Holiday Musings

The latest issue of “Sports Illustrated” carries another great Steve Rushin column in which he recalls favorite Christmas gifts of the past. He makes a passing reference to table hockey games of old and it brought back some memories for me.

My brother and I spent at least three whole Christmas days playing such games. The first was when we received the type of game that many readers probably won’t remember. The men spun on those metal posts but there were no grooves in the ice surface. They didn’t go up and down the ice. They just spun around and the game required a marble and there was no action behind the goals. The men were metal and came in the “Original Six” NHL team uniforms.

The next generation of game used the same metal men but introduced those grooves. And like Rushin described in his piece, there was a blind spot behind the net, which required you to use your finger or shake the game to get the plastic (or wooden) puck within reach of a player. I remember that for face-offs, you dropped the puck in a slot high above center ice and the contraption was designed so that the puck took a number of seconds to wind its way through the piece before falling between your centers. This gave the dropper just enough time to get both hands back on the steering knobs before play resumed.

The next game that came out was very similar. The men were metal again, but you had tiny plastic sticks that you inserted into the metal. I remember two things about this edition: the players only came in two teams (one was Montreal and I can’t remember the other for some reason), and I used to bite the stick blades to create a curved stick effect, which was the latest rage at the time. (Okay, so I’m old.)

My brother and I had fierce competitions, kept scores, kept stats, and established the dreaded, “Loser Puts The Game Away” policy. The games would end, the winner would quite obnoxiously shout, “Loser Puts The Game Away,” at which point said loser had to lug the game into the other room and bury it under a couch, out of sight at our parents’ insistence.

I got quite good at this particular model and I recall, years later, boasting about my prowess in a now gone Harvard Square bar called the Oxford Ale House. (The site now houses The Border Cafe.) Upon hearing my claims, another bar patron challenged me to a competition. He was so confident that he was the best table hockey player in the bar that night that he even extended his challenge to include playing me on my own game.

Not wishing to invite this stranger into my apartment, I accepted the challenge and agreed to bring my game to the Oxford Ale House the following week. This brought an entirely new meaning to the phrase “bringing one’s game,” I thought.

After clearing this with the bar manager, there I was, five days later, a 25-year old Harvard alumnus, walking through Harvard Square with my trusty table hockey game under my arm. Two pucks in my pocket. (That sounds like it should have a double meaning. But I digress.)

I arrived a little after the busy dinner hours. I remember setting the game up on a square table so that there was direct lighting overhead. We immediately drew a modest crowd and the games began. I smoked him. Not once. Not twice. Three straight games.

Don’t wear a replica jersey on a date; don’t wear your replica jersey to a job interview; and please don’t wear your replica jersey to a wake.

It was at this point that I began to realize that he wasn’t taking this very well. He was getting upset almost as fast as he was getting drunk. He insisted we keep playing. Now, my recollection is that I won each of the games handily. He wasn’t that good. But he was very big and very persuasive. I had two ways out of this. I could throw a game to him, or I could start buying him beers so that he would eventually have to use the men’s room. Not wishing to sully my record, I opted for what I called The Beer Option.

I convinced him that we should start ordering pitchers, not just mugs, and that whenever someone was scored on, they should “shoot” a mug. He agreed. Game Four began.

I allowed him to get the first goal — I’m proud but not foolish — and dutifully quaffed my beer. I got three quick ones on him and watched Budweiser do its magic. Before we could complete the game, he called a timeout to use the men’s room. Before that men’s room door was completely shut, I was out on Church Street, game in hand, sprinting for my car. I never saw the guy again. The game never left my apartment again. And I remained unbeaten on the road.

My Next Book

Have you seen those books in the “For Dummies” series? You know, “Computers For Dummies,” “The Internet For Dummies,” and so on. There’s even a “Hockey For Dummies” edition that I think former NHL goalie and current broadcaster John Davidson had something to do with.

The premise in these books is that the author can take a subject of obvious complexity and present it in one handy tome for even the simplest among us. It’s the “Cliff Notes” and “Monarch Notes” of our academic past brought one step further. It is also quite similar to the book that purports to give you culture by telling you the ten books you have to read to be deemed sophisticated or the 50 quotations you should memorize to create the illusion that you actually read the original sources of those words.

As is my responsibility to you the reader, I have taken the first steps toward making you a more impressive and well rounded college hockey aficionado. Due to copyright laws, I’m sure I can’t call this “College Hockey for Dummies” or “College Hockey for Idiots” or otherwise use any of the other common “hooks” currently found in your local Barnes and Nobles.

It’s a work in progress but I want to give you a sneak preview of what I am working on. Anyway, without further ado, I present: “Joe Bertagna’s 10 Ways You Can Create The Illusion That You Are Wicked Smart About College Hockey and Be Cool At The Same Time.”

1. When a low-scoring game reaches the third period, say, “You know, both teams are using the damn trap. It’s ruining hockey!” If they seem interested in this, and particularly if they don’t know much about hockey at all, you can take a chance by adding, “See, they’re using a 1-2-2 and sacrificing any chance to create offense for themselves.”

