Saturday, June 13, 2009

Hoisting the Cup ...

Boston, brilliant sunshine!

I've been watching Stanley Cup celebrations since 1972 (when my current "hometown" team, the Boston Bruins, edged my first hockey love, the New York Rangers, in six). And it never, never gets old. Last night was a passing of the torch, as the upstart Pittsburgh Penguins, with three top overall draft picks (a testament to just how bad the team was a few short years ago), slipped past a veteran Detroit Red Wing squad in Game 7, 2-1, to take the hard-fought series, 4 games to 3. Admittedly, being an old jock myself, I was pulling for the aging Wings to have one last dance with Lord Stanley's Cup, and it looked like they were in command after a 5-0 drubbing of the Pens in Game 5. But the tenacious youngsters from Pittsburgh, led by three stars who couldn't grow a decent playoff beard between them -- goalie Marc-Andre "Gumby" Fleury, Evgeni "Gino" Malkin, and "Sid the Kid" Crosby -- came storming back to take the last two games. It was the stuff of champions, and Pittsburgh was a deserving champ.

But what really grabbed me, after the last crazy scramble in front of Fleury's crease and the final horn, was the sheer exuberance of the victory celebration. I only hope Crosby, shown in the accompanying photo (somewhere, Tony "Stale Bread" Davenport is weeping in his orange & blue Islander pajamas), the youngest captain to ever hoist the Cup, understands just how fortunate he is!

The Stanley Cup is, without question, the most revered and most coveted of any major sports trophy. Quick, name another championship named after the trophy?!! Lord Stanley's Cup has taken on iconic status; it is hockey's Holy Grail. It has the power to make grown men cry, and those who hope to one day raise it overhead won't even touch it. That's some powerful magic.

Some of the best players to ever lace up a pair of skates, including two of my all-time favorite netminders -- Tony Esposito and Eddy Giacomin -- never won it. Another favorite, Raymond Bourque, the second best defenseman to ever don a Bruins jersey, had to OK a trade to the Colorado Avalanche to get his chance, and he made good on that one opportunity (so relieve was Bourque after finally hoisting the Cup that he promptly retired, leaving $6 million on the table). The players on the winning teams, all of them, have their names engraved in the polished rings that support the original Cup. In hockey terms, that's akin to immortality. And these Penguins, the long-struggling offspring of the great Mario Lemieux, will now see their names preserved forever. That's how it should be.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Eight is more than enough ... !

Boston, still raining.

So here I am, feeling all sorry for myself after getting absolutely pummeled in my Friday morning hockey game. The final score was 8-3, and that's indicative of how badly we played, myself included. To make matters worse, we even got the early lead, 2-0, and were ahead 2-1 after the first. That was as good as it got ...

The wheels came off pretty quickly in the second period. A shot from the point went just wide, and I got stuck in one of my patented "Help I've fallen and can't get up" positions (as the accompanying photo, above, will attest). The puck caromed off the back boards right to the stick of an opposing forward, Danny McCarthy, who tucked it into the open net. Tie game. Then a soft point shot went through a maze of legs and sticks, slipping into the far corner; 3-2, bad guys. A bang-bang play from behind the net made it 4-2, and a missile from Trevor Hanson over my glove (at least I think that's where it went, since I'm not sure I actually saw it!) capped the 5-goal outburst.

In the third, three more goals got behind me, including another bullet shot, this time from Paul Albano. I couldn't get off the ice fast enough. The weird thing is -- and most goalies can appreciate this -- I didn't feel like I was way off my game. There are days when the puck just seems to hit you, no matter how out of position you are. And then there are days when that three-inch slab of vulcanized rubber seems to find every tiny little crease in your stance. Today definitely fell into the latter category. By the end of the game, I felt like a pinata. I should have stayed in bed!



Thursday, June 11, 2009

This Bud (singular) is for you ...

Boston, overcast again!

I don't think I've ever had a beer that tasted better than the one served up right after a good skate. The brews can be cold or lukewarm, cheap or chi-chi (provided a bottle opener isn't required) -- it doesn't matter. The combo of water, malt, barley and hops is the perfect elixir for the parched puckhead.

