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.

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.

So You Think You Have The Confidence of Carey Price?

It’s ironic that Montreal Canadiens’ goalie Carey Price made me reflect on hockey.  An injury to the franchise player on November 25, 2016 was initially thought to be just a “week or two” thing.  Price hasn’t seen a game since that day and isn’t sure he will before the end of the season or the playoffs, if the Canadiens make it – things aren’t looking good for him or the team.

Skate backwards twenty-plus-years to when I played roller hockey in the sunny Southern states with a group of loyal compatriots and thought that I was pretty good at what I was doing.  I could go side-to-side, change direction in a flash, skate backwards, I could go pretty fast and I damn sure wasn’t afraid to stop on a dime.  There was also the roller hockey side – I could dish, I could put the puck where I had to (ok, the roller hockey ball). I was also “that kid” out there with the ice hockey gloves, yeah I know, but I went to Pennsylvania for a wedding and made my dad go to a hockey store. Hell I even played goalie pretty damn well – my one memory is stopping a penalty shot by using my forehead to block the ball.

We weren’t organized and didn’t put money into much, just sticks and the ball when we could.  We didn’t care about wearing masks and this was before Bryan Berard  and Marc Staal had eye injuries (sorry guys!).  We didn’t know any better either, we just did it for the typical “love of the game.”

We didn’t have any ice either – the NHL was just realizing that Northern “snowbirds” were screaming for hockey in Florida so they were installing two franchises in Tampa Bay and Miami.  A kid we went to school with, thought he was going pro (we might have been a little jealous), toted around a hockey stick and ice skates because he went to a rink that was an hour and a half away to play ice hockey. None of us could afford to either drive that far away or buy all that ice hockey equipment, nor would our parents take us.  Okay we were a lot jealous.

We did have a local hockey team in the East Coast Hockey League, the Hampton Roads Admirals, that our pro ice hockey kid learned from.  That’s where I learned my love of ice hockey, that and our local cable channel Home Team Sports that showed almost every Washington Capitals game.  Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin taught me a lot about the game because they were the only ones I had to learn from.

Locally the Admirals were coached by John Brophy, the same John Brophy who melted down on the bench of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 80’s.  Good times.  He did his fair share of melting down in the ECHL.  It was quite comical.

But we played probably ten games max of roller hockey at a tennis court on the edge of town.  A nice barely used tennis court, well-lit and out of the way but the Southern sun made it ridiculous to use during the day, so we played at night.

Until one summer night when some guys came out of nowhere with trouble on their mind.  I’ll tell you, there wasn’t much to me – 5-foot-10, 150 pounds max with skates on.  It was probably 9 or 9:30 at night and we had the lights on skating and I notice them, that’s always been something that I was good at was noticing my surroundings, and I noticed these guys coming up that obviously did not have skates.  One goes up to the breaker box for the lights and I’m planning my exit the whole time.  No one else had any clue what was about to go on.  Lights go out and I’m gone like the Russian Rocket.  I don’t know if I’ve ever skated or ran faster in my life.  Ten minutes later it was over and we hauled ass out of there never to return.

We still wanted to play and we tried to play at the tennis courts at the high school in town but the one night we tried someone called the cops on us – citing the trespassing sign.  I got tossed in the back of a cop car with skates still on my feet along with my fellow hockey players.  Imagine that, instead of bringing drugs or weapons to school we were playing hockey on the tennis courts!  Priorities.

After that, the most roller hockey I played was in my driveway with a goal I built from two-by -fours and a net I bought at a sporting goods store.  I skated so many times in the same circle that I wore the wheels down on an angle and I worked on a slap shot that broke the window of my parent’s garage door at least twice.  But I had nowhere else to go “for the love of the game.”

Finnish flash twenty-plus-years to Carey Price, “I want to be out there playing the game I love.”  Price continued, “that’s been the goal this entire time, to be able to come back with 100 per cent confidence, I didn’t want to come back at 90 per cent and still have that mentally kind of shadow overcast. We wanted to come back and make sure that I can compete at 100 per cent and lay it all out there because if you still have that mental block, you can’t play at your best.”

