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The following articles were written for websites and newspapers alike - new sources like Max Hockey.com (the “A Hockey Players Life” series starts a few articles down), the Arizona Republic and Chris Botta’s “Islanders Point Blank.com”.  Enjoy.

*****

Trevor Smith

-by Justin Bourne

Trevor Smith is damn near an Islander.

Even though he didn’t crack the lineup at the start of the year, he’ll be one of the first guys called upon to fill in the second someone is hurt.  And if we’ve learned one thing about the Islanders, it’s that people tend to get hurt (582 man games lost to injury in 08-09).

Smitty could shoot a puck into your car’s gas tank from across the street.

One of the hardest things in hockey is shooting the puck when it’s not in your “wheelhouse” – a baseball expression that represents the tiny little perfect shooting zone most of us have.  Apparently, Trevor was given a wheelhouse the size of the Lighthouse Project.

Anywhere he shoots the damn thing, it’s in – off his back foot to the far post, low. Goal. In front of his body, off the crossbar. Goal.  From his backhand while skating. Count it.  A one-timer from behind him. Red light.

It just seems to come off “right” every time.  And that’s no small feat.

He scored 20 times in the American League as a rookie, and that was during a year in which the Isles sent him to the ECHL for two months.  How’s that for goal-scoring ability?  Combined with his 11 in Utah, that’s a 31 goal rookie campaign.

He’s one of those players that doesn’t need 16 chances a game to score *cough*me*cough*.  It only takes one, just like another product of Vancouver’s lower mainland, Burnaby Joe.

I spent the majority of the 07-08 season on Smitty’s team, some with Bridgeport, and some with Utah.  We were all mind-boggled when they sent him to us in Utah early in the year, and he immediately proved why it was, in fact, a mind-boggling decision.

His 25 points in 22 games don’t speak enough to how dominant he was.  He made every single player who was lucky enough to play on his line better.

Knowing you’re good enough to play at a level is a comforting feeling, but knowing you’re better than the level must be fun.  Watching him in the ECHL was like watching a dad play basketball with his eight year old son, holding the ball just out of the kids jumping range, half to tease him, half to entertain himself.

One play in particular sticks out in my mind.

I only had one professional hat-trick, and I can thank Trev for the third goal.  He was on a one on two, but had a teammate trailing him – the not exactly offensively proficient Kazuma Takahashi – that he could have slowed down and dropped the puck to, which would have made it a two on two.

I was way behind the rush, working to get up the ice after a defensive play, but was beating some lolly-gagging forwards back, trying to make it a three on two if Trev did decide to delay.  He did.

Instead of passing it to Kaz, he “passed on” him.  Smith physically looked all the way back up the ice and saw me coming, then delayed.  He let Kaz go through and take out one of the d-men, sucked the other one over to himself, and sauced the puck so it neatly stopped just inside the blueline.

He saw that I was going to beat the other players up the ice, and made the ridiculous play that left me with a clear shot at the tender.

How’s that for vision?

Last season, Trevor scored another 31 goals, again divided between two leagues.  Only last year, it was 30 in the AHL, and one in the NHL.

Some players tend to sit on their talent and just hope it pans out.  Instead of falling into that category, Trevor has worked hard, and in turn, has worked himself to a legitimate contender for a spot on the Islanders – a team that could use the type of guy who can score on any given shot.

The three-year entry-level contracts given to kids from junior and college often turn into three-year obligations for organizations, but in this case, they’ve developed someone with the potential to give them some return on their investment.

Not only is it exciting to watch a good dude like Smitty succeed, but it must be exciting for the Islanders to be so right about a guy.  Because if Trevor keeps improving at the rate he has, it might not be too long before he’s toying with some of the d-men in the big league, too.

*****

On-Ice Product Haunts Coyotes

-by Justin Bourne

For any of the dozens of reasons the Coyotes are struggling to make it work in Phoenix, there’s really only one that matters:

They suck.

The problem isn’t the lease in Glendale, or Jim Balsillie’s obsession.

It’s that Ed Jovanovski was fourth on the team in scoring.

It’s that I played the sport professionally until this fall — and I can’t name four players on the team.

It’s that after checking, I knew a grand total of seven players.

Enver Lisin was fifth on the team in goals last year? What the hell’s an Enver Lisin?

I don’t want to fire too many cannonballs of negativity across the hull of the Coyotes’ sinking ship, but I feel the need to give all this hockey-in-Phoenix mumbo-jumbo a little context: Being awful every year is what’s killing it.

This is supposed to be the high-flying NHL?  Gretzky damn near scored more in a single season than his whole team did last year. It’s no wonder fans, media and sponsors can’t find their way to the rink.

Coyote fans have watched their team miss the playoffs in seven of the past eight seasons, with a lockout in the middle.  The team has never made it out of the first round of playoffs.  And the whole time, they’ve had the star-power of a WNBA game, minus Candace Parker and that other woman.

The bleak news for the Coyotes marketing department is that — and I say this without any hesitation or doubt — if they don’t make major personnel moves, they’re going to suck again.  And bad.

They were going to suck anyway, but just for good measure they’ve been chucked in a blender with Balsillie, Bettman, the NHL, the Reinsdorf group, Ice Edge, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Buffalo, Saskatoon and a judge, then set to “frappe”.  Each name in that sentence is another twist of the (skate) blade that Moyes stabbed in the back of Coyotes fans when he filed for bankruptcy.

My goal isn’t to persecute the team; it’s to vindicate the hockey fan base in Phoenix.  To quote Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting”: “It’s not your fault.  It’s not your fault.  It’s not your fault…”

Put together an exciting team (like the Cardinals did last year), and people will love to be a part of the ride.

So what are hockey fans to do after a solid dozen years of bad hockey? Buy another season ticket package?  How much do you have to hate yourself to sit through 41 games of cheering for B-level stars taking A-level beatings?

The team-fan relationship is pretty simple. Players provide the excitement; fans provide the money.  But after 10 years, paying to taste the bitterness of defeat starts to lose some of its luster.

It’s not that this city couldn’t have a successful, beloved hockey team.  They just haven’t been successful enough to deserve that love.  What’s been the big highlight in the history of the Coyotes?  Watching Gretzky hold a clipboard?

