Friday, April 2, 2010

The most solitary position in sports ...

Boston, beautiful!!!

Goalie camp? At 43? Why not? Goes to show you're never too old to take a puck upside the head. This account of one of the longest weeks of my life (albeit eight years ago) appeared in the now-defunct Hockey Magazine. The photo above comes from my once-in-a-lifetime outing last January, playing at Fenway Park in Boston (which you can read about here).

Net gain
A 40-something goaltender tries to recapture his glory days

Lying prone on a cool sheet of ice, gasping for air, I lapse into another Walter Mitty fantasy. I'm no longer at the Mount Vernon Recreation and Ice Center outside Washington, D.C., desperately trying to keep from overheating beneath 35-plus pounds of soaking-wet goaltending gear. No, I'm between the pipes at Madison Square Garden, sporting the home white sweater of my beloved Rangers. The time? Winter, 1974.

Boston Bruins' winger Wayne Cashman is in the corner, mucking it up with Dale Roulfe, my Rock-of-Gibraltar defenseman. The puck squirts to the front of the net. Bruins' center Phil Esposito, on his way to a 68-goal season, pounces on it. He snaps off a lightning quick snap shot, low, stick-side. I instinctively flash my left leg pad. The puck glances off my toe buckle and flips harmlessly into the crowd. In the press box, Marv Albert screams into his microphone, "Kick save, O'Connor, and a beauty!" Color man Bill Chadwick, a Hall of Fame referee, chimes in: "This kid O'Connor came to play tonight ..." A goofy, satisfied grin creases my face.

"O'Connor! Hey, O'Connor! You gonna play sometime today?" barks Gerry "Elroy" Ellison, part-time goalie instructor and full-time drill sergeant. I surface reluctantly from my reverie, blinking the sweat from my eyes, realizing I'm still at the Puckstoppers Goaltending School. Slowly, I pull my bruised body off the ice, and resume my post for the next drill. I want to blame my murky state of mind on taking a puck up side the head, but I can't. I'm hurting because I'm 43. Whatever fitness I brought to camp with me evaporated as quickly as my fantasy. And my instructors aren't cutting me much slack.

At this precise moment, I'm struggling to recall exactly why I signed on for this five-day camp. There are vague recollections - I not only hoped to recapture some of my youth, but I wanted to make sure the guys in the late-night league back home in Boston weren't thinking I'd gotten soft. Several of my goaltending colleagues have been entertaining thoughts about hanging up their pads and skates, which only hardened my resolve to turn back the clock.

Truth is, I never had any formal education in the science of goaltending. My coaches in high school and the early days of college were former position players - forwards and defensemen - who had trouble relating to goalies. As other hockey players will attest, goalies are a singular breed, requiring special tutoring (or, as one derisive teammate once told me, “custom-made strait jackets”).My education was self-imposed - I ceaselessly studied Hall of Famer Jacques Plante's tome, "On Goaltending," until the book’s binder nearly disintegrated, and tried to apply its lessons to my game.

Recently, on the downhill side of my athletic career but still playing a few times each week, my mind shifted into a "now or never" mode. I could soldier on, a half-decent, middle-age goalie, or I could try to pick up my game a notch. What I needed was some top-notch instruction. I found it with Puckstoppers, an Ontario-based outfit that visits Alexandria, Virginia, each summer for a week. You might not think of the District of Columbia and its environs as a hotbed for hockey. Think again.

At the end of every morning session, dozens of pick-up players were lining up for noontime "stick practice." Back home in Massachusetts, many rinks shut down in the summer. Mount Vernon ice director Ernie Harris tells me "This place was originally designed to have two rinks. If I had that second sheet, I could book it solid."

On the first morning of camp, I sat in snarled Beltway traffic, listening with a jaded ear to Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days" on the radio, wondering whether I still had the goods, and whether I'd be the only gray-haired keeper in the class. Heck, I'd have settle for anyone who could legally join me for a beer afterward.