2. It is always impressive to throw initialed terms around but be careful not to over-do it. You know, like, “Hey, if he gets a DQ he’ll miss the game with UVM and then their RPI will go down and their only chance at the NCAAs would be to get an AQ by winning the ECACs.”

3. There’s nothing wrong with going out and getting yourself a replica jersey. I have a few myself. (My favorite is my black North Dakota jersey. My Hockey East contract forbids me from purchasing any Hockey East jerseys unless I buy and wear all nine on a strict rotating basis.) However, there are some standards you might wish to honor. Here are my three rules: don’t wear a replica jersey on a date; don’t wear your replica jersey to a job interview; and please don’t wear your replica jersey to a wake.

4. When a team starts out hot and goes undefeated through three or four weeks, mention that the only NCAA champ to have a perfect season was the 1970 Cornell team. (If the opportunity arises, add: “You know, most people think Ken Dryden was the goalie on that team. Actually, he graduated in 1969. Brian Cropper was the goalie.”)

5. Obscure facts often impress people. When you watch a game where brothers are playing, try either, “Harvard’s Fusco brothers are the only brothers to win the Hobey Baker Award,” or, “Dartmouth’s Riley brothers are the only set of three brothers to enshrined in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.”

6. When a player scores three goals, you might say, “You know, a ‘True Hat Trick,’ historically, is when a guy scores three consecutive goals in the same period.”

7. Being able to spell something that’s tricky is a surefire way to score points. Now pay attention: it is R-E-N-S-S-E-L-A-E-R. Oh, and note the difference here: Canisius coach Brian Cavanaugh spells his name the traditional way, unlike Harvard’s Tom Cavanagh, son of three-time All-American Joe Cavanagh.

8. Ticket Tip No. 1: If you ask someone associated with a college team for tickets to a game, don’t say, “Hey, and I’ll pay for them.” Your friend probably expected you to pay for them all along and you won’t come across as Mr. Nice Guy for so offering.

9. Ticket Tip No. 2: After a friend agrees to get tickets for you and after you both have made it clear that you’ll pay for them, don’t say, “Great. Now how are you going to get them to me?” (Think I’ve had a bad ticket experience or two?)

10. This last helpful hint is incomplete and I need some reader help. When a player wearing No. 9 scores, you might say, “You know, historically, the No. 9 was worn by the best player on the team. In the Original Six days, No. 9 was worn by Maurice Richard of Montreal, Gordie Howe of Detroit, Bobby Hull of Chicago, Johnny Bucyk of Boston, Andy Bathgate of New York, and….” Here’s where I need help. Who wore No. 9 for Toronto back then? Reader assistance will be greatly appreciated here.

And Another Thing …

I was flying back from a meeting recently and sat next to an interesting guy on the plane. He starts telling me about being in Western Canada and attending what he called a “revival meeting.”

“They had this tent set up in a field and a buddy of mine brings me there on a Sunday morning,” he explains. “There must have been four or five hundred people there to see this faith healer.

“I was skeptical at first but you should have seen this guy. First, he calls up a guy on crutches and says, ‘What is your name, brother?’

“The guy answers, ‘My name is Rick. Rick Reed.’

“He goes on. ‘What is your affliction brother?’

“The guy says, ‘I can’t really use my legs. I played professional hockey for 18 years and I can’t walk or even stand without these crutches.’

“The faith healer puts his hands on Rick Reed, closes his eyes and says, ‘Go. Go behind the curtain, brother. You shall be healed.'”

My new friend sips his can of Sprite, eats a few pretzels and continues his story. By this time, I am into it.

“The faith healer calls up a second guy. No crutches. A normal looking guy, actually. The faith healer says, ‘Brother, tell me your name.'”

“The guy looks at the faith healer and says, ‘My name is Walph Lafweniere.’

“The faith healer says, ‘Ralph, what is your affliction?’

“Ralph turns to the crowd and says, ‘I used to be a hockey weferee until I got hit in the wips with a swapshot. Since then, I hab always talked wike this.’

“The faith healer is moved. He says, ‘Go, brother. Go behind the curtain, brother. You shall be healed.'”

At this point, I’ve gotten over my original skepticism. The guy is really into the story. I had to know what happened next.

“Well, the faith healer turns toward the curtain and says, ‘Rick, throw out one crutch.’ A crutch comes flying over the curtain and lands with a thud. The crowd gasps. ‘Throw over the other crutch,’ says the faith healer. The other crutch comes over the curtain.

“Now Ralph, speak. Speak to us.”

My friend grabs another sip of his Sprite.

I ask, “What happened next?”

“Well, nothing,” said my friend. “Not right away. So the faith healer has to repeat himself. “Ralph, speak. Say something.”

“After a few seconds, you can hear as plain as day, ‘Wick Weed fell down.'”

Joe Bertagna is the Commissioner of the Hockey East Association and Executive Director of the American Hockey Coaches Association. He no longer advocates drinking beer, playing table hockey in bars, and driving cars in the same evening.