This Week in the ECAC Northeast: Feb. 21, 2002

The Losing Effort

It seems that in hockey, especially hockey, players are trying to constantly delay the inevitable, to play as long as they can. Think about it. Why do you play all year round when you’re growing up? Why do you lift weights and do plyometrics during the summers and in the fall? Why do you go to prep school, or play juniors, or what have you?

It’s all a means to an end.

Almost all hockey players try to delay, as long as possible, the time when they have to take off the jersey for the last time. You try to get better, so you can play at a higher level, so you can play longer. But it happens, and there is nothing, except to keep winning, that you can do about it.

You can feel each second tick off the clock, a surreal slow-motion experience as if in a movie. You look at the clock and — click — you’re another step closer to the end. Your heart flutters. The coach starts calling your name a lot more. Even if you never did before, you begin to play on penalty kills and power plays and your line goes out there just a little bit more than usual on regular shifts. You tend to stay out a little bit longer on each shift, too, because you know that you’re getting closer to the end.

Parents shift uncomfortably in their seats. What are they going to do when it’s over? It’s been years they’ve been doing this. You’re tired because it’s the end of a game at the end of the season. But this is the season, your senior season. This is your last game of your last year.

Many seniors will experience this soon. Some already have.

It happens too quickly and it isn’t fun.

When the final buzzer sounds and you’re on the losing side — after all, only one team isn’t on the losing side at the end of it all — it’s like a giant weight suddenly drops out of the sky onto your shoulders, forcing the wind out of your lungs. You begin to hyperventilate, forcing back tears. You think, ‘Am I doing this right?’ You don’t want to be a spectacle. You want to go out with dignity. But you can’t. It’s over and you know it.

Your body knows it.

You take a look around and try and take it all in, remember what the banners hanging in the rink look like, what the final score was, how your skates felt on your feet, how your shoulder pads felt perfect when shifted a little bit to the right. Every detail.

Across the rink the other team is celebrating. It hurts. You shake hands. Maybe an old teammate is on the other side; he can tell you’re having a tough time with it. He’s glad, but he doesn’t gloat. He hugs you and tells you something nice. Every hockey player is genuine in moments like this. And then you shake the opposing coaches’ hands, and wish them luck.

Then it’s over. It’s really over. You step off the ice and into the rest of your life.

Soon you’re in the locker room. The coach makes a speech thanking the seniors for all they’ve sacrificed over the years, all they’ve done for the program, for being good role models for the young guys. And they all give you a hand. And it too is a very real moment. Again, players are genuine in these circumstances.

Pretty soon there’s a procession of younger guys who are glad they aren’t you right now. They shake your hand and tell you how much they admired you and looked up to you. They respected you, not only for how you played or what you said in between periods, but for the person you were. You were their teammate. And they appreciated that.

The key word being “were.”

You fight to hold back the tears. You’re not doing a very good job. Your eyes begin to ache like you’ve been up for 48 hours.

The mind races, thinking back to the street hockey games after school at your best friend’s house in seventh grade … the learn-to-skate clinic where you pushed a chair around for the first hour … your first goal … your first hat trick for which you got one of those cool patches … your peewee state tournament team … your high school team or prep school team or junior team.

All the steps it took to get you to where you are now. The sacrifice, the hard times, the slumps, the medals, the trophies, they are all a part of you — of who you are, your identity. “I am a hockey player,” you think, but not anymore. Not in any meaningful capacity, anyway. You’ll never put on a uniform in any meaningful game from this point on, no.

You take as long as you possibly can to take off your equipment and you don’t do it in the same order you usually do. You leave the jersey for last because it, like all the memories and broken sticks of the past, is a part of who you are. Maybe you pull it off a little bit and use it to hide behind, covering your face as you sob, almost uncontrollably, like when you were a little kid and you cried so hard that you started to convulse a little bit with each sob. That’s how you are now.

You think all the guys and the good times, the bad times, the 6 a.m. practices, the postgame get-togethers. And you love them. All of them. Even the ones you didn’t like. They are your teammates. They will be forever. Never again will you be this close to a group of people. You cannot replace that and you know it. That’s when you pull yourself together, for them more than for yourself. It’s your last duty as a member of a team, the last personal sacrifice you’ll have to make.

Slowly, ever so slowly, you begin to pull the jersey off. First over your head, then one arm and then the other. You might hold it for a while, smell it. You always loved the fabric softener the equipment guy at school used. Maybe, if you’re a neat guy, you fold it. Maybe you bundle it up and then, as you place the jersey in the shirt bag (you do it yourself because you want to be the last one to touch your jersey), you’ve touched the badge of honor, courage, sacrifice, all those years of effort, for the last time. And it hurts. But it’s worth it.

You know that scene at the beginning of one of the Rocky movies where it’s just Rocky alone in the shower, letting the water, mixed with tears, pour over him? You could see his pain. That’s what your shower feels like.

The bus ride home is dead silent at first. You stare through the clouded windows at the trees flashing by towards your return to school. “What if I had done this?” “What if I hadn’t done that?”

What if? Replaying each and every shift of the game in your mind. If you only beat that guy to the puck that one time, that one time, maybe … no. It’s over.

People begin to talk, low mumbles about emotionless things at first. “Toss me that pillow. Can I get by? I gotta go to the bathroom.”

