Monday, May 28, 2012

The Greatest Game Ever Played

 The ironic thing about my sporting life is that nearly every bit of success I have had has been as a coach. As a player, not so much, and I was a kid who always played sports growing up. I've played hockey since I was five years old, albeit with a large gap from my mid teens to my early thirties (with the exception of a few years in my early twenties) and I played for my school as well as intramurals for years. Winning, I have not known you. In grade six our school won the city championship in handball, not the European variety, but a hybrid of basketball and hockey, I guess would be the best description, and in my middle school my class won the intramural league in the same sport. (You can tell you haven't won much when you can remember these as the highlights of your athletic career!). When I was bantam my hockey team won the city championship and while that should have been enormous it was not but that is for another post. And then nine summers ago, when Jenn was pregnant with our oldest, I played in a mini tournament one weekend. Four teams and we won it all, in overtime, and yours truly had the winner. Biggest sporting moment of my life as a player.


 So yeah the wins are few and far between and for the most part the teams I have played on have been mediocre. One team I played on when I was 21 or 22 lost in the championship final and when I returned to Toronto I played on three pretty decent clubs in summer leagues but for the most part the teams I have played for have generally lost more than they have won. A couple have been absymal but for the most part they have just been so-so, the type of club that is just below the top half of the table, that can give the best team a game but never beats them, that can beat the good clubs now and then and will, every once in a while, lose to the bottom feeders.

 These were the clubs I played on as a kid, as a teenager, in my early twenties and the first couple of winters after I returned from Florida to this good country. And so when my pal Higgins and I, disillusioned after a rotten year playing out in Scarborough, were casting about for a new club, and we ended up with Capsule, well, it turned out to be a good fit because, well, we're mediocre.


 Capsule has been together forever, the core of the club four guys who have known each other since they were kids plus the husband of a girl they went to school with and a sixth guy who owns a bar right near Capsule Music. I don't even know how long they have been playing, at least a dozen years, probably more. Then we have another four guys who have been on the team for as long as I have or more and another couple who have been with us for four or five years.

 So in other words we've been together for a long time. And its really a great bunch of guys. Lots of laughs and when we lose, which is often, there's no bullshit or sniping. We have guys who can't score (raises hand) and guys who cough up the puck at inopportune times and guys who can't check their hat. We're a beer league team. Our families get together usually two or three times a year at someone's house. (As one guy noted to me at one get together this year as we surveyed the mob of kids 'well we may not shoot straight on the ice but we don't have that problem elsewhere') Its a great thing to be a part of.

 Its been seven years with Capsule Music for me and our best league finish was second overall one year and a loss in the semifinals. After that year we lost four of our five defencemen and we've never looked back. We've won a playoff series here and there but generally we hang around the middle of the table and then we begin to slide until we get moved down a division. We're getting older, with only one guy on the other side of forty and plenty on the wrong side of forty five, and with age the the speed and conditioning, which was never really there for many of us, is abandoning us. We finally joined a new summer league last year after it became clear that we were nothing but fodder in our old one, where we could once compete, and we did alright and this summer I am playing again after two years out of it. We won our first game so here's hoping we can compete and do well.

 The most success for Capsule has been in the annual Easter Exclaim Cup. We won in 2005 (alas I was not on that team) and we've made it to the finals and usually we at least make it out of our group. Before this year I had played twice and both times we swept through our group easily, only to fall in the semis, both times a bitter taste left as we didn't play our best games.

 The last year has not been kind. Last Easter the club went winless and then in our winter league we struggled. Too many good players lost over the years and a margin for error too thin. We don't score much and we only have a handful of Dmen so if one of them doesn't come out or our goalie has an off night the result is too often a good effort and a 2-1 or 3-2 loss. We saw plenty of those this year.

 So we headed into the tournament on a low note and our expectations not that high but we came up with a tie in our first game and a win in our second and so going into our third game we were already through our division, regardless of the result. We had a good game but lost and so we ended up second in our group and, it turns out, in deep shit.

 The Exclaim Cup is about sportsmanship. It can get heated of course but teams that take a lot of penalties get penalized in the standings, literally. The plus side of all of this is that the divisions are generally made up of teams that are pretty evenly matched. You may get a new club that comes in and cleans up (this year a club from Newfoundland flew in and crushed everyone in their group) but its usually the same teams year after year and the number of ringers are few.

