Disappearing Hockey Heroes

Soon either Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby, Geno Malkin, Phil Kessel and company or Nashville led by P.K. Subban et al will find their way to a Stanley Cup.

When they win they know they will skate around the ice and hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup drowning in accolades and praise.  Many thinking back to junior hockey or the hard work in the minors that took them to the peak of greatness.  For some, this is the hardest trophy in sports to win-beyond maybe the World Cup.

After the celebration in the locker room with champagne and showers of beer, they’ll relax for a while knowing they’ve brought that trophy home with them for one day.  They can show it off to their hometown for 24 hours or take it to a party or anywhere they want-as long as they don’t lose or destroy it.

But the other perk of winning the prize is eternal recognition in the form of a square on the side of the Cup.  Each year another team gets put on the ring that goes around it forever displaying those that worked so hard to bring home the championship.

You may not know that Lord Stanley’s Cup is almost 125 years old.  It was first given out in 1893 in the form of the bowl you see on top of the trophy now.  As the years progressed and the NHL was formed they needed more room and added the bottom or the base that it currently sits on.  In pictures the rings with the engraved names can be seen along that base.  

125 years is a long time to keep a running record of who has won and at some point time catches up.  After this year, the ring from 1953 to 1965 will have to come off to make room for the next batch of champions.  Included in those years are Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard and a host of other Hall of Fame players.  Imagine the talents during those years that many of us never got to see.

I think about the famous picture of 11-year-old Wayne Gretzky meeting the late Gordie Howe when “Mr Hockey” visited the young player’s hometown.  Who would have guessed that those two would change so much about the game?  Eventually we will have to take “The Great One”‘s name off the Cup to make room too.

I can’t imagine what the future will be like in hockey, there’s the Matthews, Marner, and McDavid future.  But who else is out there that we don’t know about?  Will there ever be another iconic photo like those two legends of the game?

The last time I went to the Hockey Hall of Fame, my daughter and I went into the Esso Great Hall where the Cup is displayed.  She wandered right off to the shiny trophy on its magical perch.  I immediately made my way to the vault where the rings are held.  Not the winner’s rings but the rings that had been taken off the Cup to make room for more Champions.  I wondered about those men that had been engraved there and what they went through.  The struggles and the pain to win this elusive Cup.  It’s been said that once you win you are winner forever because your name is engraved on the side.  But tell that to those men who will find themselves tucked away in a vault on 30 Yonge Street in Toronto.  One day Wayne Gretzky will find himself there too.

Wanna Buy A Hockey Scented Candle?

Now that my shoulder or arm -or whatever the hell it is- is healing I’m starting to think back to my experience with the younger generation at the rink recently.  A time where if I could be graded on plus-minus I think all my shifts were a minus and even as one of the oldest players on the ice I had less experience than the 10 year old boys who could skate, pass and shoot better than me.  Gooooo team!

But I keep getting reminded that it’s a learning process.  I can’t remember what it was like when I was learning basketball.  I don’t remember what it was like when I was learning soccer.  Well I hated learning how to play soccer when I was really young.  I must have been 10 or 11.  “Why use your feet?”  Always asking the coach.  “You have hands, why can’t I use my hands?”  It seemed so dumb to me.  I ran when we they were taking kids to soccer in summer camp.  I would hide in the gym and shoot basketball.  They wouldn’t find me until after soccer was over.  I was so quiet when I was little no one would miss me.  Plus I was tiny and kept to myself.  They didn’t care what I did.

So I didn’t learn how to play soccer until I was much older.  Probably a teenager.  I heard about indoor soccer and I heard that they need goalies.  “Where do I sign up for that?”  I know it’s not really learning about soccer, but I’m playing some sort of soccer.  I had a couple of friends in school who had played since they were young and they tried to show me how to dribble and shoot.  That was hilarious.  If there was an aircraft carrier I could score on it but a goal, not so much.  But put me in net in indoor soccer and I’m going to give you everything I got.  Interestingly enough, it felt a lot like playing goalie in roller hockey, minus those annoying roller blades.  Plus the indoor soccer ball was huge and fluorescent green, you couldn’t miss it.  Although I did miss it more than a few times.  I’m not Gianluigi Buffon.

