I hesitated to say it. I was only eleven, but everyone else, likewise entrenched in orange and black and equally pissed about the penalty, was chanting. I looked up at Pop-Pop to test the waters.
He grabbed my hand, pressing it hard into a fist – as if saying that no Flyers fan, of any age, should take that call sitting down.
“C’mon, bulllllshit! Bulllllshit! Bulllllshit!”
It was a rite of passage for any young Philadelphia fan: to attend a Saturday afternoon game at that ripening age when you’re suddenly old enough to care, and be allowed to show it alongside the others, who have cared for years. Coming from Pop-Pop, my mother’s father, it meant more, like being welcomed to his adult table after years of eating chicken tenders in tiny chairs. The Flyers were not just his team; they were his life, and he had welcomed me into it.
Friends called him Pinky, an endearing nickname that effectively replaced his real name, because he had that many friends. Raised in the row homes of Northeast Philly, he watched his working-class city greet its first professional hockey team. Amidst the nay-saying nonbelievers, he welcomed the boys with open arms, like friends themselves.
Early in the Flyers’ tenure, he traded his family’s Temple Road home in Mount Airy for a chance to pioneer a fresh Philadelphia suburb, east of the Delaware River in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. His then-brother-in-law founded Morton’s Jewelers in Ellisburg Shopping Center, where Pop-Pop worked as the store manager and grew a community. Morton’s placed sponsorships with the Flyers and held promotional events at the store, at a pivotal time when names like Bernie Parent and Bobby Clarke were shepherding the team toward early success. Before one event, where players appeared to sign autographs, the crowd shattered the entire glass storefront just trying to get inside. That’s how hungry they were for a piece of their team.
Upon getting to know them personally, Pop-Pop became hungrier for a Flyers win than anything. With season tickets, he attended every game, studying each of his now friends’ every play and every punch. During the 1973-74 season, the Broad Street Bullies’ stellar record surged them toward the Stanley Cup Finals against the Boston Bruins. In Game Six, as the clock expired with a one-to-nothing victory for Philadelphia, fans reveled throughout the city. Some lucky thousands, including Pop-Pop, rejoiced in the seats of the Spectrum. But that was not enough; not for him, not for his boys. He bolted for the locker room.
Here, the story fluctuates from time to time: who let him in, what was said. But there they stood: players, coaches, media, and Pop-Pop. Like he greeted the team years before, their arms opened to welcome him like family, and he drank from the Stanley Cup by their sides. He may have witnessed the birth of a daughter, son, and his only granddaughter, but this was, without a doubt, the best moment of his life.
In his wallet, he would keep just two photos: one from that night, its edges rounded and tattered, and a fresh one of me. As with all pop-pops, he would swap mine as I grew, reflecting whichever of my extracurricular activities was en vogue that season. But his photo with the Cup advanced from a memory to a badge of honor, an all-access pass embraced by anyone who was anyone in the Flyers’ history of past and present. At least that’s how it seemed to me.
I began attending games when I was nine. On weekend mornings, he would pick me up in his boat of a Cadillac, me swimming in my Lindros jersey. Over the blasting WIP pre-game show, he would scream-talk to my uncle in the passenger’s seat about that afternoon’s battle, the Walt-Whitman Bridge backup, any and all anxiety-rousing topics. He was especially fretful before games, as if the forecasts of his weeks were riding on them. I, on the other hand,lounged miles away in the back seat, pleasantly occupied by warm raisin bagels. Benefiting from another of Pop-Pop’s longstanding relationships, we always had fresh bagels – he more than the rest of us, as told by the crevices of his leather seats, laden with sesame seeds.
We would file quickly into the atrium, where Uncle Steve would head to his seat, and we would wait on the side near the barrier ropes. Pop-Pop would shake hands with the guard and ask to radio his friend, a head honcho with security, who would eventually come to lift the rope and let us in. My uncle was still a paying season ticket holder, sitting in the same section with the same people for more than a decade. I don’t know exactly when Pop-Pop stopping having tickets, when it became an unspoken gentleman’s agreement that he no longer needed to pay to enter the Spectrum. All I know is that he never had one, and neither did I.
The jewelry store sold off years earlier, and after working as a salesman for Carbonated Rentals, his network had only grown. Stereo systems, cars, engagement rings, meals. You could name it, he could get it, from one of his “guys” (wholesale, of course). “The Man Who Can Get You Anything,” as his business card eventually read, he was a true broker of friends, gathering and connecting them together. Nothing bad ever happened, because he did well by his people. When it involved the Flyers, it was just as much about the people as it was about the game.
After being smuggled inside, we would head to our section, where we would only be asked for our tickets in jest. Here, we were all family: my Uncle Steve, the Sperlings, the Bregmans, and our usher, who always found me an empty seat. Pop-Pop would take off to make his rounds, wheeling and dealing, popping back for a moment with my favorite cheesy nachos or ice cream cones (gifts from his friends). I wasn’t like him then – so warm and unconcerned about what anyone thought. I felt embarrassed, concerned that the true ticketholder would come to claim his seat and wonder how a plump little girl, covered in nacho cheese, had taken it. But it meant witnessing Lindros, LeClair, Renberg, their Legion of Doom dominating the ice. So I obliged, again and again.
