The presents have been opened. The holiday foods consumed. The bags packed. The trip, its dates circled since summer, is about to become reality.
The shuttle service picks up the five of us — my son Ryan, my daughter Nicole, her fiancée Greg, my wife Brenda and I — at 1:45. For some families, a trip scheduled on Christmas Day might be considered a hardship, but we’re looking forward to it. My daughter Nicole has recently been to Croatia, but it’ll be the first time in Europe for the rest of us except for a golfing boondoggle to Scotland for Ryan and me.
It’s going to be a long flight to Munich, Germany. Even though it’s not going to feel like a red-eye, the six hours’ time difference means that we’ll be taking off at 15 minutes to midnight, Munich time, and arriving in Paris at 6:20 a.m.. The plan is to sleep during the flight and make some use of the six-hour layover in Paris, catching a taxi to the Eiffel Tower, which is only a half-hour away. For many of us, however, the body doesn’t do what the mind commands and the flight is spent reading or watching DVDs.
By the time we land in Paris, our six-hour layover has been shortened to four and a half. Now the idea of seeing the Eiffel Tower has become a dicey one. It’s a half-hour taxi ride each way, but what if we run into traffic? And what if we then have problems with customs or security?
Four and a half hours falls just under the threshold of what we’re willing to risk. So we wander the airport for a while and then grab seats near the gate. Many fall asleep. I’m trying to read, but I’m nodding off, too.
The flight to Munich is short and uneventful. We get our bags and board a double-decker bus which will become our home of sorts over the next week. In the process we meet Max and Jack, our tour guide and driver, respectively. We will hear little more than a peep out of Jack while Max will spew out facts nonstop, barely coming up for air.
We arrive at our hotel in the outskirts, check in and unwind, some of us doing better than others at staying awake to change over to local time. By the time we settle in for the welcoming team dinner, one group has yet to arrive and we hear that Air France has apparently lost our top two goaltenders’ equipment.
The goalie bags are safe and secure after all. We’ll be fine for tonight’s game at Passau, although it wouldn’t be surprising to see some sloppy hockey due to the relative inactivity during exams and the holidays.
The game isn’t until the evening, however, so we tour downtown Munich, mostly aboard the bus. Since Max is Italian, we have a Munich specialist guiding us through the city. She provides an inadvertent insight into Bavarian attitudes by explaining how monks were allowed to consume beer during Lent since it is “a kind of food” and even though it is “sort of alcohol.” She adds that a popular Bavarian saying is, “A mug a day keeps the doctor away.”
Munich is a charming city. I’m most fascinated by the beautiful cathedrals, especially in light of how they have been restored after massive destruction by World War II bombing. The half-day downtown only whets our appetites for more as we return to the hotel for lunch prior to a two-hour drive to Passau.
The game that evening becomes the hockey highlight of the trip. Passau is a relatively new team, but it has been climbing divisions in German hockey and has an ardent group of fans.
The introductions top anything my son’s teams have ever experienced. The only thing is … we almost missed them. The Passau rink is covered, but only enclosed on three sides. It’s cold outside and the bus is warm. Max announces that the parents are welcome to ride the bus to the high point of the city and be able to see the three rivers that converge along with some interesting sights. I actually want to stay at the rink just to watch the warm-ups — I’ll readily confess to being a Get-A-Lifer — and my instincts tell me to get off the bus and take no chances. But my toes begin to freeze just thinking about what looks to be a very cold rink and I wimp out.
So I stay aboard the bus as it takes the winding roads up to the heights above Passau and the view is quite nice even if the rivers can’t really be made out in the dark. However, I look at my watch and don’t need to be a math major to determine that we aren’t going to make it back to the rink in time for the 6:30 faceoff. Not unless the trip down the winding roads is astonishingly faster than the trip up. And although our bus driver, Jack, seems quite competent, the prospect of us hurtling down the mountain in our double-decker bus is not a pleasant option.
Even so, when one woman aboard the bus says, “It’s not that important,” I find myself muttering, “It isn’t?”
Max, however, has been on his cell phone and apparently has convinced the Passau Black Hawks to delay the game for our arrival. Even though we arrive somewhere between 10 to 15 minutes late, the Zamboni is still surfacing the ice.
And what a good thing that is.
To have missed these introductions would have been a crime. The arena becomes dark and then a light show begins. Each player steps onto the ice and as he skates through a gauntlet of cheerleaders dressed in black the public address announcer booms out the player’s name in German and the Passau fans chant something in response. The volume only gets louder when the introductions begin for Passau players.
“I thought I was in Hell,” goaltender Mike Palladino says after the game.
It was an opening not to be missed, no matter how pretty the sights high above the city might have been.
As is my wont, I’m not watching the hockey game on an empty stomach. I watched enough Hogan’s Heroes in my younger years to try one of Sergeant Schultz’s favorites, schnitzel, and a recommendation from Max, gluevein, a hot and spicy wine. As it turns out, I think old Schultzie should have stuck to strudel, at least based on this rink’s version of schnitzel, and the gluevein is too sweet for my tastes, but the experimentation is fun.
