March approaches. It’s a time when the Rites of Spring gain headlines. For many people, it means getting excited about spring training and the pending baseball season. Though for some of us, it means the Yankees made better offseason deals and the Red Sox rotation is still two pitchers short.
For those reading this column, it is also a time for studying the Pairwise Ratings and constructing mock NCAA brackets for Ann Arbor, Minneapolis, Providence and Worcester. Of course, you know there is a tournament upset or two just waiting to happen. Not a comfortable time if your favorite team is sitting in that 13th or 14th spot.
For me, there is another Rite of Spring. I have to decide if I’ve just finished my last season of playing hockey. The decision can wait until the fall, when that call comes. But as the equipment gets hung up in the basement, there is that sense that comes each spring that maybe this is the last time for this particular ritual.
I’ve been playing goal for about 36 years and for the past two winters, I’ve found a great outlet for my hockey yearnings. No more adult leagues. No more “no-check” tournaments. It’s just the same group of guys, every Thursday night for 80 minutes at a suburban private school rink. No refs. No scoreboard. Just the white shirts against the dark. Adult pond hockey, basically.
What makes this particularly attractive is the fact that almost all of us, whether 31 years old or 51 years old, played for the same high school and the same coach. There’s a lot more going on here than a weekly skate.
Now, I realize this means very little to you readers. I mean, this isn’t Bourque retiring after winning the Cup. It’s not Messier finally slowing down. But in my own little world, it is difficult to give up the one activity that has basically defined me for most of my adult life. Plus, if you “don’t” do something anymore, it’s a short walk to the realization that you “can’t” do that something anymore. And no one wants to acknowledge that.
This isn’t necessarily a case of stopping because it isn’t fun anymore or acknowledging failing skills. Hell, I’ve watched my modest skills eroding for years. I’ve responded by, a) lowering my own standards, and, b) finding a different level of competition. It’s a feeling that, with the demands of my job and my family growing, it might just be time.
In fact, for some reason I can’t fully explain, it has been more painful watching the skills of others erode. I’ve seen mine decline gradually over a long period of time. And, to be honest, I was never a superstar to begin with. But watching some of my friends’ skills go, now that has made me feel old. There are certain buddies with whom I have played, almost continually, since youth hockey. There has been a certain sense of comfort watching them make great plays with quick hands and uncanny anticipation. Suddenly, they can’t do it with the same regularity. And it makes me feel that my world is changing and I don’t like it.
Some nights, I call what I do “Playing Hockey.” Other nights, I call it “Standing On Ice While People Shoot Things At Me And Hope That They Hit Me.” That doesn’t sound quite as attractive.
Anyway, I’ve made a list of some of the things I’ll never experience again if I decide to hang ’em up.
- I’ll never experience lugging the oversized bag of equipment up the cellar stairs, through the kitchen, through the breezeway and out to the car again. Nor will I ever experience going back and picking up the nine things I knocked over in the process, including my two-year old daughter, Grace. (That only happened once and I still think she could have seen me coming and moved.)
- I’ll never again have that uneasy feeling when you are more than halfway to the rink and you are running late and you realize you have absolutely no recollection of putting your cup in your equipment bag.
- I won’t get dressed for the first time in October and discover that my hockey pants have somehow shrunk since the last time I wore them. I mean, it’s either that or I … no, they shrunk. They definitely shrunk.
- I’ll miss locker room talk. Subtle put-downs. Not so subtle put-downs. Being 20 years older than the youngest guy in the room and not feeling out of place. Now, whether they don’t feel I’m out of place is another story. I can’t control that.
- I won’t be the first one in the locker room and the last one out. Again. So I like to talk. What’s wrong with that?
- I’ll never again stretch so long that I miss most of warmups. My theory on warmups is this: I don’t play it like a game so more pucks just hit me, as opposed to me going after them. The ones that just hit you hurt more. Second, at this age, I feel I only have so many saves left. Why waste them in warmsups. So I don’t take many warmups.
