Saturday, May 23, 2009

Braces 'R Us

Boston, overcast ...

I was drying out my hockey goalie gear this morning (a never-ending task), when it dawned on me why it takes me twice as long to suit up for a game nowadays. It's the absurdly large collection of braces that I have to slip into or strap on to give me a fighting chance of emerging from a 90-minute skate relatively intact. Before I even start to pull on the actual goalie equipment, which is bulky enough to begin with, I need to put a left ankle brace, two knee braces, and a right elbow brace in place. Depending how the ol' sports hernia and lower back injuries are feeling, I might add compression shorts and a constricting back brace to the mix. At times I'm sporting more neoprene than Lloyd Bridges in an episode of Sea Hunt. And there's so much Velcro on my body that I really should consider investing (I'll probably toss a few bucks into a smattering of medical supply companies while I'm at it). But every brace is worth it's weight in gold if it allows me another spin around the rink.

A few weeks back, when I was returning from a protracted bout with tennis elbow (which, like "turf toe," hurts a lot more than the name might suggest), I told the captain of my Over-50 squad that "I'm not a 100 percent, but I need to get back on the ice." My captain, Rich Bowman, just laughed. "If we all waited until we were 100 percent before we played," he replied, "there wouldn't be anybody suiting up for the game!" And, in fact, I can't think of a single player on that squad, with the possible exception of Dan "Ponce de Leon" McCrane, who wasn't sporting wraps and bandages of some sort. But they're all willing to put up with the minor inconvenience of a few extra layers of neoprene (or, in some cases, more complicated braces) in order to stay in the game. Maybe that investment strategy isn't such a far-fetched idea after all ...


Friday, May 22, 2009

A) Old, B) Slow, C) All of the above ...

Boston, hot & humid ...

Lately, trying to predict whether I'm going to have a good outing in the nets or a disastrous one is reminiscent of Forrest Gump's proverbial box of chocolates: I simply don't know what I'm "going to get" from this 51-year-old bag of bones and gristle. That goes double for my Friday morning league, the Blades & Breakfast Hockey Club, which convenes at the end of each week at HockeyTown in Saugus, on historic Route 1. I used to be a morning person, but that was before kids, a mortgage, work, blah, blah, blah. I still don't sleep late, ever, but sometimes the alarm at 5:10 in the morning sounds more like a jackhammer. Today, though, was a genuine aberration, and a classic example that my performances defy the laws of predictability.

I got to bed later than I would have liked, after taking a little extra time with my post regarding Mom (see below). In fact, I decided I'd dedicate the game to Mom, who had always been so supportive and influential in my pursuit of sports (provided I got my homework done). I slept well, which doesn't always happen these days, and felt pretty good when the alarm sounded. My legs were a little stiff from my Thursday afternoon skate, but nothing out of the norm. I got to the rink in plenty of time, despite a late start, and actually was on the ice before the refs (definitely a rarity). I felt pretty good after doing a quick stretch, and got into the game pretty quickly with a shoulder save off a nice wrist shot just below the right face-off dot. Moments later, though, my game proceeded to inexplicably fall apart. I let a soft shot bounce awkwardly off my stick, with the puck landing perfectly on an opponent's blade. 1-0. The next two goals were nice shots, one from behind a screen, and the second a sharp cross-crease move that went back against the grain. The fact that it came with about 10 seconds left in the period was a back-breaker, and a harbinger of things to come.

The second period was something out of the Twilight Zone. My D let an opponent walk into the high slot, but deflected the shot over me and the net. I had come out to challenge the shooter, and then watched almost helplessly as the same guy took the rebound off the back boards and tucked it into the net. I was conscious during the entire play, but just ... couldn't ... get ... my ... body ... to ... move. I swear, it almost felt like an out-of-body experience. Even after my guys rallied to get us within two, at 4-2, I seemed determined to give this game away. I flubbed a soft shot with my glove, depositing it right on my opponent's stick. 5-2. A weak effort on a wrap-around made the score 6-3, and I could hear the Fat Lady starting to sing. It didn't matter that I knew what to do ... I just couldn't seem to get my body to cooperate. (The photo above shows one of the three saves I did manage to make! Thanks, Fluff!)

