Friday, May 29, 2009

Band of Brothers

Boston, TGIF!

With all due respect to our servicemen and veterans, especially given our recent observance of Memorial Day, I couldn't help but think of "Band of Brothers" when I saw this team photo of my Over-50 squad, the Indians (thankfully, political correctness hasn't infiltrated the deep catacombs of Commissioner Larry Abbott's HockeyTown office!). We're one of 11 eclectic teams that make up the Tuesday night Over-50 league, one of the best hockey programs I've had the good fortune of being associated with in my 40 years of playing this great game. We're a motley crew -- just like the other 10 teams -- that inevitably bond over the course of a seven-month season.

Many of the guys have been playing together for years ... I was a relative late-comer. Though the league allows goalies as young as their early 40s to play, pride and an over-inflated ego prevented me from joining up until I had officially past the half-century mark. I started the season with the Tigers (most of the teams are names after either Hockey East or Ivy squads, save for the curiously dubbed Turtles), but was traded mid-season to the Injuns (known to most as Team PBR, for our beverage of choice, Pabst Blue Ribbon ... maybe we ought to inquire about sponsorship possibilities?). Johnny Russo (in the white helmet) also came on board, and the Indians went on a late-season tear, moving up from last to 8th place in the league standings. I wasn't around for most of the rally, sidelined by a nasty case of tendinitis in my right elbow. But in the short time I played with these guys, I really enjoyed getting to know them.

Like most of the Over-50 squads, we're a mix of "A," "B," and "C" level talent. Dan McCraine (black helmet) is a granddad who can still skate like the wind (God bless him). Russo is a goal-scoring machine, and Dartmouth grad Tommy Garden (next to McCraine), another late-season addition, is our Energizer Bunny. Our "D" is anchored by Bill Riley, Rich Bowman, Jim Montanaro and Bill Piotowski, while Louie Puccilli, Pat Gallivan, and Ray Sampson add some offensive pop. Steve Palmer is the ultimate rover, willing to play wherever we need him. Sometimes -- OK, every now and then -- we play like a well-oiled machine. Sometimes we can't get out of each others way. More often than not, our performance falls somewhere in between.

The real key to this team's success, though, is getting along in the locker room. Here, the Indians excel. Everyone wants to win, and things have been known to get a little testy, especially when we've wound up on the wrong side of the final tally. But overall, this is a great bunch of guys that get along off the ice as well as on the ice. As someone who works from home, without the normal interaction that an office environment allows, I really look forward to the locker room camaraderie that Tuesday nights offer. Everything is fair game -- jobs, wives, girlfriends, injuries, good plays, bad plays, the referees, each other, you name it. It's all done in good fun, and the non-stop banter and laughter is absolutely priceless.

So here's hoping that Commissioner Abbott decides to keep the Indians together for next year. We may have gotten bounced from the playoffs prematurely this spring (losing to Larry's Blackbears, of all teams!), but we'll be back next year, gunning for the top spot. After all, hockey, like hope, springs eternal!


Thursday, May 28, 2009

The 24-Hour Rule

Boston, still raining ...

Oh man, I'm beat. I skated last night with my local North Shore Skating Association gang, on defense, and then again in Peabody this afternoon in the nets. And, in the interests of full disclosure, I got absolutely lit up today. Couldn't stop a beach ball, as they say in goaltending parlance. In truth, I had no legs, which is why I'm considering implementing a hard-and-fast 24-Hour Rule. Back-to-back days are tough enough on this half-century netminder, but trying to play twice within a 24-hour period is, for me, just nuts. I should know better, but there's no guarantee that advanced age necessarily brings wisdom.

It's difficult for most old jocks to admit that their bodies simply don't bounce back the way they did 30, 20, even 10 years ago, but hockey doesn't allow me any such false illusions. The reality is in the results. Today was a perfect example. My legs, and my mind, were sluggish. No reflexes to speak of, no competitive spirit. A younger goaltender might have been embarrassed, but I was simply resigned. I just didn't have it, and that's probably because I need more than 13 hours to recover from a good, hard skate. I got home at about 11:30 last night, and needed another half-hour to unwind. A pending deadline had me up and at the computer by 6:30, and then I was trudging off to the rink shortly after 11. I got on the ice a few minutes late, and the game started without warm-ups (of course, these boneheads don't bother putting the pegs in the net, so the game actually started while I was trying to secure the goal). Even at 51, I know my body, and I knew right away that it was going to be a long hour. And it was.

After I took my punishment, and got a warm shower for my efforts, I limped home, tossed my gear in the basement, and tried to get back to work. After all, I need to get to bed early. Got a game first thing tomorrow morning (Friday), in clear violation of my newly established 24-Hour Rule. Say a little prayer for me ...


