In the late spring, as cherry blossoms fall, piling into fragrant fluffs of street detritus, and the Celsius rises, thoughts wander into the casual, carefree realm of summer loving, beach time and sticky nights with sweating mugs of cold beer. Some of us are preparing holidays among tranquil, azure blue waters and overpriced fusion food. College kids are looking for pointless summer jobs, teachers are counting the days until finals, and baby ducks follow mama in that amazingly cute waddle toward the pond. That pond, only 6 months ago, was frozen in a sheet of glass from previous nights of sub zero temperatures. And in those brief moments, those fleeting moments of winter daylight, those short-lived days before the snow covers the ice, young children of the north live out hockey fantasies.
I remember my pond. It was actually a canal. It was dug over a century ago by horses, mules and plows to aid river traffic along the Schuylkill River. It’s only four feet deep and 20 feet wide, but miles long. I remember the crunch as I stepped onto the ice and made first tracks. I remember pickup games at dusk with bruised shinbones. I remember skating in a seemingly endless straight line with my Dad, passing the puck back and forth. I remember the bitter wind cutting through my scarf. I remember the smoke rising from tiny nearby chimneys and the smell of frost mixed with dinner. I remember seeing little, cold fish swimming below the clear ice. I remember practicing slap shots on a brick wall. Free ice time is a beautiful thing.
I also remember my high school days playing in front of my alcohol-lubricated friends on Friday nights. We would come out to a Guns N’ Roses song and circle the ice anticipating a win. It was a great feeling. I was just a skinny kid who wanted to smash people, but usually ended up on the losing end. We were a great team and used to enact the charity rule of stopping the game when winning by more than ten goals quite often. We made it to the final game played in the Philadelphia Flyers home arena. It was essentially empty, but the expansiveness was palpable. I knew I was skating on the same ice as those heroes of Philly—the Broad Street Bullies, the Legion of Doom and Ronnie Hextall. I didn’t play too much, but I did have one open shot but it sailed wide of the net, much like Emilio Estevez’ in The Mighty Ducks. We lost by one goal. It doesn’t haunt me as much as, say, Uncle Rico’s 1982 state championship game, but alas, sports provide heartbreak as well as joy.
Ice hockey is the basketball of the frozen north. Granted, there’s more equipment. You need a stick, skates, gloves, puck and ice, but it’s the favored game of winter for anyone without the finesse required for B-ball. I hate to compare basketball to hockey, but they are the two major winter sports. One difference, as referenced above, is that hockey isn’t only an indoor sport in the winter months. Basketball has the high scoring, fancy dribbling and slam-dunks. Hockey has 100mph slap shots, delicate stickhandling and one-timers.
I understand people who enjoy round ball and other athletic endeavors, but it’s not a debate for me. Hockey is the best sport. And, don’t get me wrong; I love all sports, but none more than playing with the puck. We’re talking about the fastest human propelled sport. It’s got sticks and blades, slashing and roughing, tripping and hooking. It’s a sport that has the tiniest “ball” that must get into the tiniest net guarded by the goaltender with the biggest pads. Fighting is allowed and sometimes encouraged. It takes shit talking out of the equation. Drop the gloves if you got a problem. Sure, Ray Lewis is a scary man and talks a big, nasty game, but wouldn’t you like to see that giant offensive tackle grip him up and just put a fist through his face once? Or maybe if someone hits Tom Brady too late and the small, street-tough running back just jacks up that free safety. And wouldn’t you enjoy seeing LeBron give Kobe a beat down; or vice versa? Men can handle things like gentlemen instead of running their big mouths with juvenile pushing. You don’t insult someone in a bar and hide behind the helmet or the referee of life. It’s real. It’s too real sometimes. Do you know any sport where people have cut their carotid artery during a game? Well, it happened twice in hockey. The videos are scary. Do you know any sport where every team member grows a beard during the playoffs? It happens in hockey, and by June, it’s a rink full of grizzled, sometimes toothless, battered men playing for pride and that all too beautiful trophy—the Stanley Cup. It’s the oldest trophy of the four major sports, having been commissioned in 1892 by Lord Stanley, a viceroy of the Queen of England.
In soccer, a good goalie can change a game; in hockey, a good goalie can dominate a game. Some may complain this is a check against the sport that one person can take over a game, but if you have watched some of the clinics put on by previous Cup winners, you might be able to appreciate their cheetah hand speed and eagle eye awareness.
This playoff season was really exciting to me. It was a championship of two of the Original 6 hockey teams. Both teams played with guts, passion and tenacity. Patrice Bergeron played the last game with a punctured lung, broken ribs and a separated shoulder. Andrew Shaw took a puck to the face and bled through his scabs the entirety of the game. It’s hard to debate about hockey players’ toughness. They are well known for facial lesions, missing teeth and great hair. Although hockey has changed from the gentleman’s game of straight bladed sticks and helmet-less goalies into the deliriously fast paced game of 200-pound agile behemoths, it still possesses the grit and glory of the old days. “Old-time hockey.”
Before each game of the Finals, I got goose bumps as they sang the national anthem. But, I wondered, since only a handful of players are American, do they even enjoy that spectacle of song, or do they just hum AC/DC in their head until it’s over? That’s another thing. Hockey is a worldwide sport. The finals between Boston and Chicago had seven different countries represented. And nobody can deny the beauty of a good hockey name: Johnny Boychuk, Niklas Kjalmarsson, Jaromir Jagr, Zdeno Chara, or the great old names of: Jeff Beukeboom, Zarley Zalapski, Darius Kasparitus or Miroslav Satan. Whether it be the honeyed tone of a good Quebecois surname like: Lafleur or Lemieux, or the repeated consonants of the Czech Republic like: Roman Hamrlik, or the loveliness of sounding Russian just by saying the names: Alexander Ovechkin or Vladimir Konstantinov, hockey fans enjoy the linguistic allure of these possible line combinations.
Hockey has raised me. Hockey was my opportunity to spend time with friends, exercise, hit people without getting in trouble, learn dedication through practice and feel the thrill of putting the puck in the back of the net. Hockey also gave me cherished memories with my father. Early mornings at a freezing rink; greasy meals after a game; locker rooms laughs; watching the Flyers on winter evenings with a glowing fire; or just talking about playing as we’d drive in “the truck” are things I remember well. Men need sports.