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This is hockey

February 19, 2015

The engine protested, cranked, then finally came alive. My fingers were numb despite the fifty dollar Outdoor Research gloves. The temperature gauge read negative thirteen degrees. It wasn’t yet six in the morning. Sunrise was still just a thought. The Infiniti engine began to purr.


The last time I had been up at this time was after a two a.m. load out while still on the road with the band. With a fourteen hour bus ride and a couple of stops to make, there was no hurry to settle into my bunk. A few beers and good company led me to staying awake until we hit the first truck stop. This morning, however, was completely different. It had required my wife and me to wake up a half hour before, waking up my son, and getting part of his protective equipment onto the boy. This, was youth hockey.


Like millions of children before him, and like the tens of thousands across the world that are doing the same thing today, lacing up a pair of skates to glide across glazed ice with a stick and a puck is not only the highlight of a day, but the very definition of winter. Whether on a pond, an old run down skating rink, or a modern day ice arena, the boys and girls look the same. Jackets proudly emblazoned with team logos, Reebok or Bauer bags rolling through lobbies or carried across snow, hockey sticks poking out the top or carried awkwardly. Sleepy parents carrying Dunkin Donuts or McDonald’s cups, some with their own mugs from home, all filled with steaming hot coffee. Children either bundles of potential energy ready to be unleashed, or barely awake enough to trudge toward that mecca, that filler of dreams. The ice.


It appears blueish white. The ice stretches away from the spot one initially steps onto it, and the sensation is the same every time. Speed. Cold. Freedom. Skates slice in and push forward, or dig in and create snow… and stop. Direction changes are as exciting as a mid ice turn, head up, looking for a pass of the small black rubber disc. The puck whips forward from another skater, tape to tape, and I trap it with my stick, pull back and to the side, dangling it for just a moment in order to look for a pass, but then there is an opening to shoot on the netting behind the hulking goaltender. I shoot, a powerful, accurate, and quick release wrist shot, but not quick enough; the goalie has landed in a butterfly position on his knees and snagged the puck in his catching glove at the last possible second. In one moment, exhilaration, disappointment, and respect. A smile, a laugh, and it begins again.


The kids tumble onto the ice. The skill level and abilities are a wide range of capability between ages six and eight. Charlie weaves in and out of players, Cody shoots harder than some adults. Cyler stands tall and has an innate ability to defend against puck handlers, and Thatcher skates fast to make a strong defensive play and start the puck back up ice. Sean digs in the corners, and Burt makes both the play and the initial shot. Joey slams the rebound home. Evan and Quinn have already turned and are waiting for the oncoming rush from the opposing team; Evan prefers to skate up the side and Quinn prefers to take the center. Thomas goes after the puck no matter where it is. We’re not supposed to keep score, but the kids do. The parents do too. It’s competition. Not only against the other team, but against each other. It inspires them to reach higher. All of them have learned that they are capable of more than they initially thought, whether it was skating stronger, coming back against a team that was more advanced, or skating at seven in the morning.


After the games or practices, the locker room is a rush of parents, sweaty kids, and hockey tape rolled into balls being shot around the room. There are coffee spills, crying siblings, laughing players, and general curiosity as to whether there is a table hockey game in the lobby along with the availability of spare quarters from parents. There is tossed equipment missing bags and left on the floor, parental thoughts of the rest of the day, and the inevitable drive to the next responsibility, or home.


Some dream of making it to the National Hockey League. The NHL. The big show. To be the next Howe, Orr, Gretzky, Crosby, or Ovechkin. Some make it, like Patrick Kane, whose stories of him stick handling through hotel lobbies as a child tell of a work ethic beyond most, or at least indicate a childhood obsession with an art form that is fun. Some look at the game as pure fun, but hope to play through high school and college. Most don’t make it, but never stop dreaming. There are forty year old men who play in “beer leagues” at ten p.m. on Sunday nights for glory, bragging rights, and a workout. There are easier ways to attain all of these desires, but none hold the magic of ice hockey.


Finally, we watch games. The Boston Bruins on television or from high up in the Garden “nosebleed” seats. Rink-side behind the players’ benches at the local AHL affiliate Springfield Falcons is an up close opportunity to see the speed and skill of top professional players. But to watch Westfield High School battle against Agawam High School in western Massachusetts’s packed Amelia Park Ice Arena is to go back in time. There, almost 1,000 spectators- students, alumni, parents, and local hockey fans, stood and watched Agawam edge past first place Westfield. There wasn’t an iPhone in sight- the energy and participation in the action negated the time and desire for anyone to resort to modern day technology. School spirit and camaraderie had returned as students covered with face paint ran up and down the stands firing up their school’s section. It was refreshing.


This is hockey. It is in cities and small towns, on rivers, ponds, and organized rinks. It is families coming together, or a lone skater under a light in the backyard following homework completion. It is a dream, a job, and a thrill. It is winter. This, is hockey.


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