The smell of nacho cheese filled my nostrils. As I covered one ear with my hand while we passed a man screaming ``Programs, get your programs!'' my other hand was secure in my father's giant palm.
As he navigated me through an ocean of green and blue, we began our ascent up the stairs to the nosebleed section of the Hartford Civic Center. It was hockey night in Hartford.
At least three times a year, my dad would get tickets to Whalers games through the Aetna Men's Club. I wore the same outfit every time. A white Whalers cap, the team's white home jersey with ``Liut'' spelled out on the back and a green foam finger on my right hand.
When we were not at the games, we watched on television until it was time for me to go to bed. Then I set my radio to WTIC-AM and fell asleep to Chuck Kaiton calling the game.
During the off-season we would go to charity softball games. There were always TV, radio and political stars, but I was there to share a moment with my heroes. I collected autographs in a 1988 Whalers Yearbook. Before I handed it to each player, I would match the face with the photos in the book and call them by name.
``Mr. Francis, Mr. Francis!'' Captain Ron Francis reached down and scribbled an ``RF'' over his photo. That was more than enough for me.
As I entered my teenage years, everything changed. Mike Liut was traded to the Washington Capitols in 1990. My father was laid off from Aetna that same year.
My dad worked for Aetna for 36 years. He had never had another job. It was a tough time for my family. For the first time in my life I didn't know what to say to my dad.
We stopped going to games. I lost touch with hockey. I lost touch with my father. We didn't watch the Whalers on TV anymore.
I was a sophomore at a small college in Vermont when the Whalers left in 1997. It didn't faze me. I had lost interest long ago.
A few weeks ago my father and I went back to the Civic Center. Back to cheer the home team. As I enter manhood, my father and I are back, period.
The Wolf Pack lost, this particular night, 3-1 in the second game of the Calder Cup finals. No big deal -- more often than not the Whalers lost when they played for us as well.
My dad has never been overly emotional. When he dropped me off for my freshman year, he patted me on the back and said, `See you later.' It is rare that we hug or say, `I love you.' When we do, it is weird for us both.
But by talking about P.J Stock's temper, or how the Pack needs to take the body to get Amerks out from in front of the net, or how ``Brass Bonanza'' is far superior to fireworks as the players skate out, we are saying we love each other.
We sat next to a father and his young son. ``See all the people here, they are here because this is a very important game,'' he told the blond boy sitting on the edge of his seat. We all sat on the edge of our seats, chanted ``Let's Go Wolf Pack,'' and built an unspoken bond.
More than 11,000 fans showed up at the Civic Center for that game. That is 11,000 sons and daughters building their own memories and reliving old ones.
There won't be a cup, banner or award for the Wolf Pack's greatest achievement in Hartford this spring. My father and I were not the only fans to return for the first time since the Whalers left. The Wolf Pack left tens of thousands of fans with the memories of witnessing part of a championship.
I will remember the smell of the nachos, the guy yelling ``Programs,'' and that I still need my father to lead the way. I always will.
I realized at the game that Mike Liut, Ronny Francis and Kevin Dineen are my childhood heroes--but the real hero is and always has been my dad.
Excerpts appears Mondays on Page 2. If you have any thoughts about a column, a particular topic or ideas for future ones, please e-mail us at email@example.com , or call Courant Source at 860-246-1000 or 800-246-8070, Ext. 2305. To inquire about writing an Excerpts column, call Carole Goldberg at 860-241-3999.