- I’ll miss that mental sequence that unfolds each year.
Week One: “I have no expectations of playing well. I just don’t want to get hurt.”
Week Three: “Hey, I’m playing better than I thought.”
Week Five: “Can’t any of these guys cover anyone? Where the hell are the back checkers!”
Week Twelve: “I hope this is almost over. I just don’t want to get hurt.”
- I’ll certainly miss the characters. Anyone who has played adult hockey knows the types. There’s that one guy who is better than the rest but doesn’t acknowledge it. He makes everyone around him play better and is unselfish, never showing everything he could do. There is that little guy who buzzes around and makes you wonder why he didn’t make it at some higher level. There is that guy who wasn’t ever a star when he was younger but is now playing better than he ever has at any other time in his life. And, of course, there is The Mouth. That guy who has something to say about everyone, knows exactly which buttons to push to get someone’s goat, and usually has one poor foil who takes the brunt of his verbal assaults.
- Then there are all the little things. Picking off a pass. Being out of position and watching the shot go wide. Hearing the sound of puck hitting post. Realizing that the puck that just hit the post went wide. Playing against a classmate’s son. Lining up for a faceoff and looking to see which way the slot guy shoots. Taping a new stick. Playing against a classmate’s daughter. Replacing a toe strap. The taste of a beer in a parking lot at midnight when it’s 15 degrees out.
I guess I started thinking about this more when I realized that in my last session, I actually spent more time drinking beer in the parking lot than I did playing on the ice. (Hey, we rotate three goalies.) But that also reminded me that it’s not just the icetime that attracts us. My guess is that if the 80 minutes became 40 minutes, many of us would still show up, for the locker room, the reduced ice, and the parking lot. It’s what we do. It’s who we are. And we don’t ever want to start a winter without a schedule on our refrigerator that is our very own.
My last column on fan behavior attracted a terrific reader response. We thank you and we now offer some of the best. I say “some” because there were some beauties that I can’t bring myself to print here. In particular, Gary Fay, those banners concerning Dr. Silber were my favorites too.
First, since there weren’t many, I’ll mention the food suggestions:
- “The mini-donuts at Mariucci are to die for.”
- One vote was cast for the ice cream at the Kohl Center in Madison.
- “… The pizza in Orono is hideous … unless you can get Pat’s to deliver to Alfond …”
- Yes, Schneider Arena still carries Del’s Frozen Lemonade.
- “… How about the old diner outside the Biltmore Hotel in Providence that would be wheeled in at dusk and be gone the following morning, only to show up like a ghost the next night … Then there’s breakfast at McCarthy’s in Canton, N.Y. …”
There weren’t a lot of banners submitted but there was one clear winner. This was made to look like an eye chart:
R E F
The runner-up prize: “The best sign I’ve ever seen was made by a UNH fan for this year’s Minnesota series. It was a picture of UM head coach Don Lucia with Chia grass superimposed over his hair and the text, ‘Chia Lucia.'” (Sorry, Don.)
Then, of course, came the cheers. There were those meant for very specific crowds. Here are two examples:
1) “Michigan Tech is largely an engineering school and thus the following cheer:
ex dx dy ex dx
sec cos tan sin 3.14159
pi pi radical mu
Beat ’em Beat ’em MTU!
As cheered for the math challenged:
E-to-the-ex dee-ex dee-why, E-to-the-ex dee-ex
Secant cosine tangent sine three point one four one five nine
Pie pie radical mew
Beat ’em, Beat ’em, MTU!
2) And from Johnson and Wales, where there is a renowned culinary program:
“Mirepoix! Mirepoix! Roux, Roux, Roux!
Slice ’em, Dice ’em, Throw ’em in the stew!”
There were the usual targets: refs and goalies. From the “REFS” file:
- “I used to yell at (name of ref) that the ‘CCM’ on his black pants stood for ‘Can’t Call Much.'”
