Thursday, December 24, 2009

Joyeux Noel!

Boston, Christmas Eve!

I've lost count of the number of times my youngest, Brynne, has asked: "Dad, what do you want for Christmas?" The answer never changes. "I just want to spend the day with my family, and know that everyone is healthy and happy." Apparently, that's not enough of an answer for a soon-to-be 11-year-old whose Wish List for Santa is twice as long as my typical blog entry. But it's a truthful answer, uncharacteristically (for me) short and sweet. If I can wake up Christmas morning in a warm home, my wife by my side, knowing that Brynne and Maddi are eagerly awaiting our arrival in the family room, then I'm a supremely happy man. Not carefree, but certainly happy and content.

Obviously, some of the "big" things I could ask for, like consistent employment and maybe that new addition on our cozy cottage here in Hamilton, are out of the realm of Christmas wishes. This has been a difficult year for many, and we didn't dodge the economic bullet either. Both Lauri and I seem to be working harder for less, but we're working, and we still love what we do (most of the time, anyway). And we still love being with each each other, and with our girls (I should probably include the knucklehound, True, and the two new kittens, Izzy and Molly, into that mix). In that regard, we're truly wealthy.

Tonight we ran off to Bolton, Massachusetts, for Christmas Eve with the in-laws. Maddi and Brynne's Grandmom and Granddad Zinn flew in from Kansas the night before, so there was no reason not to get a head start on the weekend's festivities at my brother in-law Rob's house, along with his beautiful wife Kate and two precocious youngsters, my nieces Emma and Olivia. Tomorrow, we'll be New Hampshire bound, to my sister in-law Jenni's place in Pelham, with almost the entire Zinn clan in tow (the accompanying photo above is from last year's Christmas Day at the Woodheads' home, with all the Zinn grandchildren!). Then, on Sunday, it's back to New Hampshire (Concord this time), to spend an afternoon with my siblings MaryEllen, Chris and Sean, their spouses, and all the nieces and nephews (in a neat twist, Maddi and Brynne are the youngest kids on my side of the family, but the oldest on Lauri's side). With luck, the girls' Grampy and my Uncle Art will join us as well, No doubt the Colorado boys, Matt and Mike, will phone in to say "Merry, merry!" along with their brides, Laura and Brenda, and maybe Uncle Bill and the Pare clan will check in from Maryland. Sure hope so, anyway.

These gatherings are a special events, traditions we carry on in the spirit of our parents and grandparents, a reminder of the things that are truly important. The atmosphere of camaraderie is unrivaled, the sense of belonging unquestioned. The laughter and the heartfelt conversation flow freely. I pray that Mom and Dad are able to look down from their perch high above us, and enjoy the sights of their children, and grandchildren, sharing these family-affirming moments. It's all but impossible to stop my mind from reeling back through the years, to the snow-covered mornings in New Jersey and New Hampshire, or wherever our holiday travels took us. There are instances when the nostalgia is almost overwhelming.

Still, Christmas, even more than New Year's, is also a time for me to reflect. I know how lucky I am to be part of not one, but two large caring and loving families. I think of the multitude of friends that Lauri and I are so fortunate to have, including those long-lost pals we've reconnected with via FaceBook (during our somewhat haphazard sojourn into social media). We live in a terrific neighborhood, with thoughtful neighbors. No, last year wasn't always a walk in the park, but that's why it helps to have a memory as selective as mine. I can't look back on 2009 without smiling, without feeling blessed. And that, I truly believe, is no accident.

I hope and pray that the holidays hold the same small-but-significant miracles for each and every one of you. Joyeux Noel, and a very Happy New Year!

Warm regards,
-Brynne, MaryAlyssa, Lauri & Brion

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Getting after it ...

Boston, with Christmas around the corner!

Despite having played sports most of my life, those sublime moments when it all came together, when my mind and body fused seamlessly, when I was "in the zone," were rare. I guess that makes it easier to remember them -- hockey games when the puck looked more like a beach ball, soccer games when every touch of the ball was spot on, epic mountain bike rides, endless powder days atop my snowboard, nailing my first shortboard gybe -- but I still wish they happened more often. It's what we strive for as athletes ... not only to compete, but to attain a certain surreal sense of accomplishment and skill. Those moments happen even less often in coaching. But they do happen.

Monday night I was in a cranky mood. I had deadlines up the wazoo, and the words weren't exactly flying off my fingertips. My daughter Brynne's Squirt hockey team was schedule to play on a school night, which never sits well with me (another testament that, while the Valley League likes to "say" that it's all about the kids, its "actions" indicate that it's all about the money). A 6 p.m. start time meant driving 40 minutes into the teeth of rush hour traffic, and there was a good chance we wouldn't have enough bodies. Sure enough, one by one, I started getting email messages saying this player and that player couldn't make it. Then our goalie's mom called, and that's never a good thing. So, I emailed another parent to recruit his son to tend the nets, and made arrangements to pick up the goalie gear. All the while, my disposition was getting more and more sullen. Making matters worse, we were playing a team from Arlington, and the kids from Spy Pond always come to play.

Brynne and I were among the first to the rink, along with two other players and their parents. Other players started filtering in, everyone except Ned, our goalie for the night. His mom called, saying they were stuck in traffic. I started growling. I went to Brynne, who made it clear she wasn't thrilled about the prospects of playing goal. I told her it was one of those times when it stinks to be the coach's kid. "Sure does, " she said. I conferred with Jere, my co-coach, and we decided to simply start the game without a goalie, putting a regular player in goal until Ned could get ready. And this is when my night started to turn around. We only had nine position players, which meant we had two full lines at forward and three defensemen, who would have to rotate (playing two shifts on, one off). I asked one of them, Nick, to start in goal, and he didn't hesitate. "Sure thing, Coach," he said, with an eagerness that caught my attention and made me smile.

So I launched into my pre-game chat, telling the kids to skate as hard as they could when they had a chance to get the puck, but to also try to conserve their energy for a full game. I told my three defensemen -- Nick, Gracie and Callen -- that that I'd be expecting a lot of them. Same for our two centers, Tookie and Mayo, since I needed them to backcheck relentlessly. And I asked my wings -- Timmy, Jack, Christian and Brynne, to take the pressure off Ned and the D by forechecking like banshees. I told them that Arlington kids always skated with a purpose, and we would really have to rely on one another to stay in the game.

Things didn't look encouraging when we got on the ice. The Arlington squad seemed to have twice as many kids, and I muttered to myself "That team has its priorities straight." Still, Ned made it out of the locker room just as the game got under way, and I figured Jere and I would just play it by ear. That's when something magical happened. Our kids got after it from the first drop of the puck, and never once stopped as long as they were on the ice. They would come to the bench flush, chests heaving. They'd sit, gulp down some water, and then get ready for their next shift. And when they hit the ice, they were moving. I was stunned. Mayo, our best stickhandler, put us up 1-0, and then Brynne doubled the margin when her centering pass ricocheted off a defenseman and into the net. "That was embarrassing," she said afterward. "They all count, honey," I replied.

Meanwhile, my defensive trio were playing like demons, rarely letting Arlington anywhere near our goal. Our kids battle for every 50/50 puck, and won most of them. Ned kicked out any shots that came his way, though his technique was a bit more unorthodox than I'd like. During one excruciating moment, the puck sat between his skates as he spun around, looking for it. Sure enough, though, our defenders cleared it away. Between periods, I told our kids not to change anything. I wanted them to keep skating, but to stay within themselves. But they continued to exceed every expectation. In the second period, Arlington got one past Ned, but Timmy buried a pair to give us a 4-1 lead. I kept waiting for the roof to cave in during the third period, but it never happened. Each time I asked a player if he or she were ready to go, the answer was an emphatic "Yes, Coach." Nick was literally jumping over the boards. Tookie jammed in our fifth goal, and we left the ice with a hard-earned 5-1 win. The Arlington coach was incredibly gracious: "How do you get your kids to get after the puck like that," he asked, clearly impressed with the effort our kids gave. I shrugged. I can't repeat exactly what Jere told me after the final whistle, but the family version was: "That was awesome!"

In the locker room, the kids were exhausted but happy. I told them they deserved to be both. I could not have been more proud of them, and I told them that too. As hockey players, they couldn't have asked for a better Christmas present. And it was a present they got to share with their teammates, making it all the more sweeter. It all came together for them, and I wanted them to remember that it was hard work and teamwork and will power that made it happen. I hope it happens again.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

The greatest outdoor game ...

Boston, chilly & bright!

Late last week, I was doing some homework for a really fun story on pond hockey for ESPN, as told by some of the giants of the college game, namely Jerry York of Boston College and Jack Parker of Boston University (for that story, click here). These are men who have reached the heights of their professions, having coached three national champions each, including each of the last two years. But when the subject turns to pond hockey -- the hockey of their youth -- these men sounded a lot more like young boys. Even though our interviews were conducted by phone, I could sense a wistful, faraway tone in their voices as they talked longingly about long days spent on the frozen ponds that dotted the Greater Boston area. And I understood completely.