We got as close as 6-4, which is a tribute to my team, but the final, after a weird shot from the point slipped in under the crossbar, was 7-4. As if I needed salt rubbed into my wounds, the opposing goalie was a sub who I had been coaching at a local adult goalie clinic. "Thanks for all the great advice," he joked afterward. "You know what they say," I shot back, "Those who can't do, teach."

To make matters worse, this is a league game, not just some pick-up skate where the score doesn't really matter. Though it's a fun league -- the best collection of hockey guys I've ever been associated with -- the idea is still to win. And this loss was all on me. End of story. Goalies always feel responsible for losses, whether it's their fault or not. That just comes with the territory. But today I owned this loss, and I knew it. I just didn't have it. I could almost see Mom rolling her eyes, saying: "Hey, next time you play for me, try to bring your 'A' game, OK?" Deal, Mom, though I can't make any promises ...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Missing Mom ...

Boston, brilliant!

Mother Nature served up an absolutely stunning day here on Boston's North Shore -- cloudless, warm, with a lilting sea breeze floating through the trees, taking the edge off the unseasonable high temperatures. It's the kind of day, if you believe in such things, that makes it easy to imagine the spirits of loved ones long gone benevolently looking over your shoulder. In short, a spectacular spring day that Mom would have loved. What I wouldn't give to have her here to share it.

My siblings and I lost Mom a year ago, Thursday, May 22. In all honestly, there was no way I, or any of us, could have envisioned the impact that moment would have on our lives. At the time, we were so focused on Mom's needs and well-being, making sure that she got the best care as her long, excruciating battle with cancer played out. We wanted to ensure she was comfortable, relatively pain-free, and the hospice staff was tremendous.

In the weeks leading up to that fateful day, this vibrant, courageous woman slowly wilted before our eyes. But, remarkably, she never gave in to the disease, never once allowed the cancer to cast a shadow over her unshakable will and faith.

I remember one moment, in late April, when I stopped in to visit Mom in the early morning. I asked her how she slept, and she slipped, saying that she had seen her parents during the night. "How did they look?" I asked. She fidgeted, clearly uneasy with the question, but I persisted. "Oh, child, you're not going to let it go, are you?" Mom replied.

"They looked good," she said, finally. "Those are two people I'm really looking forward to seeing."

Today, I know exactly how Mom felt. I miss her terribly. Her voice, with all its wonderful inflection, her joyful laughter, her searching eyes, her heartfelt concern and advice, her interest in all things regarding her family, and her boundless love. She was a true matriarch, the women who held together our band of six after we lost Dad to cancer 37 years earlier. The fact that Mom, who never once smoked (which was Dad's undoing), would be stricken with breast cancer seemed a cruel irony. She battled it once into remission, but the cancer, as it so often does, proved relentless.

During the wake, and the funeral, I know my siblings and I felt some sense of relief. Mom was no longer suffering, and we took comfort in that. I told a number of visitors in the receiving line, "The loss is great only because the woman was great."

Still, in the subsequent weeks and months, we began to understand the full measure of our loss, the chasm that this great woman's death had created. I remember my brother Sean saying he had reached for the phone on numerous occasions, to call Mom, only to be left wrestling with elusive ghosts and a deep sense of broken bonds. I'm sure all my siblings, and my sister MaryEllen in particular, have experienced countless moments like this in the past year.

Last fall, while the girls and I were enjoying a post-lacrosse dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant, Lauri took a moment to check her voice mail messages. She stopped suddenly, and passed her cell phone to me, letting me listen to a message that Mom had left months earlier. In those rich, enthusiastic tones we all knew so well, Mom was congratulating Maddi for a great result in a swim meet. Hearing Mom's voice was almost unbearable, and the tears just flowed from my eyes.

This past winter, my daughter Brynne struck up a conversation with an elderly rink attendant before one of her ungodly early Squirt hockey games. Brynne has a gift for looking past appearances, and the attendant's scruffy nature didn't bother her a bit. She noticed his pink shirt, and told the man how much she liked it. He said he wore pink in honor of his wife, a breast cancer survivor.

Brynne mentioned that she lost her Grammy to the disease, and the attendant turned to me. "If you'll wear it, you can have this," he said, pulling a pink rubber bracelet off his wrist. I promised I would, and I've worn it ever since, a pink bracelet for Mom, and a yellow LiveStrong bracelet for Dad, side by side, as I hope my folks are in whatever afterlife exists for us.