The attendance average in 1996-97, when the team showed up with a good squad and mild star power was 15,604.

Somehow last year, the team claimed it issued nearly 15,000 tickets a game – half of which, apparently, were purchased to be expensive bookmarks.  Jobing.com Arena was rarely over half-full.

If the Coyotes marketing department is looking for reasonable ways to get fans in the stands this season, the only suggestions that’ll carry any weight will be ones like “trade for better talent”.

Do the Coyotes even intend to try this year?

As of today, the Coyotes have the second-most players under contract (26), and the NHL’s lowest payroll at $42,625,000 (although their “cap hit” for the year is listed at $46,521,750).  Any way you slice it, the ‘Yotes have over $10 million of salary cap space to sign a guy like Dany Heatley.  Doesn’t Phil Kessel need a job too?

How are fans supposed to get behind a team that isn’t trying to get better?  Doesn’t signing a full roster (plus extras) by August take away from the competitiveness of training camp?  And doesn’t passing on talented free agents and re-signing most of the team that missed playoffs send the wrong message to both fans and players?

It’s likely that with the NHL running the team, they won’t allow the team to spend any more than the salary floor ($40.8 million for the upcoming season).

But doesn’t fielding a bad product work against Bettman’s claimed goal of stabilizing the franchise long-term?  Being awful is how the ice got thin beneath them to begin with.

Back in the day, when the roster showed up in Phoenix, it was in good shape, and the fans ate it up.  The Winnipeg Jets were on the verge of going from good to top-end competitive, and boasted names such as Roenick, Tkachuk, Tocchet, Khabibulin, Tverdovsky and a young Doan.

But since that team took a first-round exit, there’s been nothing.  And you can’t fault the fans for forgetting to show up in a waning ’09 season fraught with hopelessness; it’s just no fun to watch a team get beaten like breakfast eggs three times a week.

The only hope the Coyotes have to see the fans come back in significant numbers is an injection of hope.  A reason to believe!  Some player moves, some effort, some commitment – a little make-up sex, if you will.

But before fans can make that effort, the Coyotes need to make the first change.  The team needs to show it’s going to be different this time around.

Because without that, the only thing the Coyotes have a shot at winning this year is the number one pick in the 2010 draft.

*****

A Potentially Royal Islanders Family

-by Justin Bourne  February ’09

Everyone wants to know, and Brianna loves to answer.  I love the answer as much as her; it’s the re-telling of our little fairytale that gets a little redundant. Brianna is my girlfriend. I would love for her to be my fiancé, but I play hockey for a living. And I don’t play private-jets-to-Montreal hockey, I play sleeper-bus-to-El-Mira hockey. The pay scale varies a smidge from the first tDadype to the second, and shiny finger circles cost about what I earn per year. But that next level is so close…it’s just so close.

My Dad, Bob Bourne, won 4 Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders in the early ’80s. He put up great numbers as a big man who skated like a runaway train. He killed penalties and was a playoff performer, scoring 40 playoff goals with 56 assists for 96 points. His reward for his service was induction into the New York Islanders Hall of Fame in late 2006.

I was playing NCAA Div. 1 hockey at the time, representing the University of Alaska Anchorage in the highly-acclaimed WCHA. The Islanders offered to fly me down to be a part of the ceremony, so I gladly took them up on their generous offer. No, thank you, I won’t be needing accommodations; Dad says I’ll be staying with family friends. Let me take this thing back a little further.

Bob BClarkourne and Clark Gillies are Saskatchewan boys.  Clark was from Moose Jaw, and Dad from Kindersley (Netherhill, actually). They played baseball against each other growing up. In fact, both were so good that they ended up in Virginia, playing Double A ball for a Houston Astros farm team. They played against each other in the Western Hockey League – Clark for Regina, Dad for Saskatoon.  Dad may have mentioned on occasion he was glad to be friends with Clark, the hulking power forward of a generation, because it afforded him the free pass from punishment other players were not so fortunate to carry.

When they found themselves on the same Islanders team at 20 years old, the foundation of their friendship was poured. Both married, their wives (my wonderful mother Janice, and Bri’s wonderful mother Pam) were like two peas in a pod. They bought houses next door to each other, and their 5 kids became a little posse: my brother Jeff, and Bri’s sisters Jocelyn and Brooke. (Please note that Clark Gillies has 3 daughters. That’s another article entirely).

Brianna and I were particularly close.  We dredged up an old birthday video (at McDonald’s, no less.  Way to splurge, parents), and at one point I can’t find Brianna, and I call for her repeatedly. The pictures and stories go on, but those are largely for the pleasure of Pam and Mom. As the paths of Dad and Clark veered in ’86 (Clark to the Buffalo Sabres, Dad to the L.A. Kings), the families stayed in touch. Even when we moved up to Kelowna, British Columbia, Clark would come to Dad’s golf tournament with the kids, and all was well. What I’m getting at is, we were close.  Really-very-quite close.

Yet when I was flying down to stay with the Gillies Family for Islanders Hall of Fame weekend, they were kind of strangers to me. I hadn’t actually talked with them since I had formed a personality (still up for debate), and the last time I saw Bri I think she had an inflatable alligator around her waist and water wings on. The Gillies house is full of love and dogs. They have 3 Newfoundlands, which in case you were wondering, are indistinguishable from Clark if he’s in sweatpants. They’re huge.

I walked in, got hugs and hellos, and got slobbered on.  Bri wiped it off with her sleeve, offered me a beer, and we all caught up with one another.  She was my unofficial host for the trip.

We drank a lot.  The induction was a solid 3 days of meeting at a different place to have drinks (fine with me), so Bri and I were comfortable enough to really talk. She was great. Smart, funny and cute, she was everything I sort of stopped expecting to find while trying to figure out who I’d end up with. I thought about how amazing it could be. I thought maybe she did too…

What? Oh, you have a boyfriend. Oh.

Bri and I got along a little too swimmingly, and decided to stay in touch. I had had a great week with her, but it was time to grow up and move on and all that mumbo-jumbo. We talked frequently after that, each time as good as the previous. January 2nd, I got a text from my brother Jeff saying “Brianna’s myspace status changed to single.”

