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JIM’S HOCKEY RECOMMENDATION

A short story about my Dad and I

One of my earliest and most vivid memories as a child took place on a frozen pond. I’m not sure if I was 5 or 7 or even 9, but I can still picture the scene. It was a cold but sunny winter day in New England, and a group of boys and their dads had gathered at a place called Weymouth Sportsman’s Club, a hidden place buried back along a dirt road not far from the highway entrance. None of my friends really knew what people did there… we heard something about guns. But what we did know was that they had a pond in the back.

The reason it was a perfect day was that these days didn’t come along too often. Over the course of a New England winter, several factors have to come into play to produce optimum pond hockey conditions.

First, there needs to be a string of days or weeks of bitter cold in order to get the pond to freeze. The ice has to be frozen thick enough beyond a shadow of a doubt before moms would let their husbands bring their sons on such a dangerous trip. There was nothing more haunting then the thought of someone crashing through thin ice into the icy water.

Second, while successive winter days were needed in order to freeze the pond, that meant that at no time during that period could the weather pattern adjust and turn to snow. Even a single snowfall covering the ice would cause the surface to get choppy and not worthy for skating.

Lastly, the hockey gods had to line up and provide a weekend day just warm enough to encourage a game. With precious few hours of daylight in the winter and working dads, weekdays were out; if the dreaded “wind chill factor” led every network newscast, the scare tactic of frostbite would force moms to overrule the option.

So on that sunny Saturday, all was good. As a toddler, my father told me that I would watch Boston Bruins hockey games with him and say the rhyme of “Bobby Orr, Number Four, is going to Score!” while sitting on his lap.

He also recounted the days of his youth when he and his friends would rent a rink and play games at 2am, when the cost of the ice was least expensive. As a 7 year old sometimes this was hard to picture for me.  Even though my father would have been only 35 years old, to me, he was old. He was a Dad.

There were probably 20 people on the ice that day, broken into three groups. There were the kids, aged 6-12, skating awkwardly around the ice, some gaining a bit of speed, most not quite able to stop. Most wore replica Bruins jerseys, balanced on hand-me-down skates, clutched hockey sticks that were a little too big for them, and did their best impression of their favorite player.

Next were the Dads, aged 30-40, trying to get a little exercise, not throw out their back, and keep an eye on their kid while also trying to emulate their favorite players. Depending on the age of their boys, they were either viewed as a hero or embarrassment.

The final group were the punks. These were teens aged 14-17 that weren’t there with their parents. Having hit puberty, they were much bigger and faster than the younger boys, and while not being overly cruel, they were certainly having fun stealing the puck from them at will, never let them get the upper hand, and also flexing a bit of their surging testosterone around the adults.

Everyone was having  a great time, passing the puck around for an hour or so, getting warmed up, feeling each other out, roughhousing and teasing as a group of guys would do. Finally, those that had tired or grown cold sat on tree logs wearing 80s neon down jackets to watch, or simply went home. That meant one thing. Game time.
The remaining group – kids, dads, and punks alike – were split into two teams based roughly on shirt color and ability level to try and make things even. Goals consisted of a pair of shoes spaced about 4 feet wide, and the length of the “rink” was about 50 yards long. The game commenced. As it wore on, the sides proved to be quite even, and we had a competitive match on our hands.

As things heated up, it started getting interesting. Suddenly the Dads weren’t as amused when a punk teenager would steal the puck from  a younger boy, causing him to hit the ice rather hard when sticks would get crossed up with skates in the process. Suddenly it seemed more real when the 7 year old hadn’t touched the puck for 15 minutes, and when they did get a shot on goal, it was vigorously defended. And suddenly the punks had flashes where they realized that although they were faster and had more energy than the Dads, that some of them were bigger and stronger.

So with the stakes getting raised and the sun starting to set, one of the wiser Dads called out the etiquette that few argued with, “Next goal wins.”

Now it was really on. The dad and punks contested every loose puck. The younger kids made a play or got out of the way, and the action went back and forth at frenzied pace, both sides trying to catch their breath. The team I was on was pressuring for the winning goal in a swarm of people, but the puck hit a skate, a strange rebound ensued, and the puck was shot back toward our end before anyone could react. Except for the biggest, fastest, teenager.

You could hear the undeniable sound of steel carving deeply into the now-chippy ice, as he took off down the pond with a head of steam. By the time the entire swarm of players from both teams had turned around and realized where the puck had gone, all they saw was the back of his shirt skating all alone on a breakaway toward our goal.

Standing at the far end of the pond defending the goal, and the only person that could prevent defeat, was my Dad.

Most of the players, exhausted and assessing the situation, simply stood and watched in the eerie silence. A few players turned and started skating, almost by instinct, yet knowing they could not catch him. I was one of them, skating toward the play, wanting a closer look, worried that my friends would make fun of me if my father got embarrassed, and muttering under my breath, “C’mon Dad.”

The punk was hurtling toward the net and he moved slightly to his left and swung in toward my Dad at an angle. When he couldn’t get much closer, he took a shot toward the near corner, but my Dad held his ground with a great save. I lit up for a second, but quickly held my breath. The rebound went right back to the teenager’s stick as he crossed in front of the goal mouth.

The teen got the puck back and readied for another shot, but little did he know that my Dad had played a little goalie himself as a youth. He responded by challenging the attacker and jamming his goalie stick right up against the puck as well. For a moment, it was like an arm-wrestle locked in a stalemate. The harder the teen pushed to shoot it, the harder my Dad fought back. Everyone was locked in on the action, waiting to see what would happen next.

But there was one problem.

The teenager was moving across the ice with speed, while my Dad had been flat-footed. The punk started to get momentum, and as my Dad fell to the ice, the teen kept moving and was ready to shoot. But as he moved, my dad was falling, but he held his stick against the puck even harder.

The punk took another stride, tried to break loose as my dad hit the ice, but he just held his stick and jammed him even harder.

And with one final stride, he was past my dad, who now lay prone on the ice, the other half of the net wide open for the winning goal.

But then an amazing thing happened.

Never giving up, with every last effort, my Dad kept his goalie stick pressed against the puck, stuffing the teenager as he passed. In a last ditch effort, the teen tried to shoot the puck, but now HE was the one off-balance, the crisscross of sticks now closer to his skates. With a yelp of not-so-tough-anymore fear, the punk was mercilessly upended into the air, flying a few feet before smashing down against the hard ice in a heap of knees and elbows.

As the puck slid harmlessly out of the way, there was a cheer from the adults and our team. With the punk licking his wounds and the winter darkness suddenly upon us, I don’t even recall who won the game or if the adults just called it a tie right then. But that really didn’t matter… I now had the coolest dad in the world.