The bands serve as a constant reminder of what my responsibilities are, as a man, a husband, a father, a human being. And, yes, as a son. Mom was a model worthy of emulation. I only hope I can make her proud. On this day, this beautiful, sunny spring day, I have to believe she's watching over us, and that's all the motivation I need to make sure I walk the talk. I pray quietly that I'm living up to the standard she set for all of us. And I'm looking forward to seeing her again one day. Not soon. But definitely someday.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Boston, another glorious morning!

The Hamilton-Wenham Education Fund just sent me an email regarding a fund-raiser/golf outing at the Myopia Hunt Club, which happens to wind around the backside of my little neighborhood here in Hamilton. These folks obviously will invite anybody, or they've never seen the damage I can inflict while trying to hit a golf ball. This quiet, upper-crust enclave (check out the accompanying photo of one of Myopia's more famous duffers, novelist John Updike. Dig those trousers!) barely survived my one round of 18 a few years back, which I wrote about for Delta Airlines.

An eye on Myopia
A venerable Massachusetts club remains a part of US Open lore (June, 2007)

This month, the golf world will descend on Winged Foot in Mamaronek, New York, for the United States Open Championship. Not me, though. I'll be reminiscing about a splendid outing last fall on Boston's North Shore, at the site of the fledgling Open's first standard-bearer.

There are few, if any, pastimes where tradition is cherished more than in golf. Strange, then, that the most popular championship venue in early U.S. Open history is all but forgotten. I guess it’s easy to lose sight of a place called Myopia.

The Myopia Hunt Club in bucolic South Hamilton, Massachusetts, hosted four of the first 14 U.S. Opens, between 1895 and 1908. No other club had hosted more than two in that period, and Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, New York (1896), and Baltusrol in New Jersey (1903) held one each during that span. Today, Shinnecock (1995 and 2004 U.S. Opens) and Baltusrol (1993 U.S. Open, 2005 PGA Championship) continue to host elite tournaments. Myopia, conversely, has vanished from the public eye. The old-moneyed club and its deceptively challenging, links-style layout are tucked away behind stately trees and polo fields alongside U.S. Route 1A. At the end of the driveway a discreet yellow sign simply says, “Myopia Hunt Club—Members Only.” Golf isn’t even mentioned. But if you’re ever offered an invitation, accept it. Quickly.

I got lucky. Myopia is practically in my backyard. When a friend who belongs to the club asked if I’d like to play, I didn’t hesitate. During our round, I had Plimptonesque visions of strolling alongside the game’s early giants, like four-time winner Willie Anderson (who won here in 1901 and 1905) or famed 1913 Open champion Francis Ouimet.

The game has changed dramatically since Myopia’s final Open in 1908. Then, clubs featured wooden shafts and were typically assembled by the players themselves. Balls were rudimentary, and often out-of-round. Which might explain why Myopia has the highest 4-round winning score in Open history: Anderson’s 331 in 1901 (he never broke 80, even in the ensuing playoff round). It also lays claim to the highest single Open round ever recorded, a 157 by J.D. Tucker in 1898.

Still, it’s impossible to imagine tiny Myopia hosting such a monstrous event today. It doesn’t have the amenities or the distance, nor does it let its roughs grow to U.S. Open height. “If Tiger Woods played [a U.S. Open] here, his driver would never leave his bag,” says Myopia pro William Safrin.

Compared with current megacourses, this quaint venue is a relic. That’s a compliment. The course is short but demanding, with wild elevation changes, huge amoeba-like bunkers, off-camber fairways and disobedient doglegs. The architects, including Herbert C. Leeds (the designer of record despite building only the second nine holes in 1900), created a masterpiece.

“I think it would be somewhat humbling for the professionals,” says Safrin wryly. Two-time U.S. Open champ Lee Janzen has played Myopia twice, and hasn’t carded a par round.

As for my game there, like Janzen, I’m glad that there wasn’t a gallery. With a score hovering near triple digits (though well under Mr. Tucker's tally), I'd be out of contention regardless of what century I played in. But the course didn't disappoint. Myopia was, and is, a gem.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The beauty of Brynne ...