The accompanying photo is from1973, meaning I was all of 15 at the time. That's me on the right, resplendent in my vintage 1970s-style Toronto Maple Leafs jersey and goalie gear, rubbing elbows with my older brother, Sean. Obviously, stepping back 36 years in the Way Back Machine will shade your memories, but fortunately for me, all the recollections are good. Growing up in New Jersey, necessity dictated that if we were going to play hockey often, we'd be playing mostly on the streets. But in wintertime, I'd be salivating over the prospects of getting on the ice. I honestly don't have a treasure trove of memories from this time -- my gift for recall about as sketchy as thin ice -- but the ones I have stand out like beacons. I remember peering out our kitchen window at 555 Nordhoff Drive at night, eying the thermometer outside, praying the mercury would dip below the magical 32 degrees Fahrenheit. It didn't matter if it was borderline, or that Mom correctly told me that the ice would be marginal at best; I hoped for some miracle of physics, which would allow water to freeze as long as the temperature "was in the ball park."

I remember Dad's old drab, olive green duffel. The heavy Army-surplus canvas bag wasn't fancy, but I could stuff all my goalie gear into it, the same gear I bought with my own paper route money. I remember trying to negotiate with the knuckleheads at the Town of Leonia recreation department to allow at least some portion of the flooded basketball courts at Overpeck Park to be used for hockey (even in the 1970s, civil litigation was a thriving business in the New York Metropolitan Belt, and town officials were scared silly, convinced that hockey was a euphemism for "potential lawsuit"). So we had to pretty much get to the courts first thing in the morning, before any figure skaters got out of bed. Those crack-of-dawn treks to the park, with all our gear slung over our young-but-sturdy shoulders, were invigorating. The day this photo was snapped was just about ideal -- mail-order blue skies, with crisp, cold temperatures making for rock solid, smooth ice.

There were a couple of ponds scattered around town too, and I recall playing shinny hockey occasionally, without all the fancy gear and jerseys we were sporting above. One spot, Crystal Lake, down off Grand Avenue, even had a big bonfire. Nothing felt, or smelled, better than inching up to the flames, letting that natural furnace drive the cold from our bones. But the best, the absolute pinnacle of pond hockey perfection, was going to Dorr's Pond in Manchester, NH. This was one of the great rewards for the long drive north to visit Grandmere and Grandpere. The pond, beside Livingston Park, was a short walk from our grandparents' house on Pickering Street. In the '70s, before "global warming" became an ingrained part of our lexicon, my siblings and I would bundle up, grab our skates and sticks and a few coins for a hot chocolate, and shuffle down to the pond.

There, the city had a warming hut dividing the pond and an actual rink (with boards and lights!). The rink was the domain of the older kids, and young men, but we were able to sneak on every now and then, typically playing a smaller, cross-ice game. I don't think anything made Grandpere (a native of Quebec) happier than seeing his small army of grandchildren mucking around on the ice. In later years, after our clan moved to New Hampshire, my brothers and I (and friends) would still frequent Door's Pond, or other frozen bodies. One day in particular stands out, when my brother Chris and I and two friends, Tom Duval and Matt Sopel, found some black ice up by Lake Massabesic that I swear was smoother than glass. God help us if we missed a pass, because the puck would slide for just about forever! Naturally, we'd argue about who was responsible -- the passer or the passee -- for skating after it! And, I'm sure, we had little appreciation for just how magical, and how fleeting, these days were.

Today, pond hockey stills calls to me, though not as often, due to the scarcity of good ice. And I'm a bit more leery of its siren's song. Those pressure cracks in the ice were once just a minor inconvenience because they interrupted the smooth path of the puck, making it jump unpredictably. Now, those cracks look like a bad injury waiting to happen. I can just envision my blades getting caught, and one of my knees coming apart like a cheap suit. So I err on the side of caution, slipping on some elbow and knee pads, "just in case." Because when my girls say they want to skate, I can't say "No."


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Reasons to be cheerful (and thankful) ...

Boston, drizzling ...

Having just wrapped up a few stories for the New England Ski Journal, I got to thinking about one of my favorite ski tales (which, by the way, are almost as good as fish tales, depending on how much alcohol is flowing apres ski). A few years back, I was on a ski press trip to Utah along with Maddi, who was all of 8 at the time. On this particular day, she was in the ski school at Park City, and I was freeskiing this superb resort, grabbing as many turns as I could. Then it all turned bad (No, that's not me in the accompanying photo -- it's actually from Vail -- but I've always wanted to use it! Plus, I think it's safe to say that, had I seen this photo before my Park City adventure, I'm not sure I would have ever gathered the nerve to jump!) ...

Lift hucking in the Wasatch

The bright light of day was already beginning to relent to the peach and pink hues of late afternoon when I curled into the Silverlode lift line at Park City, Utah. I was pushing my luck, having roamed far from the Park City's sprawling base village, where my 8-year-old daughter Maddi would be waiting for me after her ski lessons. But I couldn't help myself – it had been an glorious Utah day at a world-class resort, and I was going to squeeze every run out of it I could.

A large, no-nonsense lift attendant herded me onto the Silverlode high-speed "six-pack," along with five other powder hounds. She didn't crack a smile when I quipped, "Beautiful day, eh?" Maybe she didn't like the look of the dark shadows that were rolling in. Her loss, I thought (though she could have learned a lesson or two from my friends back at Sugarloaf). The six of us plopped onto the padded seats, the chair clamped onto the high-speed cable, and we were off. For about 12 seconds.

I'd barely had a chance to say "Hi!" to the snowboarder on my left when a loud "Bang!" shot from deep inside the lift building. The lift jerked to a halt, and then started swaying up and down. We all instinctively grabbed the safety bar, trying to settle our nerves and our stomachs. "That didn't sound too good," said my new snowboarder friend, in a deep, Arnold Schwarzenegger-style Austrian accent. Once the waves in my gut subsided, I looked over the front of the lift and saw that we were suspended about 15 feet over a fresh patch of untracked powder. "Doesn't look too bad," said Ah-nold with a big, toothy grin. "I'm not so sure," I replied with a shaky laugh, the thought of flinging my 40-something body off a lift not sitting well at all. Being from New England, I'd seen what lurks beneath the lifts – sheared tree trunks, jagged rocks, and other assorted hazards, both natural and man-made.

So as the lift rocked gently in the breeze, we made ourselves comfortable. To my right was a Wall Street type, who immediately pulled out his Blackberry and started multi-tasking, not saying a word to anyone. To his right were a mother and daughter, the latter wearing a helmet festooned with one of those ridiculous polar fleece ornaments that made her look like a court jester. She was chit-chatting non-stop, in a high-pitched Valley Girl voice, convincing me that if the lift didn’t start soon, I'd be forced to jump just to save my sanity. I was certain the poor, ordinary looking character sitting next to them on the far right felt the same.

Five, then 10 minutes passed. Anyone who's been stuck on a lift knows what an eternity that seems like. Even Mr. Wall Street started getting agitated, after he apparently ran out of things he could do on his Blackberry. Finally, Mom thought to call the resort from her cell phone. She explained that she was sitting on the Silverlode chair, and it hadn't moved for 15 minutes. After nodding her head a few times, she blurted out "Thanks," closed her flip phone, and sighed. "Well, they’re sending someone over, " she said, exasperated. "It appears they’ve blown a piston or something."

"That's it, I'm out of here," announced Ah-nold abruptly. "You go, I go," I stammered, though unsure where the words were coming from. The irony is that, during my first forays into skiing as a youngster, I had an annoying penchant for falling off lifts, much to my Dad’s consternation. But that was a long, long time ago, when my body was much more pliable. Plus, I don't think I ever fell more than five feet, max. This time, I’m looking at a good 15-foot drop, with a body that’s unaccustomed to hucking off of high places.

Undeterred, Ah-nold quickly unfastened his board, tossed it aside, took a deep breath and pushed off, hitting the snow in a soundless burst of powder. "It's good … very good," said my Austrian shredder, beaming. And with that, he collected his board and post-holed his way into the nearby woods (apparently to avoid prosecution).

Without giving myself time to allow another doubt to creep into my grey matter, I threw my poles into the divot created by Ah-nold’s landing and reached forward to pop off my skis. I ignored the surly demands of the barking lift attendant, who, I learned later, had every right to insist that we stay on the lifts, since it's illegal to jump off them in Utah. Better I didn't know. My only thought was that it was late, and getting later, with little to no hope of getting off the lift and getting back to Maddi before sundown. Other than jumping.

I jettisoned my skis as well, watching them spin in a perfect arch before hitting the snow, like a twisting diver off the high platform. One stuck the landing, sinking past the bindings, which told me I had at least three feet of fluff to cushion my 215 pounds. Rushing to prevent thinking, I bid Mr. Wall Street, Mom and Daughter, and Joe Average a quick adieu, slid my butt to the edge of the seat, and launched myself. I’m fairly certain I didn’t look as graceful as my skis, especially on impact. My feet hit first, but my forward momentum drove my face into the powder, filling my mouth, nose and ears. And it felt wonderful.

With blood and adrenaline thumping through my veins, I spun to give my chair mates a quick thumbs up, before gathering my gear and tracing Ah-nold’s footprints into the woods. Only then did I hear the cheers of other skiers stranded in chairs further up the line. Taking one last glance behind me, I watched as the daughter, hanging full-stretch from the chair, plopped down with a yelp! I kicked off the packed snow on the underside of my boots, snapped in, looked around for any vigilante lift attendants, and skied off to find Maddi.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Running the Baja ...

Boston, early Monday ...

In honor of that wacky, reckless (though not without wrecks) ode to internal combustion -- the Baja 1000 -- held every November along Mexico's rugged western coastline, Men's Fitness asked me to do a story on my own four-day white-knuckle ride with the gang at Maverick Business Adventures and Wide Open Baja. You can check it out, with a slew of photos, in the November issue, or read it online here. The unedited version is below.

