Friday, March 23, 2007

AMHL Thursday: An EPIC Battle

Fort Collins, Colorado
March 22, 2007

“I don’t know if I can honor the jersey,” I say to Mr. Hockey.

I’m here in my hometown, at the family home preparing to play hockey on Edora Pool and Ice Center (EPIC) ice for the first time in more than three years and need to borrow a sweater. My dad has told me I can wear his teal Fort Collins Muffler sweater, #9 on the back. Dad hasn’t played for any of the teams, which he has sponsored for more than twenty years, for more than ten years; although he misses playing—it took three years for the realization to set in that Sunday night was no longer hockey night for him—he has no intention of skating this morning or wearing his sweater with the same number that Gordie Howe (and Andy Bathgate) wore.

I’ve tucked the piece of Fort Collins Adult Hockey Association history in the trunk, along with the other equipment I’ve borrowed from family, of my parents’ car. From my brother Kevin (who hasn’t played hockey in several years) I have the bulk of gear: hockey pants, shin guards, shoulder pads, and elbow pads. Kevin shoots left, so I can’t use his sticks. Dad has a right-handed CCM in the garage, so I put that in the back seat with me.

My buddy Brian from Boston, who accompanied the AMHL photographer and me on our last trip to the Choice City, is in the front seat with Jimbo, who’s a lifelong Rangers fan. He’s wearing his Rangers coat to agitate Bruins fans like Brian and I. XM Radio jockeys discuss last night’s Rangers game against the Flyers, when Colton Orr KO’d Todd Fedoruk.

Along with my disdain for the Rangers, I brought with me from Boston my helmet and pond skates, which haven’t been sharpened since my last outing on Norton Pond.

At EPIC, which celebrated its twentieth birthday this past week, I greet my brother Brian and my sister-in-law, Kelli. Neither has skated in years.

A college-aged kid named Joey tells the handful of players gathered in the locker room about his first fight as a member of the New Mexico University Ice Wolves. In front of the home crowd in Albuquerque, his opponents were running his teammates, so Joey dumped one aggressor, who didn’t take kindly to the clean check laid upon him.

“Everything slowed down,” Joey says of the moments before his clash in which the combatants traded blow for blow. The referees let the boys go for longer than Joey had expected, so he was exhausted after the scrap.

This mid-day drop-in skate should be tamer than the average intercollegiate game or even an AMHL affair. I’m all dressed but realize the socks (Rangers colors, darn it) Brian has loaned me are going to droop because my tape job is insufficient.

“Can I borrow a garter belt?” I ask my sister-in-law, who has entered the locker room.

Our relationship will never be the same.

On the ice, the socks hold up better than I do. After half an hour of mostly four-on-four action, I’m bushed. Joey, Brian, and Kelli (all wearing light-colored sweaters and thus, opponents) skate circles around me in the teal sweater, so I do what Gordie Howe might have done.

Brian has the puck in his own zone, along the boards. I drop my gloves and tussle with him in playful brotherly fashion. As I release my hold on his helmet and sweater—a white Muffler relic circa the early twenty-second century—Brian sticks aside one of my gloves and then heads up ice.

I stop him a time or two on one-on-one encounters, but Brian routinely skirts around or plows through me for the next hour. I’m drenched in sweat and embarrassment.

Back in the locker room, I remove my sweater, garter belt, and hockey socks only to realize I didn’t bring a towel. I’m due to meet my wife for lunch in thirty minutes, so I need a shower. After I rinse the sweat from my hair and body, I pat myself dry with paper towels.

I could have mopped up the excess water with the Muffler sweater, but that would have been disrespectful to Mr. Hockey.

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