In light of my ongoing attempt to not look at everything in the world through a cynical lens, I thought last night's Hockeyville event was pretty great. Hearing the lady whose essay won her hometown (Johnsonville, PA) the contest (to be declared "Hockeyville, USA" and host an NHL preseason game) talk about how her knees buckled and she almost lost it when meeting Malkin ("Geno") that morning, hearing her say, proudly, that winning the contest was the highlight of her life, well I felt this warm fuzzy wholesome feeling run through me that was as unfamiliar as it was pleasant.
It made me feel nostalgic; not because I'm from some good ol' American town like Johnstown (I'm not). No, it was because I realized something as NBCSN kept showing images of the host venue - the Cambria County War Memorial Arena - and it was something that brought me back.
I once played a hockey tournament there.
It hit me like a Gordie elbow to the face. (NBCSN wisely aired Slapshot - most of which was filmed in Johnstown, and in this arena - after the game, no doubt adding to this flood of recollections.) And so I'd like to share with you all the memory I have of this tournament I played in Hockeyville, USA, because i find it:
I was 16 years old, a sophomore in high school. My school - like all public high schools in Brooklyn - did not have a hockey team. So I played for the travel team closest to where I lived: the New York Stars. I'd bet some of ya'll who played out in LI might remember playing this team - blue/orange unis, played our home games in Abe Stark rink on Surf Ave in Coney Island (right next to that Nathan's where they eat hot dogs every Fourth). The visiting team would usually wander in, curious if this sh*thole could really be a hockey rink, what with the long row of project buildings a stark contrast to the trees/grass combo they were used to in Great Neck (Bruins), Freeport (Arrows), SI (Sharks) and other random towns in LI, Westchester and Jersey.
These teams would then proceed to beat our asses on the sh*tty sheet of ice we called home. That's because we sucked. We sucked big time; I'm talking last year's Sabres, most-of-my-life-Islanders bad. We'd win here and there, I scored some goals, etc. Playing hockey was fun regardless of the losing because hockey, contrary to popular American belief, is in fact the Greatest Game of 'em all.
We played in two tournaments that year. One was in Virginia; the other was in, as far as I was told at the time (and remembered until last night), "some town near Pittsburgh" around six hours away. The Pittsburgh tourny was more memorable for two distinct reasons:
(1) when my dad and I arrived, I was just astonished at all the roadkill everywhere. I thought, this must be the roadkill capital of America, and if it's not, well that's because I've basically been nowhere and know nothing. But man, dead skunks and deer and raccoons and everything. everywhere.
(2) the rink hosting the tournament was by far, not-even-close the nicest rink we'd ever played in (Unfortunately, the annual Can-Am tournament (not sure if it still exists) was cancelled the one year I played travel, and it was going to be held in the Miracle on Ice venue in Lake Placid. Dang.)
The first thing I noticed was the cube-shaped scoreboard hanging down from the ceiling above center-ice. I'd never played in any rink that had a scoreboard like that, that wasn't just flat against the wall on one end of the rink. This was like a mini NHL scoreboard. And the seats were beautiful, not bleachers but these blue seats, angled perfectly, surrounding the entire circumference of the ice. And the amount of people who came to watch the games was probably - no joke - at least 50-75x more people than we'd ever played in front of (i.e., our parents). The ice was fantastic and I couldn't help but think, as we skated warmups before our first game, that this kinda sorta felt out of place for a team as sh*tty as our's. (Also, the identifying visuals from last night which pretty much confirmed it for me was seeing the locker rooms - so many of them, I kept walking into the wrong one - two-by-two, each with a big # displayed above its door - the hallways and the outside/front of the building.)
As it turns out, I was 100% correct to feel out of place playing in such a nice arena. Why is that? Because the person who handled the administrative stuff for the team - a ft brain surgeon, i assume - signed us up for the wrong f*cking tournament. We were warming up and the other team gets onto the ice and they are all H-U-G-E. They're all fast, big, strong, and obviously older than us. You know when you'll watch 2 NHL teams warm up if you get to the game early, shooting around and stretching and what not? It won't be possible to identify at this point, "oh, look at #37 over there...look how awful he is!" because this is warmups. All these guys can perform the basics at a high enough level such that only when they are competing against each other and exerting maximum effort can differences in ability show.