Bri called that night. After a few weeks of talking, we decided we had to give it a go. We booked her a plane ticket to Alaska (by we, I mean our parents; we were broke and in college) to see if this could work. Not only could it, it did. Bri spent time with my family in Kelowna during the summer, and I spent the remaining time with hers in Dix Hills. I was training for my own experiences…I had been invited to Islanders rookie camp and eventually the big one.  It was confirmed…we – Brianna and I – were officially an us.

Brianna finishes her Masters degree in Occupational Therapy on June 26th (to add to her BA in Psychology and BS in Health Sciences). I finish my second year of playing hockey professionally here in the next few months, and we have some decisions to make. (I also have a BA in Psych, but that parlays into squat).

We can’t wait to start our lives together, and the tentative plan is to move close to her sister Brooke in Boston and rent a refrigerator box while we try to make ends meet early on. I’m looking for work, hoping to write, and she’ll be putting out applications. She’s one of the best in her class in a much-desired field, so she shouldn’t have any trouble. Our families love the situation so much they can’t handle it. And we love it even more. So without further ado, I present my master plan:

I extend this offer to the Islanders:  We will sell you the breeding rights. All you have to do is pay for the wedding, and we’ll give you the guaranteed rights to our first-born son, breeding the styles of two Islanders Hall of Famers, restoring the Island to its rightful place of glory. The potential is huge. He could be Okposo’s linemate after a Chelios-esque 18-year career. He could be draft eligible while Ricky is still under contract. We’re building something here!

So whaddaya say, Mr. Wang? The puck is in your zone.

Bri n JB

*Authors note: Brianna and I are now engaged, and living together in Phoenix, AZ.

**********

Bill Guerin

- by Justin Bourne

Bill Guerin walked into the room where all the rookies were waiting to hear the next day’s itinerary. “Everybody has to be at the bar in an hour, 3 beer minimum.  Everything is on Comrie and me.  You better show up”.

Huh. That was a bit of a bomb, coming from the captain of the team I was trying out for, the night before I had to play my first exhibition game of camp.

There are a couple integral things you need to do well to make any team, let alone have any chance at a future in the sport of hockey.  The obvious one is to play well.  The less talked about and less important one is to be a positive part of the dressing room.

I know it sounds high-schoolish, but you can get crucified in a hockey dressing room if you aren’t on your guard.  This can make things rather uncomfortable, as I can attest, having been one of two non-drinkers on my junior hockey team.  As a result, I had to learn to have a pretty sharp tongue.  I went from being a survivor in that dressing room to somebody you needed to survive.  Hey, the best defense is a good offense.

But that wasn’t exactly an option at an NHL training camp.  I wasn’t in a position to tell Miro Satan that yellow laces stopped being acceptable the same year we started taking the previous layer of tape off our sticks before putting a fresh layer on.

And Bill Guerin was the man in that locker room, because he transcended the need for player approval.  In my experience, the biggest jerks are always the pros in their first few years, the guys who carry themselves like they think they deserve the change in lifestyle the game has afforded them.  Bill didn’t have to prove himself; he was past that part.

And the more I think about it, the more Guerin sticks out in my mind.  Everyday, us lowly rookies took to our stalls in the dressing room and looked down until it was time to practice.  And everyday, there was Bill, cruising around the room, shaking some nervous pups hand, talking and joking with the type of kids who, in that dressing room, were the equivalent of your high schools Dungeons and Dragons club (but significantly tougher).

He’s an immensely likable character.  He seems to love the game in the same way that Brett Favre exudes that obvious passion for playing.  This past summer, 10 months after camp, I ran into him at a Dunkin Donuts in Huntington.  Arm-in-sling from his recent shoulder surgery, he greeted me like an old friend.  He introduced me to his Dad, and invited myself and Brianna to go boating with him and his wife.  I wasn’t even sure the guy would remember me.

But, that was 10 months later.

“Everybody has to be at the bar in an hour, 3 beer minimum.  Everything is on Comrie and me.  You better show up”.

Let the battle begin.

Shoulder Devil: “Go! Drink on Bill’s tab..  Do something stupid.  Punch Andy Sutton.  Make a memory.”

Shoulder Angel: “Think about your future.  You need to be at your best tomorrow.  You have a huge opportunity here!”

Shoulder Devil:  “Punch.  Sutton.  If you live, best story ever.

That guy always gets the last word.

Of course, I didn’t actually punch Andy Sutton.  I did, however, enjoy my Guerin-imposed team minimum before tucking into bed a wee bit later than I would have liked.  Sleep when you’re dead, right?

I was lucky enough to get to know the captain fairly well while I was there.  He had organized a little outing for some of the veteran players and alumni.  As luck would have it, my father happens to be one of those, and apparently it’s nice to play golf in multiples of four.  Enter me.

I don’t know who paid for the round, but I get the impression whoever it was doesn’t check their bank balance before they swipe for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.  The golf provided me another opportunity on one of the first days of camp to mingle with some of the Isles guys and find out who was like what, while trying to not have anyone notice that I was like nervous.

After the round it had been settled that Bill’s group had won, so another group was on the hook for dinner and drinks.  Nothing was too serious that day, especially after 18 holes and a couple casuals.  We had an exchange that I particularly enjoyed; keep in mind that in the middle of 16 hockey guys talking, this was light hearted and fully tongue-in-cheek:

Me: “Four kids, wow, that must get expensive.”

Bill: “Well Justin, not to be a dick, but I’m kinda rich.”

Me: “Ahhhh, rrright.”

When the guys weren’t looking, he snuck his card to the waitress and paid for everybody’s dinner and drinks, a bill that I recall being around $900.  He didn’t actually want the free dinner; he just wanted some fuel to abuse the losing schmucks with.

But it’s not the money that Bill was generous with at camp that’s important, it was his time.  He didn’t have to waste his time on kids who were clearly not going to be teammates that year.  The Islanders are chalk-full of young guys who need to see what leading is all about, and what class looks like.  He’s providing that for the fledgling Islanders, while making the transition easier for other up-and-comers.

It’s too bad things didn’t work out between the Isles and Guerin.  They’re taking on water, and Bill’s the type of captain who would’ve gone down with the ship.  I’m just glad he got the chance to swim to a contender.