Dust to glory

I've got the gas pedal pegged to the floor. My co-driver Rich Bellofatto, a finance guy from Long Island, is screaming above the din of the high-torque 240-horsepower engine: "Punch it! Punch it!" Our 3000-pound Baja racer jerks into the tracks of the fine Mexican silt like a spastic slot car. My chest slams into a five-point harness that keeps me from getting jettisoned, while the steering wheel threatens to tear away from my grip. Finally, we lurch out the other side of this talcum pit, our rig covered in what our guide describes as "liquid dirt." My heart is pounding like a jackhammer. Bellofatto flashes a mega-watt smile. "Nicely done," he says.

This, in the world of Wide Open Baja, is what passes for a day at the office. And that office is found right along the route of the famed Baja 1000 race. Legendary racer Rufus "Parnelli" Jones once described this south-of-the-border demolition derby, held every November, as a "24-hour plane crash." Jones, a two-time Baja 1000 winner, wasn't kidding. This crazed mix of high-octane fuel, rubber and corrugated dirt roads through one of the world's most diverse desert environments is an eye-popping experience. And it's no "reality show" – it's real.

"Wide Open Baja is the only company I've worked with that gives you enough rope to hang yourself," says guide Andrea Tomba, warning against overconfidence. "It's easy to go from really fun to really wrong at 60 miles an hour. Baja is the temptress. She'll seduce you, and then she'll spurn you."

Seduction comes easily behind the wheel of a full-blown Baja racer boasting almost two feet of suspension per wheel. But unlike schools based on NASCAR or even drag racing, we're motoring along public roads (though the term "road" is applied rather loosely), not a racetrack. The terrain is spectacular but rugged, with hidden dangers, ranging from precipitous ravines and toe-curling switchbacks to suicide cattle, lurking around each corner or rise. We even took these burly buggies on the highways, and into cities like La Paz (when "ordinary" vehicles were forced to stop at speed bumps, our 20-inches of suspension allowed us to hit them at 40 mph). As Tomba said: "There aren't many places that will let a bunch of lunatics like us drive on public roads in race cars."

Talk about immersion. After a brief walk-through of the cockpit, I slid into the driver's seat, not with an instructor beside me, but with another Baja neophyte. In short, the driver is immediately and completely accountable for a $120,000 racing rig (each accident – flat tire, ruined transmission, dead cow – comes with a $3000 deductible). The co-pilot is no idle passenger, but a vested partner. The race cars are equipped with GPS units and radios, and the co-pilot is responsible, when he's not hanging on for dear life, for alerting the car behind about upcoming hazards (which have been sent down from the lead, or guide, car). It's a high-stakes version of the old telephone game, where incorrect instructions can send cars hurtling off the road. Key facts must be conveyed precisely and quickly. It doesn't take long to learn who in the group is a good communicator, and who can get you hurt, says Todd Clement, Wide Open's founder and a Baja veteran.

The driver, meanwhile, is trying to process all this information while keeping a 3,000-pound beast under control barreling along at breakneck speed. The most comical comment, in hindsight, was Tomba telling us: "It's not a race. We'll see some beautiful areas. Look around. Enjoy it." Those words came back to me again and again as I desperately tried to keep up with the wicked pace set by Tomba, especially after several mechanical problems put our group behind schedule. One leisurely glance to take in the surroundings could have been disastrous.

Still, once comfortable with the pitch and sway that comes with plenty of suspension on these washed-out "roads," you can really open up these rigs. Chasing the car in front of us, Bellofatto and I spent as much time in the air as we did on terra firma. "You just can't describe the feeling you get while you're screaming through the desert at 80 miles an hour, surrounded by walls of killer cactus 15 feet high, and hitting jumps that would crack a Hummer in half," says Mike Dillard of Austin, TX.

The next day we all jabbed the gas pedal a bit harder, trusting the cars to do what they were designed to do. At the end of Day Two, when we motored into Scorpion Bay under the cover of darkness, I was spent. My helmet and clothes sported a thick layer of grime. My shoulders throbbed from smashing against the harness, and my right knee had a big purple welt where it repeatedly smacked a T-bar handle designed to provide the co-pilot some stability. My midsection was battered. No, this is not a pastime for the faint of heart, or faint of wallet (tour prices vary; plan on spending $1,000 per day). But the price of admission, whether financial or physical, is well worth it. When a Wide Open staffer handed me an ice-cold Pacifico, I was grinning like a kid.

For details on Wide Open Baja, visit or call 949-635-2292.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Saddle up!

Boston, promising!

My daughter Brynne is possessed. I suppose, if I were to be completely truthful, I always suspected there was a chance of this happening. But I, like so many parents, turned a blind eye toward my child's true passion and hoped, instead, that horses would just be a passing phase for my youngest. I should have known better.

After all, this is the girl who, at the ripe old age of six, came up to me one day with a determined look in her eye and asked me if I'd take her over to Myopia, an old-moneyed hunt-and-polo club that abuts our neighborhood. "Why?" I asked, thinking I'd already guessed the answer. "Because I want to see if they'll give me a job, so I can ride the horses," Brynne replied, obviously having thought this plan through. I was caught completely off guard.

For a second, I was speechless, probably because my heart had lodged in my throat. This earnest young girl of mine wasn't asking for riding lessons, wasn't asking for a horse. She was asking for the opportunity -- at 6! -- to earn her riding time. "Oh, honey," I said, not knowing in the least the Pandora's Box I was prying open, "if you want it that bad, Mommy and I will find a way to make it happen."

And we have. Brynne started taking lessons within the month, with a gentlemen recommended by a friend who happens to belong to Myopia. For Brynne, it was love at fist ride. She took to it naturally, looking calm and composed from the get-go. Then we got really lucky. When Patrick confided that work commitments would prevent him from continuing with Brynne, he recommended Karla Parnell.

Brynne has been with Karla ever since, riding once a week (sometimes twice a week in the summer, when Lauri and I can scrape together a few extra bucks) from nearby Looking Glass Farms, atop Penny or Cricket or Dabble or Eagle. Lauri and I love Karla's no-nonsense approach, and Karla has really taken a shine to Brynne because she doesn't want to just show up and ride. She wants to immerse herself in the experience. Brynne arrives early, tacks up the horses, and stays late, brushing them down afterward. I swear, I sometimes think there's nothing she'd rather be doing than mucking out stalls. Nothing except riding, that is. And, without fail, every time I watch her saunter off with Karla, my heart stutters.

At home, Brynne's room is a shrine to equitation. She has horsey blankets and pajamas and jackets and calendars and books and portraits and statues. On the door is a sign that says, simply, "Brynne's Stable." Her favorite stuffed sleeping buddy is a handsome chestnut named Sampson. Thanks to Brynne, our DVR is overflowing with episodes of "The Saddle Club." Her Christmas list is copied directly from Dover Saddlery. She is, without a doubt, in deep. The first photo above is from Christmas two or three years ago, during a visit to my brother in-law's house. In classic class-clown fashion (Brynne is the second child, after all), she's horsing around on her cousin Olivia's new hobby horse

But this past fall, during the annual Myopia Hunter Pace, my daughter's favorite pastime really hit home. I watched as Brynne, in full riding regalia (a second-hand outfit neatly tailored by Lauri, I should add), came trotting out of the woods aboard Cricket and cleared the final jump. It was beautiful beyond words. My little girl, now 10, didn't look so little anymore (the second photo was snapped a moment later). She was a young and talented equestrian, confident and radiant. Her smile was as brilliant as it was priceless.

While I love the fact that Brynne plays hockey, I've never once allowed myself to think -- not for a moment -- that her deepest affections lie with my chosen sport. Brynne likes the rink, but she loves the stable. It's as simple as that. She's always been a young lady who knows what she wants, and I wouldn't have it any other way.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What price freedom?

Boston, overcast.

I find it somehow fitting that the skies are shrouded with sad, gray clouds this morning, given the disrespectful behavior of two local institutions regarding Veterans Day. An exclusive local private school (Shore Country Day) and my daughter's hockey league (the Valley League) both have decided that Veteran's Day is not a holiday worth recognizing. I'm sure they're not the only two; just ask any veteran who is being told he or she has to work on Wednesday. But this is not a holiday that should ever be taken lightly, or considered "optional."

I never served in the armed forces, fortunate to have slipped into that comfortable little crease between the end of the Vietnam War and the ensuing rise of the Gulf War battles (which, incredibly, we're still embroiled in to this day). And, I can honestly say that, had I been drafted during the Vietnam War, I'm not sure I would have gone, given my deep-seated disenchantment with the decisions that led to our involvement in those hostilities. But I've always had great respect for those who answered the call, and especially for those who, unlike me, put their country ahead of any personal beliefs. That kind of courage and commitment is the very definition of allegiance (a definition that our political leaders would do well to adopt).

Both my father and his father were doctors in the Army. My stepfather, Don Morin, served for three years in the European theater during World War II, a foot soldier in some of the most brutal and bloodiest battle zones known to man. Today, still ram-rod straight at 89, Don rarely talks about those days, which is not uncommon. Many of Lauri's patients are older men who served in World War II or, more often these days, the Korea War (I refuse to call it a "conflict"). She says that most take a quiet pride in their service -- there was a job to do, and they did it. They didn't "play" war. It wasn't simulated combat on Xbox or PlayStation. It was real life, and far too many lost their lives. Many more carried debilitating scars -- physical, mental and emotional -- the rest of their days. The least we can do is take two days out of the year -- Veterans Day and Memorial Day -- and let these brave men and women know how grateful we are.