I do remember what it was like when I was learning T-ball.  Yeah I played that for about a year or two.  My fondest memory of playing that involved me in center field watching a ball come my way and me not wanting to play it for fear of dropping it and the coach yelling.  The coach was always yelling.  I never did anything wrong and the coach always yelled.  Hell I was only about 8.  But here was the coach, blah blah blah.  Like the teacher on Peanuts but louder and meaner.  He only wanted his kid in center.  All I wanted to do was bat but all the ball wanted to do was go by the bat.  Everything was upside down.  I couldn’t catch and I couldn’t bat and I got yelled at.  Plus I don’t think my dad was very happy with me.  I think he wanted his son to play for the Yankees or the Washington Senators.  Yes I know they don’t exist anymore.

The more I’ve tried to skate I’ve looked back on these experiences and I’ve thought about those guys I’ve watched for years on television and in person in various arenas from Madison Square Garden to Air Canada Center to Mohegan Sun Arena to Norfolk Scope to the Richmond Coliseum.  I’ve wondered about the paths they’ve taken to get to the levels they did.  I used to dispute that Gretzky was the greatest hockey player of all time because of all the crap with Leafs.  But after all the time I’ve spent on the ice, I can’t deny it.  From 1978 to 1999 he scored  894 goals 1963 assists and 2857 points.  I know how hard it is to even skate.  He even won four Stanley Cups.  I know some guys don’t even win one.  I was fortunate to grow up at a time when I could watch him play.  I never realized how fortunate until I got older.  I know there will never be a guy like him.  Ever.

It’s been stepping onto that ice with all the equipment that has brought me the “feels.”  The smell of the ice.  The feeling of camaraderie.  Knowing how tough it is to keep your balance.  Knowing how tough it is to play against guys older than you.  The skills to keep up with younger kids.  Let’s not forget that during Gretz’s younger years this was a rough and tumble league.  You can bet even though he had guys watching his back he still had the opposition take a run at him.  There’s always the bumps and bruises no matter how many pads you wear.  I can bundle up like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man but I’ll still probably take some lumps and be sore.  Hell I’ve already proven that.  No matter how hard I try not to fall I’m going to fall.  The ice is just like trees, it’s very unforgiving.

It’s sad that hockey players never get the respect that they deserve.  For many years I never gave Gretz the respect he deserved.  But it’s not just respect personally but financially too.  I know baseball players play a 162 game season but they don’t hit each other like hockey players.  They aren’t conditioned like hockey players.  For that matter most athletes don’t go through what hockey players do.  Between the hitting, the skating, the agility, the strength and the willpower.  Hockey players fight through the injuries to be there game in and game out.  You always hear that hockey players are tough.  But they don’t earn that much in comparison.  Take for example the following:

Highest earners by sport:

Hockey  – Sidney Crosby 16.5 million (because of a 12 million dollar salary with 4.5 million in endorsements)

Baseball for 2016 season– Zach Grenke 34.4 million (appeared in 32 games in 2015, all of this is salary)

Basketball – LeBron James 64.6 million (20.6 million salary, 44 million in endorsements)

Football – Aaron Rodgers 22 million

On salary alone, Crosby still lags behind everyone in a sport where teeth get knocked out on a regular basis, players get hit in the body with 100+ mile per hour pucks and smelly gloves always end up in someone’s face.  Trust me they are smelly.  There is no way to describe it.  Until you get out there, wear gloves for a while, throw them in a bag, put that bag in the back of your car for a few days and then put them back on- you have no idea what that scent is.  It’s a new fragrance for Yankee Candle – Hockey Glove.  Sadly though, I don’t see this changing anytime soon.  Until hockey gets more kids playing it than football or basketball, this salary will always lag.