New to the series “A Hockey Players Life”?  Entries were posted in reverse chronological order for Bourne’s Blog regulars.  I’d recommend starting at the bottom and reading up!

**********

A Hockey Players Life 24/7/365: Final Edition (7 of 7): Social Life

-by Justin Bourne

The social life of the hockey player is a hidden current that can push certain players to failure.  It’s a powerful force that can wreak havoc – but taken in small doses – can be the most fulfilling part of being on a team.

It’s a thin line, this social life.

From the bus to the airports, the dressing room to the dinners, hockey players worldwide spend an inordinate (and nauseating) amount of time together.

Personally, I spent most of my between-the-dressing-room-and-evening time avoiding my teammates, for the simple fact that no man should have to spend 16 hours a day with idiots he didn’t himself choose.

As it’s not-so-subtly hinted by hockey players, there is no better place for dialogue than the dressing room.  Even I – a confessed team-ducker – would agree with that.  The only place within ten miles of the dressing room on that list is the bar.

At the bar, the real bonding begins.  Stupid nicknames are born.  Laughs are had.  Maybe somebody gets punched in the face (which of course, is hilarious the next day).  Maybe there’s even a girl or two in the place, who knows?

The on-ice success of a team is so much sweeter when you have a little off-ice history with the guys.  Some teammates never come out, for whatever reason – probably good ones, like not wasting money or feeling like hell the next day – but those guys are never quite a part of that deeper team bond.

On the other hand, some teammates are always out, for whatever reason – probably bad ones, like love of alcohol, and women – but those guys cost your team a win or two a year by not showing respect for the team and playing hung-over.

Playing hung-over is known within the sport as “playing guilty” – the widely-cited, hugely-wrong myth that you’ll play better after drinking triple, seeing double and acting single.

When teams play inexplicably bad, it’s not always as inexplicable to the players as it is the fans.  Let me work you through a little equation that can help you in your hockey gambling endeavours:

Friday and Saturday home games + Friday night win + local event (concert, etc.) – Saturday morning skate = Saturday night loss.

Sorry to all my homies still playing, I hope I didn’t blow the whole secret like that TV magician that operates in shadow and sells his profession under the bus.

One thing that athletes envy about the rest of the working world is their ability to have a night out (or afternoon) whenever the mood strikes them.  We used to complain about it constantly in college – if you had a job where physical fitness wasn’t of daily importance, you could show up as damaged goods and get by.

But no man can be perfect in his discipline.  When the right opportunity presents itself, even hockey players may show up to work in the morning in, um, less than tip-top shape.

“One more?  We’ll sweat it out in the morning, get a nap in, and be ready when the puck drops.”

Enter the Jekyll and Hyde performances that baffle fans (though not coaches).

An over-indulgent social life has killed plenty of hockey careers, just like it has every other career.  But in a game where energy is paramount, the leeway to let loose is just a little lessened (say that five times fast).

The majority of hockey players are able to act like adults and keep themselves in check.  But you have to wonder, in a sport where kids leave their homes at 16, how many kids just weren’t equipped to say no to 20 like-minded, athletic, fun buddies that pushed for an all-too-frequent good time?

Drinking is a part of the hockey culture, especially in Canada.  I’ve seen a huge number of players fun themselves out of a bright future.

And sure, the social life doesn’t have to mean drinking.  I didn’t drink a drop in junior.  But when your job forces you to random cities, with random dudes, and all you have to do is kill the night, it comes up fairly often.

Plus who can argue with logic?

“One more?  We’ll sweat it out in the morning, get a nap in, and be ready when the puck drops.”

“Yeah.  One more.”

**********

A Hockey Players Life, Part Six: Promotions

-by Justin Bourne

Shakin’ hands and kissin’ babies ain’t all bad.

As a hockey player, there are certain expectations to meet in the community, despite the fact that some of these guys shouldn’t be allowed near people without proper supervision.  But regardless of that, every so often on the whiteboard, or in your stall, is written a notice about what a great guy you’re about to be.

Believe me; we have no problem doing promotional work.  It’s just that promotions are to players what exercise is to the rest of the world – a chore to get into, but you always feel better after.

Maybe we don’t always feel better after.  We like the promotions where people are excited to see us and we can actually help, like hospital visits.

First, I need to mention the rare promos that can take a hike down Beat It Street.

After the game.  Anything after the game is as fun as blocking a shot with your ankle.  I don’t want to upset any of the large group of people I’ve gotten along with famously at these things over the years, but it’s just bad timing.  Whether it’s skating around with fans, who we absolutely love, or signing autographs for people we thoroughly enjoy, it just. kinda. sucks.

Here’s why:

I’m hungry – the last time I ate was noon.  I’m tired - I just tried really really hard for 60 minutes.  I’m agitated – the adrenalin is still running, and rarely does a game go perfectly.  I can’t believe I was taken off the powerplay at the end.  I had plans – they didn’t tell me it was my day to sign autographs until post-game.

Calling these teams “organizations” is a tad misleading.

It’s not the fans’ fault, and it sucks we don’t interact with them on better terms.  There’s a time and a place, and after the game in the rink is zero for two.

It’s the planned promotions that make everyone’s life better.  Showered, rested and with friends, heading to the hospital, or to read to kids at school is a blast.

The hospital makes us feel special too.  It’s incredible that it made a kid’s day better because some minor-pro moron took 90 minutes to say “hi, I’m good thanks… yes, three of my teeth are fake… I’ve broke it twice, yeah… No, I’m not the goalie… No, I’m not the fighter… here’s a stuffed animal I didn’t buy.”

But as productive as the hospital is, the real fun starts when you show up to read to kids at a local school.  Mostly because there’s always a teammate who reads slightly less well than one of the seven year olds.

It may seem cruel to poke fun at this.  Those of you who know how cutthroat the inside of a locker room can be are aware how clearly onside this is.  There’s a curious correlation between the kid who doesn’t read well and the kid who doesn’t shut up or stop beaking anyone in the dressing room – that correlation being that they’re always the same kid.

Any ammo is good ammo.

Plus, is it possible to have more fun than “question and answer” time with a class of kids who hold their hand up for 14 minutes for the right to say “my rabbit’s name is Roscoe”?