 Unfortunately in our group there was an exception. While teams like us came up with 1-1-1 records a team from Montreal cruised through their side of the bracket, beating teams by four and five goals, including the team from Edmonton that we had tied.

 We were in shit.

 I watched them warm up. They could all skate like the wind and they had heavy shots and of course they were all kids. I was out for our first shift and it was like being on one of those amusement park rides in our zone. They swirled around us and we never touched the puck and we headed for the bench gasping for breath. I turned to my centreman and said 'Holy fuck they can skate' and he just grimaced.

 And then a minute or so later, a draw in their end, a puck free in the slot and we scored.

 What the hell.

 And then they came at us. Our few forays were torn up by their speed on the backcheck and the few times we got it deep they chipped it up to their speedy wingers who flew by our back pedalling D. Again and again they swept into our zone, stopped by desparate lunges by our defencemen, the odd time the puck getting through to our goalie, who turned them aside. They churned around our zone, moving the puck here and there and yet we held our positions and so, for the most part, they were kept to the outside.

 This kept on for the first half of the game and then they struck quickly. A chip past a Dman and away to the races, a puck tucked just under our sprawling keeper, just minutes later, a failed attempt to clear, too soft on it and then the pressure on tired legs and a shot from the slot, top corner.

 Down one and tiring. The end.

 On the bench, calm. And a plan. (And we never have a plan). Play it like we're up one. No pinches. Hard out, hard in. Third man high on the forecheck. Stay by your man. No panic.

 No way we come back from two down.

 Hold on and then make our push at the end.

 And so they kept coming and we held . Blocked shots, sprawling. Battles along the boards. Collisions and stickwork and pushing back. A man delaying in the slot, all alone, our goalie stacking the pads, the puck laying there, their second man, rebound, all alone, the leg kicked out, sure goal harmlessly into the corner of the rink.

 Puck ringing off iron. Glove save. Kick save. A shot whistles wide.

 We hung on.

 And then with just minutes left we began to push back. A hard forecheck and an easy shot. A won draw and another shot. A shot tipped just wide. A battle won along the boards and suddenly the ice tilting the other way. A scrum in the corner ends up in harsh words and pushing and grappling, sportsmanship forgotten in curses, fuck you in a thick French accent, my reply fuck you cocksucker, his wide eyes and
shove back admission that he understands that at least. Bodies flying, a slash deadens an arm, a fall ends up with my centreman groaning in pain on the bench, thumb bending a way it should not for a moment.

 A minute left and Higgins wins the draw, spinning on his forehand, the clang of the puck off the post, it spins into the corner, there a war ensues, bodies flying, the mass of flailing sticks and skates inching closer to their goal, like a rugby scrum, suddenly battle joined at the corner of the crease as we hack and whack at the puck, it bounces off of shins and skates, their goalie on his knees, reaching for it, I stand behind him, edge of the crease, waiting.

 And then the puck squirts under him and through him and I reach for it and there is a Dman sprawled along the goal line in desperation and no problem, it all slows down, I will pull it back and put it upstairs and then he grabs the puck and pulls it under him.

 I go absolutely mental. He put his hand on the fucking puck, he put his fucking hand on it, I am screaming and the chorus rises and they shake their heads and jeer us and the ref, who was right there, saw it all and points to centre.

 Penalty shot.

 Thirty seconds left.

 Higgins the man to take it. He has been dynamite for us all tournament. He swoops in, feints, the goalie sags.


 Thirty seconds later its over.

 In the room afterwards there are smiles. We are exhausted, bruised, knees and shoulders and backs aching. But no recriminations, no balls of tape or equipment flung in disgust, no shaking heads or sidelong glances, no bitterness.

 We've lost but this is not a loss due to soft play or dumb mistakes. We haven't lost to a weaker team or for that matter an equal, done in by indifference or foolishness.

 We've lost to the better team and its hard to say that its a game we deserved to win, because that would be a lie. But we have given it everything, left nothing on the ice, we are battered and bruised and so are they and while we have lost we have probably never played a better game.



I've spoken of this before. I think one of the illusions we hold as fans is that the club we cheer for is made up of great guys, the type of guys who play on our beer league teams, guys who would make great teammates, guys who we go out for beers with, guys whose families we get together with. Of course the reality is different. Back in the day when the money meant that guys had to work summer jobs I am sure that players were very much regular guys but nowadays they are nearly all millionaires and with that comes a disconnect from reality that in most cases is probably already there, a sense of entitlement brought on by years and years of getting what top athletes get in our society, which is whatever they want.

