Friday, December 5, 2008

Adventures in hockey - the blue collar sport

Oh, 1996. What a banner year in the life of Nicolas. I turned 14 and survived my first year at Preston Junior High School - barely.

I only spent two years at Preston, and actually I have very few good memories of the place. There were a lot of cliques and I was, of course, on the losing side of that situation. One of the few good memories from 7th grade, however, was the end of the school year when the Colorado Avalanche made an amazing playoff run and won the Stanley Cup Finals. It became the topic of conversation every day at lunch. We would either start by asking about the game coming up that night or the one played the night before.

When the Avalanche won the Cup, it marked the first professional sports title for any Colorado team, and it started a love affair between me and hockey that is going strong to this day.

I started playing hockey during the summer of 1996. I would occasionally draft my sister and we would play one-on-one games in the street. Eventually, I saved up some money and bought a hockey net and got my generously proportioned Indian friend Andrew to come over and play. He would put on my catcher's gear and play goalie. And I would shoot away at him all afternoon. Good times, great hockey.

Towards the end of high school, my interest in hockey got a bit more serious. Andrew and I would start venturing to the Colorado State University roller hockey rink and play with the big boys. And, yes, Andrew would still wear my catcher's equipment to those events as well. Isn't it wonderful being young and not feeling inhibited by embarassment?

In college, I took the big step of signing up to play on a roller hockey team at OD's - as a goalie! I had never played in goal before, but since I did not have a team, I signed up as a "free agent." The Blue Dogs called and said they were short a goalie. Sure, I said, why not? That afternoon I went to Play It Again Sports and bought all the necessary equipment - mostly all of it used.

I played with the Blue Dogs for two seasons. We won the league championship in the second one after an undefeated regular season, and a 3-2 victory in the championship game. But by then I had the itch to get back to skating as a forward. The next few years I played on an assortment of teams: Tsunami, Brew Crew, and Proformance Auto.

I won a second OD's championship with Tsunami. The championship game that season against the Untouchables was perhaps the greatest moment of my life, so far anyway. The Tsunami team had a terrible goalie and an amazing offense. We had an undefeated regular season, mostly because we won games by scores of 8-5 or 7-6. You get the idea. We always worried about our goalie, but as long as we scored one more than the other guys, that was all that mattered.

Although we should have blown out our opponents in the championship game, our goalie played worse than usual. It was a high scoring game that went back and forth all day. In the second half, with the game tied 6-6 and just over a minute left in the game, the Untouchables scored on us taking a 7-6 lead.

We pulled the goalie and put out all our ringers for the last minute of the game. I was on the rink as the last man back, trying to prevent an empty net goal. As the time wound down under 15 seconds, the Untouchables recovered the puck behind the net and tried to clear it around the boards. I stepped up and stopped it.

What I am about to tell - I kid you not - is completely, 100 percent true.

After I stopped the puck on the sideboards, I glanced at the scoreboard and saw that time was about to run out. 5...4...

There was no time for a pass so I just wound up and shot. As I was following through on the shot, I could see a defenseman for the Untouchables racing over and diving trying to block the shot. The puck sailed over him and then I lost sight of it behind the crowd in front of the net.


Then, all of a sudden, I saw the back of the net jump. GOAL!!! ...1...0 BUZZER...

I had tied the championship game at 7-all right as the buzzer sounded to end the game. I threw my arms up and celebrated with my teammates. We lined up for overtime. The opening faceoff was won by our center and it came back to me. I saw my defensive partner racing up the right wing all alone. I passed him the puck and he scored, about 20 seconds after I had tied it. In a matter of a few seconds, I had tied the game and assisted on the championship-clinching goal.

I had a short stint as the backup goalie on the Colorado State University Roller Hockey team. I did not get much playing time, but I do have one career victory against the University of Colorado. Woot! I have focused on ice hockey mostly since then. I played ice for a season in Northeast Colorado and had a fairly successful stint, placing second on the team in scoring and posting a 7-4-2 record as a goalie. I have recently started my first league play in Albany and so far my team is 3-0.

Besides the fact that hockey as a game is entertaining for me, I also think that the culture of it is fascinating. I like to think of it as a "blue collar" sport. For starters, the cycle of the game is based on shifts. Every line puts in their 2 minutes or so, and then we substitute out and let the next shift get to work. Then, after every shift, it is customary to spend time on the bench with your linemates going over the events of the previous shift, which is analogous to heading down to the local watering hole and discussing the day at the factory with your co-workers over a nice cold beer. And, before you know it, it's time go get back out on the ice and do it all over again.

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