Missing The Ice

It’s been almost a year since the last time I laced up my Bauer skates and scratched some ice. My last experience left a lot to be desired however and I was determined that I was going to get better once 2017 came along. “After all ,” I thought,”this is one of my dreams and I’m doing something I always wanted to do.”

Then I hit one of those potholes in the road that someone forgot to patch up. Kinda like the department of transportation around here. I found myself staring down a bucket of onions and peppers. Tomatoes and avocados were on the other side. I heard pans and pots being moved, the unmistakable sounds of a professional chef chopping cilantro and a printer that seemed to never stop even when I thought there was nothing left.

Yeah, I’d seen Gordon Ramsey and other celebrity chefs on television who advertise their show is what restaurants are really like. But they are not what restaurants are really like. I thought I was good cook – I had no training and I went into the kitchen to learn from two culinary trained chefs (one C.I.A.). I had my pride handed back to me in the first hour. You can’t walk in a kitchen and know anything.

Honestly, some of the best things I learned from the chefs were to stay alert and be humble about your abilities. Be quick. Be prepared. Don’t do two things when you can do one. If you did something to a dish – own it. Don’t let it go out and come back. Don’t ever stop learning.

One of the biggest moments when I was learning was when I was struggling to fit in with one of the line cooks. He was very vocal to everyone. He yelled and made jokes about everything. Being the new guy it was my turn to face the wrath of him. He watched me like a hawk. No matter what chef said – this cook would take me to task whenever I did the slightest thing wrong.

“Move your ass,” he’d scream at me.

“Are you still chopping onions? You’ve had 20 minuets.”

Oh p.s. – nothing prepares you for the already hot kitchen with no breaks and no time to eat or drink until the rush is over. Just FYI.

It took me some time to realize that he was trying to push me and make me angry to do better. He saw that it was a button to push. By the end of my learning experience with the kitchen I considered him a friend and held no reservations for the way he treated me at the beginning even if I didn’t understand it. Keep pushing yourself even if you think you can’t.

Since that experience I wanted to try to get back on the ice and see how my willpower has changed. Life gets in the way. There’s no way to push aside the barricades that get thrown in your way sometimes. Mostly you have to do things you don’t want to. You have to suck up your pride, swallow your fear, look deep inside yourself and believe there’s something there that can push you forward. At least that’s the attitude I had when I started hockey. It’s something that translates to the kitchen too. It’s something we have to be reminded of from time to time. But it sure would be great to get back out there again.


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.

It’s Time To Stop Bitching About The NHL Refs

The fastest skater in the National Hockey League’s skills competition this past January, Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, completed a lap around the ice in 13.310 seconds. Imagine what you can do in 13.310 seconds. By the time you’ve read to the end of this sentence McDavid has already completed his turn around the ice.
For the average fan, we miss out on that speed when viewing the game on television. Everything blends together and at times the play can be quick but most times we get used to the pace of the players. That is until the ref misses a call and we wonder how they could have missed something right in front of them?

As someone who has been a ref for high school soccer games, there’s something to be said for making sure the game is called properly but not making the game about the rules. If you stop the game for every little infraction it could be a drawn out affair. Then again if you go into the game knowing the teams have a heated rivalry it’s important to let them know you are watching and by calling them out it improves the chances of level heads prevailing.

If you ref young kids, there’s the temptation to call everything as well. The best refs can “feel out” the game and speak to the players during the game to instruct them on what is going on.
“Hey number 8, stop pushing off. If you keep doing that I’m going to have to call it.”

Even when you blow the whistle as a youth ref it’s important to let the child know what happened and how to improve. I find that children get a lot of pressure from parents and coaches (even themselves) and sometimes as a ref it’s helpful to give them a little lift.

Getting back to the NHL, when it comes to being able to skate with these guys as well as watch everything that is going on on the ice-I’m in awe. These refs are truly amazing. If you think about the fact that some of them take pucks off of their bodies with no padding and skate the entire game with no line changes-they are some incredible individuals. Not only that but to see and break down the play of men who skate at speeds close to 40 mph according to some estimates, you have to cut them some slack.
I don’t want refs to be perfect. I don’t want them to be robots that get everything right. Bad calls and missed calls are a part of sports since their creation. Turning refs into computers and every play into instant replay slows down the speed and flow of the game. It makes coaches rely too heavily on fighting with the refs rather than coaching their players.  

I know I’ve bitched about Doug Gilmour getting high sticked in the playoffs and I’ll keep bitching. This is just the way it’ll always be. To be fair, the Leafs could have done more to not be in that situation to rely on that call. Good teams recover from bad calls and no calls. Sometimes it all comes down to luck and sometimes it’s just meant to be. Sometimes the better team wins-then again you can’t convince me the Kings were better!

Learning Humanity Through Hockey

On the last day of 2016. I found myself deep in thought at 70 miles per hour headed to a hockey rink.  While mounds of snow surrounded the state highway, I bathed myself in one of Canada’s national treasures: The Tragically Hip.  For whatever reason my music shuffled to “We Want To Be It” at the right moment and my mind wandered.

Drip, drip, drip.

I imagined what it would have been like to live in Canada and be traveling an hour, like I was, to play hockey.  All around me were the signs of what I pictured life in parts of our Northern neighbor must look like.  There was snow piled on the side of the road, some cars had snow on them, it was cold and of course my car was full of my hockey gear.