The problem these days is that, like the rest of my body, the post-skate, post-Bud Light recovery is more challenging. Like the number of skates I can manage each week without winding up in traction, I also have to limit my intake of carbonated beverages. Last night is a perfect case in point.

It was my Wednesday night pick-up skate with the North Shore Skating Association gang (believe me, that name sounds much more formal than any of the chuckleheads, myself included, who show up for this 90-minute session). My own performance was sub-par -- I felt like I was a split-second behind the puck all night -- but the beauty of pick-up hockey is that the final score doesn't really matter. It's sort of like the points in Drew Carey's "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" Fact is, I rarely keep a running tally, though I know we got drilled pretty good last night. Which left me with a hefty hankering for a frosty beverage afterward. And that first one, a Coors Light served up by Matty "The Total Package" Theriault was just what the nurse ordered. The first six ounces were gone in a gulp. The rest didn't last much longer.

Now, I typically have a single post-skate beer, but I still had most of my gear on, and the locker room banter was lively (most of it centering on one of our younger guys, a recent college grad, and the sexual exploits that awaited him during an upcoming trip to Australia!). So I asked Matty for another brew, and he happily obliged. Before I knew it, a bunch of the guys and I were out in the parking lot, it was closing in on Thursday, and I had cracked open a fourth. But gabbing with friends is one of hockey's great byproducts, and last night, the conversation and the brewskis just flowed.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same about this morning. Four beers on a "school night" is never a good idea, especially for a sore and cranky 51-year-old goaltender (it could have been worse, but the rink lot's lights got shut off at midnight, forcing us to head home). I'm not hungover, just sluggish. And those aches and pains that typically accompany my post-skate wake-up call have a bit more bite. Lauri's "high test" coffee is making a few inroads on the cobwebs, but a few more hours sleep is what I really need. Next skate, I'll try to show a little more restraint!

One last caveat on the topic of hockey and beer. If you offer to bring the suds, bring fresh brew. A while back, I made the mistake of running behind schedule on my appointed "beer night," and was frantic to get to both the store and the rink on time. Then I recalled a case of Bud Light that was sitting in my basement. How long had it been sitting there? Good question. I had no idea. But in my haste, I didn't have any time for such niggling details. I grabbed the case, chucked it in a cooler, packed it with snow, and ran off to the rink. Two hours later, you could hear the howls of protest from my locker room in the next county. To say that the stuff was rancid was a gross understatement. It was bad, bad, bad. I tried to play Mickey the Dunce (I know, not a stretch), but once some of my more enterprising colleagues found the "Born On" date, and discovered the beer was more than three years old, I was toast. They still haven't let me forget it, proving Lord Jeffrey's time-honored adage "A good name, like good will, is got by many actions and lost by one."


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why hockey's Stanley Cup playoffs rule ...

Boston, rainy.

Just a few hours before what may be the final game of the 2009 edition of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins (with the Winged Wheels up, three games to two), I'm thinking about what makes this game the best in all of sports. Those who know me know I could go on and on and on about hockey's superiority to any other athletic competition, but all you really need to see is the accompanying photograph. It is a classic. Taken in 1952, after the deciding game of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens, it epitomizes the very essence of the game.

To the left is "Sugar Jim" Henry, the Bruins goaltender. He's grasping the hand of a battered and bruised Canadien legend, Maurice "Rocket" Richard, one of the most dynamic, and most volatile, superstars of any sport, in any era. Richard had been knocked into la-la land earlier in the game, and was carted off the ice. No one expected him to return. Today, he wouldn't have. But in the 1950s, players were able to shrug off the concerns of trainers, and Richard, despite clearly suffering from a concussion, returned in the third period. Cementing his legend, Richard (pronounced REE-shar) scored the game-winning goal on one of his high-voltage sorties to the net, slipping the puck past Henry. This photo, one of hockey's most famous, captures the two weary but proud combatants during the traditional post-game handshake.