That's the root of my disappointment today, on the eve of this essential holiday. So many people, including those who run Shore Country Day and the Valley League, have lost sight of how important it is that we honor those who sacrificed so much so that we can enjoy the lifestyle we have. In my most jaded moments, I think that Shore Country Day parents aren't concerned because they know their precious youngsters will never have to take up arms to protect this country. Cynical? I suppose, but it's hardly a state secret that those at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder typically put their lives on the line for those who profit most from war. It's been that way for centuries.

There was a time when most everyone served, regardless of social status or financial wherewithal. I live in a wealthy community, and I've taken time to visit the war memorial in front of Hamilton's Town Hall. The names etched in those granite blocks come from well-to-do and blue-collar families alike. Would that still hold true today? I have my doubts. This is a town where General George Patton settled, and his son (another General George Patton; note he was not spared military service) lived until his death. We have a Patton Park in the middle of town, complete with a Sherman tank, artillery, and two stone pillars, a gift from France for the efforts of Patton's infantry to liberate that country from Nazi rule. How many children are taught the true human toll that came with the deployment of those weapons?

I'm not saying I'm a proponent of a universal draft, or that everyone must play some part in this country's military-industrial complex (I always thought Muhammed Ali was railroaded for his refusal to be drafted). But I do believe we should have a universal appreciation for those who were willing to risk everything. That's what Veteran's Day is supposed to be. I find it both disheartening and discouraging that so many now apparently take those sacrifices for granted.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

An uncommon, heartfelt apology ...

Boston, with winter on the way!

As a youth hockey coach, I get to see, up close and personal, the entire spectrum of human behavior, from kids to parents to grandparents. Much of it, frankly, isn't very pretty. And I suppose some think of me and my Old School ways in the same vein. I take the "iron hand, warm heart" approach to coaching. I don't cut the kids much slack. I want them to enjoy sports, but also want them to respect the game. They need to know that games aren't created for their entertainment; the games exist to challenge them, to help them learn and grow. The enjoyment comes from mastering a skill, from learning that extra effort is always repaid in full, and from sharing a unique camaraderie with teammates.

Still, I oftentimes think most parents don't get this approach. My bride once coined the phrase "soccer day care," and I think that probably applies to youth hockey as well. At least town-sponsored programs. Don't get me wrong; I'm not a fan of the over-the-top, win-at-all-costs approach either. But sports, really, are about challenging yourself, getting knocked on your butt and getting back up, and repeating the process until you succeed. It's not about being pampered, or about the nice gear your well-heeled folks can buy for you. In sports, it's about what YOU can do on the ice. No excuses (despite the fact that we live in an area where parents will make every excuse, no matter how preposterous, for their child!).

But every now and then a moment happens to remind me why I do this. It might be an exhausted smile, a rare "thank you," a spark of recognition that what you're preaching is getting through. Last weekend our Squirt 2 team had a game (at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m., at a rink an hour away) against a squad from Haverhill. Unfortunately for Haverhill, their goalie didn't show, which meant some poor kid without the proper equipment had to stand between the pipes. By late in the second period, with our squad winning 5-0, my assistant coach and I implemented a "three-pass minimum" in the offensive zone (like I said, the other team didn't have a goaltender, and we had no intention of running up the score). We re-emphasized that rule between periods. It was, we said, not only the right thing to do from a sportsmanship perspective, but our players needed work on their passing.

In the third period, one of my defensemen, a burly, likable kid (we'll call him "Bobby," in the interests of anonymity), intercepted a clearing attempt and took a shot from the point without the requisite three passes. My assistant and I immediately agreed to take him off the ice. This is where it gets interesting. I asked Bobby if he understood why I pulled him, and he sheepishly admitted he knew he should have passed. I emphasized that there are times when you have to resist doing what you want to do, and instead do what's right (in this case, pass, so we could be good sportsmen). The boy nodded. A moment later, he mumbled something behind me. When I asked him to repeat it, he said: "I'm sorry, Coach." It was incredibly sincere.

The next time I looked at him, he had tears running down his cheeks. I was really moved ... this young man really cares about the game, and really cares about doing the right thing. I was proud of him. "It's OK, Bobby," I told him. "We're good, right?" He quietly said "yes," and I knew we were.


Monday, November 2, 2009

My bride

Boston, pristine!

Today is my bride's birthday. She gets one day to celebrate every year. I get 365, because I was lucky enough to have her say "Yes" when I proposed 16 years ago (on my birthday, no less ... how's that for the present of a lifetime?!). Lauri Zinn O'Connor is a rare and special woman, not only because she puts up with this crusty old Irishman, but because she does so with such grace and quiet understanding. Living with a self-employed freelance writer (or at least this self-employed writer) is no walk in the park, but Lauri somehow makes every day special. That is her gift, and that's why I'm one of the most fortunate men on this planet.

Lauri typically handles all my idiosyncrasies -- and I admit I have more than my fair share -- with her natural good humor and a finely honed sense of convenient amnesia. We have our flare-ups (what couple doesn't?), but even at the worst moments, there is no one I'd rather be with. Her laugh is absolute music to my ears, with a voice to match (my brother Sean once said, in a complimentary nod to Lauri: "Marry someone with a voice you like, because you'll be hearing a lot of it."). She even indulges me in my Mitty-esque flights of fancy regarding my athletic pursuits, whether its cycling, hockey, soccer, skiing, or something else. In fact, if I'm sitting around moping, due to this injury or that, she's the one who will shake me out of my doldrums and get me back on the flow train.

Lauri's also an incredible mom to our two precocious daughters (who, fortunately, get their good looks from the Zinn side of the family!), and the indisputable head of our little household. She keeps our Hamilton cottage neat as a pin (at least by my standards; I'm sure she'll disagree), inside and out. But, as my Mom liked to say, there's a world of difference between a house and a home. Lauri makes our house a home. She's the glue that keeps us together, and I want her to know how much I appreciate and adore her. That goes double for the girls, I'm certain.

Yes, I may have my shortcomings, but at least I have the good sense to know I've got it good. Check that. I've got one of the best! Thanks, beautiful!

Hugs and kisses,

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wow, what a goal!

Boston, brrrrrr!

Every now and then I'm lucky enough to get to see something that makes even This Old Jock sit up and take notice. Check out this video. The shooter is Oliver Wahlstrom, who plays for the Portland Junior Pirates in Maine. The setting is NESN's Mini 1-on-1, which airs between periods of the Bruins games. The shot is simply amazing, and the goalie's reaction -- "What the heck just happened?" -- is absolutely classic.

The video was making the rounds like wildfire this morning, especially among hockey circles. The general consensus was, "Get that kid on the Bruins." One of the more clever posts said "The Bruins just traded him to Toronto!" Unfortunately, what was equally incredible was the number of people who felt it necessary to post comments on the web site, criticizing young Oliver for having the skill and cajones to make such a move. Here's just a short sampling:

Just about as dumb as doing a triple axle then scoring. Any defender with a brain would take 2 steps and end this kid as he turned to the net. The people on this post obviously never played the sport.

The only thing missing is the goalie coming after shooter with his stick, shaking off gloves and having the two pound away at each other.

Very talented kid, but he needs to learn that someday he won't be the big fish in the small pond and he will get his lunch handed to him if he does that to the wrong opponent.

The showboating is the kid chose to embarrass his opponent with a very high-skilled manuever that should not be allowed in a competition like this. If it were a H-O-R-S-E like game, fine, knock your socks off, but this kid chose to embarrass the goalie, not just put the puck by him.

Huh? Have these people lost their minds? Is this what youth sports have come to? I'm a goalie, for crying out loud, and I can appreciate the remarkable skill required to make this move (and to put it in the net). Plus, the kid had to have ice water in his veins to pull it off in competition.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm all for sportsmanship, as any of the players on my Squirt hockey team, not to mention their parents, will tell you. But there's a time and a place to really let loose, and I can't think of a better place than some made-for-TV competition. Plus, I didn't see Oliver "show up" the goalie with an exaggerated fist pump or any other histrionics! He simply raised his arms, the traditional salute for a goal scored. Plus, he's just a kid! I congratulate him, not only for his skill, but for the hours and hours of practice he must have put in to be able to pull off such a difficult move. Best of luck, Oliver. You're going places in this great sport!

And for anyone who thinks this skill is useless in a game, just go to YouTube and search for Michigan's Mike Legg and his fantastic goal against Minnesota in the 1996 West Regional final, scooping the puck up behind the net and depositing over the unsuspecting goalie's shoulder. Brilliant, and ballsy!


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My daughter, the teenager ...

Boston, beautiful & brisk.

On Friday, I will become the father of a teenager! How is that possible? My life forever changed on Oct. 16, 1996, when MaryAylssa Diane "Maddi" O'Connor made her grand entrance into the world. And, if I remember correctly (sleep deprived as I may have been), she entered eyes wide open, with a pair of lungs to match! I became not only a father, but a husband in a much, much more profound sense than I ever could have imagine, being with Lauri throughout her labor.

The fact that I was in that hospital room, helping as much as any fumbling husband really can at that moment, was a testament to the seismic shift my life had taken in the previous 16 months. At age 36, the guy who my Mom said was her "confirmed bachelor," got married. Part of that deal, I knew, was children, if we were lucky enough. I've never met a woman -- or maybe I should say I never dated a women -- with such a strong maternal drive as Lauri, and she made it clear that if we were going to get hitched, then fatherhood was in my future.