All I know is it is a tough sport and I’m headed out to the Yankee Candle store to pitch my new idea.  Wish me luck.

Why Can’t Hockey Be America’s Game?

Every time I go to Toronto I find myself drawn to the Hockey Hall of Fame and its marvelous displays of greatness.  Not that I make it to the Great White North all that much but it seems like since I’ve gotten older I’ve made it more than when I was younger.  I’ve been to the HHoF at least three times and to Toronto at least five but every single visit to the museum I’m always struck by the wonder of it all.

I know that Canada invented the game (although some may argue that it’s roots are in the Middle Ages – the game as we know now is Canadian in origin) and is celebrated as a religion country-wide.  In fact before it was replaced in 2013, the Canadian five dollar note featured children playing winter sports, including hockey, and wearing a number 9 sweater to honor  Montreal Canadiens great Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.  Included with the picture was a quotation from Canadian novelist Roch Carrier’s short story “The Hockey Sweater”:

The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons.  We lived in three places-the school, the church and the skating rink-but our real life was on the skating rink.

Yeah I get you Roch, the rink is where I’d be too if I lived in Canada.  Cold, brutal winters where you are forced inside, you might as well find something to do right?  Time for some hockey and after your legs are burnt out from skating turn on the television and watch some Hockey Night in Canada?  I mean come on, we don’t have anything like that here in America.  Sure we have Monday Night Football, but Hockey Night in Canada, there’s no chance.  The tradition and the history, plus Canadians have Don Cherry and his outfits.  No contest.

But here’s the thing.  Most places in America don’t have access to a rink.  In the South you are lucky to find a rink.  It’s getting better but when I was growing up I could only tell you where one was.  Even living in New York, where you think there’d be a bunch – it’s cold!, I have to drive an hour and a half on a good day to find a rink to play hockey.  True, I’ve read Derek Boogaard’s biography where it talks about his father driving him all over.  If my daughter is going to play she’s going to have to go at least three hours in multiple directions to play.  All over the Eastern Seaboard.  I can’t imagine doing that as a kid to play a sport.

But what’s funny about hockey, is that for as much as it costs-and trust me it costs, at some point you start to find this itch.  You can’t get enough ice time.  You can’t get even time on your skates.  You want to feel that stick in your hands every chance you get.  Even getting back into it at my age, I’m proud to say that I skated for an hour without falling-finally!  I’m getting better but I’m still pretty terrible.  Watch me skate backwards if you need a laugh.

However I’m bothered though, for all that hockey means to Canada there will probably not be one Canadian NHL team in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Yes the teams are loaded with Canadian players, but I want to see Toronto or Calgary or Ottawa or Edmonton or Winnipeg or Vancouver go deep in the playoffs.  It just doesn’t seem right not to see a Canadian team.  I don’t like it at all.  I realize some of it has to do with the direction of the club, some has to do with the value of the dollar and some has to do with the quality of the team but no matter I don’t like it.  I’ll trade a potential Florida team or two for a Canadian team any day.

I know these teams are all because of the Gretzky effect – the same Gretzky who perfected the so-called Gretzky buttonhook.  A move that Pittsburgh Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl perfected in a game on March 20, 2016 when he assisted on Bryan Rust’s goal.  The Pens took out the league leading Washington Capitals 6-2 that night behind Kuhnhackl and his spin moving self.  I’m not sure Gretzky could have made a better pass, this was text book.  Maybe Chris Becker taught him that at the Revolution Ice Rink in Pittston at skills night while he was playing for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Pens?  It’s a possibility.  You never know where he may have picked that one up.  Then he sold him some Ribcore skates?  Just kidding Chris.