When’d you get so zen?

I thought about Gord Downie and what he must have gone through when he wrote this song – not knowing he would end up with terminal brain cancer.  Downie spent so much of his life introducing Canadians (and non-Canadians) to the culture and history of the country.  Downie introduced me to a little Ontario town known as “Bobcaygeon,” the “Hundreth Meridian” as well as some of the oddest and coolest historical parts of Canada. The legend of Maple Leafs’ player Bill Barilko has always been one of my favorite stories and Downie’s “Fifty Mission Cap” made him mythical.

Drip, drip.

However, driving through New York state isn’t even remotely close to Canada.  I’ll never forget the times I’ve driven on Queen Elizabeth Way in Ontario on the way to Toronto.  I always figured that if I could drive through New York City in rush hour or navigate the East Coast of the United States I could drive anywhere but the QEW is a completely different animal.  First, driving Kilometers is bizarre to me.  I’m so used to Miles Per Hour that when you put that km/h up on the sign, I start questioning my speedometer.  Plus I know that if I speed I’m going to get pulled over because I’m the guy from out of the country. Even if everyone else is blowing past me and trust me, if you drive the QEW they are going to blow past you, I will get pulled over.  Cars will leave you standing still like you aren’t even moving.  I’ve never driven a road like the QEW and I’m not sure there is anything that compares to it.

When you thought all my dreams sucked.

Getting to the rink, changing into my hockey gear and getting onto the ice for “sticks and pucks,” I realized that I wasn’t going to have a good day.  One side of the rink was full of 8 to 11 year olds, it seemed were killing it with their hockey coaches.  Center ice was full of younger kids and their fathers going from mini goal to mini goal at top speed.  Each time a kid ran into a goal I couldn’t help but imagine one of them breaking their necks but apparently they were made out of rubber.

Finally at the other end, “my end” so to speak was about five adults including myself. Taking turns shooting at a goal, we all were sizing each up until the oldest adult in a Red Wings jersey, took a cone from behind the boards and put it in the net.

“Four on four,” he shouted before pointing at a couple of the adults and a few of the 8 to 11 year olds.

I dropped down to the ice to stretch under the assumption that I would be picked for one of the teams.  As I stretched I could see one of the other players asking Red Wings jersey if I was playing.

“No he’s not playing,” Red Wings said as I finished stretching.

Was it because I was wearing the blue and white of my Toronto Maple Leafs?

Was it because I wasn’t the best skater?  I stood up, took my stick and puck past the red line near the bench and started puckhandling on my own.  From time to time I would look up and watch the rink, making sure that they knew I was there.  My new “Hamilton” Ribcore stick freshly taped pulled the puck back and forth while I avoided the young kids at center ice.

“Good play Ovie,” Red Wings yelled at one of the young kids on his team.

Apparently those young kids were much better than me or at least Red Wings thought he would rather play with them than me.  What does that say to me?  How should I feel? I come out to get better at hockey and instead of being given the chance to play, Red Wings picks little kids over me.  My heart sank.

I pondered the options: I could take it as an insult and take my puck and go home.  I almost did it too.  I stared at the rink door for a few minutes thinking how easy it would be to just skate over and leave.  If I just left I could avoid the embarrassment of being the adult standing by himself puckhandling.  I wouldn’t have the little kids out there staring at me. I wouldn’t have Red Wings skating past me as close as he could.

However, why should I let Red Wings win?  If I took my puck and went home it meant I drove an hour just to spend fifteen minutes on the ice.  It meant that someone else was going to dash my dreams.  It meant that I’m letting someone else decide whether I’m good or not.  It should be me who decides whether I give up or not.  It should be me who figures out whether I suck or not.  I can’t let Red Wings win.

I was just happy you gave a fuck.

After who-knows-how-long the game ended and I took the puck out to shoot on net.  One of the other adults called me over.

“Hey,” he said, “you are skating on the inside edges.”

“Yeah I know,” I replied, “I have a hard time with my edges.”

“Try these.”

He showed me a couple of skating moves that would force me to work on the outside edge of my blades, something that I went to a month’s worth of lessons to learn.

“I did some of these here in lessons,” I said.

“How long have you tried skating?”

“Since April.”

“I’ve been doing it for 40 years and I still do it wrong.”

If he does it wrong, well damn I’d hate to see doing it right.  This guy was skating backwards like a pro – moving every which way with the puck and smooth on his feet.

“There’s other classes you can take too, you should check them out.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

As the Zamboni came onto the ice, everyone scattered like flies and I was standing alone at the far end of the rink.  Me and the goal at the lonely end of the rink.  I just wanted to join in something but everyone was leaving – so I took the hint.

Might as well be on the moon

I got dressed and was the last one to leave the locker room – the weird guy who wasn’t a regular.  I have to admit if I knew it was going to be like that, maybe I would have reconsidered.  Between feeling like I was crap and being all alone for most of the session I could have been on a different planet.  No, it wasn’t fair, but at the same time I can choose to be better, I can choose to make myself better through work.  I’m not going to get better by taking my stuff and going home.  Had I walked through that rink door when I was left off the team I wouldn’t gain anything.  I would only lose.

