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Where Are They Now Feature: Papa Reflects on Thanksgiving

By Ryan Papa, 11/23/21, 6:45PM CST

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In anticipation of Waterloo’s 50th Thanksgiving home game, former Black Hawks forward Ryan Papa shared memories of his first experience with the holiday game at Young Arena.  This article originally appeared as the "Forward" in the commemorative book, 50 Thanksgivings; Waterloo’s Hockey Holiday, which is currently available from Party Town Outfitters at Young Arena.

My first Thanksgiving in Waterloo is a game I will remember for the rest of my life.

I had already played a few prior games in 2010 as a Black Hawks affiliate.  Being in the United States Hockey League for the first time, I was trying to keep my game simple.  I was 16 and some of these guys were 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds, so there was a good age and size-strength difference, but I never played scared due to my size.  I kept it simple.  That was my mentality when the coaches reached out about Thanksgiving: just use my skill and hard work to my advantage.

When I got there, I don’t think I really realized the full scope of the Thanksgiving Day game, the history behind it, and how much it means to the city and the organization.  I didn’t realize that Cedar Rapids had one of the top teams in the league that year, either.  They had more than a few good players and some NHL prospects on their team.  Being so young, the less I knew, the better.

As a player, you look around the stadium, and it’s sold out.  The whole town shows up.  The atmosphere is almost like a playoff game.  It was close all the way, and we were tied at the end of the third period.

I remember being on the bench a couple minutes into overtime, and Coach Fuki [Shane Fukushima] called my name.

And I was thinking, “Really?  You’re putting me out there in overtime?”

A second later, I was like, “Alright, I’ll just roll with it and see what happens.”

I wasn’t on the ice very long before Vinnie Hinostroza gave me a nice pass as I was driving the net.

I got a shot off.  Honestly, from what I remember, I think it was a pretty weak shot, but it left a rebound.  I followed it up and ended up putting it away.  

The next thing you know, I was being swarmed by the whole team.

Everybody was going crazy.

The fans were going nuts.

We made it to center ice, and we saluted the crowd, and then we all went down the tunnel.  Someone told me I was one of the stars of the game, so I got to come back out.  Where I had been playing, we didn’t have big crowds or do promotions, so it was my first time throwing a t-shirt into the stands…being 16-years-olds and doing that, it was a pretty crazy thing.

One thing I remember vividly was all my teammates back home in Chicago.  The texts started coming in.  They’d never been to Waterloo; some of them probably didn’t even know where it is, but they knew it was a big game.

“Overtime winner? Are you kidding me?”  Comments like that buzzed in all night.  It was pretty funny, but it was also great to get that support from my teammates back home and to see how happy they were for me.

When I came to Waterloo for the full season the next couple of years, rookies would ask about the crowds at Young Arena.  I would tell them that nights like Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve are games that you’re going to be feeding off the fans’ energy the whole time.  Your first shift out there, you’re going to feel like you’re flying 100 miles per hour.  Just stay in it, get through those first five minute jitters, and get back to your game.  They are days when it’s easy to get up in the morning and go play.  You want to win those games for the city and the organization.

Thanksgiving in Waterloo became part of our family tradition when I was a Black Hawk.  Typically my family would go to my aunt’s house for the holiday, but those couple of years, they all came out for the Thanksgiving Day game instead.  I’d have 25-30 people at the game.  They loved it.  Later in the weekend, they’d go to Cedar Falls’ Holiday Hoopla and see Santa Claus.  They even adjusted to eating a pregame meal of pasta and chicken while everyone else is eating stuffing and mashed potatoes and gravy.

These games in Waterloo set the bar and made me say “this is where I want to be playing…in an atmosphere like this.”  When I picked St. Cloud State, I knew I wanted to play in front of fans that are as passionate as Waterloo Black Hawks fans.  When I got there, it was with more of a sense of calm, being able to just play my game and not let the crowd impact how I played.

What I would tell a player coming into a situation like mine now is: cherish the moment.

I played four years of college hockey.  I can’t think of a time outside the NCAA Tournament or the playoffs that was similar.  There are not many games that I’ve played in my life where you can feed off the crowd’s energy like that.  Not everyone has the chance to experience any games like that.  I played for 20 years and only got to play in a few of those games ever.

Don’t take those games for granted.

Where Are They Now features are presented by Karen’s Print Rite, 2515 Falls Avenue in Waterloo.