The memories are a little fuzzy. The feelings as strong as ever.
When Dylan Strome was about 7, his beloved Maple Leafs were playing the hated Senators in a "Battle of Ontario."
"It was crazy," Strome said. "People were making songs. Someone flew a plane over Ottawa that had (a banner) on the back and it said, 'Leafs Suck' and so the Leafs fans were all in a rage about that. I remember just getting all my Leafs gear on and going to my buddy's house and watching the entire game."
It doesn't matter where a future NHL player grew up – Canada, the United States or even Britain – at some point a love of hockey takes hold and they fall hard.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
To mark Valentine's Day, the Chicago Tribune asked several Blackhawks to recall the first time they were struck by Cupid's, well, hockey stick.
For Strome, who grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, about an hour outside Toronto, that Leafs-Senators series in 2003 was the beginning.
"That was when I felt like everyone loved hockey so much that this was what you did," Strome said. "It was on TV and your parents talked about it and you talked about it. It was just what you loved to do. If you're growing up and (hockey is) always on TV, you just kind of fall in love with it."
Growing up in Winnipeg, the seats that Jonathan Toews would sit in at Winnipeg Arena with his dad were hardly the best in the house. They were in the far reaches of the arena, best known as the nosebleeds, and when you sat in certain spots it wasn't even possible to see the videoboard.
The stairs were steep, the sight lines terrible, and 8-year-old Toews was in heaven.
"I remember sitting in the nosebleeds at a Jets game and my dad was trying to get me some candy and some popcorn and I didn't want to leave my seat," Toews said. "I was glued to the game right from the get-go. That was probably where it all started for me, just being in an atmosphere like that watching pro hockey and going home and never wanting to put your stick down and always wanting to play."
Connor Murphy had a far different perspective than Toews growing up but with the same result. Murphy's dad, Gord, was an NHL player, so he was able to spend time in dressing rooms and even skate with his dad's teams occasionally.
"I hit an age where I started playing travel hockey," Murphy said. "And then I got to see a couple practices and go into the dressing room and see what that atmosphere is like. It just felt like another level. It clicks with you how big of a stage it is and how it's the best of the best. That just sparks a passion and love for it."
Brendan Perlini was born and raised in England before moving to Detroit as a teenager. While he played hockey, his friends in England were into cricket and soccer. Perlini marches to the beat of his own drum, and he enjoyed being one of few who played hockey. That made it feel special.
But it wasn't until he came to the United States and he faced tougher competition that his relationship with hockey changed.
"When we moved to Detroit we had, myself included, four first-round NHL picks (on our team)," Perlini said. "Those guys were so much better that I think that's when I got the bug to become better. I don't know if I fell in love with hockey, so to speak, but I loved the aspect of always improving and getting better. That is my driving force."
Frozen ponds and backdoor rinks are hockey's playgrounds. Part of the romanticism of playing on outdoor rinks comes from waiting all summer for winter to return and create an unforgettable hockey environment.
"A lot of my love for the game of hockey came from playing on the outdoor rinks in Canada," said Hawks goalie Cam Ward, who grew up in Edmonton. "I remember the cold weather, I remember the snow, just going out there and having fun with your friends. Despite that weather you'd be lugging your skates out to the outdoor rink and having the greatest time."
Alex DeBrincat, who grew up near Detroit, tried to reach back into his memory and recall when his love for hockey developed.
"I feel like I've loved hockey ever since I could remember anything," DeBrincat said. "Hockey's always been my whole life. As a kid playing on the pond we had so much fun out there with my brother and our friends. My dad used to build a rink every year, so that's probably where most of it came from.
"Being able to have such a good time with your friends and really have no cares in the world."