Not to say that they are all jerks because the anecdotal evidence suggests that many hockey players actually are pretty good guys. Just means that the jerk quotient is likely higher than it was in the old days and higher than in your work a day life.

 As an aside I was on Twitter a while back and the subject of Stan Mikita came up and Ellen Etchingham (you all know Ellen, right? Theory of Ice and Backhand Shelf? You had better start reading her if you do not) who is from Chicago began telling me Stan Mikita stories.

 Mikita was my favourite player as a boy and so you can imagine how I felt as Ellen described how he had once been a regular at a coffee shop many of her family used to frequent back when he starred for the Blackhawks.

 Nicest guy in the world, they said. Most regular down to earth fellow you would ever meet. When things got busy and staff were getting overwhelmed he'd grab the coffee pot and help out.

 Imagine that. One of the greatest players who ever lived. I got way too excited than a forty four year old guy should get about a seventy two year old guy at that moment.

 Terrific stuff. He'd fit right in with old Capsule. He's probably be our best player too, even in his seventies. I wonder if he's free ....


I didn't publish picks for the conference finals so you'll have to trust me when I say I figured it would be LA and New York playing for the Cup, which means I'm seven and seven so far.

One big meh.

I think the Kings do it but I think its a tough go for them. I always (at least recently) look at the western representative and figure they are good to go but of course it does not always end up that way. Kings are just so deep though, far more so up front than the Rangers and they are big and fast and experienced and of course they have the goaltending as well. It would be nice to see a 67 expansion team win their first Cup although I'd prefer to see them do it in purple and gold.

 I've never been a Jersey guy and even though now they play a terrific aggressive style I'll never forgive them for the nineties ;) - they might win it of course but I am cheering for LA. Penner and Stoll and Matt Greene escaped the disaster in Edmonton and both Penner and Greene are bright funny guys who are easy to cheer for and Stoll was a huge part of that 2006 run. Willie Mitchell has been around forever and is one of those veteran guys who it would be awesome to see win, especially after that bad injury he suffered a few years back. And of course Doughty is a wonderful player and Williams is one of those fantastic pros (although I will never forgive him for 2006) and imagine if Simon Gagne played in the final and won after all of his injury issues? And then there is Kopitar and then Richards and Carter who the Flyers moved.

 A lot of great stories. We'll just ignore Dustin Brown. Although of course he could play on my team any day.


Colin said...

Gotta love those beer league stories ... a few beers on a sunny deck and kicking back stories of glory had and lost. A family.

Our finest is the time we beat the #2 team in our division ... a post Christmas break game. The worst kind. Turkey hangover. Terrible weather. 11pm game. 6 guys show up plus our goalie god bless him. A full compliment on the other side salivating at the thought of the slaughter to come. "Pad those stats boys" could be heard during warm up. 4 of our guys were guys you wouldn't put out in the last minute to tie it up ( me included). 1st period and they are up 1-0. A simple plan - cross the red .. dump it... change ... the other side getting more and more frustrated . Beginning of the second and a slashing call. We're on the PP ... still dumping it in ... but a cocky play by their D leads to a turnover and a sleepy goalie misses a wistful wrist shot and it's 1-1. Hope.
It's a funny thing what happens to the body when you find hope.
We dumped and chased and blocked and flailed and dove and our goalie had one for the ages. I find myself with the puck at our blue and I can still see the legs of our captain striding up the ice in desperation .. our only shot ... I pass it off the boards and he's in alone deking the way only a Dman can and it's 2-1 for the good guys. Hope.
We lived off that for the remaining 5 mins and a 2-1 victory goes into the book of legend.
That was 5 years ago and not a season goes by that the 6 of us in that game don't look to each during the dregs of winter hockey ( those 11:30 Tuesday nighters) and smile knowingly that no matter what happens on this night we've already played our greatest game.

Black Dog said...

Awesome, Colin. Good times.

Bruce said...

Outstanding stories, both of you.

After all that chatter talking up the Kings I was relieved to find Dustin Brown right at the bottom of the list where he belongs. Although next time tell us how you really feel. :)

As for playing on my team, given he plays for either LA Kings or USA that is pretty much a moot point. So, fuck 'im.

Jamie said...

Finally someone has described something I've done in the heroic terms I always imagined.
Bent Thumb Centr

Black Dog said...

lol Jamie, there you go, your heroics preserved forever.