It’s kinda lonesome though walking through a giant ice complex not knowing anyone and coming off a training session where you feel like crap.  I realize I’m not the most talented player and I have a lot to gain but the only way I’m going to get better is to play. I can’t help but feel like there’s a hidden message here somewhere.  I’m not sure what it is yet, but maybe in time.

Maybe the wound is too fresh, too raw and too exposed.  Maybe it’s just a matter of flat-out rivalry – Toronto and Detroit but I’d like to think that humanity is bigger than rivalry. Then again every single day we see prejudice, racism and animosity played out all over the world.  There’s no reason for us to let these issues cloud our judgement but we are humans and as such we make mistakes.  I can’t hold a grudge but I can choose to make myself a better hockey player.  I hope that one day they make themselves a better human.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of 2017 Or 2016 Blows

If you would have said to me in January that 2016 was going to be awful I might have believed you.  After all, I hadn’t had a terrible year in a long time, it was probably due.  I guess after so many years of decency the stars have to fall out of alignment don’t they?

If I only had known that when I started hockey this year, maybe I would have waited until 2017 to begin my journey.  Who knows what kind of emotional pain I could have saved myself.  I wouldn’t have saved the hours spent on the road between the rink and my house – it’s at least an hour to the closest rink.

The physical pain is a completely different thing.  An out-of-shape, late thirties, overweight guy who never knew who how to skate suddenly tries to take on the game of hockey with early twenty year olds who have been playing for most of their lives?  That’s a recipe for disaster, especially when I don’t like to lose.  I’m going to do whatever I can to keep up with them even if it means pushing my legs to the point of muscle pulls or my back to strains.  It’s all in the name of the game right?  Besides, that’s why I have insurance.

Of course insurance doesn’t cover the emotional pain.  The times I drove away from the rink trying to patch up that piece of me that broke in half every time I fell trying to execute a simple maneuver like skating with the puck or defending another player.  Realizing that you can’t do something as simple as the basics in a sport is demeaning.  If I compare it to something like basketball it’s like not being able to pass or drop down in the defensive stance.  You might as well pack up your equipment and go home.

With an hour plus drive my mind constantly went through all the things I did wrong.  I asked myself why I did them wrong.  More than anything it was because I simply wasn’t talented enough.  Because I’m starting this sport in my late thirties I don’t have potential, I would have peaked a long time ago.  The window is closed, the door is shut and there is no going back.  Each week I had to accept the fact that if I was going to make any gains, they were going to be small gains – I would never make that leap to where I always wanted to go.

It wasn’t so much an exercise in acceptance of athletic skill as it was starting to realize that my mortality was setting in.  Parts of my body were breaking down because I was letting them.  My mind was struggling to accept the fact that I was getting older.  I never had to look at my deficiencies in that light before.  Then again hockey does bring out weaknesses because it is extremely demanding.  Somehow I was a bit more angry with myself.  Fighting to find happiness with what I was doing but I was trying my hardest not to show it.

Also, I came to realize that it’s tough to be a volunteer, especially when you care about what you are doing.  Some in a community organization find themselves interested in the glory.  If there was a Hall of Fame for these people, they’d be the first to say they were there doing it all.  It wouldn’t matter whether they really made a difference or not.  They just want the recognition.

I’ve been told that I don’t make my feelings known.  I’ve also been told that I make big deals out of small things and I can’t let things go.  When I look at these two statements I have a hard time balancing them out.  In this situation, I had a really hard time with the volunteer organization because individuals would criticize me for stepping up to help when all I wanted was to do right for the children involved.  I’m not worried about getting a prize or getting a pat on the back.  If I have the ability to help then I will help.  I want to be able to contribute so that others can benefit.

However, some don’t see it that way.  They want to take up their stones and throw them because I live in a house that doesn’t look like theirs.

To that end, I say okay.  At some point this year, I accepted the stone throwers.  I wasn’t going to change the way they felt about me.  I wasn’t going to change how they treated me.  What I could do was be the best volunteer I could be and at the same time hand those that wanted to toss rocks some of the shiniest rocks they’ve ever seen.  I might as well polish them for them.  Instead of being mean and nasty to them, why not be polite and smile?  I guess if I’m going to get hit with a few pebbles they oughta be clean.

It’s been a struggle to find that balance this year between the things I feel and how I should feel.  The question is though, “what should I feel?”  Who should tell me what to feel?  Should I let someone judge me for what I feel?  It’s okay for someone to give me constructive criticism but it’s up to me to discover what I really am.  Those things I felt after hockey, those are things that I truly felt.  My feelings are my feelings.  If I wish to express them, sometimes I have to express them.  I started this blog to express them.  If I really need to get something out there I’m going to tell you how I feel.  If something bothers me, you will know about it.  However, I’m not the kind of person that is going to put out a line and say “hey, that new Matchstick Cats book is great.”  That’s why I don’t use things like Facebook.  I’m just not that kind of person.  I keep a lot to myself, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think things.  I just don’t always share because I don’t feel these things are important.