Boston, sunny & clear

Brynne and I made the short drive down Route 1 to HockeyTown again yesterday for another one of her power-skating sessions. I know this sounds like bragging, but I'm always amazed at this kid's upbeat attitude - always eager to suit up, always smiling (she's on the far right in the accompanying photo, with her Agawam Squirt squad from this past season). It was about a year ago that Brynne came up to me - probably during my post-Stanley Cup playoff funk - and said: "Daddy, I think I want to play hockey next year." Other than my wife telling me she loves me, I don't think a single sentence could have made me happier. I have two wonderful daughters, 12 and 10. They're both healthy, active, and fun to be around. But I had all but reconciled myself to the fact that neither would play hockey. Maddi, my eldest, is a solid swimmer, and loves lacrosse and dance. Brynne also swims and plays lacrosse, in addition to soccer. However, her real passion is horseback riding (which, by the way, makes hockey look like a pauper's pastime). Both girls had figure skates, and enjoyed our weekend family outings to a local prep school rink. Hockey, sadly, didn't seem to be in the cards. All that changed the instant Brynne, then 9, announced her intentions to give it a go.

I tried to suppress my joy. I didn't want to go hog wild or anything, knowing that for a 9-year-old, today's commitment can be tomorrow's memory. But Brynne is different .... she rarely starts any project without at least giving it some serious thought. I told her hockey was a commitment, and would require a lot of work. She said she was OK with that (after all, this is the same kid who told me, when she was six, that she would happily muck out horse stalls in exchange for riding lessons). So I calmly but immediately emailed about a hundred hockey friends to see if I could rustle up a full set of gear without plunking down serious coin for new equipment. The gang came through big time, and before I knew it Brynne was signed up for a "Learn to Play Hockey" program. The transition from casual figure skating to hockey hasn't always been an easy one for Brynne, but you'd never know it to watch her laughing and jostling with her teammates. I signed on to coach her Agawam team, and Jere Moroney, my assistant, said Brynne was the team leader in having fun. At one point, near the end of a ridiculously long youth hockey season (Labor Day to mid-April), Jere looked at me during practice and exclaimed: "Does that kid ever stop smiling?" Jere should know; his daughter Gracie was a close second in grins-per-minute. Brynne exudes such an unbridled joy when she's on the ice, and I'm not sure where that comes from. I loved playing the game (and still do) but remember being so much more earnest, more workmanlike. Brynne, by contrast, seems to be relishing every moment.

Still, hockey was and is challenging for Brynne, as she's a relative newcomer compared to many of her Agawam pals. She had a solid first season, and never once failed to answer the bell, despite early morning wake-up calls and late-night practices when she understandably would have preferred staying home. At the end of the season, when I was asked to do team evaluations, Brynne asked me what I thought of her performance. I was brutally honest with her, as I always try to be. Her positional sense and enthusiasm are big attributes. Her skating and stick skills need considerable work. Despite my reservations about going overboard, I suggested a post-season power-skating clinic, and Brynne, eager to play on a Squirt 2 team next year, accepted the offer. So now, even on a beautiful spring afternoon, she's lugging her gear out of the basement and into the car. She dreams of horses on the way to the rink, but once she gets there, she laces her skates up without any help and hits the ice with conviction. With the rare exception, she works hard (Paul Powers, the coach and an old hockey buddy of mine, doesn't cut her much slack, thankfully). Each session, I swear, she's getting a little bit better. And her dazzling perma-smile simply lights up the rink. How lucky am I?


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Hanging 'em up ...

Boston, late evening

I had a bad feeling the moment the email downloaded on my Outlook Express. The sender was my brother, Chris, and the subject line simply read: "Hanging 'em up ..."

I didn't want to open the email, to be perfectly honest. Chris is my younger brother, by 16 months, and we'd just spent a tremendous weekend playing hockey together at Lake Placid. True, our team didn't record a single win (or a single goal, for that matter), but being on the ice with my brother was a real treat for me. I'm one of six siblings, including five boys. Yet, due to myriad circumstances, we didn't get many opportunities to play alongside each other after elementary school, though most of us continued to pursue sports.