Because of Gretzky’s influence on the league we’ve seen more and more Americans jump into hockey.  I was probably exposed to more hockey because of him and I have to thank him for that.  It is one of those sports that gets in your blood.  No matter what other sport you think you love, until you actually get on the ice and strap on the pads, skates and grab a stick, you don’t know what you are missing.  I can understand why it’s Canada’s sport and you know what?  I don’t think we’ll ever be good enough at it to best them.  We’ll never have the access or the commitment to hockey.  Our focus is on baseball, basketball and most importantly football.  There’s no way we’ll take up hockey as our number one sport.  I think Canada should take hockey, mold it and each year make it better and better.  Each visit to Toronto make the HHoF a place that I never want to leave at the end of the day, a place where those that gave everything they had to the game have a chance to pay tribute to their teammates and those they respected.  Hockey deserves a place where it can be worshipped and I think that place will be and should always be Canada…O Canada.

What The Hell Is A Gretzky Buttonhook?

Obviously the running theme here is that I’m like a utility pole that got skates strapped on it and pushed onto the ice.  I have it in my head that I’m gonna bend my knees but for some dumb reason it never seems to happen. Half the time I feel like I’m trying too hard and the other half I feel like I’m not trying hard enough.  Where’s the line?

I go out and skate and I feel my legs coming back.  I get around the rink fast enough to beat the lap time of a cat on skates only to turn around the next time to completely jinx myself.  No consistency.  I’m no Gretz.  

He had that move he was famous for.  Skate over the blue line.  The defender is completely focused on him.  Meanwhile Gretz’s teammate sneaks in and finds himself in space.  Gretz turns toward the board and back in to fire a seeing eye pass.  Yeah they didn’t call him The Great One for nothing.  He made it look so smooth..kinda like that stick to the face of Doug Gilmour back in the 93 Western Conference finals.  

No I’m still not over it!  If you see me you’ll see me in my Gilmour shirt, I can’t help it.  That was a bad ass team and I’m still convinced they could have given the Canadiens everything they wanted.  Hell Pat Burns would have had them going.  

It’s amazing that I can send you a decent pass across the ice but ask me to step side-to-side and I’m down on my back.  Agility.  Yeah I don’t have it.  I have a turning radius of a Greyhound…bus.  Somehow this is going to get better?  I don’t know.  

I feel like the whole skating backwards thing might just put an end to me.  Not that I won’t give everything I have to learn because I will.  However if you expect me to ever get to there before humans colonize Mars, then you should probably clear your calendar.  In fact maybe I need some of those backup sounds, warning everyone there’s a student driver or in this case a student skater coming through.  

Of course maybe it’s like Seann William Scott’s character Doug Glatt from the movie Goon.  I skate about as well as he does but I can’t fight.  But I’m sure you could bank a puck in off my butt.  Maybe you could get me to stand in front of the goalie, I’m wide enough.  I don’t know Xavier Laflamme but damn can he skate…he probably knows what a Gretzky buttonhook is.

Can you score in 10 seconds like Johnny Gaudreau?

The Calgary Flames beat the Nashville Predators 3-2 in Overtime on the back of forward Johnny Gaudreau’s 3-point-night, including 2 goals and the assist on the winning goal. Gaudreau scored twice in the first period, both goals came within 10 seconds of each other, only 4 seconds slower than Lanny McDonald’s record of six seconds on March 22, 1984 against the Detroit Red Wings.

Ten seconds? The hell?

Gonna be honest it takes me at least four or five seconds to skate with the puck from the blue line to get into position to shoot on goal. I mean, I’ve got to get up some speed. Then there’s getting control. You know, I’m fidgeting with the puck. It’s bouncing on me. I gotta look up and see where the goalie is.

Is the goalie standing?

Is the goalie down?

Oh hell, what am I going to do?

Now do I have control?

If I do have control, are my hands right? Probably not.

Am I in the right position? Probably not. Here I go again, I’m hunched over. Bend your knees dummy. Don’t lose your balance. OK, bending my knees, gathering the puck and looking at the goalie.

OK, I’m picking a spot and I’m looking for a spot.

So where am I gonna go?

Can I hit the five hole? Or should I go for a side?

I can’t really get lift, I’m not there yet. I’m so screwed.

Am I going to shoot off the right part of the stick? Am I balanced? Last shot went off to the right. Make it count.

