The Unknown Hockey Player (Chapter 2)

Chapter 2 – Of getting “it” out of the way.

It wasn’t until I reached 16 that ‘it’ happened.  I had began to get a little restless as I knew it was going to happen sooner or later.  It was inevitable. We had done various training camps, the scouts had been and gone, trials had been done, and things were going well in my short but blossoming junior career.  I was being noticed, getting good reviews, but still ‘it’ hadn’t happened.

It sounds like something from a film, but its the truth, so no point in me making something up.  The junior team that I had played on for 3 years now, were due to play a team from the Three Hills area, who were known to be a bit rough and tumble.  I was still one of the youngest on the roster, but not that, this mattered now.  We were all young men, and I was still one of the biggest players.  Young men with an eye on bigger things, and looking to impress given any opportunity.

As we got closer to the rink on the bus, the coach stood up at the front, turned the music off and prepared to say a few words.  This was unusual in itself.  He always left it until we were in the room, and getting prepared for the game before he would talk to us.  “Listen up guys”  He paused whilst we stopped talking and took notice of what he was about to say.

“Now this is a big game tonight, we have been doing well, but so have these fella’s.  Remember boys, accept and digest the words I am giving you please” He continued “You are all brothers, everyone one of you, and when you get on that ice later, you boys must remember that.  Make sure you are there for each other, keep an eye out for one another, if anything happens you make sure you don’t come off the ice with regrets, we leave this place with nothing left out there and our heads held high.  Don’t do it for me, don’t do it for your folks, you do it for each other”

He stood and stared at us.  No one said anything.  We just stared back. Eventually our captain, stood up from his seat, and said “You got it coach” or something like that.  I can’t quite remember his words, but I don’t think I will ever forget the coaches few words said that day on the bus to us.

He nodded to our captain, and sat down. It was a powerful moment, I have played in big games since, massive games in fact, in front of thousands, including play off games and cup finals, and I don’t think anyone has ever said anything that has motivated me more or made me think about a game so much.

We were around 20 minutes from Three Hills and there wasn’t a word said on that bus again.  We pulled in, got our bags and headed to the dressing room.  For a junior game there was a decent crowd, we warmed up and I looked around, Mom and Dad would have been up there somewhere, but I couldn’t pick them out.

I took a breath and look down the other end of the ice, we had played these guys ever since I joined my team, 3 or 4 times through a season, sometimes more.  I knew most of them, but we were at the stage now where clubs would let players go and bring in others. A few of their guys I didn’t seem to recognise, and one in particular stood out to me.  By now in the warm up they were shooting in from the point, as we were, and I had a good view of this guy.  The guy looked huge, and had a shot to match, and also seemed to be scoring every time I looked down the ice.  I decided it best not to look again.

Warm up was coming to an end, and I skated off towards our gate that led to the dressing room.  The big guy skated past me, collecting a stray puck and said something to me, I was pretty focused on getting back to the room and re-taping my stick which was something I always did, this is why I liked an extra few minutes in there.  I I thought nothing of it, and carried on my way.

The game began, and we were 2-0 up within the first three minutes.  I got through a couple of shifts and got an assist on our second goal.  Our top scorer had got both goals.  This kid was special.  Slight but strong enough, however he was quick and I mean really quick. He was as agile and intense, with the puck as he was without and teams couldn’t handle him. They just couldn’t set up to play against him, and on his day, he made the rest of us look so average.  This said, he was fantastic to play with and a great kid as well.  You wanted him on your team for sure.

The game was getting a little physical, the big crowd in were quiet and the opposition were trying to get themselves going.  It was my shift next and I stood up off the bench, waiting for the guy I was due to replace to wait for a safe time to change with me.

We dumped a puck, and he skated towards the bench, yelling very loudly as he always did “D, D, D”.  This guy always did this, it was partly funny, and partly embarrassing.  Years later we played in Europe together, and he still did it, and still as loud.  Opposition fans would pick up on it and taunt him all night.  Over a beer one night, we were sat talking in a crowded bar and I said “Why do you shout so loud when we change, you have done it since we were Juniors” He stared at me, looking offended.  I continued, trying not to smirk and deliberately avoiding his eye contact.  Staring into my bottle of beer and nervously circling my finger around the top of the bottle I continued “I mean, don’t get me wrong, its good that your clear, and vocal, but Jesus your loud man” I burst out laughing, I couldn’t hold it in. 18 years I had been waiting to ask him.

My team-mate told me a bizarre story, that made total sense. As an 8-year-old child, and when he first started playing for his novice team, his Grandpa used to go and watch him.  Grandpa, (an ex pro himself) would say “Now when your coming off that ice I wanna hear you calling your buddy on, you gotta shout loud.  Its important.  Make sure I can hear you”  The problem was, Grandpa was pretty much deaf and refused to wear an aid, so my buddy would skate off shouting D, D, at the top of his squeaky unbroken voice so grandpa would approve.  A habit he never lost and could never shake off, try as he might.

We swapped over and I skated over to where I needed to be, we were again on the attack, I went centre ice, left hand side.  The dump had resulted in our top man skating round the back of the net to get the puck, I started to make my way towards the point, the play was: Our guy round the back would try to work the puck to the boards, the guy on the boards, would find me, I would fire it in, and by that time ‘Speedy Gonzalez’ would have got close to the goalie to pick up a rebound.  Simple, yes, but it worked for us. I got to the point and prepared to shoot.  The puck got to the boards, then to me.  Perfect, I shoot, and its a good one.  But Speedy is nowhere.  I scan for him whilst the netminder covers the puck up.  I find Speedy with my gaze, but he is flat-out lying face down on the ice, pretty much motion less, with the big fella from warm up standing over him.