Maybe 2017 will come along and I’ll realize that I don’t suck at hockey.  Then again, I’ll go skate and fall on my face again.  I’ll go stick handle a puck and it will go off to the side.  I’m no Jayson Megna.  I wondered the other day if I put together a group of my favorite hockey players how that would work out.  Somehow I would step on the ice with them and end up breaking something.  Breaking something like my stick or my wrist or my leg.  This is just how things go for me.  Or at least that’s how 2016 has gone.  Maybe the bad has outweighed the good of this year.  It’s not supposed to be that way.  No one is supposed to stare into the abyss and see the darkness.  No one is supposed to stare up in the sky and realize there is more emptiness than stars.

Country music singer Cam released a song this year called Burning House where she reflects on a dream that she had.  The person she is singing to is stuck in the burning house and she goes on to say she’s “trying to take what’s lost and broke and make it right.”  2016 feels like that song where so many things are lost and broke – I hope that in 2017 the pieces come back together.  I hope the north star shines brighter than the emptiness of the night sky.  I can’t take another 2016.

The Brutality Of Hockey and The Acceptance Of Fighting

Since purchasing the NHL Center Ice package from my cable overlords, I’ve had the pleasure of watching as many Maple Leafs games as I can handle.  There’s never enough trust me!  I’ve also seen Jayson Megna play a fantastic offensive game in Tampa – I think he needs to sign with a Florida team because he’d be a 20-goal scorer.  I’ve also noticed that for as much as I’d like to believe, there is not a good game on every night.  Sometimes there are relatively few on and they are rather random and strange.

Take for example December 14th’s matchup pitting the San Jose Sharks taking the ice against the Senators in Canada’s capital, Ottawa.  Now normally, I would not pay this matchup any mind or even pay to watch it.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a hockey game and I’m down for hockey, but I don’t have a dog in the fight.  However, with time on my hands and the Pittsburgh – Boston game on commercial I took up the challenge.

Somehow I got taken in and didn’t go back to the Pens but that’s not the story.  I watched a guy take his stick and cross check another man to the back of the head.  Senators forward Mike Hoffman skated up behind Logan Couture and cross checked him to the back of his head, dropping the Sharks forward to the ice.  Couture unstrapped his helmet, lay on the ice and then was helped up gingerly by a trainer to the locker room.  Hoffman’s hit was deemed to be retaliation for a high stick on Sens’ all-star defenseman Erik Karlsson by Marc-Edouard Vlasic that was not called/seen by the officials.  Karlsson wasn’t injured on the play and had no visible marks from Vlasic’s actions if they were intentional or not.

Now, I’ve seen brutality in hockey.  I grew up in the time of Washington Capitals’ Dale Hunter checking the New York Islanders’ Pierre Turgeon after scoring a goal.  Something I was completely unprepared for and I know Turgeon wasn’t either.  I remember the battles between Detroit and Colorado that turned into a bloody conflict with names like Draper, Lemieux, McCarthy and Maltby.  These were games where every hit seemed to push the game closer and closer to a full-out brawl.  I can remember seeing Kris Draper get checked into the boards by Claude Lemieux breaking bones in Draper’s face.  Or the blood left on the ice when McCarthy took revenge on Lemieux the next year – even after the Zamboni went through the stains were visible.

Maybe I’m getting older and starting to misunderstand things.  I understand when guys take up with the player that caused the injury – the Sens going after Vlasic or the Red Wings going after Lemieux.  I’m not even condoning their action but I understand. However, when everyone that is on the ice becomes open game to cross checks or slashes or high sticks that can cause permanent injuries then the league has to reel in the players.  The league has been trying to curb fighting for some time now but the problem with that is that the guys who fight are there for a reason.

On the same night when Chris Neil was honored for his 1,000 NHL game, Hoffman’s actions proved that men like Neil are necessary for this game to continue.  Neil, who has never scored more than 33 points in a season, has stood up for his teammates and led by doing what others won’t.   Hockey is a rough sport, I understand that and I think everyone who steps on the ice gets that as well – you don’t put on all that gear for nothing.

However, if you are a guy who can score there are going to be people who are going to go after you to put you off your game.  As long as checking is legal, someone is going to try to push that limit.  When they go too far and knock the leading scorer out of the game, what is the league going to do about it?  Suspend the other guy?  What does that harm the other team at that point?  That’s why teams have “enforcers.”  A team says “hey you want to push my guy I’m going to push your guy.”

Guys like Neil, Bob Probert, Tie Domi and Tiger Williams are remembered for their ability to fight but that doesn’t account for what they did for their teammates.  The name in the lineup shows that their teams weren’t going to allow opponents to push around the stars. When Hoffman hit Couture no one was there to go after him, San Jose had no Chris Neil. Hoffman wasn’t afraid of being knocked down by a guy like that so he could freely go after one of the opposition’s best players.

However, for the tough guys there is a tremendous toll this takes on their body and their mentality.  It isn’t easy for them to gear up every night to take on the other big guy in the opposition’s lineup or even to know that they are the target of the next up-and-coming rookie who wants to make a name for himself.  Derek Boogaard struggled with his role as a strongman during his time in the NHL with stints in Minnesota and New York.  Boogaard masked his physical and emotional pain with the pills he was given to sleep and pills he bought from dealers.  Boogaard would eventually succumb to his demons but not before leaving a lasting impression on those around him and leaving me to question what guys like him go through.