Fortunately, I met two guys my age - Gerry Oakman, who works with the Justice Department, and Joe O'Connell, a family doctor from Arkansas. Both have Boston-area roots, and share an almost inexplicable love for hockey. We hit it off immediately. In hindsight, that's not surprising.

Goalies are naturally drawn to each other. We’re part of a team, yet stand apart – masked loners, solitary watchmen standing guard by our nets the entire game, an army of one. Other players don’t know what to make of us, but most are convinced that only someone with a few screws loose would actually volunteer to play our position. Buried under layers of unwieldy gear and confined to a limited skating area, goalies stick out like ocean liners surrounded by speedboats. Together, we make up an odd fraternity, a fellowship of proud masochists.

Our task is simple: Stop a vulcanized rubber puck, an inch thick and three inches in diameter, from entering a 4-by-6 foot goal. With composite sticks and curved blades, even recreational players can fire a puck upwards of 100 miles an hour. Adding insult to potential injury, the very nature of the position leads to more criticism than applause. We give up goals, but don't score them. We're often blamed for losses, but only occasionally praised for victories. We are, in short, the team’s lightning rod.

Oakman recalls a Plante quote - "How would you like to have a job, that when you made a mistake, a big red light went on and 18,000 people booed?"

"For me, that's a motivator, to join a very select group of men and women who step up to meet that challenge," says Oakman.

Challenge indeed. I always thrived on goaltending’s unique reality – by the position’s very nature, the goalie is the one player who can single-handedly stop an entire team from winning. After all, if the opponent doesn’t score, you can’t lose. And on those rare games when I’m really focused and feeling invincible, the puck looks the size of a balloon, and moves about as quick. In my mind’s eye, it seems I can see where the puck is going even before the shot is fired. Granted, those moments didn’t come often enough to sustain my dream of a pro career or Division I scholarship. But even now, when they happen, they’re magic.

Unfortunately, I quickly realize there’s nothing “magical” about goalie camp. I understand it’s purpose and promise, but I’m ill prepared for the workload. For the next five days, two hours each morning, two each afternoon, Ellison and his Puckstoppers colleagues run us through a gamut of drills and instruction designed to improve our game. Or kill us.

We work on stance, movement, angles, low shots, high shots, deflections, rebounds, breakaways. Shooting machines fire pucks at us relentlessly - one nicks a crease in my armor, just above my blocker, and my elbow stings for hours. During each session, usually following some tortuous skating or agility drill, Oakman, O'Connell and I exchange futile glances and muted words of encouragement. Sweat pours from old pores as we struggle to keep pace with youngsters a fraction of our age. Each day, we wonder aloud whether we can finish the week. Parents of younger campers look at us as though we've lost our marbles. Incredulous, I reply: "Hey, we're goalies!"

The inference, I trust, is crystal clear - goaltenders, whether young or aging, are by definition a bit off-center. We all survive - barely.

"I'm sure people were giggling behind my back," says O'Connell, who admits hoping to play well into his 60s. "Screw 'em. I always wanted to do this."

Two weeks after I hauled my oversized bag of goalie gear from the Mount Vernon Ice Center for the last time, and the aches have finally subsided, my evaluation from the Puckstoppers gang arrives. I glance at the list of the position's finer points, including everything from dexterity, glove saves and rebounds. Most of my ratings fall in the "fair" category, with some "good" and a few "excellent" marks. Charity points, I figure. Head coach Chris Dyson reminds me, "glove in front, pads a bit apart."

"If you work on those small points, your game will be huge," writes Dyson. "Unfortunately, there were so many 'small things' I can't remember them all!"

Dyson's good-natured jab is followed by a happy-face doodle. I can read between the lines. I'm being told, gently, "Don't quit your day job." Walter Mitty would be crushed. Not me. Come tomorrow night, I'll be down at the rink, facing rubber.