Bravo, Barcelona!

Boston, rainy & cool ...

The UEFA Cup finals in Rome was a showcase of "the beautiful game" as practice by the magicians from Catelon, Spain, as Football Club Barcelona soundly defeated the heavily favored Red Devils of Manchester United, 2-0. I always prefer playing to spectating, but watching this game yesterday was a real treat. It was truly an international affair, with players from Cameroon, Portugal, Argentina, England, France, Brazil, South Korea, Wales, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Spain, and others all gracing the pitch at Stadium Olympico. ManU came out of the starting blocks like a team possessed, and nearly took the lead when Park Ji-sung attacked a rebound off a swerving Cristiano Ronaldo free kick, only to see it clipped wide of the frame. Several other speculative Ronaldo efforts went sailing off target, but ManU was certainly on the attack.

All that changed with a sublime piece of artistry from FCB's Samuel Eto'o, who turned ManU defender Nemanja Vidic inside out before depositing the ball underneath towering goalkeeper Edwin van de Sar and into the back of the net. The goal completely transformed the complexion of the game, swiftly and irrevocably. The Red Devils, so dominating during their UEFA run and the Premier season, lost their composure and focus (though ManU's splendid captain, Ryan Giggs -- the anti-Beckham -- came oh-so-close with a bending free kick at the 17-minute mark). Barcelona, unparalleled maestros at ball control, simply took the game over. Though there were moments of exquisite tension, when another goal seemed imminent, the final result wasn't sealed until FCB's diminutive striker Lionel Messi went soaring for a header on a precise crossing ball from midfielder Xavi Hernandez and, as ESPN's loquacious commentator Tommy Smyth would say, put "the bulge in the old onion bag."

The 2-0 final was a fair result, reflecting FCB's convincing win, and a stunning upset when compared to many pre-game prognostications. Though I'm not of fan of the theatrics of FCB's captain Carles Puyol -- writhing in pain like he had been dismembered anytime he bumped into a ManU player -- the wild-haired defender (who looks like Dee Snyder's long-lost twin) played an immense game at the back, frustrating Ronaldo time and time again. It was a spectacular final, worthy of the two best teams in Europe. It was soccer, or futbol, at its finest. Anyone who couldn't appreciate the speed and skill on display deserves American football. ;-)


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Soccer is for hard men, Part 2

Boston, drizzly ...

You'd think anyone with the surname Bates would have some reservations about posing for the accompanying photo, but Daniel "Ahab" Bates is no ordinary dude. Ahab, er, Dan is the forthright, no-nonsense manager of the Wen-Ham United Football Club, our Over-40 band of booters, and a take-no-prisoners outside fullback with a little offensive pop (Dan, I know you were aiming for that far corner all along last Sunday!).

Plus, the guy's a hockey player, and isn't afraid to take to the ice with a helmet labeled "Joey" but sans shoulder pads. Yeah, he skates kinda funny, but he's more than willing to muck it up in the corners (preferably with his stick, not the axe). Pretty impressive for a guy who moonlights (during the day) in a more cerebral capacity as an architect. Still don't think soccer is for hard men? Tell it to Dan. Better yet, send him your name and address ... I'm sure he would be more than happy to stop by to, um, persuade you about the finer points of the beautiful game!

Good luck!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Maddi's mad dash ...

Memorial Day in Boston.

It was a weekend of highs and lows for my eldest, MaryAlyssa. Twelve-year-old Maddi was recruited to play goalie for our neighboring Tribal lacrosse program for a two-day, U-13 tournament. I like these opportunities, as they give Maddi, a pretty social kid, the chance to meet other girls outside her normal social circle (she's in back, far left, in the accompanying photo). Plus, in the past two years, I've developed a healthy appreciation for the level of lacrosse that Tribal plays (they've routinely routed our Hamilton-Wenham squads, typically without breaking a sweat). Tribal's coach, Tom Mathers, was, in Maddi's words, "quite a character." A West Point grad, Mathers made no bones about the fact that he intended to win this tournament. "I hate losing, at anything." His coaching style was boisterous but positive; he clearly felt comfortable setting expectations high, with the idea that his girls would strive to meet those expectations. It's an approach I agree with wholeheartedly.

However, Coach Mathers also acknowledged that it was the youngest team he had ever brought to the tournament, and their inexperience showed. In the first two games on Saturday, Tribal was matched against their two chief rivals, Pentucket and North Andover, and lost each game by a single goal. The Pentucket loss (8-7) was tough on Maddi, as she fanned on the final goal. But the North Andover loss was particularly galling. Tribal jumped out to a 5-1 lead, only to fall apart in the second half. They surrendered five unanswered goals, including the winner with a second left to play. Maddi was clearly shaken afterward, upset at what she thought was excessive celebrating by the North Andover squad. I told her that North Andover had every right to be pumped ... it's not every day that a team comes back from a four-goal deficit. "You have to give them credit," I told her.