What is it about a hockey fight that people enjoy?  The brutality?  Going back to the root of human violence?  We preach to our children not to take out their differences through fisticuffs but it’s okay in hockey?  I struggle with the balance in hockey because I’m not a violent person.  Just like anyone else I enjoy watching a great hit or perk up when I see two guys drop the gloves.  However, after seeing Mike Hoffman drop Logan Couture I wonder how someone can do that to another human.  What goes through your mind?  Do you think “I’m just going to hit him in the back of the head?”  Maybe I’ve just never been put in that situation.

I know I’ll never play in the NHL and understand the pressures they go through but I can’t see myself ever hitting another human in the back of the head with a stick.  It’s disturbing.  I’m not disturbed by a lot and I am prepared for violence in hockey but I’m not prepared for someone trying to kill another human being.  If Hoffman hit Couture hard enough in the head could he have caused brain damage?  Could it have been deadly?  Possibly.  It’s bothersome to think that was the true intention of Hoffman.  I’d like to think these guys respect each other, but I’m not so sure anymore.  I can’t say I appreciate you if I chop you in the back of the head.  It’s a troublesome conundrum and I’m not sure which way to go, all I know is that I’m not in the NHL.  If I was I would hope there would be a Chris Neil there to watch my back, if the NHL gets rid of guys like him, it’s going to get worse.

Philip Larsen Taught Me To Take Chances

Jayson Megna and the Vancouver Canucks skated into New Jersey on December 6, 2016 – I was upset when I found out that it was going to snow and I wouldn’t be able to go.  As a Megna fan, since seeing him play with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League, I’ve watched him move from one organization to another. I watched him with the Pens then the New York Rangers and now with the Canucks.

Around the 15 minute mark of the 2nd period of the game, Canucks defenseman Philip Larsen skated behind his net to gather a puck.  With his head down watching his stick, New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall launched his body through the 27 year-old Dane.  As Larsen fell backward, his head hit the ice and his body went lifeless.

Larsen’s on-ice teammates rushed to the boards near him to push Hall, unconcerned with the young Canuck lying frozen below them.  One flew in so fast his skate hit Larsen’s helmeted head, a stick flew onto Larsen’s body and Larsen’s outstretched gloved left hand was struck by another careless player.

As many emergency technicians will tell you, when you reach any accident scene you don’t move the injured – in fact you do whatever you can to keep their head and neck steady. This is why the skate hit to the helmet was so bothersome, if Larsen had a break in his spinal column and it was moved about, he could have been injured further by recklessness.

December 6, 2016 was also the day before Philip Larsen’s 27th birthday.  I don’t believe Larsen stepped on the ice thinking that he would be knocked out by a check.  In fact, I don’t believe any player steps onto the ice thinking they are going to get hurt by a check or a skate or a stick.  If you step out thinking that’s going to happen you probably shouldn’t be out there.

However, as I was watching the game live on television and saw Larsen lying in what can only be described as an “out cold” position, I couldn’t help but wonder about the fine line that we as humans are always walking.  What if I just watched Larsen get hit and die there? A guy behind the glass was so “amused” with the situation he was getting ready to take a picture of Larsen flat-out on the ice until Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom yelled at him. How could someone want a picture of that?  As I rewound it a few times to hope that maybe I saw him move after the hit I started asking myself what is wrong with us.

Honestly, don’t get me wrong, I like playing hockey.  I love the feeling of skating up and down the ice, the passing and shooting.  At some point we’ve crossed a line in society and it seems we are seeing the bubbling up of trouble.  When people are hurt and someone’s first reaction is to take a picture – that’s a problem.  Some may shout that society has become too politically correct but I think society HASN’T become humanity correct.  We’ve strayed away from caring about others to the point that we are so quick to act out in violence.

Yes, I get that some sports are full of violence and I understand that hockey is one of them. I am sure that Philip Larsen knew that hockey is a violent sport and I’m sure he’s committed violent acts.  That’s not the point, the point is that one violent act doesn’t deserve another or even deserve a cruel act.  He didn’t deserve to have someone take a picture of him as he was laying cold on the ice – possibly dying.

As the 26 year-old, at that time, was being attended to all I could think about was how much more life he had to live.  How fragile that line is that he walks when he steps on the ice.  Maybe he understands more about that line now or maybe he’s like other athletes and pushes it to the side to keep going.

Over a 12 year span in the NHL, Sidney Crosby has had at least three concussions leading me to wonder if the next one will be the last for one of the greatest hockey players ever. It’s more than possible that Larsen has one too after the hit that he took.  If knowing that these types of blows to the head can lead to devastating long-term effects like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, how can one want to keep rolling the dice?

I guess that’s a question we all face on a daily basis.  Every day that we get up, put on our clothes and go out we are facing some sort of odds – whatever they may be.  For all we know space junk could fall out of the sky as small of a possibility that there is, it still could happen.  Something could always happen, whatever it is.  The average life expectancy in the United States is 78 meaning we have to make the most of our time on this planet. Nothing is guaranteed and we shouldn’t take anything for granted.  A chance may come along and it may scream to be taken – take it.  One day when you are 77 years-old you may curse not taking it.  Or when you are 78 you may be thankful you did.

From the Legion of Doom to Auston Matthews

In the “new NHL” speed, skills and stickhandling have been put on display on a nightly basis.  Players like Auston Matthews, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Phil Kessel put their talents on center stage for audiences to view when their teams take center ice.