As much as I love the read-to-kids events, it doesn’t always go as smoothly as planned.

After being a part of an anti-smoking campaign at an elementary school, a teacher asked me to be a part of her gym class.  Extra gym class? Yes please.

The other team’s flag was unguarded in an epic game regarding capturing it (can’t remember the name), and I had a clear lane.  I sprinted for it, towards the back of the gym where the kids who were “out” were leaning against the wall.  I looked over to have a laugh with a teammate, looked back at the flag and one of the “out” kids, had decided they were only pretending to be out, and ran out to tag me.

She was nine, and I didn’t see her coming.

Naturally, a panicked, and forearm shivered her in her face.

As I left the school that day, while holding an ice pack to her swelling face, she asked me to sign her Spongebob backpack.  She’ll think twice before she goes into a corner with me again.

When you break it down, guys truly like being a part of these promos, for any cause but their team.  Team promotions are painful, because they’re scheduled weekly, the same 60 people show up to them, and the team milks them out of as many nickels as they can so they can continue to afford to pay for gas in the Zamboni.

And regardless of what you have to do that week, or plans you have away from the rink, you’ll show to the dressing room and there it is.

On the whiteboard, or in your stall, is written a notice about what a great guy you’re about to be.

**********

A Hockey Players Life, Part Five: Video

-by Justin Bourne

Video sessions provide some benefits to a team. How much is up for debate.

The problem is that the teachers want to teach, but don’t know how to use the tool. And the students? Well, they would rather be out on the playground.

Video sessions usually happen after practice, and it’s always the same thing.  Guys sitting in their wet gear, staring at a blank projector screen while coach spends a fortnight figuring out how to make the little picture on his little laptop play as a big picture on the big screen.

And you wait.

The worst part of the wait is, you always know how you played the game before.  If the answer is “awful”, you’re guaranteed to be in the running for the Oscar (most screentime).  And, there are so many chaotic plays in every game that even if you played well there’s a good chance you’ll sneak your way into a few clips.

The play of the athletes in hockey, more than any other game, is completely subjective.  There are extraordinarily few stats, and how you fared on any given night is debatable.  The problem with this is, if the coach doesn’t like you, or needs a reason to healthy scratch someone (as is the case with any healthy roster), he can demonstrate poor play on video, whether you played bad or not.

“You know ah, Smitty, you’re at the bottom of the circles here, and uhh, we need you up higher than that to keep an eye on the point”

The standard response is silence, unless the coach feels like dragging his point out, in which case you need to actually verbally agree.  The sincere answer, were a player to not censor his response would be:

“Actually, you just paused it a second early, and clipped it out of context.  If you hit play then pause again immediately, I’m moving that way and skating fast.  I’ll be right where your dumb laser pointer is aimed.”

And for the record, I’m fairly certain hockey coaches are the only species on Earth that can equal cats in their infatuation with laser pointers.

Video has its benefits.  It’s nice to see how your opponent sets up their power play, and who tends to be the shooter.  It’s nice to illustrate positioning on the forecheck, so we can see what formation gave us the most success.  You can see your own penalty kill and power play, and use it to visually teach players where they are supposed to be.

And that happens.  It’s especially beneficial when you’re in playoffs and playing the same team a bunch of times in a row.

But skewed through the filter of a win or a loss, coaches tend to paint the same play in very different colors.

After a win:  “You see here, Bourno turns it over at the blue line, but works hard to steal it back and get it in deep.  Great persistence, way to stay with the play”

Now let’s say we lost.  See if you can spot the difference:

Look at Bourny here.  It’s a one-on-goddamn-three and he doesn’t even have the common sense to get the puck in deep.  Then he has to scrap to get it back, and now he’s too tired to change hard.  Look at him dragging his ass of the ice.  You’re killing us Bourne.”

And its fun when coach has a whipping boy (assuming it’s not me, which, um, it has been), usually a guy who sassed-off to coach on the bench and coach spent hours clipping video to make the guy look unfit to own skates.

When you’re the whipping boy, odds are pretty good that you’ll get to watch the next game in a suit.  Also, it turns out that you’ll be identified as lazy, curious about the same sex, and lacking a future.

A lot of guys like to take a copy of the game home and watch their play, in context of the whole game.  For those who lack that motivation, the coach is simply trying to teach – a concept that shouldn’t bring much resistance.  But try to convince a group of guys that donating an hour of free time to have the quality of your work questioned in front of your friends is something to look forward to.

Like it or not, a few times a week you’ll be in marinating in wet gear, staring at that blank screen.

And you wait.

**********

A Hockey Players Life, Part Four: Practice Days

-by Justin Bourne

The trainer walks around the room holding a sheet of paper with four lines on it, colored jerseys in hand.

Your fate has been decided, your playing time altered, your future changed.  It’s just a matter of finding out where you fit in now.

Most teams have a color scheme with the practice jerseys - as a University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolf, gold was the first line, green the second, white the third and grey the fourth.  As is standard, D-men wear black, and injured players wear red.  It’s like getting graded on a daily basis, where that grade immediately affects your potential for success.

The top two lines are usually fairly interchangeable based on chemistry, not talent.  Either way it’s stressful, especially in pro, where if you’re in that fourth color, the next color down is a pink slip.

So at practice, players do what it takes to get that edge in coach’s eye, which in a sport like hockey, is hard work. Certain guys go out onto the ice crazy early if there’s something they actually want to work on. Others simply go out early trying to earn coach’s favor by being first out.  The players know which teammate is which, and the respect-meter gets adjusted accordingly.

There’s nothing worse than a lull in the schedule because that means the “we have a game coming up” excuse for not bag-skating doesn’t exist (bag-skating, for the uninitiated, is skating until the players are, say it with me now, bagged).  You damn well better win any games preceding a full week of practice.  Those open weeks rare in pro-hockey, and coaches loooove their work weeks.  The mood of every practice is based solely on what happened in the game before, so maybe get that W.

To start practice, coach calls the team over to the whiteboard, aka the dream factory.  He draws up a few drills, and man, you better be listening start to finish.  If you tune out for 15 seconds and try to decipher the kiddish scribblings of directional arrows and backward skating symbols, you’re hooped.  So you learn to listen.  At least you’re supposed to.