All this runs through my mind in a matter of milliseconds. It’s all too fast, I’m thinking about everything. Too much thinking. It’s not natural. I’m not letting it play. I’m thinking about this I’m thinking about that. I’m letting it all bother me.

Flick the wrist!

The goalie moves.

The puck flies faster than I can comprehend.

Right into the goalie.

“Nice save.”

Skate back to line and try it again. Legs ache, lungs burn and head hurts but confidence is relatively unshaken. I’m not Gaudreau, Kane or Gretzky and I never will be.

Hell I’ll be impressed if I can gather in a pass and turn and fire without losing my balance.

Or let me throw a cross ice tape to tape pass that zips without bouncing.

Maybe I can stay on my skates without falling over. Stay on them without falling backwards. Remind me to always wear my helmet when I skate, will you? That soft spot on my head now reminds me of hitting my head on the ice.  I didn’t lose consciousness but I was a bit fuzzy a few days later.  There’s always that fear of a concussion.  I don’t need that.

Then there’s the big elephant in the room. ME. Yeah, me! The big feet that struggle to be fit into skates snugly and properly. One day I feel like I’m getting my skating legs back and the next day I think “nope I’ve got disaster written all over me again.”

I’ve gotta work on that.  Is that a confidence thing too?  Do I have to skate so much to the point I believe in myself?  I always thought it was a muscle thing.  Inline skating for so many years I could feel that feeling, but I think there’s some truth to the belief.

I have to believe that I can stop myself on the ice.  I have to believe that I can quick turn on the ice.  I can half turn without falling now.  I did that once after falling the first three times.  But that’s a win.  I have to believe I can stay balanced.

Take another pass. Crap I’m sloppy. Collect it, look up.

The goalie is standing. The five hole.  I gotta make this one count.  Look up. Look up, don’t look at the puck, feel it on the stick, there it is on the toe…that’s it…yeah it feel it on the toe..can I snap that off?

Have you ever heard the sound of the post?  Glove side just above the blocker but it hit the post.

But then again I have to get my ass back in shape.  I can only go so much before my legs give out.  Unfortunately I’ve let my cardio go and hockey will make you pay.  Watch it on television and you don’t realize it but hockey is tough on the body.  The added weight of equipment and the friction of the skates on the ice. Plus I’m trying to make myself move in a coordinated way which is a huge challenge.  I feel like a puppet on strings that someone is pulling me different ways I can’t keep up with.  I don’t feel natural.  I don’t know when I will feel natural.

I feel natural inline skating.  I haven’t felt natural on ice yet.  It’s too slick, my feet feel like they will give out.  There’s still a small fear of falling.  That has to stop.  Johnny Gaudreau scored one of his goals after one of the Preds fell last night and took out another player.  Guys fall all the time.  It’s ice right?  You are going to fall.  Just because you fall doesn’t mean you are bad, right?  I guess as long as you are doing your best, that’s what I tell my daughter.

My skating is funny.  I should get a video of me for the blog.  It should be video day.  Laugh at the funny hockey guy!  Although it may be good to see what I’m doing wrong.  There’s some good people out there.  They give great tips.  Shoulders up.  Stop leaning over the puck.  Bend your knees.  Yes yes!  I know!  I am trying.  It’s not natural.  I am trying.  Keep skating.  Yeah I’m trying.  I feel like I’m in quicksand half the time and Johnny Gaudreau and everyone else are passing me by like I’m standing still.  Am I?  Am I getting better?

 

Last try before I lose it.  Collect the puck.  Bend your knees dummy!  Here we go.  Don’t hunch over!  There’s the goalie standing again.  This time I’m going to hit that five hole! Feel the puck on the stick.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.  Slide to the toe.  I feel that.

Quick before the goalie senses.

Not pretty but there it went.  Wow.  A little confidence.  Maybe I can do this.  Is it time? It took Johnny ten seconds to score his second, trust me, I’m in for a long skate.