Later in life, after my older brother Sean became an accomplished orthopaedic surgeon, our gang of old jocks would joke that our family alone would ensure him a steady practice. And Chris certainly had his share of injuries. He suffered back problems as a kid, and blew up one of his knees playing indoor soccer in college. Recently, there were knee and elbow issues (admittedly, the injury roll-call becomes a blur after a while). But if anyone could overcome an injury, it was Chris. The guy is built like a tank, and (unlike me) has a real focus and commitment to weight-training and stretching routines. During our old-timer hockey weekend, I marveled at his adherence to his pre-game stretching ritual. Me? I pre-medicated with a 800 mg of Ibuprofen and hoped for the best. Chris was one of the best players on our team that weekend (though I'm afraid I'm damning him with faint praise, given our miserable showing), and on the long drive home we talked about getting together to play again soon. Maybe even another tournament. That's why his email took me aback.

Chris was actually writing to a guy who runs a local pick-up skate, and he had blind Cc:'d me on it. The note was brief and to the point: "Several weeks ago in one of our Monday night skates I collided hard with one of my team mates and hurt my left shoulder. The shoulder won't need surgery but I've decided it's time for me to hang up the skates. One too many sports related injuries over the years, I guess." I knew about the shoulder injury, but thought it was, at worst, a minor hindrance. That's either a testament to my brother's toughness, or my own willingness to ignore the severity of any injury. Maybe both. Regardless, I'm hoping this is only a temporary setback (I fired a quick reply, asking: "You sure?"), and not permanent. I can't imagine that Chris has played his last hockey game. Otherwise, I'd have to acknowledge that I might be one step closer to calling it quits.

Which brings me back to Lake Placid. We had two pairs of father-son tandems on our squad, and each had the tournament photographer take a separate photo of them after the team photo was taken. I briefly considered having him snap a photo of Chris and myself, but then thought; "Nah, we'll have plenty more opportunities." Little did I know. These moments are fleeting. That's probably why they're so special to us. Enjoy them.


Soccer is for hard men ...

Boston, windy & rainy

As soccer players, we've endured the subtle whispers and not-so-subtle taunts all our lives. "Only wimps play soccer." Or, "Soccer is for sissies." And, of course, "Soccer isn't a contact sport." Funny how the birdbrains who chirp such misguided blather almost never have the guts to actually play the game. Chances are, they wouldn't last a half. Case in point is Exhibit No. 1, the photo above, of my stalwart right back Tony Passaretti taking one in the mug - and taking one for the team - to prevent a goal in a recent match from the Over-40 masters division of the Over The Hill Soccer League (photo credit goes to our junior paparazzi, Hudson Bates, son of our intrepid team manager). Why the goalie (me) is at the opposite side of the goal requires a long and complicated explanation, which I won't bore you with now. More to the point, Tony is one tough hombre. He's taking more beatings than Chuck "The Bayonne Bleeder" Wepner, and he keeps bouncing back. Tony and I take considerable pride in the fact that we're both on the downside of 50, yet still compete in the Over-40 division. And we have the bumps and bruises to prove it.

Today was no different. On a windswept, rainy morning, our feisty Wen-Ham United squad edged a very good Groton team, 2-1. Almost everyone finished the match covered with grass and dirt stains. Those are a badge, indicative of a good, hard-fought game. And most everyone was smiling afterwards (admittedly, the nicks hurt a little less after a win). But the reality is this: Soccer has always been a contact sport, and that's even more true at the Over-40 level. Almost everyone who shows up is sporting bandages or braces of some sort. Our minds are still relatively nimble, but our feet and reflexes have trouble keeping pace. And being a half-step slower often means getting taken down, or taking someone else down. Most of the guys we play with and against understand this, and the camaraderie within our squad and between teams is pretty special. After all, we all realize how fortunate we are to be running around a soccer pitch first thing Sunday morning. But the games are competitive and lively. Sometimes, they can turn nasty, though that's the exception to the rule. The bottom line is everyone still wants to win. The key to a successful season, frankly, often comes down to having enough players to keep pace with the attrition rate.

The OTHSL runs spring and fall seasons (typically 10 games each, with a two-game playoff). The league, the largest amateur soccer league in the country, is based on the English futbol model, with top teams being promoted to higher divisions, and poorer teams being relegated. We're currently in the 3rd level (of six), and the games definitely get a little more testy as you move up the ladder (must be all those frustrated Types A's!). But pride won't allow you to get relegated without a fight. So despite a slow start to the spring season (dropping our first two games), we've managed to claw our way back into the middle of the pack with a 2-2-2 mark. We intend to stay in the 3rd division, bruises, braces and all!