Well, the moment these guys stepped onto the ice we were like, "what the f*ck?" We found out after that first game - which we lost 18-0...let me spell that out so you know it's not a typo - we lost the first game by a score of eighteen-to-zero - that we were signed up for the wrong tournament and we were not supposed to be playing there. I don't remember now what level we were - bantam, midget, etc. - but we were 15/16 years old and we were playing in an 18+ tournament. It wasn't just the physical disparity between us and the other teams (which was huge since the 2/3-year difference in age at that point in life is much more significant, in terms of physical maturity, than that of say, 28 vs 31). It was also that these teams were at a much higher skill level at their age than we were at ours. That is to say, when we turn 18/19, we'll be bigger/stronger but we will not be as good at hockey. So that was the deal.
OK, so we lost the first game 18-0. We find out about the registration error and we are given the option of quitting and going home. We're all obviously scared sh*tless of getting murdered on the ice but at the same time, we all have male genitals so we said f*ck that let's stay in the tournament and fight. Yeah, let's get at it boys! We're never setting foot in a place this nice again anyway and for some reason we're not prohibited by USA Hockey from playing two age levels up so c'mon let's f*ckin' go already.
We lost the 2nd game by a score of 15-0. (Fifteen-to-zero.) Two games, two shutout losses by a cumulative score of 33-0. We were eliminated from the playoff stage at that point, but we did have one game left to play.
Our coach gave a real doozy of a chalk talk before the third game. Probably the best speech he ever gave, because he was inconceivably bad at giving speeches. Because hey, although we're in the wrong place, and although each of the first 2 games got to the point where the other team would just be, like, practicing their 2nd-option breakout plays while we were doing all we could just to hang onto the puck for a few seconds - losing like that is still embarrassing. Hearing opposing players laugh, knowing what all these people must be thinking, ignorant to the logistical error that got us here; that's not a good feeling, no matter our being fully aware of the realities of the situation.
So we go out and we're playing like f*cking hell in that 3rd game. I don't remember exactly what specific goal the coach set out for us, maybe it was "don't allow more than 10 goals" or "please try to score one time...please" - it surely couldn't have been something asinine like "outscore the other team" - but we're playing hard. We're all throwing our bodies around as hard as ever, we're all trying to lift each other up, play together as a team, etc. It was probably hilarious to the other team, but not to us. We were playing as hard as we'd ever played, all of us. And so what happened in that 3rd game, well what happened was the shining moment of my lowest-level-of-the-sport-in-existence-but-so-f*cking-what hockey career.
We did not get killed 15-0 or 18-0. No. We fought like hell and in the third period, I scored what was both the first goal of the game (putting us up 1-0) and our team's first goal of the tournament. I'l never forget it. I enter the offensive zone on another sure-to-be-fruitless forecheck when the other winger on my line somehow steals the puck along the right boards. The other team must have just pulled a sh*tty line change or something because we have an unusual amount of time and space...my teammate fumbles the puck, the one d-man back commits to him way too early and I scream out, probably sounding like a 6-yr old girl, YO EDDIE (his name), I might have myself a little breakaway here if you can somehow direct that puck this way, and if the stars align such that I can cleanly receive that puck, and if the goalie happened to take hallucinogenic drugs before the game....ya never know, right? So he got the puck to me and I give the goalie some sh*tty deke and man that gpalie must've been one sh*tty ass goalie because he commits way too early and I slide a backhand along the ice past his ass as I'm clobbered from behind by a few of the grown men playing for the other team. I remember watching the puck slowly slide in while getting tackled before hearing all our parents screaming - in shock, in joy -and my teammates mobbing me while I lay on the ice, a celebration befitting some sort of championship won, equal parts inappropriate and...totally appropriate. Wow, what a feeling.
Then, the other team scores 3 goals in like one minute (making quite clear that they'd been practicing some of the other parts of the game aside from "scoring goals" up to that point) and we lose, 3-1.
Coach was real proud of us; we fought like hell to make the final score a respectable one. We were dominated physically, with skill, endurance, everything. But that last game, that third game of this 18+ tournament we were mistakenly registered for, in this roadkill-littered place they call Johnstown, which is really far from Brooklyn but really not that far from Pittsburgh, I was told...in that last game, we played with purpose, with passion. In that third and final game, we played with enough heart....to score one goal. For this, we would leave Hockeyville on top of the world. And lemme tell you, it was f*cking glorious.
And that's that.