I read yesterday’s update on Fraters Libertas where Hugh Hewitt extracted a certain measure of revenge for the lads’ frequent references to his misadventures with a snowmobile and one of Minnesota’s indigenous trees. Hugh ran Chad the Elder’s post-puck encounter photo, which reminded me of Chad’s original description of his reckless injury.
That, in turn, reminded me of the last hockey game I ever played.
Some 17 years ago I joined a league that was then called the National Novice Hockey Association (NNHA). The league was designed for people who hadn’t grown up playing hockey and, having discovered the sport late in life, wanted to give it a try without being used as a zamboni by more experienced players. That fit my situation exactly.
I grew up playing football and basketball. It wasn’t hard for me to move from one sport to the other because my approach was the same for both: cream the person with the ball. I never saw a hockey game in person until I moved to Minnesota when I was in my 20s, but became hooked almost immediately. When the NNHA arrived in town I was so ready; given my already established approach to games I couldn’t wait to get the chance to jack somebody up at the blueline.
At first it was pretty comical. Few people in the league had any real experience and many of us had never even skated before. Watching our games and practices was like watching a bunch of 200 pound Mites or Pee Wees crash (literally) the boards. We were all pretty good-natured about our klutziness; when players collided we’d usually laugh about it. One of my favorite memories is the time when I scored a goal after both the defenseman and the goalie fell down in quick succession in the face of my one-man rush to the net. Turning toward my bench I nearly wet myself when I saw my teammates doing the wave.
After a few seasons, though, things got very competitive and we started taking ourselves pretty seriously. I was on one of the better teams in the league (no thanks to my contributions) and we had a manager who tried to elevate our skills by scheduling between game scrimmages with bar league teams. It was a good idea in that, as good as we thought we were getting, we were hard-pressed to keep up with these more experienced players. It was a bad idea in that these scrimmages often got rather chippy as a result. They were also especially frustrating for me because I never was a strong skater.
One night in the Parade Ice Gardens we had one of these scrimmages and I went into a corner after a puck with a guy from the other team. We were up against the boards, alternately pinning each other’s stick while we pushed against each other and tried to clear the puck. Already running a little hot to begin with, my “intensity” ratcheted up a couple of notches the longer we tustled. The third time he pinned my stick I yanked hard on it in an upward direction just as my opponent shifted to kick at the puck again. Suddenly my stick was free – and flying straight into his face. He had a helmet on but, like the Elder, no faceguard. He went immediately to the ice with his hands over his eye, blood gushing over his gloves. I was transfixed next to him, nearly sick – not at the sight, but at the thought of what I’d done.
Yes, it was an accident. I hadn’t set out to hurt anybody and that hadn’t been my intention when I tried to yank my stick free, but I also knew I had been at the edge of my self-control and someone was now suffering for it. Fortunately it turned out that the cut was an inch below the other guy’s eye. He might need a couple of stitches, but he wasn’t going to need an opthamologist. I apologized profusely and there weren’t any hard feelings from him or the rest of his team, but as I drove home later I just decided I’d had enough. I may have learned a lesson that probably would have stuck with me if I continued to play, but at that point I just said to myself, “If you can’t handle yourself any better than that it’s time to quit.” There was still about a month left in the season, but the next day I took my gear into Play It Again Sports.
It was near Valentine’s Day, and money was tight for us then. I now had some extra cash in hand, but didn’t want to commemorate the end of my hockey career by paying the electric bill. Instead I bought a small pearl ring for my wife – five years of blood, sweat and fears condensed into a small precious object. It was a fair exchange.
Since then I’ve thought from time to time about whether I did the right thing at the time. Should I have tried to apply the hard-learned lesson back in the arena? Probably, “yes.” Was it right to quit a team before the season was over? Definitely, “no.” Still it was an experience in character and self-control I could draw on when the opportunity came years later to teach the Fundamentals in Film class, or any time I started to feel my temper start to get away from me.
The little pearl ring was ultimately lost years later when we had some things taken from our home, but I still carry the reminders of that night inside me. Unfortunately, there’s someone else out there who still carries his own little reminder as well.