But then someone will bring up a memory about sophomore year when it was just us at the dorms. Just us. Just the team. For the last time, you take advantage of it. Being a member of the team is a privilege you earned. Slowly the ride lightens up and people are together, talking and joking.

“This is it,” you think. “I might as well make the best of it.”

And, before you know it, you’ve told every story, some rehashed, some new. And then the bus driver — Gus or Johnny or Jacko — makes that final turn into the school.

You watch the sign as the bus crawls by. The coach says some more nice words. There is one last round of applause. The bus slows to a halt and everyone gets up and strolls off one by one. Guys grab their equipment; some, including you, for the last time. Hands are shaken again. It’s probably cold. Campus is probably jumping (these things happen on weekends, usually).

You walk back to the dorm, your apartment, whatever, and you’re again lost in your thoughts.

Months later you’ll probably talk about it with the other seniors. What they felt is almost exactly what you felt. And you’ll agree. Sure, it’s over. It’s really over now. But it was all worth it.

We are hockey players. We always have been, we always will be, and it’s great. But you didn’t want it to end. You’d give anything for one last shift. Anything.

And that is why the playoffs are so important.

It’s ECAC Northeast Playoff Time

The battle to keep playing is officially underway. Winners move on. Losers go home.

ECAC Northeast Quarterfinal: No. 8 Plymouth State at No. 1 Lebanon Valley

Plymouth and Larry Forgue came through in the clutch last week, earning a 1-0 shutout over Worcester State to vault themselves into the playoffs. Second-semester newcomer Bichal Bodnar scored the Panthers’ lone goal. Fantastic. Except for the fact that they earned the right to get on a bus and travel to Hershey, Penn., to take on the Flying Dutchmen of Lebanon Valley. This is a tall order, to say the least. However, in hockey anything can happen, especially in the playoffs. Just ask Team Sweden or Tufts (which lost to Salve in last year’s playoffs) last year. Both teams heavily favored and both teams went down. I know I’ve hammered this point home time and time again but I’ll say it again, they play the games for a reason.

ECAC Northeast Quarterfinal: No. 7 Salve Regina at No. 2 UMass-Dartmouth

Unlike last year’s playoffs, Salve is kind of crawling into the tournament this year. They lost their last two games and both were against other playoff teams, Curry and Fitchburg. UMD, on the other hand, is riding high after spanking JWU and having a full week off to prepare for the game. This is not a good sign for the Seahawks. The interesting thing about Salve is that they have already beaten UMD once in overtime and tied them early in the season. So they have to be brimming with confidence. UMD’s record and fantastic depth, scoring, defense and goaltending — they have no weaknesses really — should propel them past Salve, but you never know. Again, the game will be the story.

ECAC Northeast Quarterfinal: No. 6 Fitchburg State at No. 3 Wentworth

This could be the best battle of the weekend. This is a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal round, a 7-2 pasting by Wentworth, and the championship from the ’99-’00 season, a 5-1 whupping by Wentworth. But his is a different year altogether for both teams. Can Fitchburg buck the trend? The Falcons were 8-4 in the second half and they won their last four games. Wentworth has won its last three games by a combined score of 26-6. They are obviously clicking on all cylinders. Thus we have a matchup between two smoking-hot teams. Wentworth has been here before and been successful. Fitchburg has to be fired up beyond belief to play their nemesis of the last two years.

ECAC Northeast Quarterfinal: No. 4/5 Curry vs. No. 4/5 Johnson and Wales (If Curry defeats WNEC, at Curry, else at Johnson and Wales)

This is a great contest as well. The Colonels and Wildcats are two young teams with firepower. Neither team has much playoff experience so that should make things interesting. Curry dominated the Wildcats on February 9 in a game that saw the teams combine for almost 200 penalty minutes, including seven game misconducts and two disqualifications. Don’t expect that kind of mindless play; this is the playoffs. But there is obviously bad blood here and it should make for an interesting game.

Division II

Guess what? Not only are the ECACNE playoffs getting underway this week, but the Division II pursuit of the national championship begins this weekend as well.

Here’s a breakdown of this tournament, featuring three ECACNE teams, Assumption, SNHU and Stonehill.

The seeds are:

1. St. Anselm
2. St. Michael’s
3. Southern New Hampshire
4. Stonehill
5. Assumption

The preliminary game will be a play-in. Assumption travels to Stonehill on Saturday at 6 p.m., at the Bridgewater Ice Arena. The winner earns the right to take on ECAC East foe St. Anselm, the first seed in the playoffs, on Wednesday at the Tri-Town rink in Hooksett, N.H. The semifinal game begins at 7 p.m.

SNHU will travel to St. Michael’s on Tuesday. The puck will drop on that one at 7 p.m.

If St. A’s wins the game against Assumption/Stonehill, the championship will be held at Tri-Town Arena on Saturday, March 2, at 4 p.m. If St. Michael’s beats Southern New Hampshire and St. Anselm loses its semifinal game, the final will be played at 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 2, at St. Mike’s.

If SNHU beats St. Michael’s and St. Anselm loses its semifinal game, Southern New Hampshire will host the championship game at 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 2, at Tri-Town.

Let the games begin.

Until next week…