Two minutes left on the clock meant go-time. Manic about Broad Street traffic, Pop-Pop would scoop me from my seat and quickly shuffle to the car, where he would blare the remaining seconds of the game. We missed the game-changing goal from time to time, and he would nearly veer into the river when it happened. But regardless of the risk, we always left. There would always be another game.
Not at the Spectrum, though. In 1996, the Florida Panthers pummeled our boys in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, finishing the series 4-1 and sealing an imminent demise for the final Flyers game in their original arena. As the final minutes ticked down, all you could hear was the deep, rumbling thunder of thousands of feet stomping, as if we wanted to take the place down with us inside of it. We stayed that night until the clock struck 0:00.
“You will never forget tonight!” Pop-Pop screamed, and he was right.
We witnessed other milestones on the ice together. The following season, in our brand new complex, we watched the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Mario Lemiuex play his (first) last game, as the Flyers clinched the first round of the playoffs. For a city at the peak of its game, unrelentless with its enemies, we treated him like a champion. Maybe because we were on the brink of becoming champions ourselves.
We made it to the Stanley Cup Finals several weeks later. Riddled with nerves, the whole section (still sitting together after the move) showed up early for skate practice. When the Detroit Red Wings circled our half of the ice, I banged on the glass until my hands burned.
I did not know much about our opponents, but I knew I hated them. I hated them with every pound of my twelve-year-old body. When I was a kid, I played some softball and dabbled in dance, but never truly exhibited signs of athleticism. More artsy than varsity recruit, I would never hit the grand-slam home run or execute the game-winning buzzer beater. Whether cheering from the bench or the stands, the Flyers were my team. Perhaps Pop-Pop – once a portly youngster whose athletic career peaked as his high school baseball team’s towel boy – felt the same way. When Lindros barrelled into a guy, our weight went with him; when Hextall blocked a slapshot, we clinched our gloves; when they won, we won; when they lost, we all did.
We all lost that year, in a crushing sweep by the Red Wings. I hung my orange LeClair jersey, worn for weeks prior as a good luck charm, in the back of my closet. At my own crossroads in age, I had never invested the time nor cared about anything that had disappointed me like that. Indeed, children like me received medals for second place. The Flyers, and their fans, received nothing but a new coach.
I think I was wishing for more than a win. In my imagination, where tales of memories prior to my existence take on lives of their own, I saw Pop-Pop drinking out of that Cup again. And in my less-than-wild reality, I at least envisioned a new photo for his wallet: the two of us, at a championship parade.
In the years to follow, my world grew larger as his grew smaller. As a budding teenager, I thinned out, discovering boys and other treacherous territory that left less room for family. Around this time, Pop-Pop developed macular degeneration, an eye disease that eroded his central vision. None of us knew how long he had been experiencing symptoms – the floaters, the blurred lines – before admitting to everyone he could no longer see well enough to drive. Just the night before, he drove to the new complex to walk my friend and me into a Backstreet Boys concert. We were all livid. But more so, we were concerned about what would happen to him, a Cadillac renegade, whose life revolved around days spent on the road, visiting friends, forming connections.
The telephone and television became his lifelines. People offered to drive him into the city, but he did not want to inconvenience anyone. He never acknowledged this, but I am sure his deteriorating vision made it overwhelming to attend games, with the raucous fans and speeding pucks.
Missing the games didn’t affect me much. After losing in the finals years before, I never fully rekindled my own love of Philadelphia sports. I joked of feeling like a scorned woman, teased all the way to the brink and abandoned in the icy cold.
In truth, the Flyers belonged to Pop-Pop, not me. Their games fostered his entire circle of business ventures and friends, with common denominators of orange and black. In my ripening years, he brought me into his community not just to create a hockey fan, but to teach his only grandchild what it meant to exist in that kind of community: to build support systems, get emotional, feel disappointment, find heroes, witness greatness we may never experience in our own lives.
After one too many cold hockey seasons, Pop-Pop and Mom-Mom migrated south to Florida for good. They joined their local Philadelphia Club, and every month, share warm bagels with old friends, reminiscing about what once was. He purchased the ultimate sports cable package, and at eighty-six years old, still watches every single Flyers game, six inches from the television screen.
Upon graduating high school, I stepped out to find a community of my own, knowing exactly what I was looking for. I enrolled at the University of Florida, a place where forces bigger than any individual bring thousands of people together as one. Making up for past devastation, fate granted me a BCS National Championship in football and two NCAA Championships in basketball during my years there. I met my husband and lifelong friends, with whom we still gather today, in orange and blue, to cheer on our Gators.
Pop-Pop discovered the Sun Network within his unlimited cable package and started following the Gators, too. Perhaps joining my community helped him adjust to his new life in South Florida, states away from his only true home in Philadelphia. The same way he once did for me, I made sure the Gator Nation had room for him.We spoke after every game when I was a student and still do today. I recall frantically dialing his number after my first national championship, jumping in unison with thousands of my friends. It was our biggest win that we shared together, where my cup overflowed like his.
Joelle Berger is an attorney living in New York City. In early 2013, she left the grip of private firm practice to pursue a more sustainable existence and – most importantly – her writing. She has published in Women’s Health, Gravel, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Paper Tape, and other publications. View more of her work and blog at www.averagejoelle.com.