any player. This was Pavel Datsyuk. My literal hero. This man did things that seemed impossible. He skated faster than everyone, shot harder than everyone. He was always the best player on the ice. He was a magician. Pavel Datsyuk was the reason I fell in love with the game. I was wearing his jersey. As he was skating to the bench, he got a glimpse of my jersey and flipped a puck over the board. It was actually happening. As I was going to put my hands up to catch it, a man reached over and took it. Just like that, all I ever wanted was gone in seconds, at the hands of a middle-aged drunk Islanders fan.
The walk back to my seat was like a marathon. I was humiliated. I wanted to leave. I couldn't even comprehend the events that just occurred. I looked to my right and saw my mother uttering words under her breath that, to this day, I’m still not sure what they even mean. As the game went on, every bone in my body was trying to hold back my teary eyes from turning into a full-on waterfall. I sat quietly.
Jimmy Howard saw the entire thing. Howard usually started in goal but was out with an injury. He got my mother’s attention and signaled her to take off her shirt. When he saw her reaction, he gestured to clarify that it was my jersey he wanted. My mom then leaned over and told me to take it off. At this point, I had zero clue what was happening. I was in the middle of Nassau Coliseum, shirtless, tears smearing my red face paint.
My mom handed my jersey over the glass to Jimmy Howard. He walked into the locker room. He emerged five minutes later and gave the jersey to a security guard, who handed it back to me. On the jersey, Howard and Datsyuk autographs. Underneath it, a puck.
The jersey made it safely home and remained in my closet until one fateful night. My mom was doing laundry and mixed my clothes up. She threw my beloved #13 in the wash. When it came out, the autographs were gone.
Just like that, my prized possession turned into any old jersey. And now, I just have a story. A story that changed my life.