Which brings me to my favorite subjects of verbal abuse – the drill wreckers.  This is the kid who was helped through high school because he was good at hockey.  He probably played junior hockey and not college (no offense major junior guys, just the facts).

As soon as coach is done explaining the drill, this kid is in your ear:

“Hey, I didn’t get that, what’re we doing?”

“Hey I missed that, what’s going on?”

Then one of two things happens to the drill wrecker.  One:  He’ll get in line and notice something shiny in the stands, thereby compounding his idiocy while moving up in line.  When his turn comes, he still does the drill wrong, which baffles coaches.  Didn’t that drill work flawless for the first 12 skaters?  My first college coach used to rub layers of skin off his face he was in such disbelief that he had to coach this set of goons, a group which of course we were all inevitably lumped.

His second option is to compound his problem by going to the front of the line, which is too stupid to even comprehend.  He’ll start skating in the wrong direction from the first whistle, and the chastising begins.  This actually happens.  I’d be hesitant to mention a name if for a moment I thought drill wreckers read anything other than comic books.  Kris Sparre,Idaho Steelheads.

One of my favorite things to make practice fun was to bet a drink, lunch or whatever on who can score the most goals in an organized drill.  Merit Waldrop, I’ll assume my case of Gatorade is in the mail.

Despite all the friendships and laughs that come from being a part of a hockey team, it’s still a business.  A competitive, physical business.  So practice isn’t a good time to nap; someone wants your spot, whether it’s on the first or fourth line.

So when it comes time to do battle drills, some pace is expected.  I’ve had many coaches (every coach, actually), who will make a player switch jerseys with someone on a lower line in the middle of a drill.  Some poor kid won’t get the puck deep on an even-man rush one too many times, and gets demoted on the spot.  It’s all worth a couple laughs later, but the second powerplay time is taken from a guy, you can guarantee he’s sour.

And all day long the bag-skate looms.  You know its coming.  Your linemates know its coming.  But only coach knows for how long.

Inevitably you’d be divided into groups where the hockey-world renowned phrase gets uttered, usually by a veteran to a rookie:  No Heroes.

No heroes here, we don’t need some guy going mach six and making the rest of us look slow.  We agree to work hard, but not our hardest.  No heroes.

So when the hero-free skate finally ends and the stretch begins, the fun starts.  Games like three puck, rebound, and most importantly, Juice Boy.

A summary: Everybody on the team plays.  You get one close range shot, and a close range breakaway.  You score, you’re out, you miss, and you’re back in.  In every following round you only get one shot, on which you can do whatever you want.  Last guy standing has to bring a cup of Gatorade to the stall of every guy on the team. (As a sidenote, I played it every available day after practice, and was never once the boy of the juice.  Just a sidenote)

And as an added bonus/slap in the face, it has evolved to Mustache Boy.  I can’t speak for the NHL, but I know it happens once a month on most AHL and ECHL teams with good chemistry It’s the same format, but the loser has to grow a mustache for a month.  Keep your eyes peeled, you may find a curiously located mustache on your favourite team out there (after a little research, it turns out George “Zeus” Parros made the decision to rock that cookie-duster all on his own).

So when practice ends, you’ve done some work, had some fun, and are ready to get outta there.  The day’s evaluation is over.

The trainer grabs the meaning-filled jerseys for washing, and tomorrow, just like every other day, he’ll be holding a sheet of paper with four lines on it, colored jerseys in hand.

Your fate has been decided, your playing time altered, your future changed.  It’s just a matter of finding out where you fit in now.

The day is over.  It is over right?  We have video today?  Shut up, no we don’t?  We do?  $%?#!

Next week: Video

**********

A Hockey Players Life, Part Three:  Travel Days

- by Justin Bourne

There’s bus travel, and there’s plane travel.

Both suck.

Now, my opinion on travel is heavily biased.  I played for the University of Alaska Anchorage.  Not sure if you’re up on college hockey or not, but that’s in Alaska.

This meant that in order to play our road games, we had to travel to the “lower 48″, as it’s affectionately known in AK.  It takes roughly five hours to fly down to Minneapolis, our usual hub, and almost six to get home.  That six feels like 11 after two losses, six beer and a four a.m. wake-up call.  I should know.

I simply want to point out that my cynical, seething thoughts on travel are not shared by all players; my opinion has just been a tad tainted.  I’m sure there’s a few folks who play on the east coast in the NHL whose travel complaints include poorly cooked filet’s and a lack of cable television channels, but those guys can cram it.  I’m talking about reality.

For a Seawolf, travel in college means you pack your own gear and carry it to the bus.  First year guys load the stick bags, skate sharpener and glove dryer (as well as medical stuff, coaches bags, and the random bags of dead bodies somebody apparently packed to torture the rookies).  It’s around this early morning hour that the sweat starts, and doesn’t stop until you take your seat next to some flannel-wearing Alaskan and pray for unconsciousness.

So going from my Alaskan adventures to Islanders camp made my brain’s concept-grabber explode.  After practice one day on the Island, I took off my gear and went home.  No big deal.

The next day, I showed up at some private airport deal, and walked without delay onto our plane, which promptly flew to Moncton while massaging my tongue with options like Rock Sea Bass, a nice steak, or grilled chicken breasts.  My gear apparently packed itself and booked its own ticket, because it was hung up in the next dressing room I walked into in the Maritimes.  Nice.

From then on, I’ve officially put zero stock in any road team disadvantage in the NHL (random side note: per diem – or as players know it, meal money – with the Islanders was around a hundred bucks a day .  Oh, and everyday they provided two meals on top of that.  ECHL?  $32, no meals provided  Hi.  Moons Over My Hammy, please).

Listening to Bill Guerin explain to Mike Comrie that his kids have his girlfriends toothbrush (Hillary Duff aka “Lizzy McGuire”), I realized that my college travel days were over.

And sure enough, I was right.  What I didn’t realize was that travel days still suck if you aren’t the cream of the crop.

You still pack your own gear in the ECHL?  Crap.

The loading of the gear wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for that one stupid feature that makes every travel adventure that much more uncomfortable.  The suit.