You didn’t need to be a genius to work out what had happened down there, and I had to do something.  I felt my skates starting to move, quicker than my body wanted to, and I was off and there in seconds.  I later found out this is what is called “red mist”. Something I learned I would have to control quickly in my professional career.

I pulled my stick up horizontally across my body, a hand at either end, of it and careered into the big guy.  Thinking back now, it must have hurt him, I was going full pelt, and I was quick, and big enough myself.  My stick was high, but fuck him, he had hurt my buddy.  The coaches words from on the bus were going through my head “Brothers every one of you”.  By now I was on top of him, but he was strong and pulled me sideways we sort of wrestled a bit, and both managed to get to our feet.  I thought it was over, but he hit me, full in the face. Wow that hurt. I wince as I recall it.  It stunned me, but I grabbed on to him.  I chucked a few back and connected with him.  I later found out the officials let us get on with it, something really unusual back then.  I remember the noise.  A muffled cacophony of noise, but I remember it.  Before we knew it we were back down on the ice struggling with one another, trading insults.  The stripeys pulled us apart and it was over.  As we were being separated, I looked for Speedy, who been hit in the corner, he was up by now up and looked fine.  Me?  Well my nose was bleeding, my head was ringing, and my stick was broken, but I had done it.  I got chucked out the game, as did the other guy.  I went back to the room.  All sorts of things racing through my mind.  I just sat there. Staring.  At nothing. Just staring. At nothing at all.

Eventually I got showered and changed, by this time the period had come to an end.  The guys walked in, and told me we were 3-0 up and Speedy had got his third. The coach looked at me, preparing to speak.  I had no idea what was going to be said. He smiled, and nodded gently “Good job, get some water, go and join your folks and we can talk later”

That was enough for me, as I walked out the room, head held high, nose filled with tissue, Speedy, tapped my backside with his stick, “Thanks bud”

That was all I needed.

The Unknown Hockey Player (Chapter 1)

Chapter 1 – Of Getting on, and sometimes off the Ice.

I was always big from a young age and apparently the first thing I did was skate, it’s a standing joke in my family that I skated before I walked and talked. I have no idea if it’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

My Dad  would take me ‘out the back’ whenever I wanted to go out there, which of course, was always. When I say ‘out the back’, our town was typical of many in Canada where we lived.  There wasn’t a lot behind our house, in fact there was nothing except a few trees and my dads old wrecked shed, which somehow managed to get through every winter without falling apart.  It had now became my hockey equipment shed. So Dad made me my own Ice Pad with home-made goals, and some sort of markings that from time to time tended to moved around on the ice slightly.  Looking back it was crude, real crude, but it was mine. It was my own Madison Square Gardens, my own Joe Louis Arena, whatever it was, it was mine, and I loved it.

Whenever Dad was at work, or too tired from work, or just tinkering with our old yellow rusted truck, I would still go out there. Commentating to myself as I skated by imaginary defencemen and slotting the puck top shelf against the hapless netminder which was typically a sack of coal, or a chair from out the kitchen. Later in life Dad told me he and mom would sometimes hide on the back veranda giggling and listening to me run through my plays in this imaginary commentator’s voice. Little did I know that it would be all be too real soon enough.

My friends would come and play, but more than often it would be me and my ‘pa’ messing around. Aiming at the cross bar, hanging apples in the corners and smashing them, or trying to smash them, all the typical stuff North American kids would do I guess.  Mom would come out with the hot chocolate late at night, and beg us to “finish up now boys”.  I never wanted to finish up.  Never ever.  “10 more minutes Mom” would be my standard reply as I sipped the hot sweet chocolate.  Sometimes a cookie was offered as a lure to get me in.  Dad was stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, but I normally won this battle.

I joined up on my first team when I was 6. It’s all a bit vague, the nearest team to me was an Under 8s age group, and so I went to that. As a kid I was good, not overly skilled, but talented enough, and as my dad told me, I had ‘good strong legs’.  I could certainly skate and move well, quite quick for a big kid. I was one of the biggest on the ice, and without sounding boastful, I was one of the better players. They stuck me on D (defence) there, because of my size I guess.  Talk about being pigeon holed from an early age.

I was a reluctant junior to begin with, Dad dragged me there virtually. I wanted to stay at home, with Pa, and shoot apples and oranges from my wobbly make shift blue line. Why did I need to go and join these other kids? At first I didn’t get it at all.

This didn’t last long, after four or five weeks, Dad was fighting to get me out of the place. I was always the last off the ice. This was never, not the case. That’s a fact. Always the last one off. You want me off your ice? Come and get me. Zamboni needs to come out? I will go round it. Coach threatens to drop me? I will find another team, and I was the best player anyway, so I was savvy enough even at 7 years of age to know that threat was hollow. In later years as you will read, I never took kindly to coaches and their hollow threats.

About the only thing that got me off the ice, was physical hunger, or sometimes spotting dad through one of the misty glass panels in the arena slowly starting to drive away, that was his last chance call to me. Now or never.  Many times he went through with it. Much to my mother’s derision and anger.

It was 45 minutes’ walk home from that rink, and even I gave in (usually), when the thought of that long, bitterly cold walk went through my head. Sometimes I didn’t spot him. Sometimes I just wasn’t ready to come off. The ice was mine, and that was how it was staying.