On a Sunday night in late September, Shawn Khemsurov, #5 for the Columbus Yellow Jackets, skated down the ice towards the goal. The Yellow Jackets were playing the Sticky Pucks, and the score was tied at 2-2. With 6:19 left in the third period, Khemsurov snapped up the puck from #93 Marra and scored, putting them ahead, and skated away from the goal with confidence and calm, the levelheaded acceptance of success of a serious athlete.
His team cheered, the handful of fans cheered, and his mom beamed from up in the bleachers. “That’s my son,” she smiled. But the loudest reaction came via the boisterous explosion that sounded elsewhere in the stands. Martin and Joe, two old friends, were there to see Khemsurov play. They had been running a colorful play-by-play since the game began, and the triumph of their comrade pushed their already obstreperous commentary to new levels of loud. Sound travels faster in cold air, and the temperature inside the arena hovered at around 55 degrees.
When the hubbub died down, Martin matter-of-factly shrugged off any critique of the play.
“That was a clean goal. You can’t say that wasn’t a clean goal.”
There were maybe thirty other people in attendance, all of whom were for some reason glum and quiet. Most of the other noise in the arena came from a little girl and her mom, but they weren’t cheering or even particularly engaged. The game was at the Ice Haus, the practice rink for the Columbus Blue Jackets, a professional hockey team playing elsewhere that night inside Nationwide Arena.
Earlier in the week, Shawn sent out an email inviting friends to the game:
Yo I have an ice hockey game downtown this Sunday at 6:50 pm if anyone is bored. Only game downtown this season and at a reasonable time too.
Last weekend my teammate got kicked out and supposedly exposed himself to an opposing fan, so there’s that too.
Martin responded a few minutes later:
I will be there.
Let’s mob up and burn the place down.
Another friend offered his words of encouragement:
Cut somebody up Shawn.
The game against the Sticky Pucks was the third of the season in the Yellow Jackets’ D South conference. Khemsurov started playing hockey in middle school, played intramural hockey through college, and currently plays in two city leagues. (His other team is the Stronghearts.) Martin and assorted other cronies have been attending his games as long as Shawn has been playing. Martin estimates that he has been to at least fifty, and that figure is probably a low estimate.
It’s also an exercise in indignation. Martin reasons that because people play voluntarily and because their games are open to the public, the Yellow Jackets players should be treated the same as the Blue Jackets. The same levels of approval and dismay apply, and Martin and Joe were there to make sure nothing went unnoticed.
“Red 15! Murphy! Red 15! Murr-PHEE!!” Joe yelled at a Yellow Jackets defensive player.
Neither Martin nor Joe knew Murphy before that night, but they had taken to him after witnessing a few choice maneuvers early in the game.
“Red 15! Red 15! Murrr-ffeeee! Yellow Jackets got the momentum!”
"Shawn! Shawn! Yeah! YEAH! Git ‘em!”
Not faring as well was a guy named Hess, #14, who accidently lost the puck and let a pass go between his skates.
He turned to Joe.
“I would bench this guy, this guy Hess.”
Joe nodded. But then the Yellow Jackets regained possession of the puck, and both of them cheered.
“Red 15! Murrrpheee!”
At 11:19 in the second period, #93 Marra picked up an assist from #41 Byg that knocked the score in the Yellow Jackets’ favor, 2-1.
Martin: “I don’t know how you could come to this game – Oooh! Nice little pass! – and be quiet.”
At 9:00, the visiting team attempted a goal.
Joe laughed sarcastically.
“They’re getting hungry!”
A minute or so later, the Yellow Jackets skated down the ice, flanking the guy with the puck.
“Ooh! A pincer formation!” Martin said with mock pomposity, pronouncing ‘pincer’ very deliberately, like ‘pintser.’
“Do I know anything about hockey?” Martin said with a laugh. “No!”
The little girl there with her mom had wandered a few bleachers closer to the rink.
“Please stay away from the railing,” the mom called.
“Red 15! Red 15! Murphy!”
A push by the Sticky Pucks got Martin and Joe riled up.
“Yeah! Yeah! Someone’s getting angry!” they taunted.
They stomped their feet.
The league’s rules prohibit fighting but Martin found other ways to antagonize the visitors.
