Saturday, June 1, 2013

Chapter 1: I'm A Hockey Guy

I'm a hockey guy.  I played, I coached, I reffed but most of all and to this day I'm a hockey dad.  I fear those days are numbered.  For as long as I can remember, I've had as one of my favorite jobs and purposes to drive, support, fund and cheer as my son worked and played his way through the youth, prep school, junior and now college ranks.  I'm his biggest fan.  This role has been the target of much of my energy over the past eighteen years, ever since his mini-mite days at the age of four.  Occasionally there is pain, frustration, disappointment and heartbreak.  I'm talking about for me.  Lord only knows how it's been for him.  I'll let him tell that side of the story.

I'd never heard of hockey.  I was twelve years old.  I grew up on a farm in the Florida panhandle.  We played football in the fall.  Basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring and summer.  We hunted, fished and played army.  I was pretty sure I would play football at FSU or the University of Florida some day.  

That is until my dad ruined my life and moved us to Connecticut in the summer of '67.  I'd just finished the 6th grade.  I thought my life was over.  I left all my friends behind, including my girlfriend, Becky Messer. Becky was a dream.  I was shy.  It took me since the 1st grade to finally get the nerve to be her boyfriend.  I was in love with her from the first day I set eyes on her on my very first day of the 1st grade.  I specifically remember my mother saying goodbye as she left me at Mrs. Kates' 1st grade class room.  I had a lump in my throat and was on the verge of tears....then I saw Becky and all was good.  Bye Mommy!

But alas, poof.  Off to Connecticut.  I told myself it was only temporary, but it soon became evident it was over.

That first summer in Connecticut was spent in a rented beach house at Gulf Beach in Milford.  I made a few friends.  We swam in Long Island Sound.  We played baseball every chance we got.  I spoke to Becky every Wednesday night at 7pm.  Soon the calls ended and I've never heard from her since.  Every so often I check on Facebook, but nothing.  I'm sure that young beauty that I lost is a big fat momma living in a trailer park somewhere.  My curiousity remains.

At the end of the summer my parents bought a house in West Haven, the next town up the coast.  It was a cool house, made of slate rocks and redwood.  It was split level and sat on the shore of Lake Phipps.  We had a row boat.  We bought a canoe.  Plenty of time was spent fishing, swimming and rowing around the lake.  

There was no shortage of kids in the new neighborhood.  My first friend was Michael McDermott.  His family lived on the other side of the empty lot that separated our two homes.  Mike and his chubby, younger, red-headed brother, Timmy were adopted by Ed and Barbara.  Mr. McDermott worked at a funeral home.  I suppose he was an undertaker, but I really have no idea what he actually did there.  

My other friend in the neighborhhod was Mark Steinberg.  We called him Steiny and later, Bird.  We, along with other kids in the neighborhood played a lot of touch football on the small "green" nearby.  This patch of land was on a slope and had a huge cedar pine right in the middle.  It's a miracle no one got hurt.  But isn't that the case with much of what we did as kids.

Continuing my promising football career, I went out for midget football that fall.  I played for the team sponsored by the Armstrong Rubber factory.  I earned the moniker "the man with the golden hands".  Once I caught a long bomb from Pete Riccio and scored a touchdown.  They announced someone else's name over the PA system.  My mom straightened that out immediately.

As the weather turned cold, my first winter approached.  Mike McDermott was at my house and he noticed I had a table top hockey game still in the unopened box that it came in.  It turns out Mike played hockey and from that moment on my life would never be the same.  He immediately began to pull me into his world.  

Keep in mind, I'd never seen anything related to hockey in my life other than this hockey game.  For some unknown reason the Christmas before we left Florida, my parents(or Santa?) got me this game as a gift.   I have to ask them if they recall and what were they thinking that  would have them get this game for me.  I was confused when I saw my first hockey puck.  As far as I knew it should have been large enough to come up to knee height.  That's how big it was in the table top game.  What was this little bitty thing?

So we opened the game.  We carted it back and forth between houses depending on whose parents minded less.  We played games.  We held tournaments.  We kept stats.  We developed plays...my favorite was where you push the right wing down his lane with the puck then from the corner he makes a pass to his centerman who is being pushed down the middle at the same time.  If you time it right, he jams it past the goalie with a one timer at the perfect moment.  The other play was to have that same right winger  rip a spin-a-rama slap shot from the blue line.  The men were made of metal, probably tin.  It was the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, two of the six teams that comprised the National Hockey League at the time.  The players were flat with the face and uniform painted on each side.  We curved and angled the blade of their sticks so that when they took their slap shots the puck would angle up off the surface and often would find its way into the goal.  Top cheddar!  