Wesleyan scores two early goals to take the starch out of the local fans. They get their cheers going when they eventually get on the scoreboard, but by then the Black Hawks’ goaltender has allowed a couple soft goals and the result is never in doubt. We win, 5-1, despite the sluggishness of not having been on the ice during exam break and while at home for Christmas.
Throughout the game, a few Passau fans strike up friendly conversations. In English, of course. My German vocabulary consists of little more than danke, fräulein, and Beck’s. They ask questions about the full face masks — their players wear half shields — and wonder how old these players are and how their team is measuring up. Explaining the NCAA and then trying to make sense of there being Division I and III hockey — but not Division II — is a struggle, but they appear to understand.
One fan drops the F-bomb into his conversation and then stops and looks at me quizzically. I nod that, yes, I’ve heard the word before and he explains that he has hosted five U.S. exchange students and although he learned the word from them, they were all 17 years old. (As opposed, of course, to a cadaverous buzzard like me.)
It did make we wonder about the cultural exchange between Germany and the United States. They gave us the Killer Bs — Bach, Beethoven and Brahms — while we give them the Killer F.
At the end of the game, I begin to compliment their German hospitality, but quickly correct myself and refer to their Bavarian hospitality. This receives knowing nods. Bavaria, the southern and historically Catholic state, has some rivalries with its northern neighbors, where Martin Luther and the Protestant reformation flowered, and even an outsider such as I picked up on it.
We spend the morning in Munich before returning to the hotel for lunch and then head to Dachau, once a concentration camp but now a memorial to the barbarity that was contained within its walls.
Walking through the grounds at dusk conjures up a few of the ghosts of the Holocaust and I find myself chilled by more than just the low temperatures.
Unfortunately, it’s almost closing time and since the crematorium is at the very end, its gates are closed by the time we get there. While it may sound ghoulish to be disappointed at missing such a horrific “highlight,” to visit a concentration camp and not see where life ended for so many Holocaust victims is a major disappointment.
Our game that evening against the Munich Club Die Luchse also proves disappointing even though we are playing in the Olympiapark. A late addition to our schedule, this team can’t skate with us and after four quick goals the game becomes an exercise in not running the score up.
Behind us, a Munich fan says over and over, “Nein! Nein!”. A little slow on the uptake, I finally realize that this is not a reference to our number nine, Taylor Evans, but rather the German, “No! No!”
I take out my German-English cheat sheet and decide to expand my repertoire, but get sidetracked doing a Steve Martin version of “excuuuuuse me.” Entschuldigung becomes entschuldiiiiiiiigung. My daughter Nicole thinks it loses something in the translation.
With the arena bitter cold, I purchase bowl after bowl of their hot goulash, which not only tastes great but also warms the hands. As will be the case at the first three venues, AC/DC songs predominate.
After the game, we retire to a local restaurant for more Bavarian hospitality, which is much appreciated even though I begin to wonder if by the end of the trip I’ll be able to squeeze into a single airline seat.
The wakeup call comes early since we didn’t get back from Munich until sometime well after two in the morning and we have to pack and eat breakfast before leaving at 8:30.
We head to Innsbruck, Austria, by way of the Neuschwanstein Castle, which turns out to be quite interesting even if it requires a 25-minute walk up the mountain where it was built. While most castles date back to the medieval era, this was built in the mid-1800s by Ludwig II, one of Bavaria’s most legendary kings. A virtual shrine to the composer Richard Wagner, the castle includes paintings of Wagner operas and even features one room where there is a cave as a tribute to Tannhäuser.
Even though most hockey players would choose major surgery without anesthesia over listening to Wagner — Mark Twain’s famous line, “his operas are better than they sound” comes to mind — the tour proves quite interesting to all.
Innsbruck, however, is a personal disappointment. When I think of Innsbruck, I think of the Winter Olympics, so I expect an Olympic village of sorts or some type of reference to that history. However, other than Max pointing out a disassembled ski jump, it is as if the Olympics had never been held here at all.
Instead, Innsbruck feels just like any other city. My rule of “five minutes of mall shopping and I become catatonic” kicks in, especially since the bookstores can’t help me out. All the books are in German, of course, but of the five Stephen King titles I spot, I can’t even figure out the English title of any but his latest, Lisey’s Story, which somehow translates to LOVE in German. Spotting “Lisey” among all the other words on the back cover is my only clue. Since not even the bookstores can amuse me, I’m happy to go back to the bus where we head for Bolzano, Italy, and a multi-course meal.
We spend the morning in Bolzano, with many of us opting to see the Ice Man, a mummy of a man dating back to about 5000 BC, whose frozen remains, surprisingly intact, were found in 1991 and are on display in the archeological museum.
This Tyrolean part of Italy was part of Austria until ceded to Italy after World War I. As a result, signs are in both German and Italian, but it’s more than 80 percent German-speaking.
We bus to the resort town of Merano for an afternoon of sightseeing before the evening game. There are many interesting shops, but I buy only pizza, crepes, and strudel.