Of course, being a guy, I spent our first year of marriage blissfully unaware, carrying on like I always had, running off to play hockey and hoops, riding my bike, going windsurfing. Lauri and I were young professionals, settling into a new house, all fancy free and open to a world of possibilities. But Lauri was setting up a "home," building the foundation. After all, it was my bride who, when she first saw our neighborhood, commented: "What a great place this will be to raise kids." She got us a cat -- a great, entertaining feline we named Marley -- to help me get adjusted to the concept of responsibility. Then, shortly after Valentine's Day, we learned we were in the "family way."

We signed up for parenting classes, and Lauri got busy with fixing up the new bedroom, buying cloths (a late ultrasound revealed we were having a girl!), and reading, reading, always reading. Me? I just stayed out of the way. We really enjoyed picking out the name, and settled on MaryAlyssa Diane O'Connor. The name is a playful combination of my sister's (MaryEllen), Lauri's mom (Diane), and a name we both really loved, Alyssa. Plus, her initials gave her the instant nickname of Maddi, which we joked would come in handy once our eldest became a teenager and decided she hated her name!

Now that moment is at hand, and I can't believe what a blur the last 13 years have been. Of course, everyone tells you it will pass like a freight train. Intellectually, you understand that. But emotionally, you want nothing more than to have a life DVR, something that allows you to pause, capture, or even rewind all the good parts. And there have been so, so many "good parts" watching Maddi on her journey through childhood. She's always had that dazzling smile, those twinkling eyes. She's grown straight and strong, built so much like her beautiful mom. Like most children, Maddi has been a challenge and a joy. An early daycare teacher -- Miss Marcia -- once called Maddi a "gentle soul," and in all the years that have passed since, I don't think anyone has described Maddi more succinctly or more accurately. The girl's got a heart of gold, which is something I really try to remember during all those maddening parent-child flare-ups that inevitably happen between generations. Life has an annoying way of letting all the niggling details -- the small stuff -- wear on our patience and hamper our ability to see the big picture. Again, I'm so grateful for Lauri, and the yin & yang of our partnership that allows us to council one another when one of us is spinning out of control. It's reassuring to have that rock, one that isn't bashful about reminding me just how super our kids are.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can offer Maddi, and her mom, as well as younger sister Brynne, is letting them know that there is no place, no place, I'd rather be at any moment in time than with them. Though I'm a writer who once lived for adventure travel, I find I have, at most, a 48-hour window while away before I start missing my girls something fierce. I've discovered depths of emotion I never knew existed, fired by Lauri and stoked, constantly, by Maddi and Brynne. I realized that I could never return to the newspaper field, where human tragedy is the daily fodder of the business. I just don't have the stomach for it anymore.

Some of my new-found traits, I admit, are less-than-admirable, like the inevitable Papa Bear reaction to any perceived sleight suffered by my child. Still, always the reporter (and Libra, I suppose), I try to be fair and impartial when Maddi goes through a rough patch, whether it's a falling out among friends or a squabble at home. Often she bears some responsibility, and it's my job as a parent to make sure she understands how her actions impact others. Those lessons haven't always been easy. When she aches, I ache. Like a good friend once told me when Lauri and I were first expecting, there's no greater sense of helplessness than when your child is hurting, and you can't take that pain away.

All that said, we have been incredibly fortunate. We've had a few scares, such as the time Maddi, only two, was rushed to the hospital with an unknown viral infection. But, taking the past 13 years as a whole, we have to count our blessings. We have a small, cozy cottage here in Hamilton, which means that, more often than not, the four of us are tripping all over each other (in addition to the two cats and True, our knucklehound). For the most part, I absolutely love it. Though it would be nice to have a bigger house (just ask Lauri), I can't imagine enjoying the distance that would come between us. Maybe that will change, as Maddi, and then Brynne, burrow deeper into the unsettling arena of adolescence. I hope not. My Mom used to counsel that you prepared kids the best you could, and then you have to let them find their own way. I see Maddi, on the cusp of her teenage years, and I just hope and pray that the adventure is a rich and rewarding one. And I pray the Good Lord lets me be a part of it.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Kind words from an author ...

Boston, raining & cold.

It's not often that my colleagues and I in the freelance writing biz get a thoughtful response to what we publish. Much of our craft takes place in a vacuum, which I guess is a good and a bad thing. We're typically insulated from criticism, but rarely hear praise, other than the kind words of our editors (which, I'll add, are always appreciated, probably more than they know!).

This past Sunday, I had a book review published in the Boston Globe. The book - Heart of the Game - was one of the most powerful I'd read in years. The review, however, languished in a holding pattern at the Globe for months, the victim of ever-shrinking editorial real estate. It wasn't anybody's fault, really ... there just wasn't any space. Last week, however, came the word that the review would run. I was relieved, not only because it meant a paycheck, but also because I felt strongly that S.L. Price's superb work deserved the ink. I struggled mightily writing the review, because I wanted to do the book justice. It touched me on a personal and emotional level, and it's never easy to write about those feelings without sounding self-absorbed. But I was pleased with the final result, and grateful that the review would see the light of day.

Then, on Monday, I received a note from the author, one that made all the extra effort worthwhile. It read, in part: "I can't tell you how much your review means to me: in some ways, you actually explain some of what I was trying to do better than I could ever articulate. It's rare to feel that something you've written has been met, even exceeded, by the understanding of the reader. That happened here, with your thoughtful, well-written, essay."

I let Price's words rattle around inside my head for a while, sitting in my cramped office, a sense of contentment warming me. I've always said that I enjoy writing because it gives me a wonderful opportunity to connect with others. And I was happy to know that two people who don't know one another, two fathers who both cherish sports and the lessons they teach us, connected because of this fine book.

Here is the review, which ran with the accompanying photograph of Tino Sanchez, sitting beside Mike Coolbaugh's jersey. It probably goes without saying that I highly recommend Heart of the Game, whether your a sports fan, or just a fan of the human race.

Death and life in baseball's minor leagues

Judging a book by its cover is the cardinal sin for a reviewer. But the photograph that adorns “Heart of the Game’’ is riveting. It shows Mike Coolbaugh, a long-time minor league baseball player, his uniform-clad back to the camera. In his arms are his two young sons, Joey and Jake, each with a hand on their father’s broad shoulders. Knowing he’s gone, killed in one of baseball’s most freakish accidents, brought me to the edge of tears.

Yet this is where veteran Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price weaves his magic. Genuine and raw, “Heart of the Game’’ is a heartfelt work of despair, triumph, and redemption. Price presents the lives of two minor league “lifers’’ - Coolbaugh and Tino Sanchez - on a cataclysmic collision course with the unerring eye of a superb journalist and the grounded sensitivity of a poet. True, there is a sense of dread permeating Price’s book, but his prose never turns maudlin. We know the ending isn’t happy. But to stop reading would be far worse, tantamount to quitting on a man who never quit himself.

“Mike kept playing after his dream died because he had a family to feed,’’ writes Price, describing Sanchez’s first impressions of Coolbaugh. “Mike has a passion tempered - inflamed, even - by rejection and pain.’’

Essentially, Price takes a sound-bite tragedy and begins digging, dissecting it. The short story is this: Coolbaugh’s life was cut short on a warm July night in 2007 in a pristine new ballpark in North Little Rock, Ark. At 35, he was less than month into a new coaching career after struggling for 17 years in professional baseball, mostly in the minors. He had been appointed hitting coach for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers (a Colorado Rockies affiliate), and was still getting comfortable in this new environment, serving as first base coach that star-crossed night. Then, lightning struck. With a swing of his bat, Sanchez sent a foul ball rocketing 90 feet down the first base line. It struck Coolbaugh flush in the neck, just behind his left ear. “Its report was muffled, moist, like an ax sinking hard into a patch of rotten timber,’’ writes Price.

Coolbaugh was killed instantly. The moments, days, and weeks that follow are absolutely gut wrenching. Sanchez, a native of Puerto Rico who had hoped to get the coaching job won by Coolbaugh, reached him first, even before the first baseman or the first-base umpire. Back home in Texas, Mandy Coolbaugh was pregnant with the couple’s third child, a daughter. In the hills of Yauco, Puerto Rico, Sanchez’s wife Annie was also expecting a daughter.

Throughout, Price is respectful but never fawning. It’s clear that, while he may have approached the project as a journalist, he developed an admiration and deep respect for those whose lives were irrevocably altered that July evening. He describes Coolbaugh’s taskmaster father, the spirited sibling rivalry with older brother Scott, the seismic shift in his family’s faith and foundations, and the reverberations felt through the entire Colorado Rockies organization (Red Sox fans will recall the sweep of the Rockies in 2007; what they don’t know is that the Colorado players unselfishly voted Coolbaugh a full $233,505 share).

Price delights in exposing the inequities of minor league ball, as if hoping to balance those scales of injustice. While the general consensus is that our national pastime is as wholesome as Grandma’s apple pie, Price torches the myth and rips open the game’s seedy underside. “Minor league baseball is an endless winnowing process,’’ he writes. “Cast for months into a confined space where people are promoted, demoted, traded, and released every day, where today’s teammate is tomorrow’s memory, players literally live with rejection. No one can truly relax; even the most secure prospects sense the insidious thrum of fear.’’

