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.

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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?

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.

Two Great Passes and Some Burgers

About a week ago, on the day before the Penguins clinched their fourth Stanley Cup, I played one of the best games of my young hockey life.

Okay, it was my best.

To be fair, it was just open hockey and no one was watching or even paying attention.  No one but me.  The guy who has been judging himself  all along hoping that he’d be able to somewhat keep his head above water.  I doggy paddled throughout the session, but I wasn’t worthless out on the ice.

Recalling what might be one of my best passes ever, I think about one of my two best plays from open hockey that day.  A swift tape to tape cross ice pass hitting a streaking teammate.  I think I was so proud of the fact I actually completed the play I stopped skating and stared at it.  I know that’s bad but I’m not used to being productive on the ice.  Hell, I’m now able to somewhat skate for a while without getting tired.  Although half the kids are 20 years younger than me.  I feel like one of those old dudes from Scooby Doo, “I would’ve gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you meddling kids!”  

Then there’s the other moment that I’m proud of.  While it really makes no sense and I have no idea how I made it, I wish I had instant replay .  I was along the boards and I, of course, fumbled the entry but somehow recovered.  I think everyone knew I wasn’t going to do anything with the puck but my teammate was perched on the crease. She was all alone and I knew it.  I sensed a defender coming and I had no time to turn and make a good pass.  So I just backhanded a pass toward the net.  I whipped myself around, instantly cursing myself for making a stupid decision only to see her top shelf it on the crossbar.  Lucky.  Pure luck.  I guess sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Other than those two things I was pretty normal.  Normal for me means I get beat a lot, get run around the ice and try hard.  It’s fun don’t get me wrong.  

I’ve been watching Showtime’s series about the Stanley Cup Finals and I see frustration happens to everyone, even to the guys in the National Hockey League.  You just have to fight through it and play your game.  I suppose if nothing else I can always build on the fact that i impressed myself.  Plus it takes time, speaking of which, it’s about time the hockey gods granted Phil Kessel his Cup.  Cheers, if I ever run into you, the burgers are on me.