Earlier this week, I tweeted a message about one of my first hockey heroes, Peter Smith.
Steelers fans might remember Peter from his time with the Cardiff Devils. Heroes are important to us all - not just in sport, but in life as well. Barry Sheene was my all-time hero. I met him once and I was lucky; he was 100 times better in real life than even I had imagined.
My followers caught on to this first hockey hero theme, and hundreds replied with names going back decades. Steelers fans had many to choose from; Shudra, Priestlay, Cranston. Ron Shudra was the ultimate hero.
Not only a great player who seemed to write his own scripts, ‘The Rocket’ had it all. A talk, dark and handsome young man, flowing locks and a Canadian accent that melted the hearts of many. If Shudra was your hero and then you met him, like Sheene was to me, it just got better because Ronnie was nicer in real life than anyone could even imagine.
It’s why he’s still loved today.
The problem with all of us old guys, is that we forget that today’s players are the new heroes to the new crowd. The kids coming to their first hockey game need heroes - and by God, do they have a choice in this Steelers side.
Kids love two things - tough guys and the home grown Brits.
Right now Zack Fitzgerald’s name is on the back of so many young Steeler fans replica shirts.
Come in the sponsors’ lounge post game and the last two guys out normally are Ben O’Connor and Robert Dowd. Kids look into the eyes of Dowdy and Benny and see themselves. They go home hugging a signed shirt or programme; they sit up in bed imagining themselves as a Steeler, as one of those two guys.
These things are what sport is all about... not just hockey, any sport. We need our heroes; those guys we look at and think “Don’t worry, it’s going to be alright tonight. Mathiue Roy is there, he’ll score for us.”
One of the best bits about my job is when I get to take some young, starry-eyed kid into the Steelers dressing room after a game. First they are scared, yet excited at the same time. They race to the dressing room door, yet stop and seem nervous about taking that first stride into the inner sanctum of their heroes.
“Is Robert Dowd really in there?” a young lad said to me last weekend as he was about to walk in. I nodded.
“Honestly?” he said. If you don’t fill up when you see a kid that excited, you haven’t got a pulse.
These seven, eight or nine year olds walk in to be surround by the gladiators they have cheered for the past two hours. They smell the dressing room, they smell hockey maybe for the first time.
“Hey kid - how’s it going?” Jason Hewitt, the club’s longest serving player, will say.
“Come over here.” He beckons the youngster as he moves up his seat to allow the lad the chance to come and sit down next to him. As the boy climbs over hockey kit and laundry he looks to his right.
“It’s Dowdy,” he says out loud. I’m sure he meant to think it, not say it, but he is in dreamland right now. Thoughts and words just roll into one.
Hockey players are brilliant with kids. My theory has been for a while that as well as being probably the same mental age as the young fans, players have no fear of these young adulators.
They let their guards down, let the kids inside. Many of the players have kids of their own, they know what it means. They, too, remember what it was like to go seeking an autograph.
One of the great things is to then look over my shoulder. It’s the same every time; the kid’s Dad stands at the door looking in at his boy. Probably the proudest chap in Sheffield he is at that time. His kid has forgotten he has a Dad, of course. A Dad? I don’t need a Dad... I’m sat with Tyler Mosienko. He is far more interesting!
Seeing a 6’ 4” Tyler Plante get on his hands and knees 10 minutes after a gruelling game so he can have a photo with some eight-year-old boy who is as tall as one of his leg pads - you have to be there.
Whether players realise that in those few minutes they are making a difference, maybe a difference to that kid’s life, I don’t know - but they are. They are making a fan for life, something the club itself appreciates - that’s for sure.
Captain Jonathan Phillips tells a great story about his own son. One afternoon when the house was quiet, Jonna hears this almighty banging coming from the conservatory. His boy is running around the room with his small little hockey stick, banging it against all the windows. How he never smashed them all, Phillips doesn’t know.
“What are you doing?” he asks his boy. The reply is priceless.
“I’m Jason Hewitt, Dad. This is what he does after every game.”
He was referring to when the Steelers players skate around the Arena, tapping the plexi glass with their stick in recognition of the fans.
I love that story. It tells me how the kids’ imagination of today - in this computer, Facebook era - actually is the same as mine was all those years ago.
I used to jump into bed with my Dad and then hang off the side of the bed pretending to be Sheene, going around a fast corner at Donnington Park. Jonathan Phillips’ son was doing the exact same thing, just another sport.
Sport connects with people, especially the youngsters that look up their heroes. Zack Fitzgerald is a larger than life character. His job is to intimidate other 6’ 3” tough guys on opposition teams. When he growls, our Arena shakes. When he is angry we all get excited as we know trouble is around the corner. Trouble is Fitzy’s middle name, he is a beast.
Yet stand him next to some young lad who is gazing up, creaking his neck to gain eye contact, holding his pen out for that autograph, and you see this man mountain become your favourite uncle.
Fitzy will honk, maybe even give the kid a growl then burst out laughing and high five the boy. His face is lit up, he has never felt safer, never been happier.
He is with the Steelers, they are his heroes.
Just wait for the stories at school tomorrow.