And we fought.  Mostly Michael and I.  We were developing somewhat of a rivalry that would last through high school. There were numerous disputes, arguments and allegations of cheating that erupted into the two of us going after each other.....we never threw punches, but we fought.   Funny enough with one exception, in all the years that I would go on to play ice hockey I never fought.  Never had to.  Except once in Thursday night men's pickup, but that's another story.

This new and growing interest in the game that Michael McDermott played eventually spilled out onto the driveway where we played ball hockey.  Our equipment was tennis balls, welded goals, old worn down wooden, straight bladed hockey sticks which, if the nail had already fallen out, was worn down to a dangerous spear.   More tournaments, playoffs, scrapes and fights.  It's amazing no one lost an eye.

Schiavone PeeWees with Mike McDermott, John Glynne
and Kyle Bensen
Soon enough the hockey season was upon us.  Mike played peewee hockey in New Haven.  Mike and his dad invited me to go with them to the games at the New Haven Arena.  We would stay up late watching the Rangers on black and white TV, then wake up at 4:30 in the morning to get to his game.  This was my introduction to cold weather.  Nasty cold weather.  Too cold.  

Mike was a bit of an enigma.  He was introducing me to this new world...for that I will be forever grateful.  But he was a goofy kid.  So it was not easy to look up to him.  He had a chipped tooth.  A hockey badge of honor.  His team was Schiavone's.  Schiavone's was a wrecking company.  Bodies went missing from time to time.  You tell me!

Mike was ten or eleven at the time.  I was twelve.  He loved hockey, but he wasn't all that good of a player.  John Glynne!  Now he was a good player.  He was the best hockey player in the league, absolutely amazing to watch.  I was in awe.  He skated and carried the puck with grace..and boy could grace skate.    But I kid.  I would meet John Glynne again years later, first in our high school rivalry with Hamden High(Jonathan Quick's hometown) and again later in college where I would break his leg at the University of Vermont with a hip check.  He went on to have a minor pro career in the AHL and in Europe.  I hear it was derailed by drugs.

So I went to the games every weekend with Mike and his Dad.  Once I had a chance to go ice skating at Ingall's Rink at Yale.  I'd never skated in my life and it was not much fun.  I couldn't get going.  It made no sense to my brain.  I had no control of my feet.  Thank goodness for the boards.  

There was nothing about that experience that made me want to do it again.  I'm not sure where I got them, but I ended up with a cheapo pair of ice skates.  Winter was coming and the lake would soon be frozen.  Big deal though.  I couldn't skate.  I'm not even sure I wanted to.

Our house was a split level redwood and slate rock structure with an upstairs in the back overlooking the lake.  There was an open terrace upstairs above the kitchen and living area.  We've since had it enclosed and is now what we call, even forty years later, the "new room".  

One day late that autumn the terrace, which was covered in pebbles was submerged in a puddle from the rain.  It had no railing, just a flat top roof with nothing to protect you from walking or falling right over the edge to the ground below.  A cold snap turned the entire pool of rainwater into a solid sheet of ice....yay!  A second story skating rink with no boards.

I got my skates and put them on.  No one was home.  Just me, the skates, the ice and a fifteen foot drop.  

I shuffled onto the ice and waddled out to the middle.  I pointed one foot, turned the other and pushed.  I slid a few feet and tried it back the other way, making sure all the while to stay as far away from the edge as possible.  Well, just like that, I learned to skate.  It clicked.  The mechanics made perfect sense.   I would never be the same.

The dock in our back yard

Mike McDermott's house to the left

Soon thereafter the lake froze and we went out.  I had it down in no time.  I learned to stop, both ways.  I learned to turn, to skate backwards.  And I was hooked.

I bought a stick.  A Northland Pro, a heavy piece of lumber with a straight blade and as was soon to be discovered, it was held together at the toe with a nail. Next I bought gloves, then shin pads, a helmet and a jersey.  I sent away to the Gerry Cosby Company at Madison Square Gardens and got a #7, Rod Gilbert Rangers jersey.   I had to iron on the letters and numbers.  I spent many hours pouring through hockey equipment catalogs dreaming about getting new gear.

To be continued.....

4 comments:

  1. Love the story...please continue writing...my head is full of pictures of yours and my own life in hockey! Thanks Steve

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  2. Nicely done Steve. I can relate to a few of the points you've brought up.

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