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Unfinished business ...

Boston, overcast

I absolutely love this story, as it gets to the core of what This Old Jock is all about. I wrote two quick hits, one for the New York Times (which ran with the accompanying photo), and one for New York Magazine's web site. Here's the unabridged version, which I think captures more of the soul of the event.

Frozen in time
1989 teams reconnect to play canceled championship game

Talk about delayed gratification. When Delbarton's Mike Pendy and St. Joseph's Kenny Blum skate into the face-off circle for the opening drop of the puck on Saturday, April 3, at Mennen Arena in Morristown, N.J., it will be the culmination of a long, long wait. Twenty-one years, to be exact. More than a lifetime, considering that Pendy, Blum and their teammates, now all in their late 30s, were fuzzy-faced teenagers in 1989 when the two teams were first set to meet for the New Jersey high school hockey championships.

That game, however, never happened. In one of the most peculiar episodes in high school sports, the 1989 championship game, scheduled for March 18, was canceled due to a measles outbreak the affected both students and teachers at Delbarton, an all-boys commuting prep school in Morristown.

"It was the most bizarre thing," said James Olsen, a senior Delbarton defenseman in 1989 who now works for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. "The school brought us into the auditorium to announce [the cancellation]. I honestly thought it was going to be a last-minute pep rally. It took a little time to register."

Until that decision, it looked like a dream final between the state's two top teams – St. Joseph's of Montvale sported a 24-2-1 mark, while Delbarton was seeded No. 2 with a 24-3-2 record – that had rosters littered with all-state selections. Two players, Kenny Blum of St. Joe's and Derek Maguire of Delbarton, would be selected in the 9th round of the National Hockey League draft later that spring. Then, in an instant, the game was scrapped.

The Delbarton coach, Jim Brady, vividly remembers that Friday, having practiced in the morning before attending business meetings in Princeton. Afterward, he drove to meet his team for a pre-game dinner. In the parking lot, he bumped into Olsen, who relayed that the game was canceled. "I thought he was kidding me," said Brady. "I walked into the restaurant, and there were all the kids, and it was like a morgue."

The finality of the state's decision, say the players, didn't hit home until the following week. A few days later, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association's executive committee declared the two teams co-champions, and what might have been the greatest hockey final in New Jersey history was relegated to some dust-covered record book. It remains the only time co-champions have been declared in hockey.

"That was a pretty low moment for everybody," said Olsen. "We weren't going to have another shot it. Not everyone was going to play at college; some weren't going to be continuing their hockey at any competitive level. It was a lost opportunity."

On April 3, though, these players from 1989 will have the rare opportunity of a second chance. The thought of actually playing the game – dubbed the Frozen Flashback – started as a lark last spring. Talk began percolating after an off-hand comment by Pendy, a center on the '89 Delbarton squad, in a Star-Ledger article on the 20th anniversary of the non-game. "Maybe we could get all these guys together 20 years later, lace up the skates somewhere and play that game," the former Green Wave assistant captain told the Star-Ledger. While Pendy's quote prompted a few giggles, no one took it seriously, given the logistics of trying to bring 46 players together two decades after the fact. No one, that is, except Scott Williams.

Williams, a defenseman on the '89 St. Joe's team, saw parallels between the lost final and The Best of Times, a 1986 comedy starring Robin Williams as an aging banker who couldn't forgive himself for dropping the touchdown pass (thrown perfectly by Kurt Russell) that cost his teammates, and town, bragging rights against their arch rival. Soon, Williams hatched a plan to combine that storyline with the quintessential hockey movie – Paul Newman's Slap Shot – and the blueprint for the Frozen Flashback took shape. Buoyed by the support he got from an column by John Buccigross, Williams reached out to Delbarton.