I’ve had coaches say we can’t wear our team tracksuits because “we aren’t a basketball team”.  I’m not sure exactly what that means, but the point is they want to look professional, and I get that.

The problem there is, nobody sees us.  During air travel, yes, the players get seen. Suits are nice.  Travelling in suits to games on the bus is the most ridiculous thing since Temptation Island (as my teammates can attest, I was occasionally vocal in my disagreement with this policy).

After a light skate, we would board the bus right from the arena.  Nobody sees us board (glad I’m wearing this suit).  We would then travel the 1-5 hours to the destination, since anywhere further is usually flight-worthy (four hours on a bus?  Perfect time to be wearing this suit).  We would pull into the bowels of the arena, grab our bag and walk to the dressing room unseen, where we change into our undergear (thank goodness I had my suit on for that).  And after, we’d don our suits in the dressing room, and walk the 89 feet to the bus, where we’d eventually head home, and eat pre-ordered meals on the bus, potentially getting marinara sauce on everything I own.

Stupid suit.

In short, travel can be a sweaty, uncomfortable affair.  But even with all my mini-gripes, a great time can still be had with the guys.  Maybe you play a little poker on the bus.  Maybe you read SkyMall and pick out a few gifts for the appropriate people.  Maybe you mix in a Cinnabon-based lunch, who’s to say?

But at the end of your travel day, there’s one variable that can ruin the whole ordeal.  It’s the moment you get off the bus, and stand in the lobby of the AnyCity Inn, and your assistant coach has all the room keys.  He starts reading off that list and your fun factor for the week is immediately decided for you.

Maybe you’re with Foreign Franz who can’t speak English, or maybe you’re with Nightclub Nick, the guy who gets all the free drinks.

Or maybe you got stuck with Journalist Justin, that weird guy who asks not-so-funny questions like boxers or briefs then laughs a lot.  Haha.  Briefs.  Those are hilarious.

**********

A Hockey Players Life 24/7/365: Game Day Edition

- by Justin Bourne

Game day is amazing, and justifies every grunt, pain and misery that accompanies the job.

The morning routine is my favorite.  A hot cup of motor oil with a couple of those sealed thimbles of cream, your stick and a stall is truly the way to start a day.  Caffeine is a staple of the hockey player diet.  Travel, tough games, and the need to be peppy and sharp have made it the run-away drug of choice.  Tim Horton’s is like crack (which I’m told is fairly addictive).

My favorite moment of the whole day is stepping out on a clean sheet of ice for morning skate, knowing a casual twirl is coming up, and just handling that puck.  The smooth ice is peaceful, invigorating and looms full of potential.  It’s probably how Charles Dickens looked at a fresh sheet of paper.

Dickens, however, never had to deal with someone else telling him what to write.  Occasionally, your coach may still be having an aneurism about a loss the night before, in which case you’re forced to not smile and act surly, like being angry twelve hours after and nine hours before any real competition might help.  Grrr.

You really only eat one meal on game day.  The tiny, light breakfast you enjoy an hour before getting a little sweat on at morning skate isn’t even worthy of counting.  The exception to this is the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL, who inexplicably provide the team with egg-cheese-sausage-bacon-hot sauce gut bomb burritos, which keeps their morning skates as lively as a business lecture from Ben Stein.

Pre-game meal is eaten around noon for a seven o’clock game, to allow for proper digestion.  And, shocker, the ever-creative meal of pasta, chicken and bread (or some very slight variation; God it’s tiresome) is eaten in massive quantity.  Please note we have new training equipment, sticks made of space-age polymers, sports psychologists and video coaches, but we still rely on the same fuel plan as Gordie Howe.

So then like Kindergarten, you’ve reached naptime.  If you’re one of those tortured souls like me that can’t nap, you still need to have that lay down.  No matter what those nap skeptics say (and they’re out there), your performance largely hinges on how your legs feel between seven and nine-thirty, so get that perfect, short nap in.  Unintentional extra sleep makes you play like Artie Lange looks, and you need to feel shiny and new.

Upon wake-up, and depending on the game’s importance, players may shift into Buddhist-monk-mode and have some visualization time.  Whatever it is they do from here is very much personal preference and superstition.

My Dad used to eat a piece of chocolate before the game, and in tribute, I do too. One game day during my freshman year in college, there was no chocolate in our dorm, so naturally, I did the next best thing: I shared an ice cream sandwich with my roommate on the way to the rink.  We both scored that night.  Even though we knew that was about the worst thing to eat pre-game (hello sugar crash), when any of us slumped over the next four years we used that as an excuse to try to the pre-game dessert method of preparation.  I’d recommend it for anyone.

Mine was a finely tuned routine that involved not getting into a finely tuned routine.  The theory being that every day you feel different; you’re playing a new team in a new town.  You need to do certain things to get in the right mental place, but for me it meant dealing with that night’s circumstance, and not wasting mental energy following an intensive script.

Then again, I’m notorious with my coaches for having an overly(?) light-hearted attitude.  I always cared as much as anybody come the drop of the puck, but never quite had that Tiger Woods focused-as-a-fetus gear.  Everybody is different and shows up in their own mental state.  And, the widely publicized and self-evident rumor is true: goalies are nuttier than squirrel poop.  They pretty much keep to themselves before games.

Walking into the rink in a suit two plus hours ahead of game time is the switch-flipper.

Your suit is on, the rink smells like popcorn or mini-donuts, the whiteboard is a mess of line combinations, X’s and O’s, game plans and systems.  It’s game night.

Guys warm up in their own way, but on every team I’ve played on since I was 18 there has been a two-touch soccer group.  I’ll spare you the details, but provide a few facts:

- It’s a lower body warm up involving hacking up a soccer ball and not being the last to touch it before it drops;

- Garrett Bembridge cheats;

- It’s highly competitive, and coaches hate its light-hearted nature;

- Players get injured and miss games playing it every year.  I may or may not have been included in that group at one point; and

- did I mention Garrett Bembridge cheats?

The soccer game screeches to a halt so the players can get to the room in time for coach’s talk.  It’s the one he gives before he’s emotional and irrational and is full of good ideas and information you need to know, like “The other team has a player named Justin Bourne who is such an ankle-bender that I’m benching anybody who fights him; leave him on the ice, every minute he plays is a powerplay for us.”

