Friday, May 29, 2009

Glory


With only a few exceptions all of my personal sporting glory came in the role of coach. As a player for the most part I have played for teams for whom a playoff round victory constituted a successful season. Lots of moral victories. Sadly I can name but three situations where I was part of the winning mob as a player.

In Grade Six my school team won the city championship in handball - not the Euro version of the game - but a weird hybrid of basketball, hockey and murderball. That was awesome.

A couple of years later my club team won the city championship in hockey. What should have been one of the greatest moments of my young life was bittersweet instead, mostly bitter.

And a number of summers ago we won a mini tournament which included the most surprising twist ending ever.

Stories to come, rest assured.

But its as a coach that I revelled in the glory time and time again.

I coached both soccer and hockey for a number of years in both Sudbury and Toronto. Lots of success. Regular season titles. Playoff championships. Tournament victories.

But the greatest games took place on February 3rd, 1991.

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This was my first year coaching a team, a squad which I would run in some form for four years. It was a Select team out of a houseleague in western Toronto where I had coached the previous two seasons. That summer I had been asked if I wanted to help put together a Select program and I had agreed. This was the same year that I coached the Missiles in the houseleague - it was probably the best year I ever had, very satisfying.

We ran tryouts and put a team together. It was an interesting challenge, a team of thirteen year olds who had never played above the houseleague level and who had never played contact hockey thrown into a new situation. I had two buddies who were terrific hockey players who filled out the coaching staff and we got down to the business of breaking the guys of their bad habits from houseleague (head down, no pass, well, houseleague) and building a team.

They were a great bunch of lads. We skated them hard and had high expectations. Our philosophy was simple - play hard and play together. We had some talent but not a lot. We had inexperience everywhere and a lack of size up front but we played a hard charging style and even when we lost we took our toll on the opposition. Everyone hit, led by two kids who were solid houseleague players but not standouts. They weren't the slick types who could go end to end but they knew how to play hockey and with one at centre and the other on his wing they tore a swath through the league. Both were average size but strong and both loved to hit and when they hit guys they hurt them. Other then the odd penalty for "hitting too hard" as my buddy called it sarcastically, they stayed out of the box. They led and the team followed, hitting and scoring and doing all the little things right. Noakes and Miller. They set the tone.

We did pretty well in our league. There were a few teams at the top and we were just below that echelon. We might beat them now and then and we would throw a scare into them every game and we would pound them but we usually fell a little short. So there and in the city wide tournament at year end (basically a playoff that included every division - like an FA Cup) we did well but fell a little short, losing in the semifinals by a game in a best of three in the tournament, iirc.

We went to Lindsay in November, about two months after we had been together, to play in a tournament against a bunch of small town clubs. We had our eyes opened as we were thumped in three straight games. Three and out and back to Toronto with our tails between our legs.

So at the beginning of February we headed out of the city to another small town, Acton. We were a better team by then. Our backup goalie, Ed McCorquadale, had busted his hump all season to get better and he had surpassed the starter and turned himself into a solid keeper. He had also established himself as a leader on the team in the process.

And this time we played with desperation right from the opening faceoff of the first game.

We eased through our pool undefeated and made a date in the semifinals early Sunday afternoon on the 3rd against a club from Ancaster, just outside of Hamilton. Halfway through the game we had built a three to nothing lead but it was a case of the hockey gods smiling on us. We were evenly matched and there were chances aplenty for each squad but while they were hitting iron we were finding the back of the net.

And then they scored. And then they scored again. And again. And again there was no sea change in the flow of the game. We weren't sitting back nor were they taking it to us. Where our passes were eluding sticks and skates now theirs did and where our shots has found daylight now it was theirs that did.

And so it was tied after regulation. And into overtime we went.

There was iron and there were saves and the play roared one way and then the next. One team would be hemmed in and frantic and it looked like the end was inevitable and then they would break out of their end and next thing it would be the other team that looked like it was on the ropes. And so it went until the period ended.