The attitude of the league is different now too.  Quick skaters with the ability to put the puck in the net are desired.  Teams used to want power forwards like Keith Tkachuk, who could bang his body around the boards and seperate defenseman from the puck while being able to bury a one-timer.

Eric Lindros was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this year on the back of his 372 goals, 493 assists and 1398 penalty minutes.  Lindros was described as a “once in a lifetime” player who was able to impose his 6 foot 4 inch, 240 pound frame on other skaters and move up and down the ice with the pace of a first line winger.  His ability to dominate a game was what made him the first pick of the 1991 draft that the Quebec Nordiques would trade to the Philadelphia Flyers for a boatload of players, picks and cash. Although to be fair, none of what would be traded would come to equal what the Flyers got in return for the eventual Hall of Famer.

Lindros would use his strength and brawn to control the ice in front of and behind the net. Whether it was with intimidation or by flat out pushing opposition players, Lindros scored using his strong frame.  The game was different during his reign as a Flyer.  His line of John LeClair and Mikael Renberg were dubbed the “Legion of Doom” because they ruled the ice when the trio skated together.

It’s ironic that the one player who could be called a “power forward” is also a Flyer, Wayne Simmonds.  Simmonds however is 6 foot 2 and weighs a meager 183 pounds, imagine how much the game has changed since the time of Lindros?

Now players are tall, lean, fast, muscular skaters who are able to escape a check rather than deliver one. Gone are the days of the open ice checks of Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer who paired together on the blueline for the New Jersey Devils destroying anyone who skated over the neutral zone with their head down.

Concussions have become the buzzword in the NHL.  In the 2015-2016 season, Calgary Flames defenseman, Dennis Wideman, was hit by Miikka Salomaki, a Nashville Predator right wing.  The hit rattled him and I’m convinced as he bounced off the board, he had no idea where he was after the Predator skated away.  It appeared that the front of his helmet hit the glass at the right, or wrong depending on the definition, angle to cause a concussion.  As Wideman got up, he skated toward the Flames bench while a Predator and linesman Don Henderson came his way.  With his mind rattled, he did not take his time on the ice, he immediately began skating which I believe caused him to jumble the two skaters and think that the linesman was an opposing skater.  As he tried to get to the Flames bench he pushed Henderson down on the ice with both hands, causing head trauma to the linesman.  Wideman was ultimately suspended 10 games after his original 20 game suspension was turned over in the appeals process.

Blows to the head leading to concussions have become such a hot topic in all areas of sport, not just the NHL.  However, the NHL has become very wary of what it can do, especially after the Wideman incident.  I don’t believe the NHL did enough for Wideman in this situation though.

The NHL has long wanted to move past it’s rough and tumble image of “I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out” to more of a skills competition.  There are many fans who believe that hard hits and fights should be a part of hockey just like the big hits in football.  When Auston Matthews takes the ice for the Toronto Maple Leafs someone on the bench has to be there to protect the star center.  At least in the days of Wayne Gretzky, he had a guy like Marty McSorley who would take on anyone to make sure that no one would drop Gretzky with a blindside hit.

On November 5, 2016 Matthews’ teammate Nazem Kadri took out Vancouver Canuck Daniel Sedin with a blindside hit.  Sedin hit the ice with so much force his helmet popped off and his head rocked back and forth shaking his brain matter.  Sedin’s teammate Jannik Hansen flew over to Kadri and begin pummeling the Leafs center with whatever he could muster.  In a game of checking, these kinds of hits are going to happen – Kadri’s hit was deemed legal by both the refs and the league for what it is worth.

As long as these players skate fast on thin blades and give everything they have to win a trophy that’s as elusive as the Stanley Cup, there will be passion displayed on the ice.  This emotion will come out as pushing and shoving, yelling, celebrating or fighting.  Anytime you get grown men together and put them in an enclosed area, testosterone will take over.  However, in a situation like this with so much to gain and large sticks in their hands, these men are going to use whatever they can to gain an advantage.

In a way it might seem savage to celebrate fighting and the big hits that players dish out on each other.  After all we are trying to look out for the safety of one another by giving them helmets, padding and all that gear.  At the same point, we are humans who seem to thrive on violence whether it is in the news or in the movies or in our entertainment. Wars are constantly being fought across the globe no matter what day it is or what time it is, it seems humans are always in conflict.

As we evolve the question we have to ask ourselves is should our sports evolve as well?  Do we still want to see athletes pound each other? Boxing still exists and Mixed Martial Arts are beginning to break into mainstream television coverage.  When children are dying in places like Gaza and Africa sometimes we don’t realize how much violence exists in our world.  It may not be happening in front of us, but it is happening.  We turn away from Sarah McLachlan’s animal commericals because they are too emotional, we can’t imagine someone beating or mistreating an animal.  Yet, children are starving just across the border from one of the world’s richest countries on Earth.  In fact, children are starving here in the United States.

No, hockey isn’t everything, it’s an escape from dealing with something or everything for a short period of time.  For some people it’s a way of life, a way of making a living or a way to exist.  For most however, it’s just an outlet or something to believe in when life gives us a reason to be distracted from the the awfulness on the horizon.  It isn’t fair, no, to spend three hours engrossed in men with pads, jersey and skates beating each up while the world burns.  But it’s what we have for those three hours to reflect upon our own personal goals and what we can do – maybe even what we can’t do.  If nothing else, we realize that humanity is cheap when so much is on the line and we have to decide for ourselves what it is that we believe in.  Do we wish to be the aggressor, the victor, the one full of pride or the one who submits?

