Wednesday, February 04, 2009
I'm so old that when I was in high school there were thirteen grades. Its true. I went to a Catholic all boys school in Sudbury, SCC, an excellent school for academics and athletics at the time. It was funded until Grade Ten and then you had to pay six hundred bucks annually after that. There were a few dud teachers but they were few and far between and the education we got was outstanding. There were a few guys who struggled there and moved on to public schools where they pulled down straight As, there was that big of a disconnect between what we were doing and what they were doing.
In Grade Twelve as part of the curriculum we had to do a hundred hours of community service and that is how I got into coaching. From that winter on I coached hockey in the winter and soccer in the summer every year, with the exception of my first couple of winters in university. I loved it and have a lot of great memories from the experience. A lot of great kids. A lot of great teams. But my favourite team of all was a houseleague pee wee hockey club I coached in the early nineties called the Missiles.
This was in the Humber Valley houseleague. The way it worked is that they would put together four teams who would then play a number of games. Then the coaches would get together with the division head, move a player or two to address any imbalance and then we would play the rest of the schedule. My first two years there I was around twenty or so. I had two decent clubs. You had a real range of players from guys who were pretty weak to players who had played single or double A and had gotten tired of the politics and bullshit.
And somehow the first two years (likely because I was the newbie and pretty easy going) I had ended up with goalies who had never played in net before. In both cases it worked out ok. One guy had been a star defenceman in double AA until his lack of size caught up to him when they started body contact. He went to goalie school and was a natural athlete and was the best goalie in the league from the get go. The team in front of him consisted of the best player in the league, a little defenceman who turned into one of the best defencemen in the league over the course of the year (one of my favourite players of all time) and a bunch of so so players. We were mediocre. My second year the goalie turned out ok as well and we had a lot of fun but never really went anywhere.
In my third year I had also taken on another team, as we decided to put together a select (all star essentially) team that would compete in a few tournaments as well as in a Toronto wide league. That team also ranks up there for me but the houseleague team ended up being one for the ages.
Once again I ended up with a rookie goalie, a scrawny little guy, also a former defenceman who had not grown quickly enough. As for the rest of the team, well, lets just say this - out of the eighteen kids who made the all star team only one was on our club and he had been the last cut, saved by one young guy bowing out after he was picked for the selects. A little centre who could skate like the wind but had hands of stone and zero confidence, he was still probably our best player. We're talking Bad News Bears here folks. The towering Indian kid who had soft hands and was lazy as hell. The mouthy rich kid with a penchant for floating, dumb penalties and boneheaded mistakes. A slew of small, slow nonstarters with no hands. And Angelo Fiascetti, a burly Italian kid who skated like Brad Marsh, arrived every few weeks with haircuts that were self inflicted and loved his heavy metal.
We trundled through the exhibition season and got massacred. No goaltending, no goals, no defence. Got pounded every game. And then the little goalie started to get better and things got a little better. Instead of losing by six goals we were dropping games by three or four.
At the coaches' meeting we were promised a kid who had just quit double AA after years as a top player there. Other then that we were on our own in our struggle. And boy did we struggle. It was tough on the kids but slowly and surely we began to see glimmers of hope. Practice started (outdoors) and while you couldn't enforce attendance we always had everyone come out. Just like the allstars we skated them hard (the poor kid who had to do suicides for both teams!) and at the end of every practice everyone got to drop the gloves and have at it. We were still losing but we were having a lot of fun.
And it turned out that the little speedy centre could skate with anyone in the league and the big Indian kid could play hard every game as long as you gave him tough love (I taped his hands to his stick at one practice to drive a point home) and the mouthy rich kid could skate pretty well and play some pretty solid D when his head wasn't up his ass. And we got our AA refugee and he could score some and our little goalie kept getting better. And the slew of small slow wingers and Dmen? Well they were willing to be taught and they would work their asses off.
And Angelo Fiaschetti? Well think Jason Smith. Heart and soul and tough and mean and you didn't want to go into the corners or in front of the net with him. We gave him the C.
And we kept losing. But now it was by a goal here and there, a missed coverage or a game where we hit the post a couple of times.
One night before a game I heard Angelo singing quietly and I asked him what song it was - if I recall correctly it was AC DC and it had the lines about having big balls - "We have Big Balls etc etc".
And so we had our cheer. Before the game I called everyone over and said ' heres our cheer boys because we have to have the biggest balls to beat all of these other teams'; I can't recall exactly what it was but something like this:
They Have Big Balls
You Have Big Balls
But we Have The Biggest Balls Of Them All
Our guys were killing ourselves and you could see the other team and the parents in the stands looking at each other and our captain muttered "My Mom is going to kill me" and then we went out and lost again as our rich kid missed his man in front with a minute left.
On my birthday, just before Christmas, we were 0 and 10 or thereabouts and we finally got a point. A single point and the kids celebrated by firing me, fully clothed, into the shower.
After Christmas the Missiles came back emboldened by their success and won their first game of the new year. All of a sudden they were no longer a laughing stock. They won some and they lost some but other teams weren't walking away with their two points when they beat us. They were paying the price. We had four guys on the back end, led by their captain, who used their sticks and elbows and whatever else they could to make sure opposing forwards knew they had crossed into our zone. And our own forwards were hard on the puck and went to the net with abandon and we must have scored nine out of ten goals from two feet out or less.
And on the last game of the season we met the first place team and in as much of a bloodbath as a non contact game can be we shut them out. 1-0.
The playoffs were a double round robin. Six games. Best record takes all.
We didn't need six games. We didn't lose a one. We scratched and clawed our way to two or three or four goals a game and shut the other teams down. Completely. Shutout after shutout and I think we allowed two or three goals through the entire playoffs. I still have the picture in the dressing room after the clinching game. Everyone roaring at the camera.
Me wearing the jersey the boys got me - bright red, Big Balls stitched across the front. I still have that.
Best team ever. I still get chills.
The Oilers could use Angelo Fiaschetti or Darris Bendara (the rich kid who turned into a terrific defenceman himself). Both guys would play a couple of games with the selects when we were short handed. They could use any of the Missiles or at least some of that grit, that humour, that toughness, that identity, that elan.
The Edmonton Oilers have been porridge since June 20th 2006 and part of that is a flood of kids and an exodus of hard nosed vets and a lot of guys getting big money that has taken away their edge. The Oilers before 2006 were very much like the Missiles - gung ho, pedal to the metal, hard at it - they might lose but they took their pound of flesh.
Personally I'm not worried about the lack of identity although it is frustrating at times. It should come. Hopefully. But damnit it would help.
And I'm not even worried too much about the way the club has sagged since the break. They remain in the playoff mix. They deserved better against Nashville and might have stolen a win last night if they had not left their hands in their other pants.
But two things do have me worried.
Other then Ales Hemsky and maybe Shawn Horcoff, and maybe even moreso than either, the guy they can least afford to lose is Lubo Visnovsky. If he is out for any length of time this season may be fucked unless you think that a partnership of Grebs and Smid or Staios can carry the mail. I don't.
Secondly, this team has taken a big step from last year. It really has. But the team they played last night has passed them by the side of the road and is disappearing into the distance. If the BJs or Kings or Blues or Coyotes happen to make the same Missile like leap in the next year or two and the Oilers do not then the Hemsky window is going to close without a sniff.
And that is worrisome.
Posted by Black Dog at 5:30 PM