Sunday October 12th, 2008

PHILADELPHIA -- As vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin strode out on the red carpet with daughters Willow and Piper, she waved to sold-out crowd at the Wachovia Center, where the Flyers were opening their season against the Rangers.

Most of the building, however, didn't exactly wave back. Although there were a number of fans that stood and cheered the Alaska governor and self-proclaimed hockey mom, invited as part of the Flyers' marketing campaign to find the region's Ultimate Hockey Mom, there were also signs that her presence was not welcome -- one read: I can see Russia from this seat.

Still, she went out there smiling, shook the hands of Flyers captain Mike Richards and Rangers assistant captain Scott Gomez (he's from Alaska), and together with the winner of the contest, dropped the puck in the ceremonial opening face-off.

According to a source in the Palin campaign, the vice-presidential candidate received a Flyers jersey, one that sported her name and the No. 1 on the back. She was even expected to wear it during the puck-dropping ceremony but apparently decided against it. Perhaps she realized she would be appearing before nearly 20,000 fans from Philadelphia, the fans who almost boastfully declare that they once booed and threw snowballs at Santa Claus.

Shortly after it was announced that Palin would drop the puck in the season opener, the move became widely criticized as a political ploy. Flyers owner Ed Snider is a well-known conservative who has contributed thousands of dollars to the Republican Party and the John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket, and some believe the invitation was politically motivated. The Flyers insist, however, it was maternally motivated.

The Flyers' contest spawned from Palin's famous declaration in her speech at the Republican National Convention: "The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick."

Overnight, the vice-presidential candidate became the poster lady for hockey moms, those women that are so fiercely devoted to their children's sport that they wake up before dawn to drive their kids to the rink every morning and clean their dirty (and smelly) equipment. Yet hockey moms are, as Palin suggests, emotional and passionate.

"I was the type of hockey mom that was banging on the penalty box glass, screaming, 'Be nice!' until my son said, 'Mom, you are embarrassing me,'" Palin said in an on-air interview with Comcast Sports Net, the only interview she granted to the media. "Then I learned to be the more of the team mom."

The sentiment behind the contest and ceremony, no matter the politics, was right. Hockey moms do deserve credit for their sacrifice and devotion to the sport. "Being an ultimate hockey mom means being there for your team, doing everything you can to help," says Cindi Furman, a self-proclaimed hockey mom from southern New Jersey. "Hockey is a family-type sport, and it's about going the extra mile."

Doreen Ross, a hockey mom to three, has gone that extra mile -- through the snow. "I've driven so early that my tire tracks were the first ones all the way from my house to the rink," she says outside the Wachovia Center before the game. She and her husband, Doug, have driven all throughout Pennsylvania to watch their two sons and daughter play. And he recalls his favorite hockey mom story, when somebody took a cheap shot on their son during a game. "She was right there up against the glass screaming at him," he says. She laughs, a little embarrassedly. "I think that was more mother bear than pit bull," she says.

The Rosses were just a couple of the Barack Obama supporters in attendance. They joke that between them, Doreen, a hockey mom ("But I don't wear lipstick," she says), and Doug, a mayor in a small town in Pennsylvania, share just about the same credentials as Palin, who served as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, before becoming governor.

Incidentally, the boos that greeted Palin when she took the ice were really just the beginning. After allowing four goals in the opening 16 minutes of the game, the Flyers drew the boo-birds of Philadelphia out in droves. For the next two periods, though, the Flyers chipped away at New York's lead as Scott Hartnell, Simon Gagne and Richards each scored goals for Philadelphia. The comeback brought the crowd back to life, but the Flyers just didn't have quite enough to pull it off.

In the end, though, Palin could take solace in the fact there was at least one person who might've been booed louder than she was: Ranger Nikolai Zherdev, who was named the first star of the game.

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