The game against HC Valvenosta is also a mismatch, although less so than against the Munich team. With no NCAA limitations, we’ve been dressing and skating five lines, but the seniors are told to call it a day after two periods to give the underclassmen all the third-period ice time.
Another round of post-game hospitality has me swearing to hit the fitness center in double measure when we return home.
With New Year’s Eve beckoning, our final game is in the morning. We head to Caldaro. Clearly, agriculture is king here in the South Tyrol region. Apple trees and vineyards are everywhere, row after row up and down the mountains, even covering the area in front of the rink.
Max offers again to show us some sights before the game and we repeat our mistake from Passau. By the time we head back, Max is forced to announce, “You will miss a little bit of the game. But that’s all right. You know what the outcome will be.” We make a mad dash from the bus and miss the first 45 seconds.
The final score is again lopsided, prompting Max to dub us “Champions of Europe,” but the up-and-down skating is likely to give us our legs when league games begin just three days after we return.
Most of us buy Kaltern jerseys and sweatshirts from the local team. (Kaltern is the German equivalent of Caldaro, yet another indication that Italian is definitely the second language here.) By my reckoning, players and parents spend over a thousand dollars, proving that good-looking jerseys and apparel are always a good idea for a team.
There’s a trip to the Dolomite mountains that afternoon, but like many I’m bussed-out so my wife and I instead head to downtown Bolzano.
That evening, we all go to a local restaurant for a New Year’s Eve dinner, but when we head to the town center there’s almost no one around other than a few kids lighting off firecrackers. The bus will be heading back to the hotel later, but several of us grab a cab back to the hotel and my wife and I follow our usual New Year’s Eve custom of saying that it’s midnight somewhere and going to sleep.
The wakeup call comes early. The schedule calls for us to have eaten breakfast, be packed and checked out by 7:30. Coming on the heels of New Year’s Eve, there is a definite zombie-quality to many of those getting breakfast.
I hope to catch up on sleep on the bus, but Max is intent on his tour guide duties and European history lessons come booming out of the speakers to cut short my snoring. It’s no surprise that during a pit stop on the way to Lake Como someone hides his microphone. In fact, the real surprise is that it’s taken this long to happen.
All the time on the bus has been a bonding time for the players. The typical playful banter has given way to crossword puzzles and other similar activities as well as a debate over a probability problem known as the Monty Hall paradox. The boys may be jocks, but they are jocks at an elite academic institution. Somehow, I don’t think Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr or Mario Lemieux spent the bus rides of their youth debating probability paradoxes.
We swing by the town of Bellagio. The ride is a bit spooky, however, with the roads along the mountain only wide enough for our bus. Cars must back up to the nearest turnoff to let us pass. The guardrails beside the road will do nothing to help a double-decker bus, of course, as was the case when we drove through the Alps or when the others took the trip to the Dolomites. If Jack makes a misstep, we’re going to be flipping over the guardrail to the depths below. But we’re in good hands with Jack, a point made especially clear as we near Bellagio. An archway beckons that I’m sure our double-decker bus will never clear. I wait to hear the scraping of metal on concrete, but Jack inches us forward and by only the slimmest of margins we get through.
It’s a quaint town with the same cobblestoned walkways, laid out in the shape of a cobweb, that I found charming in Bolzano. I would think that it’s a lot more work to put the cobblestones down in this fashion and ask about the benefits. No one knows.
The Margharita pizza is terrific, but I’m still in search of my first good cup of European coffee. I’m not sure what the differences are, but they’re not to the taste of my palate.
We finally arrive in Milan, which is where we’ll fly out of tomorrow, and have our last team dinner. The boys should be proud of themselves. There hasn’t been a single incident, much less a fight or a trip to the police station, in a region where alcohol is almost a major food group and during a time that has included New Year’s Eve.
Some groups have flights for which they have to leave the hotel at 3:30 in the morning, so our family considers ourselves lucky that we’re in the 7:30 group. There’s barely more than a one-hour layover in Paris, however, and another security problem delays our departure. By the time we arrive in Paris, we are greeted by an airline employee holding a sign up for Boston. He guides us from the terminal where we arrived to the terminal where we are leaving.
We navigate customs and security and then we’re running for our gate, carryon bags bouncing on our shoulders. Sweat is pouring off me. We finally get to the railway that will bring us to the bus that will bring us to our plane, only to have one of our players stopped and his bags thoroughly searched. And searched again.
Thankfully, there are enough of us so Air France holds the flight. I change out of my sweat-soaked T-shirt and no one complains on the uneventful flight back to Boston.
In their first action since returning from Europe, the Cardinals defeat Southern Maine and Salem State. Is this a benefit from having played four games, albeit against lesser competition, while other teams were on break? It’s possible, although subsequent wins suggest that the Cardinals are simply a very good team that would have won anyway.
Are they a tighter team, having bonded for those nine days? Quite probably. They overcome adversity several times in the following weeks. They come back from deficits on the scoreboard, a tough injury and one game filled with dubious officiating.
And if there was no hockey benefit to the trip? The wallets may be lighter, but a good time was still had by all.