Still, I tried to focus on the positives. Maddi played well in goal, but not great. She's got good hand-eye coordination, but needs to move to the ball and be aware of her angles. She's a little ball shy (understandable, considering how hard a lacrosse ball is), and really needs to find a way to play with more fearlessness. I realize that's much easier said than done, and it's one of the reasons I'm willing to work with her. We practiced together Sunday morning, and Maddi was doing better. Maddi's not always crazy about practicing -- it's one of the huge disparities between us -- but the two losses seemed to motivate her.

Against Newburyport, Maddi and her Tribal team put it together. Maddi didn't see a lot of shots, but she really seemed focused on the ones that broke through. She played with more confidence, which is so critical in goal. Tribal cruised, 12-4, and Lauri and I were happy to have the weekend end on an upbeat note. When the final whistle blew, I looked over at Maddi, who was literally bounding up the field, her goalie stick raised high. It was the picture of pure, unbridled joy.

Then we learned that the coaches had arranged a second game -- a rematch against Tribal's nemesis, North Andover. Unfortunately, it didn't go according to script. Despite a spectacular late afternoon setting, Tribal got drubbed by their arch rivals. The final score was 11-7, but the game was decided before half-time, as North Andover rushed out to a 5-1 lead, and never looked back. Maddi, frustrated, wanted to blame her defense. I told her that a goaltender, by nature of the position, doesn't have that luxury. You've got to suck it up, and keep encouraging your teammates. Plus, Maddi's own play wasn't above reproach. She was tentative, tight. And though she didn't embarrass herself, she wasn't a difference-maker either. She started flailing at the ball, instead of attacking it, and got caught out of position on a number of shots. North Andover made her pay.

This is where I really struggle as a parent and as a coach. I wanted Maddi to take responsibility, as the position demands, and to channel that disappointment into better practice habits. She's a good goalie who could be really good with a little more effort. But I also wanted her to remember the setting, a breathtaking, Maxfield Parrish panorama with a bright, late-afternoon sun raining beams of light from behind large pink and gray clouds, bathing lush green fields. Taking in the entire scene, it was impossible for me not to think of Mom, Maddi's Grammy, smiling down from the heavens. Regardless of the games, or their outcomes, it was a beautiful day to be outside, playing. And I want Maddi to remember the sheer joy of her mad dash to her teammates after the Newburyport win, how good it felt to have everyone tapping her helmet. "It sounded like raindrops," she said afterward, smiling. I bet raindrops never sounded better to a 12-year-old.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Space, the Final Frontier

Boston, sunny!

George Carlin recently had my wife and me howling with his brilliant "stuff" monologue from 1986's Comic Relief. "That's the whole meaning of life, isn't it? Trying to find a place for your stuff." Once I stopped laughing, I glanced at Lauri, who said, simply, "That's us."

Lauri was being kind. She should have said, "That's you." I'm the pack rat in this relationship. Carlin's routine precisely captured our dilemma at our North Shore cottage – we just don't have enough room for all our earthly belongings. "That's all your house is, a pile of stuff with a cover on it." I felt like Carlin was peeking in our windows.

We bought our place just before we married, 15 years ago. Our little ranch (generously described as 1,200 square feet, though I'm convinced the Realtor included the garage and a dilapidated old shed out back) was adequate when we were newlyweds. It was the perfect vacuum, just waiting to be filled. And fill it we did. We moved in with an 18-foot U-Haul and a few van runs. Then I added a few bikes, windsurfers, winter paraphernalia like skis and snowboards and hockey gear. That was before our two daughters arrived, before the home office, before the dog, before we acquired a bunch of new stuff.

If we moved out today, I'd need the Red Sox's 18-wheel equipment truck. Maybe a pair of them. The problem is that I don't see the "stuff" as the problem. I see it as a space issue. Lauri has no patience for semantics. She wants results. If she can't walk through the house without tripping over my stuff (or our girls' stuff), she's miserable. Three years ago, the Mother's Day storm flooded our basement, necessitating a purge of "stuff." I was devastated. Lauri? Euphoric.

So, since buying a bigger house ("Why? Too much stuff!") is currently out of the question, I opted for the next best option. I got a shed. It's actually the second shed we've bought in the past five years. The first, a spacious 8-by-10 structure, complimented the old, rotting tool shed that came with the house. The second, purchased this past summer, is huge (10-by-14), and not only replaces the original shed, but doubled the available space. It's now full.

So this spring, I'm going to start tossing my unused (or underused) stuff. I swear. If not, I'll be the next thing tossed to the curb.