He aimed a gun-shaped hand at an opposing player.
“Pop pop pop pop pop pop,” he said.
If this bothered anyone, they didn’t say. No emotion was exhibited either way. But this was the essence of Martin and Joe’s touching devotion - no matter the crowd, no matter the type of game or the enormity of the plays, Shawn’s games always inspire the same exuberant approbation. Martin and Joe may not be two in a line of portly, painted stomachs but they are ribald cheerleaders whose exclamations are the only other noises aside from the thwacks of sticks and players grunting. Quiet or not, their presence in any arena is unexpected and all the more powerful. When you are the two mouthpieces for the entire facility, you can effect more direct cheers, more direct boos, and much more personal connections, especially when the player you are there to support can hear every comment you make.
The ability to use this proximity to their advanage is why their heckling has a reputation. They are inveterate harassers who unapologetically bring the heat to otherwise friendly games. These are guys who make a sport out of watching sports. Imagine soccer hooliganism at your local rec center. When Khemsurov played intramural hockey at OSU, they were known to show up in packs of twenty, stand in the bleachers, and shout or sing in unison; they were known to bring whistles and blow them to confuse players; they were known to single people out and trash them the whole game. They yelled things, made hand-across-throat motions, and, when this wasn’t enough, they got players’ attention by waving a BB pistol.
Despite these questionably legal antics, Martin says they’ve never been kicked out or silenced or confronted post-game, even when they banged incessantly on the glass at the rink of a high-end shopping centre. Indeed, the only admonition during the game against the Sticky Pucks came from Khemsurov himself. Red 15, Murphy, otherwise the MVP of the game, accidently scored on himself when the puck bounced off his skate and into the goal.
“Red 15! Murphy!” Joe shouted with the same excitement, as if by reflex.
Khemsurov, ten feet below on the bench, looked up at the noise and shook his head with a grimace.
Martin was unimpressed.
“What, I’m going to stress the kid out? They should feel pressure – they’ve got fans!”
At 3:28 in the third period, the unthinkable happened. The Sticky Pucks scored their third goal. The score was now a precarious 4-3.
Martin was mad. He yelled down at the referee.
“Measure the keeper’s glove – it’s not regulation!”
(Here his commentary elicited the first audible chuckle. Incorrect equipment is a lofty accusation. Regulation equipment is mandatory to play, and the team risks a forfeit if anything is amiss. Registration with USA Hockey is required as well. The “registration is good through August 31st each year and provides accident insurance to players as well as a few other benefits such as USA Hockey magazine and discounts on some of USA Hockey sponsor products.”)
With 1:15 left in the third period, Sticky Pucks #17 Kennedy got the puck and broke away from the pack, skating down the ice with the clearest aspirations of glory. His lopsided number moved as he handled the puck – his number looked like it was made of electrical tape.
Despite the honest effort and the anticipation that accompanies any run that looks like it might conceivably turn into a goal, #17’s moment of glory didn’t come, as the puck was passed back and forth without success. The arena could sense the renewed hope for a fantastic play, but the run ended as quickly as it began. The remaining minute wound to a close uneventfully. Martin and Joe ended their narration with an equivalent lack of ceremony, standing up, stretching, and walking away as soon as the horn sounded. The teams were shaking hands, Martin yelled down at the rink as he exited, still bitter at some slight from earlier in the game.
“Don’t shake that snitch’s hand, Shawn!”
The team was still skating off the ice when a Zamboni burst through the gate.
Out in the lobby after the game, Martin and Joe walked over to Shawn’s mom.
“I heard you coaching over there.”
“That’s what they pay me for,” Martin said.
They discussed Khemsurov and the team’s performance, the quick post-game analysis that follows every game. They talked casually, quickly, with an ear for the highlights and lowlights. She has a mother’s interest in the success of her son, pride no matter what but allowing herself an extra thrill when he does well and an incisive analysis when things don’t go as well as they could. The same can be said for Martin, hence the meeting in the lobby. The discussion continued for a minute or two. Both parties finished their overviews and parted, until the next game.
Martin was going to a movie, Joe was heading home.
“That was one of the more exciting games I’ve been to in a while,” said Martin.
“Yeah, cause Shawn scored,” Joe said.
By Dylan Taylor-Lehman