He was steered toward Olsen ("James is always one to think big," said teammate Peter Ramsey), who was initially skeptical. But Williams struck a nerve when he unveiled his idea of the game being a charity for cancer research. Williams's mother Janice has brain cancer, and he thought the game could be a terrific fund-raising vehicle. Olsen, who recently lost his father to cancer, was taken with Williams's sincerity, and agreed to pitch in.

"That was really critical to making this event meaningful," said Olsen. "We're going to do some real tangible good for people who are suffering. Everybody I know has been touched in one way or another by cancer. It's devastating. I like the fact that people are going to use this opportunity to support a good cause."

The players also responded, with a reported 40 of the original 46 signing on. "It's timeless," said Maguire, an all-star defenseman who later played at Harvard and two years with the Montreal Canadiens’ top farm team. "Whether you're 17 or 40, you want to play the game."

"If anybody felt bad about what happened 21 years ago, they can feel good about it now," echoed Blum, who had an 11-year professional career after being drafted by the Minnesota North Stars. "We're not raising millions and millions of dollars, but we're doing something to contribute to a cause that needs as much help as possible."

To make up for roster shortfalls, each team can add five players (they must be alumni and have graduated prior to 1989). The prevailing enthusiasm, say former teammates, is a testament to the strong bond that hockey engenders. "What's been great is getting the whole community back together," said Maguire. "It's been fun to see to see the guys coming out of the woodwork."

Employing myriad connections through hockey, work, and their respective schools, Frozen Flashback organizers secured a number of corporate sponsorships, most notably Gatorade. According to Ramsey, a former Delbarton left wing and current managing director at Barclays Capital, the organizing group is close to covering its costs, and expects to top its fund-raising goal of $100,000 for cancer research. A prime beneficiary will be the NHL's Hockey Fights Cancer program, as well as Jam for Janice, the Valerie Fund, and the respective schools. At the insistence of New Jersey Devils co-owner and Delbarton grad Michael Gilfillan, there was some thought given to the Prudential Center hosting the game, but that plan proved unwieldy. Instead, Gilfillan used his NHL contacts to acquire a number of items for the game's online auction including signed jerseys from superstars Wayne Gretzky, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Mario Lemieux—a cancer survivor himself. The MSG Network is on board to broadcast the game, which will be held at the 2,800-seat Mennen Arena, the original site of the championship match.

"The great thing about playing at Mennen, is that the place was packed for our games," said Olsen of Delbarton's home rink. "It was a great experience being on the ice in front of those crowds, and now we have one more opportunity to do it."

Of course, the prospect of a full house has players thinking they've got to put on a good show. Many skate regularly. Others are returning to the rink with a vengeance, touting new gear and a determination to recapture the fitness of their youth. All expect a good, clean game. "Some people are trying to portray this as a grudge match, and nothing could be further from the truth," said Ramsey. Pendy agreed. "There's bound to be some apprehension, but once the puck drops, I think everyone's going to have a good time with it and make it a class event."

The modified rules will mirror an adult recreation league: Full checking is prohibited, though contact is allowed. John Lively, a forward on St. Joe's '89 team and now a lieutenant for the Mount Vernon, NY, fire department, confirmed that Juan DeCarlo, one of the original referees scheduled for the 1989 game, will officiate the April 3 match.

"Hockey players are, by nature, competitive, and once the adrenaline gets pumping, that competitiveness is going to kick in," said Williams. "When we get on the ice, it's going to be us against the them."

Both sides have also decided that the game can't end in a tie; there will be a winner on April 3, even if it means sudden-death overtime. "I don't think anybody would want that," said Blum, chuckling. "Other than the charity part, that would be defeating the purpose."

There are no plans, however, to petition the NJSIAA to name the Frozen Flashback winner as the 1989 champion. "We kidded around about that, but I don't think it would be fair in terms of history," said Williams, laughing. "First, I don't think the state would go for it. And, at the end of the day, you can't have a title based on what happens 21 years later. Plus, the event has taken on such a larger cause."

For details on the April 3 game, and the online auction, visit