I Am “Half-Drake” On Skates

For those of you who have read my blog posts for a while, you know that Drake is one of my favorite artists of all time.  Whether you like him or not, we all have different tastes and I can respect that.  The following comes from one of my favorite songs of his – “Headlines”:

“I might be too strung out on compliments overdosed on confidence, started not to give a fuck and stopped fearing the consequence.”

The reason why I like it so much is because I always hoped that one day I might be able to be so confident that I could get to the point where I could feel that way about myself.  He feels this way about his rapping abilities that he just doesn’t “give a fuck” what you think about him.  Imagine?

I only wish I could get to that point with my skating.

I’ve started to feel that after six months of skating I am no “Drake on skates” and I am not “overdosed on confidence.”  My back feels like it is going to break in two after I have been playing for a while.  Whether it is because I have bad posture in my chair at my 8-to-5 or because I am overweight (I am), or because I simply am not cut out for it – I don’t know.  All I know is that the more that times goes on the more I struggle with a body that doesn’t cooperate with the things that the heart and mind wants it to.

I always hear that “you can do anything you want to if you try hard enough.”  “You can be anything you want to be.”  Of course that’s probably more for kids.  It sucks.  I try to be positive and keep my head up.  I try to push myself to turn that Drake side on but he won’t come out.

As soon as I get out there for twenty to thirty minutes and I twist the wrong way I’m feeling it.  Yet, I’m going to push myself.  The last time I went out and played hockey I was pretty sure I pulled something in my quad but I pushed through as hard as I could.  One leg skating in circles on defense trying to block shots.

Half-Drake.  What is that? “Fearing the consequences?”

I can’t fathom how I get past this.  As winter approaches my skating will be limited due to traveling through bad weather on poor roads.  So what do I do?  Regress?  That’s all I can do.

It’s hard to take all that in.  It’s hard to look at yourself in the mirror and say “hey you can’t skate without hurting yourself.”

Or “hey you can’t referee without hurting yourself.”

Maybe there is something wrong?  Maybe I’m just clumsy.  Maybe I’m not meant to do physical activity.  Getting to this point in my life and coming to that realization is a tough pill to swallow and it may even be a bitter one at that.

If the best I can do is open up my Xbox and load an NHL game, how do I accept that will be the closest I come to playing in a hockey game?  After all the blood, sweat and tears that I’ve spent trying to learn I don’t know how to accept that.  I’m not sure I can.

In the middle of a Chicago Bears – Minnesota Vikings radio broadcast former NFL quarterback and potential Hall of Famer Kurt Warner said that football “is a game of confidence.”

I disagree.

I think all sports are games of confidence.  I think everything having to do with sports revolves around confidence.  As soon as I step on that ice if I’m not confident in my ability I might as well turn right around and get my street clothes on.  However, that’s my problem.  But it’s a dual edged sword.  If I don’t go out there and find something to give me confidence then I’ll never get it.  If I don’t keep skating until I do something positive, what is the point?

I just wonder where is the fun in absolutely struggling?  Yet, if I know that this is a goal I want to achieve how do I quit?  I find myself in a position that there is no answer to solve either question.

I try to find some philosophical answer by looking to the meaning of things and realizing that things are only important if we give meaning to them.

I have to break down the wall.  To build a wall is to limit myself – yet I have to find that confidence to smash through.  Yet it bleeds over into everything else.  I struggle to find positivity on a day to day basis and that hurts too.  Until I can find that “overdose of confidence” I’m going to struggle to find the other side of the wall.

Tolerating The Light and Dark Of Pain

After what seemed like forever but was only about a month and a half, I geared up and stepped back on the painted ice.

I’ll admit I was nervous driving to the rink. I spent the almost two hour trip thinking about the mistakes I had made previously. I also knew that I wasn’t the same skater or the same player.

Sure, I was the same person. Maybe I’d changed philosophically because we all are supposed to be growing, changing and learning in some way, right?

I thought that my legs wouldn’t fail me this time.

“They couldn’t,” I told myself. “I’m not going to let them.”

Driving toward the rink I noticed people headed to the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins opening game only a few miles down the road. My little rink was many levels down in terms of competition but it felt like it was the start of my season too.

I forgot how heavy the equipment bag can be when you don’t lug it around every day. Maybe not heavy but just bulky and unweildy. Holding the door for some people coming out of the rink it got in their way.

After seeing the class instructors, I caught up on what was going on while checking out the CCM RBZ Revolution sticks – damn they are nice. I paid and dressed for what I hoped would be a fun time on the ice.

I carted my stuff to the locker room and pushed the door open to the fewest number of people I’d ever seen.

I was greeted with “Hey you’re the long distance guy.”

“Yup that’s me.”

Normally I’m either Kessel (after my Phil Kessel jersey I wear), rookie, John or “Bend your knees.”

Take your pick – I’ll answer to any of them. My favorite is probably Kessel because I like to think I look like Kessel. I’m like the guy that you see at the press conference that doesn’t appear like he should be out on the ice but is a hockey player anyway?