- “Hey Ref, if you had another eye you’d be a cyclops!”
- A few people acknowledged the age old, “Three Blind Mice” song. But a ref offered this: “I officiated a game at Amherst last season where they threw a cookie tin filled with ten live mice. The tin hit the ice and the mice scurried around.”
Fans seem to save their best work for goalies. One fan submitted a description of a fan act that I first heard about from former Yale All-American goalie Alex Westlund, who is now stopping pucks in Russia. Here’s the fan version: “Cheers for the goalie during play stoppage. Say everything the goalie is doing. Example: “Skaaaaaate, Skaaaaaate, Skaaaaaate, Tuuuuuuuuurn, Skaaaaaate, Skaaaaaate, Skaaaaaate, Tuuuuuuuuurn, Stop. Drink. Swallow. Sweeeeeeeeeeep, Sweeeeeeeeeeep, Tap, tap, Tap, tap, SQUAT!”
I liked this one: “While attending the University of North Dakota, one of my friends, a former goalie for the Fighting Sioux, said that Wisconsin fans had the most creativity. One time he said that when he got pulled in the middle of the period, the fans shouted in unison as he was skating off the ice, ‘Hey Brower, was it something we said?'”
There were some clever variations of cheers that eventually found their way to the goalie.
- When a visiting team is losing late in the game, fans jingle keys and say, “Warm up the bus!” In a game against Minnesota a few years back, the backup goalie was Steve Debus. As the starting goalie faltered, the clever fans chanted, “Warm up Debus!”
- With Army losing to RPI at home, some creative visiting fans offered, “Warm up the tanks!”
- When Harvard loses at Lynah Rink (been there, done that), some Cornell fans go with, “Go Staaaaht the Caaaaah!”
- At a Clarkson-Cornell game in Potsdam with hosts winning, the Clarkson fans: “Go start the bus!” The Cornell fans: “We get to leave!”
There is the mischievous:
- Clarkson band to red and white striped Cornell band: “Hey Cornell, where’s Waldo?”
Cornell band: “With your mom!”
- “Defense! Defense! Stop that puck!
Chastity! Chastity! Don’t let them…score!”
- “Gimme an O!” “Gimme an R!” “Gimme a G!” “Gimme a Y!” “What’s that spell?” “ORGY.” “What’s that mean?” “TEAMWORK!”
There were clever cheers that played off of some sort of trouble that a school or a player had gotten into off the ice. But I can’t pass those along without opening old wounds. They were both cruel and funny. And there were stories of fans accosting mascots and mascots duking it out with other mascots. All in all, there were some great stories submitted by so many of you. Thanks. I’m sorry we couldn’t print everything.
A recent USCHO article by Adam Wodon debated the benefits of a multi-sport conference and a smaller, single-sport conference. Specifically, it was stated by someone that a large conference devoting six different staffers to hockey was preferable to a single-sport conference with two full-time employees.
Being the consummate professional that I am, I hereby submit the following rebuttal: “The Top Ten Reasons Having Two Employees is Better Than Having Six.”
10. Smaller payroll; less likely to exceed Commissioners’ Association Salary Cap.
9. Fewer boxes of personalized stationery filling storage room shelves.
8. Less time needed to take attendance at monthly staff meeting.
7. Coffee table not as cluttered with old copies of “The NCAA News.”
6. Fewer gifts to buy at Christmas.
5. Bowl of hard candy in reception area lasts longer.
4. Shorter lines at copy machine.
3. Fewer cartons of outdated milk in shared refrigerator.
2. Easier to identify anonymous e-mail from disgruntled employee.
And the No. 1 reason that having two employees is better than having six: Easier to divide an eight-slice pizza at lunch.
Joe Bertagna is the Executive Director of the American Hockey Coaches Association and the commissioner of the Hockey East Association.