Role model:(noun)A person whose behavior,example or success is or can be emulated by others, especially by younger people.
As a child we all had that one person we looked up to, someone who made our dreams seem so easy to catch and hold on to. Someone that made us want to be a better person, or different deviation of ourselves. For some it may have been the late Michael Jackson, for not letting society stop him from greatness, or maybe it was Daniel Radcliffe, also known as Harry Potter, for sporting such confidence and cheerfulness all the time, despite battling with a mild form of the neurological condition Dyspraxia. A condition that affects your fine motor skills, making tying your shoes difficult. Or perhaps it was America Pherrara, the Ugly Betty star, who is all about promoting positive body image. Regardless, everyone has had someone who has made an impact in their life, famous or infamous. For me, this person was and still is Nolan Baumgartner.
For those of you who don't know, Nolan Baumgartner is a first round, tenth overall pick for the Washington Capitals in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft and was a mere twenty years old when I first met him. I was four years old going to my first hockey game with my mom, we were going to watch the Portland Pirates, the Washington Capitals affiliate. I remember being picked up from my grandmother's house and jumping around by the front door, anxious to go to my first game. When we got to the arena my mother brought me down to the first row, right at the glass to watch the home team practice. I was mesmerized by the speed each player carried and the way they all interacted with the fans, despite having plexiglass between them. No words being said, their actions speaking for them. All it took was one action for me to notice who he was. Towards the end of practice, as the time clock was in its final seconds, a player faced towards me, a puck in his glove, and tossed it over the 8 foot glass to me with a smile. Reading the number on his jersey as he skated back to the locker room to see who he was, Baumgartner with a number five. For the entire night I watched the defenceman, following the number around with my eyes every time he set foot on the ice.
At the end of the night my mother had asked if I liked the game. Looking down at the puck in my hand, I looked up at her and said, “Yeah, I want to go again.” It became a habit for us to go to every home game, which in 1996 was about every two days, minus road trips. My mother had bought me a jersey that I wore religiously and I had even convinced her to buy me a pack of hockey cards. As we sat up in the stands and watched the Pirates take on yet another team, I was fixated with my cards. I read the back of every one while my mother talked to some people she knew and cheered the team on. It was at the end of the game that I learned the most valuable news. My mother's friend, we'll call her Vicki, informed us that we could meet the players by waiting by the lower entrance. If a child's face could physically glow, I believe mine was at that moment. I was going to meet the player who wore the number five, the one who had taken time to notice me and pass me the puck. I was going to meet Nolan Baumgartner.
We stood in the dark of the night, only street lights and other fans surrounding us and waited as players exited the locker room. I watched as people would swarm up to them and ask for autographs and I would follow, but there was only one I was interested in. Finally, one of the last people out of the locker room, hair still wet from the shower, came Nolan Baumgartner. As my little legs walked up to him I said “Thank you for giving me the hockey puck, can I have your autograph?” Kneeling down he took the permanent marker from my hand and signed my hockey card and jersey and replied, “You're welcome.”
From that moment on, I was hooked and would attend every game. I would draw pictures of Nolan and hold them up to the glass for him to see, each time getting a puck over the glass. Each night we would wait after and I would give him the drawings which he would gladly accept while he would talk to my mother for a while. One particular night he brought out the blade from one of his sticks that had broken that night and came over to me. He said, “How do you spell your name?” Looking at him with a smile on my face I told him and then read what he wrote as he handed it over to me, To Stephanni Your Friend, Nolan Baumgartner. “Thank you for coming to all of my games,” he said. I remember I had never felt such pride and happiness in my entire life.
Looking back at these moments, I realize how truly admirable they are. Being twenty years old myself, it's amazing to think that he took the time to stand there and talk with me and my family after every single game when I'm sure all he wanted to do was go home and sleep. When he was traded to Pittsburgh, I would read the recaps on the internet, and follow his progress there. Every game he would play against Portland from there on out, I made a point to go to and cheer him on, eventually meeting his now wife and befriending her as well. In my closet I hold a jersey of every team he has ever belonged to since being a Portland Pirate, and have quotes up on my wall that he has said, my favorite being “Everyone is given a path to take, you choose to take it or not.”
I have followed this man's success since I was four years old and have always admired him. He taught me about the best league in the world and allowed me to share a passion that most people could only dream about. I have watched him be named Captain of the Manitoba Moose and now Chicago Wolves and am so proud to know that I can call myself his friend. He is truly one of the most respected men among the American and National Hockey League and is truly destined for great things. With his contract being up in July of this year, I will be curious to see if he is signed again or if he will take up coaching. Either way, I will still be cheering for him, even after he is long retired and his son is playing, I will always be his fan.
So for those of you who think that professional athletes are overrated and are all about the fame and money, or that hockey is all about fighting and beating each other up, I hope I have persuaded you otherwise. There truly are some amazing guys in this League, it's simply the little things that make the difference. Things such as tapping a child's hand as they enter the locker room at the end of a period or handing their stick over the glass at the end of a game. The little things are what mean the world to a child and shows them that someone saw them that night. Someone took the time to reach out to them. It's that one gesture that can have all the influence in the world. This is what makes a true role model.