Although Kessel is a bit more than that. Kessel is a star. He might not look like Lundqvist or have the Crosby mold he damn near willed the Pens to victory last year. In fact I still believe he should have won the Conn Smythe.

But I digress.

Anyway, I took my stuff out of my bag and I thought about the first time I dressed. It’s funny to think about some of these things that you never forget how to do once you learn them. It’s like that old saying “you never forget how to ride a bike.”

I’m not sure if getting hockey equipment on is quite like that or if it’s more like bundling up Ralphie’s brother up in A Christmas Story. Once you bundle him up a few times you’ll never forget that you can push him out the door and let him roll around in the snow without getting hurt. I kinda feel like that kid when I get everything on.

I did my best not to have fear when I stepped on the ice. My skate hit the ice and I thought I was going to fly right over to the board but I felt my balance go just a little bit. I corrected myself and skated over to the bench to drop off my water.

I got out on the ice and it felt weird. The ice was fast. Really fast. Or was I faster than I remembered? Either way I felt better. Something was going good.

As soon as the pucks were brought out and I started with shooting I felt that feeling. It’s Hockey Night In America.

I ripped one at the net. Probably 10 miles an hour – but it felt good coming off the stick. I skated around and took shots. Then one puck came flying over to me so I leaned into a slap shot. It was too much leaning and down I went. That was the first of what would be many falls on the night.

After a few minutes the drills began. Some skating to warm up. Then on to the good stuff, the passing and shooting with some great commentary from our instructors:

“Let’s play by the seat of our pants.”

“But not end up on the seat of our pants.”

Too late. Besides, my game is to end up on the seat of my pants. If I don’t end up on the seat of my pants I’m not playing.

That my friends is probably the problem.

Coming around the crease to try and stop a pass I either cut an edge too close or got caught in a rut. Down I went. I knew something was wrong. I felt it in my quad and my back flared up. Something was wrong and I skated away from the drill and went to the other side of the ice. I tried to stretch and water thinking it was a cramp.

No such luck.

I sat and stretched as well as rested.

The drills turned into a 3 on 3 small ice game. Which I eventually got on the ice for and I paid the price. Pain.

The only one who knew was the goalie on my team. He saw me stretching and reaching for my quad.

Trying to fight through it I could only go so far on one leg and I pushed to chase down a loose puck all the way to the blue line.

As fast as I could before the whistle blew.

Another twinge of pain.

Now another change – 5 on 5 full ice.

No chance.

I’m not going to make this.

I skated as hard as I could for as long as I could before my back and leg gave out. I couldn’t put any weight on it. I couldn’t push off on my leg. I rotated back to defense and skated around in a circle like I had a flat tire. I blocked shots with my stick and skated as high up the ice as I could so I could get back in time but everyone caught me flatfooted.

I did manage to block some decent attempts. However I felt terrible. I gave everything I could to the point I felt like I was going to throw up. As soon as the class was over and I got off the ice I managed to hobble to the locker room and sit down.

After I got out of my gear and into street clothes I knew I was in for a long painful drive back.

I thought about how hard it must be for guys who are visitors in the NHL that get hurt and have to fly back home. Getting onto a plane, dealing with pain and trying to sleep in one of those seats. If it’s a trip across country I can’t imagine how difficult that must be.

In John Branch’s telling of former NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard’s life “Boy On Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard,” he details many times when the skater would visit a team doctor to pick up Ambien to help him sleep through the night. These drugs would be given to the players for them to cope with travel demands as well as pain issues so that they could fall asleep because doctors had deemed them safe to be used.

I wondered how that would play out over the life of an NHL player. Certainly Boogaard had his own demons that he was never able to shake. Team doctors never got to the bottom of those and continued to dish out pills like candy that only masked the symptoms and lead him to rehab after rehab. His real pain was hidden behind the highs of whatever he could get his hands on while still getting on the ice and dishing out punishment on someone else.

When the tolerance for these drugs moved up so too did the amount he took. A consequence that would eventually take his life – a life taken too soon.

I’ve often wondered how many of these cases happen that we don’t hear about? How many Derek Boogaards don’t make it to the NHL? Boogaard had an issue back in junior hockey. No one addressed it then. The physical pain is swallowed and a player deals with it through some other means. However another kind of pain can’t be dealt with. Maybe it’s an emotional pain. Boogaard had all the signs of depression but was never treated.

How we deal with our pain whether it is physical, emotional or mental is complicated. There is not always a right way or a wrong way. How Boogaard dealt with his pain isn’t right for me to say. I never walked in his shoes. I know he cried out for help at times and the signs were missed. I just wonder if at times we don’t know how to truly deal with the pain. Or maybe we don’t know how. Pain is such a tricky topic. It comes in so many forms. One pain is not like another. I don’t know how you experience it. What I do know is that it can’t always be fixed. Sometimes it lasts a lifetime. Sometimes it has to be moderated. For those like Boogaard that can be a scary thing.

I hope that I can continue to fight through the back and leg pain and skate. I hope these things don’t stop me. But I don’t know. Some people have a body that doesn’t respond well to certain activities. Maybe that’s me? I struggle to find some sort of balance. While trying to still play a game I think loves me back.