Sunday, October 28, 2007

CAN/AM Hockey, Part III: Happiness Is…


Charles M. Schultz loved hockey as much as he did Snoopy, so much that the prolific Peanuts’ creator named a senior hockey tournament after the beloved beagle; I love that dog—name someone who doesn’t—almost as much as hockey, so this piece, the third of three, is dedicated to happiness and warm puppies.

It’s Sunday morning. While many are dressed in their Sunday best and at church, I’m decked out in a red, white and blue jersey at the shrine called Herb Brooks Arena, so named in 2005 for the mastermind behind the Miracle on Ice. Number 32 on the back of my jersey and the CAN/AM logo on the front, I practice passing and stickhandling with fellow camper Michael Vacanti, who’s sporting a dark blue CAN/AM jersey. We try to master the flip pass Coach “Brody” Broderick, taught us a minute ago. Cradling the puck on our sticks and flinging the ebonite “Frisbee” toward each other less than hour before our grand finale game—before Michael returns to Buffalo, NY and I to Maynard, MA—hoping to repeat the intermittent successes we’ve enjoyed these past few days when it counts.

The hour-long practice session complete, players gather on their benches and wait to be introduced. When my name is announce, I hop, helmet-less, onto the glistening and beckoning glazed surface. My fan club cheers and applauds as I stride along the blue line connecting the bench and far boards. About to join my teammates, I perform my best hockey stop.

Happiness is …not falling down in front of a crowd.

One by one, my teammates are introduced, and then it’s Vacanti and Team Blue’s turn. Lining our respective blue lines, we turn to face the immense drooping flags—American on the left, Canadian on the right—gracing the arena where the Miracle on Ice unfolded more than twenty seven years ago. How lucky I am to be here, I think, knowing my father and my wife are watching me from the stands to my far left.

Happiness is… the horripilation—goose pimples of pride—upon listening to the Star Spangled Banner and then O Canada!

Game on. Team White skating left to right across your imagination against Team Blue. I’m the fifth defenseman behind “Cement Block” Bob McCall, Peter Cooper, Marc “PQ” (Province of Quebec) Perras and Scott “Doc” Hanan. Seated to the far left, I watch Jan “the Man” Slow score to give us an early lead.

Still in the first, I’ve played a shift or two and have been making good decisions and good passes. I skate toward a loose puck near my own blue line—perhaps fifteen feet away from the spot where Mike Eruzione scored his game-winner against the Russians—thinking I’ll try what Brody terms an “escape” move: two quick sharp turns to deke an opponent. In practice, Brody demonstrated the moves flawlessly. I tried to do the same. Brody critiqued my form. At first, my feet were too close together. After practicing again, Coach Uens said they were too far apart. Now was the time to get it right. My back to my pursuer, I control the puck. Instead of playing it safe and blindly banging puck off the boards, I dig my blades into the ice to turn, but I fake only myself. As I auger toward the ice, I wave my stick to bat the puck from harm’s way. I miss. By the time I prop myself up, Team Blue has tied the game.

But back on the bench, I don’t fume at myself. Brody suggested early on in camp that if we weren’t falling down, we weren’t learning. And, last night on Hockey Night in Canada, I watched an unattended Montreal Canadian flop to the ice when he tried to corral a puck.

After one period, the score is still 1–1. But Team Blue has lost two players: one who needs stitches and another whose hamstring is hampering him so much he can’t walk—much less skate—without doubling over in pain. While the trainer attends to the first, the second stays on the bench to open the door for players exiting and entering the ice.

I switch benches and jerseys. I’m paired with a Canadian Peach, Chris Isaacson. On Right D, I’m skating well, making good decisions, and improving without falling down. Chris watches from Left D as I skate forward toward my blue line and an opponent approaching. With my head up, I flip a perfect saucer pass—a tight spin with no wobble—over my opponent’s stick blade an onto a teammate’s as he breaks out of our zone.

Happiness is…when practice has made perfect.

I’m on the ice later that period when Robert Koppel, who’s from New Jersey but whose name I’ve become fond of pronouncing as if he were from Nouveau Quebec (RO-bear co-PELL, sounds cool, ce n’est pas?), puts himself in perfect position—hanging around the crease—for a garbage goal off his skate blade.

Because we’ve played the first period with stop-time and have only been allotted an hour of total ice time, the second period morphs into the third, a hodgepodge format filled with five-on-five, followed by four-on-four, three-on-three, and then two-on-two helter-skelter action. Team White has tied the game as the last minutes bleed from the massive scoreboard above center ice.

At 2–2 and time running out, dog-tired Michael Vacanti, steps onto the ice for a one-on-one against a weary Andrew Arena (his real name). Andrew, skating left to right, zigzags with the puck as Michael retreats. Arena makes some sweet moves but can’t progress into what our CAN/AM coaches have dubbed PSA: Prime Scoring Area—the patch of ice in front of the goal that Jimmy Craig defended in the final frame that famous February. The play goes back the other way. Vacanti has the puck now, deep into White territory. Along the back boards to the goalie’s left, Vacanti and Arena battle for the black treasure. They fall to the ice but continue the fight.

“Is the Miracle on Ice or the Ice Follies?” I joke to Keith Pelletier, whose hamstring has reduced his role from goal scorer to gatekeeper.

Meanwhile, Vacanti and Arena rise. Vacanti gains possession, steps past the weary Arena and over the goal line to the goalie’s right. Vacanti shoots…and the puck finds its way past the magic line separating victory and defeat!

Happiness is…watching my teammate collapse from relief, joy, and exhaustion as our teammates whoop and holler and rush to congratulate the kid who wears a Snoopy T-shirt beneath his CAN/AM jersey.

Update
10/31/07

The reference to the Canadian Peaches was erroneous. Sorry for that. Although one player wore a shirt advertising a collection of Canadians in Atlanta, none of the three campers from Georgia is Canadian (but one's wife is). See comments below for details.
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