And then we went on to a second overtime. And it was more of the same and on the bench each near miss made us dance and moan and shout and the kids were laughing and they just played with no fear, just running on guts, trying to win the next shift they hit the ice, trying to push the puck over the line. And the arena began to fill in around us as the teams who were to play next stood around the glass and their parents stood in the stands and all of the assorted rink rats and teams and parents and relatives began to file in to see what was happening until we were playing in front of hundreds of people (truth be told it felt like thousands) who cheered and yelled and cringed with us. And then the period ended.

Off we trudged to the room while they gave us a flood. In came a convenor who admitted to us that they had never seen this happen before but they were now behind and so we had one more period to play and then it would be a shootout.

I hate shootouts. Always have. Always will.

Have fun boys we said, there was nothing else to say, and they grinned and hauled themselves out of the room back onto the ice, the arena packed now. And so we went at it again, our sixth full period, ten minutes stop each, so now essentially a full pro game is what they were playing, and this period went on like the others and time began to run out and that's when my stomach began to knot as I saw what was coming and how it was going to end and then there were less then two minutes left and a faceoff in their zone and our big centreman Switzer, a righthander, won it cleanly back to the point and a long lean defenceman named Taylor Armstrong, who had skated miles that afternoon, drifted a wrist shot at the net, a foot off the ice, and it made its way through the maze of players battling without nicking a one and hit the back of the net.

And I've got the chills now lads and lasses.

The boys ripped out onto the ice and we were hugging on the bench and I remember nothing else but the crowd's roar and a defenceman named Stoyka, wild eyed with glee, face pale with exhaustion, as he leapt into my arms screaming.

And we shook hands and there were embraces and we moved on.

Slumped in the dressing room, the stink and the sweat and the white faces, and the convenor came in and congratulated us and told us to rest up because we were back on in just over an hour.

Fuck.

We had watched the club we were facing in their own semifinal game. They were a bunch of big rangy kids and they had never looked in danger. And they had one guy who was pretty well unstoppable, a hulking centreman who could skate and finish in close. We figured that if we could stop him then we could win. But we also figured we'd have nothing left now.

The kids lolled about, grabbing a quick bite and something to drink. Most didn't even bother getting out of their gear. They sat and talked quietly about what they just went through. Parents wandered in and out and shook hands and clapped us on the shoulders. It seemed but a moment later that skates were laced up and pads strapped on, jerseys pulled on again. We kept our talk quick and simple. Give their big guy no space. Enjoy it. We're proud of you guys no matter the result.

We trudged out of the room to find our opponents on the steps leading up to the rink, clad in black, staring down at us. One of their coaches, your typical rink rat lifer, mustache, belly, stale smell of smoke, turned to Steve Lafay, one of our coaches and said, quietly: There's your first lesson in intimidation in coaching, son. Intimidation.

Steve came into the room where the other coach, Rob, and I were getting ready to go out, redfaced with rage. We have to beat these fuckers, he snarled.

The puck dropped and the game was on and we were fine as the period wore on. We had a small centre, Berry, who could skate forever and was the fittest player on our club and so when we could we sent him over the boards when their star was out there. He stuck to the big fellow like ass and when he needed help it was there and it soon became clear that their star was not inclined to pass, not yet anyhow, and so we hung around for a little while more.

And so the second began and it was more of the same and then about halfway through it was us, not them, who broke the ice, and eyes lit up and suddenly we could see that there was belief that we could do this.

And less then a minute later, as if we had poked a sleeping bear, they tied it up, easy as pie, and we coaches looked at each other and thought that this might be it, the boys might sag now, they had to, dead on their feet and their sudden surge turned on them.

And Miller went over the boards immediately and the puck found its way over their blueline and suddenly he was on it and he juked this way and that, through the winger and the centre and then the dman and then he was in the slot and the puck was behind the goalie.

And they dropped the puck and it went into their zone and we poured in after it and the puck spun out in front and a big red headed winger by the name of Tupholme, a grinder and boardman extrordinaire, chipped it past their keeper and now we knew it was ours and when they dropped the puck again we came on and again it was in their net and Miller went over again and for a second time he spun through them, their backs broken now, their team in tatters and the puck was over their sprawling goalie and we had four goals in just over two minutes and on the bench and on the ice the boys mobbed each other and the crowd cheered for this improbable turn.