But in these players, and many of the long-time coaches and scouts, Price finds many admirable qualities: perseverance, integrity, humility, grit, patience, compassion, and, yes, even love. “There are so many clich├ęs I could rattle off,’’ says Matt Miller, the Drillers left fielder who heard Mike’s last words. “But what I’ve taken away is: You’ve just got to respect what you do. Mike obviously loved baseball, and if he wasn’t a baseball player he could’ve done something else and been just as passionate. That’s important. That’s what I want to incorporate in my life. Whatever you want to do, go after it with passion. Just don’t quit.’’

The role of faith, or fate, or any celestial connection in Coolbaugh’s life and death, of course, remains a mystery. “God had a plan for Mike,’’ Mandy says, “and there was nothing we could do to stop it.’’

The challenge is to keep reading through the tears and the inevitable swell of sorrow. But you will. Like Coolbaugh, like his family, like Sanchez, you won’t quit. You’ll finish it. And afterwards, there’s a very good chance that you’ll look at your own world a bit differently, with more appreciation. As strange as it might seem, given the tragic nature of Coolbaugh’s story, you’ll feel better for having allowed Price to share it with you.


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Patience? What patience ... ?

"You know
That you're over the hill
When your mind makes a promise
That your body can't fill."

Fat Man in the Bathtub
-Lowell George & Little Feat

Boston, torrential ...

No, that's not me in the accompanying photo, but I wish it was (OK, I'm not that good looking, but I do have more hair!). There's nothing I need more right about now than a good, long soak in a hot tub. Maybe that would be the salve for this nagging groin strain. Not to mention my decrepit lower back, piano wire hamstrings, and crunchy scapula. Then again, maybe not. Which is why I'm pretty much figuratively climbing the walls of my 10-by-8 home office.

Injuries are a fact of life for any athlete, from pro to weekend warrior. If you're going to continue to play, especially after all the growth plates have set and the testosterone levels start to dip, then its a mere eventuality that you'll get hurt. I can accept that. The problem for me isn't so much getting hurt, but the required recovery time, and the reality that it takes longer and longer and longer for my body to heal. I strained my groin more than a month ago. I knew immediately it meant at least two weeks on the Injured Reserved, but when two weeks stretched to three, and now five, I started getting pretty antsy. Actually, "antsy" is being much too mild. I'm now empathizing with Jack Nicholson's "all work and no play" character in The Shining (minus the homicidal rage, thankfully). I've been behaving, too, doing little more than ride my bike -- road spins only -- and skating lightly with my daughter's Squirt hockey team, which I coach.

Still, the strain lingers. Lauri, my bride, has recommended treating it with moist heat and light stretching, which I've finally agreed to do this week (a sure sign of just how desperate I am!). With luck, I'll get back on the ice net week, before I atrophy any more than I already have this past month (hence the "fat man in the bathtub" reference). But the mind-numbing wait, and the eroding patience, is brutal. And that's probably because I know all too well that there are far fewer games ahead of me than behind.

Injuries make us think of our own mortality, not just the end of the road of our athletic endeavors, but the end of the road that lies beyond. I, like most guys, am pretty good about denial (though I have yet to raise it to an art form). As long as there are older colleagues in there mucking it up with me, whether playing hockey or soccer, or spinning the pedals, I can make the argument that I've got a couple of years left in the tank. And, maybe even more importantly, as long as I have a place to play, I can continue pretending to be a kid. Injuries give us pause, a chance to reflect on whether we ought to keep tilting at the windmills. I'm not sure that's a good thing.

Recently, I was interviewing Jessie McAleer, the reigning New England masters ski racing champ, for a story. McAleer is 39, but she's got no intention of giving up the sport she loves. When I asked her how long she planned to keep racing, she laughed and said: "Forever. At nationals, you should see some of the older folks who get up there. One guy was like 92. He was part of the 10th Mountain Division. He gets up there on the podium, and he's shaped like a question mark. And he's got this gold medal hanging off his chest. I'm like, Oh yeah! Ski racing is scary sometimes. It's scary 'cause you don't want to get hurt, it's scary 'cause it's asking a lot to push yourself like that. You've got to mentally jack yourself up to get in the gate and do the best you can. Physically, you get banged up. To do that year after year, and when you're 89, slipping on a GS suit on, getting yourself mentally and physically prepared, driving four hours to the ski area, tuning your skis, getting up at 7 a.m. to get on the hill, that's the type of stuff that keeps you alive. "

What's difficult to convey is the sheer energy and admiration in McAleer's voice. There's no doubt in my mind that McAleer, like that 10th Mountain veteran, will keep racing as long as she's able to drag herself to the hill. I'm glad I got Jessie's interview on tape. Because, when I'm bumming about this injury or that, feeling like the fat man in the bathtub, I can give it a listen and get my thinking right. And then I can figure out a way to get back in the game.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Saying goodbye to Fred ...

Boston, autumn in full bloom.

Under glorious blue skies late last week, I drove to Newburyport to pay my last respects to a friend and a mentor. Stepping out of my car, a cool, capricious breeze set the aging leaves shaking. It was, I thought, a perfect day for reflection. More so, it was a day that Fred Pearson would have absolutely loved.

Inside a comfortable, quiet Episcopal church on High Street, we bid our adieus to Frederick Gordon Neil Pearson, who passed away at the age of 86 earlier this month. The photo that adorned the memorial pamphlet was classic Fred: Sport coat and bow tie, cocktail in hand, the ocean in the background and an impish grin creasing his worldly face. This Yale man was always the epitome of Ivy League sophistication off the ice. On the ice was another matter entirely, and it was on the ice that I knew Fred Pearson best.

Hockey was in Fred Pearson's blood. It coursed through every fiber of his being. Born in Beverly, he would walk from his house on the hill where Beverly Hospital now stands down to Kelleher's Ice Pond, building the stamina that served him so well over eight decades. He was schooled in Canada before prepping at Hotchkiss and eventually matriculating at Yale. There, in early January of 1946, Pearson's Yale team pulled off a stunning upset, snapping Dartmouth's 45-game winning streak, 6-4. Fred Pearson scored twice to lead the Elis. In 1948, he was tabbed to represent the United States at the Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Afterward, he continued to play, even throughout his long professional career as an advertising executive with Channel 38.

Fred played football. He played rugby. He cycled. He sailed. He flew. The man, it seemed, never stopped. Never. And he never stopped talking about his exploits, though not in a boastful way. He was a storyteller, and each tale was dressed up with his trademark twinkle. I knew Fred for almost a quarter century through our time together with the North Shore Skating Association. This loosely-knit group of hockey lifers was first formed roughly 30 years ago, and featured some of the most distinguished residents on the North Shore, including Caleb Loring, the Clarks of Hamilton, Dick Villa of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Robert Buell of Boxford, and many others. We first played at the old outdoor rink behind Gordon College in Wenham, and then moved to the Johnson Rink at the Pingree School in Hamilton. It was a classic collection of puck-lovers, with white-collar finance guys rubbing elbows with blue-collared craftsmen and laborers. Outside the rink, Mercedes and Lexuses and Escalades were parked alongside Buicks, Subarus and pick-up trucks.

Inside, though, all those trappings of wealth or social standing were stripped away. All that matter was how you played. Fred Pearson, even in his 80s, played with a fire and energy that few could match. In that sense, he was a constant inspiration, to me and to everyone else who stepped on the ice. He never once instructed me how to play; he simply led by example. I thought of that often during Fred's memorial service. As I surveyed the small crowd, I was encouraged to see that so many of Fred's hockey buddies from the N.S.S.A. had made the effort to pay their last respects. Many were wearing the reversible black and yellow jerseys of the N.S.S.A. brotherhood.

It struck me, sitting in that pew, that I would never again walk into a Pingree locker room (not on this earth, anyway) when Fred Pearson was holding court. It was much like my Dad's funeral. The finality of Dad's death didn't hit me until I saw the casket. And then I just melted, an inconsolable child of 13 consumed by raw emotion. Now, almost 40 years later, I felt many of those same stirrings deep in my gut. Sometimes death has a funny way of opening our eyes, and I understood just how much I cared for Fred Pearson.

Part of me couldn't help but think that Fred would be embarrassed by all this attention. Another part felt equally as strong that the man would be genuinely touched to know that so many cared so deeply. As a writer, I always wanted to tell the story about Fred's many adventures, but he wanted no part of it. I only asked once, and his terse refusal short-circuited any future requests. I had no choice but to respect Fred's wishes. The cynical journalist in me often suspected he didn't want any tall tales held up to the light of day. More likely the truth was that Fred Pearson considered the locker room bond sacred. The tales told there were for this inner circle only, and not public consumption.

Memorial services, however, are a different venue. So I stood up, and asked for the microphone. I turned to face the majority of the attendees, and admitted that when it came to capturing the essence of a man like Fred Pearson, the mind just reeled. I mentioned that my wife likes to tease me that the terms "Over 50" and "hockey" should be mutually exclusive, to which I typically respond that Fred Pearson only has 34 years on me. I spoke about coaching my daughter's Agawam Squirt hockey team, and how I preach that this beautiful game accentuates all that is good about competition. It teaches us perseverance, integrity, grit, honesty. More than any other sport, I believe, hockey rewards those who give the greatest effort. It celebrates teamwork above individual play, and does not suffer fools or slackers kindly. Fred Pearson, I said, embodied the great traits of the game better than anyone I knew.

Last, I reminded the N.S.S.A. players, and the general audience, that we all had an obligation to honor Fred's legacy by striving to live life fully, each day. I heard my voice breaking, and quietly returned the microphone to the minister.