I followed hockey for those 20 plus years, even though I was introduced to hockey by the Admirals and Capitals (and early 80’s with Macgyver’s Calgary Flames hat) I was always a Toronto Maple Leafs fan.  Being a Buffalo Bills fan I guess it’s something about the area – or maybe it’s something about lovable losers, I can say it I’m a fan.  I wrote Doug Gilmour when he was at the Leafs and was sent back an autographed picture.  I still have it to this day.  I always admired the goalies, don’t ask me why but Jocelyn Thibault has always been my favorite player (I’m ducking – I know I know but Felix Potvin was never far behind).  These days Henrik Lundqvist gets the nod, and I support Jayson Megna since I’ve seen him skate at Wilkes-Barre Scranton.  Which brings me full circle.

So after seeing hockey live, I decided maybe it was time to get back on ice skates and roller blades and see what I could do.  Looking up ice rinks it turned out that the one near Wilkes-Barre Scranton was the closest one.  My daughter wanted to skate too, at 10 years old she decided it was time for her to learn to play hockey.  Ice hockey.  So now, we’re both learning.  We both have to learn to skate – I have to “re-learn” and she has to start the process.  For me, it’s getting back and believing in myself, that I can do it.  For her, it’s believing that her skates won’t fail her, that she can stay balanced. Carey Price talked about it, the confidence – you have to have it.

There’s something about that rink, along with the smell of the ice – you know?  You look at it and first maybe you are thinking “ok it’s not so bad, all these guys and girls are doing it.”  But then you step on it and you fall.  Then you fall again.  When you are a kid it’s not a big deal you have all these years ahead to learn.  But as an adult you are thinking “I should know how to do this,” especially if when you are younger you knew how to roller blade like a champ.  But this is so different.  The ice will eat you up.  There’s nothing like getting on that ice.  It’s so intimidating.  Especially if you see other people out there skating with sticks and pucks and they make it look so damn easy.

Guys or girls your age or younger.  I skated from one side to the other and considered it an achievement until I saw a young lady skate backwards faster than I skated forward.  How the hell do you do that?  And don’t get me started on bending my knees.  How do I stay so bent?  And puck handling?  Try to shoot the puck and fall on your face.  It’s ridiculous.  I just feel like a failure.  Then I watch someone else zing them in.  Then I try to pick myself up the ice and slip again.  It’s a natural thing isn’t it?

Or go watch the NHL and they make it look so easy and get paid half as much as baseball players.  Hell, that’s not right.  I’ll never complain about a hockey player being terrible.  I’m terrible.  Don’t pay me.  Pay me to stay off the ice.  I’m awful.  They say you just have to keep going back and training and training.  I get how people with so much talent wash out now.  I understand.  If you lose confidence it’s going to eat you up.  It’s tough.  I gotta get back on the skates – I think?

A New York State of Mind

It seems that the Rangers are on the upswing again.  Last season it was the game against the Penguins when they blew them out 5-1 in the Garden where it seems that you could see that they had that something.  Looking back on it when they made the Stanley Cup run, I saw that game as the spark, the signal that they were going to make something of the Eastern Conference.  Now I know every team has a bad game and every team has those games where they play out of their minds, but this was a Ranger team that was sinking faster than the Titanic in the middle of the Atlantic.  This was NY’s NBC Rivalry game on national TV.  This was a chance to shine after shaking off the Tortorella curse and shake it off they did.  Oh and did I forget to mention, I was there?  So was Wilkes-Barre Scranton’s own Jayson Megna who was a recent callup.  But it looked like after weeks of shaky play they suddenly decided to put it all together.  This season it looked to me like the Pens game was the game that the Rangers decided to come along as well.  December 8, 4-3 SO win and since then, they’ve been 24-6-2.  It’s like they decide to beat the pundits’ choice for top team and go on a run.  I imagine there’s more to it than that, but it looks like it from the outside.  They are second in the division right now, Lundqvist has been out since taking a puck to the throat but they’ve still managed to squeak out wins with Talbot in net.  It’s very possible this team is primed for another Cup run.   The Cup could be in a New York State of Mind.