No one knows exactly when the handshake line, which consummates every Stanley Cup series, originated, but I'm glad someone thought of it, and that hockey players embraced it. The idea of two teams battling tooth-and-nail over the course of a best-of-seven series, literally beating the snot out of one another, being able to immediately put their differences aside speaks to the character of the men who play this game. It is that character that hockey, through its team-first focus, engenders.

The handshake concept is so compelling that it's been adopted throughout the hockey-playing universe. I play in two competitive leagues, an Over-50 League on Tuesday nights, and another Friday-morning adult league, the Blades and Breakfast Hockey Club. Both leagues end games with the teams lining up to shake hands. Believe me, that's not always easy. Given hockey's physical nature, there's bound to be a dust-up or two during the games, and I've been in the middle of my share. But the handshake line forces you to "man up," look your opponent in the eye, and win or lose, compliment him on the effort. In a day and age when "respect" is sorely misunderstood, the handshake embodies what it means to honor your opponent. In all my years, I've only skipped the line twice (both times after I felt the opposing team was running up the score). Both times I later realized, after I had a chance to cool off, that I was wrong. Hockey's handshake transcends the game just played; it's a reminder that we're part of something even greater than one game on one night. No matter what the final score, no matter who wins or who loses, the handshake line reminds us of the importance of lacing them up, getting on the ice, and playing the game. It reminds us that sportsmanship trumps everything else.

And tonight, hockey's best go at it again.


Monday, June 8, 2009

Wen-Ham hard men stay up ...

Boston, Monday.

Sporting a .500 record in one of the toughest divisions of the Over The Hill Soccer League, with five teams battling in out to stay "up" in Div. 3, my Wen-Ham United Football Club needed a win this past Sunday to ensure we would once again avoid relegation. And our scrappy squad did just that, edging a tough P.A.C. Lowell team by a 1-0 score after veteran midfielder Billy Waslick slotted home a penalty shot late in the second half.

It was essentially a game of attrition, as our opponents only had a single sub. Still, Lowell was a very capable squad, and pressured the WHUFC goal with a few nice runs in the first half. Thanks to a boneheaded decision by the Wen-Ham keeper (that would be me), punching the ball on a misguided cross instead of catching it, Lowell had one glorious chance that was booted just wide, deflecting off my ever-present sweeper back, John Sixsmith. From that point forward, I tried to hang onto any ball I could get my hands on.

Meanwhile, our Wen-Ham club started building pressure on the Lowell net toward the end of the first half, but this was a game that was fought primarily in the midfield. We went into the break tied, 0-0. Throughout the second half, my bend-but-don't break D limited Lowell to only a few inconsequential shots on frame (a grateful shout-out to Tom, John, Ahab, Tony and Jeff). Our midfielders, led by the young legs of Carson, Bruce, Billy, Jim and JJ (and occasionally Sharpy and Tim) battled Lowell for every 50/50 ball, eventually wearing the visitors down. Ian was creating chances on the right side, while Jose nearly connected on a glorious chance inside the box. Jose was then taken down on another bold run a few minutes later, resulting in Mr. Waslick's PK tally.

Things got a little chippy in the last half-hour, as youthful exuberance gave way to lactic acid, leading to a flurry of yellow cards (we doubled our season's total in about 10 minutes). But we held the fort, and came away with the three points. Almost as important, nobody got hurt, which is always a nice bonus. The icing on the cake, however, was that our merry band staved off relegation for another season (given our shaky 0-2-1 start to the season, our present 4-3-2 record is a matter of considerable pride). We went on our 4-1-1- run with a patchwork line-up (at least five guys took a turn in goal) and a lot of heart. There might be better teams in our league, but there's not a better bunch of guys.

The win also enable us to go into our spring season finale against crosstown rival FCB a bit more relaxed -- no title, or relegation, on the line. I have a great deal of respect for the Boxford crew -- good guys all -- and it will be nice to play a "friendly." Still, knowing the characters on both squads, it will be a spirited match nonetheless. I'm looking forward to it, and the cookout afterward!

Oh, one more thing. Tim Perry said he'd give me $10 to mention his tremendous 20-yard strike that connected flush against the crossbar before bouncing away harmlessly (technically, not even a shot "one goal," but a real nice effort just the same). OK, Tim, pay up!