And it settled for a moment and then at the beginning of the third they pulled their goalie, figuring they had to try and push, knowing we were the tired team, right? and figuring one might lead to another and then they might have a push of their own. And as their man brought it into our zone, Berry stripped him of it and chipped it past a defenceman and stepped over the redline and fired it straight and true into the empty net.

It was over then of course and we potted two more and when the buzzer sounded we were champions and they poured onto the ice and we shook hands with their coaches (sweetness!) and hugged and stood on the blueline as they called each player one by one to skate to centre and get his little trophy. And then we took the picture.

Glory.

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Time for the finals now and this is a pick 'em as far as I am concerned. If the Wings were fully healthy I would be thinking they are in the clear and I think they are still going to do this, but only if Lidstrom can play like Lidstrom. If not then we may see the Pens do it.

But honestly I'm back and forth on it.

The Pens are better then last year, there's no doubt about it. I think that Kunitz and Guerin and Fedotenko are all terrific hockey players and I like their D and of course the biggest factor is the rise of Crosby and Malkin. Having said that its one thing to rip through Matt Cullen and Carolina's D. Its another to do a number on Zetterberg and Detroit.

And I don't buy the fact that they are going to expose Osgood. Guy had an awful season. He's having a great playoffs. He's a good goalie. Is he a product of the system? Sure. But Chicago ripped up the Canucks and Luongo and then failed when they ran into the Wings, even with the Wings' injuries and I rate the Hawks pretty highly. I don't think Osgood suddenly turns into mush faced with the Pens.

I think the Wings are deeper up front then the Pens and I think that while the Pens D is a solid group the Wings tore up Keith and Seabrook pretty good. I think the Wings will score a little.

Last year I never got the feeling that the Pens really had a chance. I think they do this year. I think they are a better team then last year. I think that if either Datsyuk or Lidstrom misses a couple of games that that will tip the balance. I think that the Pens are close enough that there are games that will be decided by a bounce or two and if they get those then that may be enough.

I also think that all things being equal that the Wings will win it, maybe in six, maybe in seven. I think that Marion Hossa will be the difference.

I've always liked Hossa. He's a terrific player and his playoff rep was unfair. He had a poor playoff with Atlanta and struggled early on in Ottawa but other then that your man does the job. I'm also puzzled as to why folks think his move last summer was so awful.

He wasn't a lifelong Penguin. He had been traded twice before and so had no loyalties. The one time he committed longterm to a club they turned around and traded him right away.

Now I know that he doesn't need any tag days anytime soon - being a hockey player if he has made forty million dollars he likely has thirty eight of it plus interest in the bank.

But considering how we villify players constantly for taking the money (Ryan Smyth - local hero to greedy fucker in ten seconds flat) the fact that a guy left tens of millions of dollars on the table in order to sign with a club in order to try and win a Cup makes him rather admirable, does it not? Isn't the goal to win? He's not a guy who got parachuted in with two months left (if he had won last year would his accomplishment have been less anyways?) or who took part of the year off and then signed a contract.

I'd truly be happy if either team won and I think it may be a terrific series. As long as the Wings are healthy they will do it, I think.

And Hossa is going to hoist the Cup. I say good on him.

Glory.

4 comments:

eggie said...

Great story (as usual)!

Oh. And I'm cheering for the Wings. Tho I wouldn't mind if Crosby gets his first either. Should be a good one.

HBomb said...

Go Wings. I default in situations like this (where I like both teams) to other things.

Like favorite players in the series.

Crosby is awesome, but the wings have Lidstrom, Zetterberg AND Hossa, three guys in my personal "top 25".

Trade proposal - Paul Lorieau for Karen Newman.

Scott said...

Wonderful post again. The personal hockey stories are always my favourite.

As for Hossa, I couldn't agree more. I hope he gets his Cup (and I think he will). The sadistic part of me wants him to get it by scoring the Game 6 OT winner. Now that would be truly beautiful.

Black Dog said...

Thanks for the kind words guys. A week later and its knotted at two. Hossa has been very good although no goals.

Malkin and Crosby have been better.

And Zetterburg? He looks worn out.