Of course, there were far too many stories to tell in such a brief address. I forgot to mention that, as a goaltender, I had a special relationship with Fred. When Fred was on my team, I never saw him, as he had a particular disdain for back checking ("He was conserving his energy," quipped Scott Brown, another N.S.S.A. regular). But when Fred was playing for the opposing team, there was no avoiding him. Other speakers mentioned Fred's tenacity, and heavy stick, but opposing goalies got to feel it on a regular basis. Any loose puck near the crease was fair game. If Fred got to it first, it often meant a goal. If the goalie got the puck, he would usually get the business end of Fred's blade across the back of the glove. And as much as I would yell at Fred on the rare occasion when I was the recipient of one of those patented Pearson slashes, I admired the man's passion.

Don Pasquarello, an emergency room doctor at Beverly Hospital, spoke of how he would cringe whenever Fred would slam into a player twice his size, and inevitably go crashing to the ice. What he didn't mention is how angry Fred got if he suspected any one was going easy on him, out of respect for his advanced years. Fred Pearson played the game the right way, hard-nosed and straightforward, until his last shift.

There is another great story that Todd Lampert, owner of Todd's Sporting Goods in Beverly, tells. One night at Pingree, Fred, then in his early 80s, was getting ready for another whirl around the ice with his N.S.S.A. gang. Lampert, who was on the ice beforehand with the Beverly High hockey team, brought him into the Panthers' locker room, and said, "I want you to meet Fred Pearson. Mr. Pearson played for the United States at the 1948 Winter Olympics. And you can watch him, because he's going out to play right now." The kids' response stunned Lampert. They stood and applauded.

In this day and age of sports overload, where sports radio rules the airwaves with a bunch of belligerent fans and know-it-all announcers, where once-proud sports magazines give undo coverage to "fantasy" games, and where our youth find themselves in the midst of an obesity epidemic, Fred Pearson reminded us that the true joy of sports comes not from watching, but from participating. It was clear, listening to others sing Fred's praises, that this was not a man for idle chatter. He was a man of action. While many of us talk about doing things, Fred's raison d'etre was in the "doing."

Leaving the church, walking into a perfect fall afternoon, I stopped to chat with John Fiske, another of the N.S.S.A. brethren. He relayed that Fred, following a devastating car accident, had told him emphatically last May that "I'll be back." Like the rest of us, John never had a reason to doubt such bravado, because Fred always backed up his words. John then sadly shrugged his shoulders in that unmistakable what-are-you-going-to-do way. As we said goodbye, John reminded me of Fred's opt-repeated salute as he left the rink: "Good night, fellow warriors." Fred Pearson was a warrior, in the truest sense of the word. Brave, noble, decisive, honorable, loyal. He will be greatly missed, both on and off the ice.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

One pedal stroke ahead of Father Time

Boston, threatening rain.

This morning brought a sobering reality. While working on this cyclocross article for the Boston Globe, I was interviewing Paul Boudreau, a longtime Essex County Velo teammate and race director for the upcoming Gran Prix of Gloucester event. I asked when the first race was held. "Eleven years ago," answered Paul. I was stunned. Could that possibly be right? Could it really have been that long ago? See the skinny guy above? That's me, competing in the second ECV cyclocross race at Stage Fort Park in Gloucester (check out this link for the original story ... after all this time, it's still one of my all-time favorites).

Ten years gone by, and about 20 extra pounds packed on. To think that my youngest, Brynne, wasn't even a year old when I first did this race is a bit mind-boggling. But I guess that's why we, as older athletes, keep soldiering on. Our bodies age, but our minds practice a rose-colored deception, focusing on our physical heyday and conveniently erasing the ensuing years. I'm almost 52, and although I've got the scars and nagging aches and pains to prove it, I don't like giving in so easily to Father Time. I'd much rather go down swinging. Which is exactly why I'm going to bring this entry to a quick close. I'm going to walk downstairs, squeeze into that same ECV kit (thank god for Spandex!), and head out for a spin. I'm sure Father Time will be right on my wheels, but I'm going to try like all hell to pedal away from him ...


Friday, September 11, 2009

Letting go ...

Boston, overcast but pleasant.

Brynne went bobbing across Route 1A, her golden blond locks sprouting from beneath her cycling helmet, her trusty two-wheeler by her side. I hovered over the crosswalk like some surly gargoyle. With her over-stuffed backpack sagging off her shoulders, Brynne swung a leg over the saddle, and started pedaling down the sidewalk.

"I love you," I shouted. "Be careful."

"Love you too, Daddy," said my 10-year-old with a wave of her hand. And she was gone.

I was a wreck. Brynne's elementary school is only a mile away, and there's a police officer at the far crosswalk. This is not a high-risk operation. Yet my stomach was in knots as I walked back home. The juxtaposition between Brynne's joy at her unfettered freedom and my own fretful misery was jarring.

Brynne is my baby, though she would cringe at that description. She's always had a healthy-if-inflated sense of her abilities (the morning she tried cooking omelets when she was all of 5-years-old springs to mind), and sometimes gets in over her head. She's our daredevil. MaryAlyssa, her older sister, is more cautious. Brynne often acts first, thinks second. It's a trait that gives parents gray hair, quickly.

My wife, Lauri, always wanted kids. Never a doubt, and I admired that kind of raw, primitive drive. I, on the other hand, needed convincing. In part, I feared parenthood because I feared this moment. It is the fear of letting go, letting my child loose into the world. I'm not sure where that sense of dread comes from, to be honest. Maybe from losing my dad before I became a teenager, or maybe it's the freshly unearthed memories of my own reckless youth. I remember pedaling through a stop sign., having too much fun going too fast, and forcing some poor, startled woman in a huge station wagon to slam on the brakes. I can still see her face, her eyes practically popping out of their sockets. Maybe my reticence is the result from too many years as a newspaper reporter, when tragedy was part of our daily milieu.

This moment, I knew, was a pristine example of why my mom relied so heavily on her faith. Mom, widowed at 40, raised six of us, and our childish indiscretions must have weighed heavily on her. She knew that parenting, from conception forward, is a constant leap of faith. She often told me: "You let your children go as they grow, but you never stop being a parent."

You prepare your progeny as best you can, and then you bid them adieu, sharing in their bliss as well as their sorrow. Watching Brynne ride off without me was just another reminder.


PS ... A special "Thanks!" to our young neighborhood paparazzi, Charlotte Goodwin, for this wonderful portrait of my Brynne!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A man's man ...

Boston, twilight.

My heart is heavy tonight, because I just learned that a good, good friend is at death's door. Death will take Fred Pearson, as it will eventually take all of us. But I believe, deep in my heart, that Death will take no satisfaction in taking Fred Pearson from us.

Fred Pearson is one of my heroes. Period. Don't be fooled by the accompanying photo, taken on Fred's 83rd birthday a few years back. Sure, it looks randy, but it speaks more to the sophomoric humor that hockey players like to employ to shield how much they really do care about the other guys in the locker room. And, to be perfectly honest, Fred was truly embarrassed by all the fuss, not to mention the "special guest" we plopped in his lap. Fred, frankly, loved everything about hockey, except maybe the Neanderthal humor. He was an Ivy man, through and through. His Yale teams were stuff of legend, and he went on the play in the Olympic Games in St. Mortiz in 1948 (one of the more bizarre chapters of Winter Olympic lore, when the United States actually sent two teams from competing amateur associations). He was a test pilot in the armed forces, and a long-time ad executive for Channel 38 here in Boston. He never married, though we all suspected that he was never lacking for companionship. Fred was also an avid cyclist, and following his retirement, could often be seen pedaling all over Cape Ann and points beyond. When he wasn't playing hockey, that is.

If Frederick Gordon Neil Pearson had one enduring love in his life, it was this beautiful, ephemeral game. He played it with passion, with spit and vinegar, with joy. He roamed the left wing on the North Shore Skating Association skates on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for just about as long as I can remember, resplendent in his bright yellow Swedish jersey. I have trouble getting my head around the notion that when I first met Fred, some two decades ago, he was already in his 60s, a good 10 years older than I am now. We had our share of "goal-crease discussions," when Fred insisted on taking one last whack at the puck (dammit, I know the guy was my senior by 30 years, but he was still strong enough to break a few fingers if I didn't remind him to keep the lumber in check!). But I love the guy's spirit, that indomitable spirit, and his willingness to always go into the corner and do the dirty work to get the puck.

I'm not one bit afraid to say how much I loved spending time with Fred Pearson. For the 20-some-odd years that I knew Fred, he would regale us with locker room tales of this game or that, stretching all the way back to his Ivy career at Yale, and the fact that it was his team that snapped Dartmouth's legendary 45-game winning steak in January of 1946. He scored two goals in Yale's epic 6-4 win. Typical Fred; right in the thick of things. Yet whenever I would pester Fred about a possible story about his exploits, he would demure. "Who would want to read about an old codger like me?" was his standard reply.

A few years ago, Joe Bertagna, the Hockey East commissioner and erstwhile scribe, penned a terrific two-part series on hockey legend Jack Riley, a Dartmouth great who felt the sting of Fred Pearson's tenacity in that famous 6-4 Yale victory. Bertagna recalled meeting Pearson for lunch at the 99 Restaurant, and that Fred arrived wearing a tie and sport coat, "not because he was coming from work, but because he was meeting someone for dinner. It just spoke of a different time and place, a different set of values."

However, Bertagna's most telling quote was his next. "When you saw Fred, despite the fact that he was older, you couldn't help but feel like you were looking at a much younger man. He had such a twinkle in his eyes."

Fred Pearson was, in my eyes, forever young, someone who embodied a "joie de vivre" that is so uncommon these days. He was truly a man's man, and I will miss him dearly. Death can go to Hell; Fred won't.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

A nasty split

Boston, with autumn in the air.

There is something so remarkably humbling about athletic endeavors, and sports specifically, that I sometimes wonder why they have such an inexorable pull on me. Like the mountain biker who starts feeling cocky, riding the flow train, before getting jettisoned over the handlebars when his front wheel augers into a divot in the trail (yes, that would be me). Or the golfer who, coasting along in a brilliant round shooting several strokes under par, suddenly sends a ball careening deep into the woods, or the drink (that's definitely NOT me, as I've never shot a "brilliant" round in my life!). Or the basketball player who, after a night when every shot hit nothing but net, can't throw the rock in the ocean. No doubt Sisyphus, the Greek god damned to roll a giant rock up a hill for all eternity, would be a sports nut.

Last night was another example, with an "old age" twist. I was in goal, playing with my Monday-Wednesday hockey crew that routinely takes to the ice at the Pingree School. In the past few months, I felt my "game" coming back together, following a long litany of injuries over the past two years. Not that I was always stopping the puck, mind you. But my body was feeling better and better, moving more comfortably. I was tracking the puck, getting into better position, feeling more balanced in my stance, lining up on my angles. I just "felt" right, even if the puck was still getting behind me more often then I'd like.

Finally, last night it all seemed to come together. After giving up an early tally, which was more of a fluke after the forward mishit the puck, I started stopping almost everything that came my way. My feet were underneath me, I was reading the play and moving well to the puck. I wasn't just in the game, I was on top of it (which, believe me, doesn't happen all that often these days!). It's even better when your teammates notice, and start commenting on how well you're playing. That ratchets up the confidence level, and my game almost always follows suit.

And then, an hour into the skate, it all came apart with one mad scramble in front of the net. More specifically, my right groin came apart. I knew immediately that I had hurt it bad (35 years experience gives you a pretty good read on your body). I tried stretching it out, but that only hurt more. I tried soldiering on, because there's nothing worse for a hockey game than playing without a goalie. But my right leg started feeling like a useless appendage, dragging behind me whenever I moved. Once I dropped into the butterfly - on my knees - I had as much mobility as a beached whale. Twice I tried to recover using my right leg, and twice I yelped like a beaten dog. The skate couldn't end fast enough. Finally, my good buddy Paul Erhard, who was playing for the "other guys" on this night, slipped two quick wrist shots past my right leg. After the second, I had to call it quits, knowing I was risking severe damage if I kept playing. And, as the old adage goes, we all "have to go to work in the morning."

So I slumped onto the bench in the locker room. The guys had no idea how bad I was hurt, and I suppose that's a point of pride ... There's no crying in hockey. We may complain ad nauseum, but when you're hurt, you're expected to suck it up. It's one of the game's many unwritten rules that I admire. But I knew full well that I'd have to take at least two weeks off. That might be a tad over-optimistic, but my leagues start in mid-September, and I hope to be ready. I already have a somewhat checkered medical history (though hardly shocking for any Over-50 hockey player), and don't want to give the naysayers any more ammunition. I nursed a beer while I got changed, and then headed straight home for an ice pack. Of course, few things look more ridiculous than a middle-age athlete in his favorite leather recliner, sporting a bag of ice on his groin. But Lauri, my bride, knows her husband well enough not to make any off-color jokes. She know when I'm hurt, and she knows how much I hate it. And she understands how frustrated I get when my body doesn't cooperate with all my unrealistic demands. Plus, she didn't want to add insult to injury. She knew I felt partly responsible, since I don't work enough on my flexibility, which is akin to asking for an injury.

Thirty minutes later, after the groin - and all its neighboring body parts - were sufficiently chilled, I pried myself out of the recliner, popped an Ibuprofen, and shuffled off to bed. The groin will heal, eventually. But not nearly quick enough for my liking.


Friday, August 7, 2009

The Coaching Conundrum, Part II

Boston, nice!

I have this theory that patience, like a fossil fuel, is a finite resource. You can usually find more, if you dig deep enough, but sometimes certain wells run dry. And I'm beginning to wonder if my "coaching" reserves are running dangerously low.

This past week, I spent more than 12 hours inside a hockey rink (a nice respite from the summer sun), coaching young goaltenders the tricks of the trade. I've been working with Bertagna Goaltending for the better part of eight years now, and have branched out to help with Brian Daccord's Stop It Goaltending, as well as a few private coaching gigs. I started coaching, in part, to repay a debt to a game I truly love. I stuck with it because I found I really enjoy working with kids, for the most part. It was a classic example of "give something back, get something back." Plus, I genuinely look forward to the camaraderie of the other coaches; the locker room banter before and after our camp sessions is a real, if somewhat ribald, treat (especially for someone like me who works from home).

Last week, however, was a turning point of sorts. For the first time, I felt the majority of the kids were just going through the motions. Now, I understand there can be dozens of reasons why a kid might seem disinterested, but I was struck the sheer number of youngsters who didn't want to be there. That idea is so foreign to me, I have trouble getting my head around it. When I discovered hockey, I fell head over heels for the sport. Street hockey, floor hockey, roller hockey, ice hockey ... it was all good, and I couldn't get enough of it. But growing up in New Jersey in the late 1960s and early '70s, there was precious little opportunity to play organized ice hockey. We grabbed any ice we could find, any time. That meant schlepping across town to an outdoor rink, bags of gear slung over our shoulders, praying that the water had frozen overnight. Trips to our grandparents in New Hampshire were always special, but even more so in winter, when the promise of natural ice was more predictable. Once we got into high school, Mom signed us up for a league, but there weren't any instructional camps (or none that I knew of, anyway).

So my brothers and I and our friends got by with whatever ice Mother Nature (and our prayers) provided, or we played on the streets or in our basement. The point is, I would have given anything to attend a camp, and to have real instruction. It just wasn't in the cards, and I don't think any of us suffered egregiously as a result. However, it is one of the reasons that I've made a commitment to coaching, despite my own shortcomings.

I'm not a natural teacher (I don't think), but I've got a lot of passion for the game, and I try my best to convey that. It's common for me to lose my voice by the end of the second session of a five-day camp. My only stipulation is that the kids bring a certain level of passion of their own to the rink. That emotional investment is key. I remember reading once that the reason hockey is such a special sport is because it's hard. It builds character. The sport means early wake-up calls, late nights, cold feet and cold hands and cold faces (particularly if you play outdoors). Plus, you've really got to work at it to be any good. The flip side is that the game doubly rewards the effort put into it. Simply, it's the best game on earth, combining skill and speed and finesse and raw power unlike any other.

So here's why I nearly lost it during camp last week. In our younger session, we had a bunch of kids who appeared convinced that just because their folks had plunked down some serious coin to outfit them, they should be able to play. They dogged it through warm-ups, and then they dogged it through the drills. All week long. I was absolutely stunned. We typically get one or two kids that might fit that description, but never as many as this past session. And my patience, I'm afraid, suffered some weird inverse phenomenon. The less the kids tried, the less patience I had. Finally, afraid that I might really offend somebody, I simply stopped trying to coach the malcontents, and focused instead on the kids who really wanted to be there. Those kids - the go-getters - always make the effort worthwhile. The others should do their parents, and their parents' bank accounts, a favor, and quit. They should just waddle back home to their overstuffed couches and their X-Boxes and PlayStations. Hockey has no patience for anyone who wants accolades handed to them just because they show up. And neither do I.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Tour's denouement ...

Boston, clear skies.

Just wondering if I was the only one who found the Tour de France's final dash into Paris a bit disappointing. Not the race itself, mind you. I always love a good sprint, and Team Columbia's ability to bring Brit Mark Cavendish to the line is simply awe-inspiring. The man, and his support squad, always seem to get it right. And it was great to see Big George Hincapie leading the Columbia train right up to the final bend.

But the Tour's denouement (it is, traditionally, a formality) brought to a close one of the least dramatic Tour's of recent memory. Though the Versus team of Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwin, Bob Roll and some pretty boy (Something Hummer) tried their best to create suspense, there really wasn't much. I don't know if that was the fault of the race organizers, who may have erred in their calculation that the climb up Ventoux in the penultimate stage might break the race open, or the racers themselves. Clearly, the biggest story line was the Astana cat fight between Alberto Contador and Lance Amstrong (that Texas-size ego of our favorite alpha dog had some obvious problems with being the second-best rider on his own squad). But team infighting, as intriguing as it might be for some, didn't translate to drama on the race course.

Instead, spectators were treated to a pedestrian race that had only three (maybe four) legimate challengers to the crown, and those characters were relegated to marking one another up the Alps, limiting any time gains. It was, in a word, boring. God, what I wouldn't have given to see an Eddie Merkxx or Bernard Hinault-style attack in those last few stages! Contador did pull out a superb final time trial, and was clearly the strongest rider in the race. So, in that sense, it was nice to see "the best man" win. But, really, was it the "epic" race that Versus was constantly advertising? Hardly. Not by a long shot ...

So here's hoping that Contador and Armstrong, destined for opposing teams, plus Andy Schleck and a renewed Cadel Evans (and maybe even Levi Leipheimer, Carlos Sastre, and - dare I say it? - Floyd Landis) will add a fair amount of sizzle to next year's Tour. It desperately needs it.