Though usually my name would be substituted by that of a player who’s actually prone to picking fights and would score lower than the puck on an S.A.T.

After a chin-strap-undone, gum-in, cocky loosen-up warm-up (or was that just me?) and a new tape job, its game time.  Nerves, adrenaline, over-thinking and butterflies cause the stupid national anthem jig fans see every night that I wish I didn’t do.

Then: puck drop, whistle, line change, near-miss, YMCA, ankle slash, mad at coach, selfish linemate, hit the post, answer the trivia on the jumbotron, block a shot, tip in a goal, turn one over, stick in the teeth, hemmed in your own zone, hemmed in their zone, hooorrrrrnnn — 3 -2

Annnd scene.

The game is a very small part of the actual day.  In the room after, the coach will say a few words that usually involve explaining it was work ethic that won the game, regardless of actual cause.  Then, the game puck/hard hat/gimmicky thing will be given to the player of the game, voted on by the team, captains, or just the coach.  This is followed by a round of applause, some music, and embellished explanations of every play your stall-mate was involved in.

After a big ol’ meal, sitting at home on the couch, sleep is miles away.  As bad as your body wants it, most players can’t stop whatever chemical reasons cause this phenomenon.  Typically, guys can’t fall asleep until somewhere between one and three, which is a major reason why three games in three nights is so hard.

Beer is an effective sleep aid, but needs to be taken in the proper dosage.

So now it’s morning.

And, the morning routine is my favorite.  A hot cup of motor oil with a couple of those sealed thimbles of cream, your stick and a stall is truly the way to start a day.

**********

A Hockey Players Life: Training Edition

By Justin Bourne

So you wanna be a hockey player?

And why wouldn’t you?  The lifestyle is tough to beat.

On the time consumption pie-chart, the majority of time is spent in seven slices:  Game days, practice days, travel days, video sessions, team promotions, training, and the all important social life.  These ingredients make up the stew of a season.

So welcome to my seven part series entitled “A Hockey Players Life 24/7/365″.  Together we’ll examine the parts that make up the whole.  And like every player has to, that means one thing.  Today we’ll start

TRAINING.

Around the time my Dad played professionally, some jerk started training prior to training camp.  Apparently he entirely missed the name of the camp he was invited to.  He showed up and made everyone else look like slugs.  Because he showed up in shape, he took a better player’s job.

By starting to train a month early, this guy set a dangerous precedent.  Because then some other guy wanted his job.  So that guy started training five weeks early.  And here we are today, “training camp” a thing of the past.  Welcome to Gladiator-camp, full-scale evaluation starts at check-in.  Hockey is now a year round job, save a few weeks after playoffs for the blood to clot.

I hate that guy.

It’s mid-May, maybe early June, depending on how long the previous playoff drive lasted, and it’s time to pick up your first weight.

First comes the fun of buying the gym pass.  There’s nothing like trading money to be inside and miserable on sunny golf-worthy days.  I’d rather have acupuncture on my eyes than “invest” in a gym pass, but what choice do I have?  That guy screwed me over decades ago.

Once you’re inside the gym, paid in full, and changed into appropriate attire, the gauntlet is set.  A new year starts now.

You’ve just come from finishing a passionate journey with teammates you knew well, having played through injuries, and given your blood, sweat and tears for your team, your future and your paycheck… but they’re gone.  Rare as moving meat are the multi-year contracts in professional hockey.  If you aren’t a stud in the NHL, each year is a completely clean slate.

So it’s time to start.

In a few weeks, you’ll start to see results.  Strength will return, and the pride of seeing a little pump will renew.

Lifting weights builds on itself, feeding on your narcissism until every gym visit is easier, and every day missed is riddled with guilt.  But that first weight… it’s just so heavy.

One…. Two… Three… Four… Five… Six… Seven… Eight… Nine… Ten.

Twinges and twangs of playoff memories resonate throughout every stiff fiber that complains at first strain.

And another season begins.  Your strength accelerates towards what you could once lift, and what you want to be able to lift by the season’s beginning.  You start lifting more, biking longer, and doing more reps.  You lift for power early, raw strength, and switch to fast-twitch muscles as the season gets closer, so your body learns to move that muscle mass quickly.  If you’re fortunate enough to train free of injury all summer, you have a great start on avoiding injuries in the upcoming season.  This is why some people are career iron men and some never get right.  It snowballs either way.

There’s nothing worse than lifting weights with that pit in your stomach, knowing you turned down a tee time because of the gym and a later ice time.  I’d rather play goal wearing a bubble-wrap chest protector and paper maché helmet than lift weights and play hockey on a sunny summer day.

But the real motivator sits in your subconscious and lingers: fitness testing.  Nothing shows a lack of commitment like showing up for camp with lower numbers than George Bush’s approval rating.  Coaches put more stock in those numbers than they’re worth (the lazy hockey player’s mantra: “I’ve never scored a goal doing bench press”).  But you have to impress, so find your motivation.  Every single summer I’ve picked a player I want to be better than from the year before, and I think of them when I’m having a hard time.  You have to find something, even if it’s hate.

Imagine doing push-ups while men with clipboards decide what to do with you.  NHL, millionaire?  Well-paid prospect?  Far off, near broke prospect?  Get this kid out of my sight, who invited him, hey can I borrow 20 bucks burger-flipping prospect?

So now you’re on a team.  Players training habits differ; Darren Diehard is too strong to move quickly on ice, and Tom Talent is so good he won’t consider a voluntary lift.  But in general, players keep to a pretty typical in-season pattern.

The season is a grind.  Early on, working out after practice isn’t just an option, it’s a must.  You have to keep your core strength and cardio up to compete and to stay healthy over the course of 70-100 games.  By the time Christmas rolls around, most players have been lifting for eight months, and find it as appealing as a slapshot to the ankle.

The slow slide down the slippery slope of sloth begins here.  You play a ton of games after Christmas, and travel a lot.  More often than not, rest is more important than continued training.  Sleep is your life.  Hotels, buses, planes, coach’s video session, any opportunity for rest is taken.

And when playoffs arrive, if you’re in the gym, you’re either a healthy scratch, or you aren’t trying hard enough.  No sport can compare to the intensity of the NHL playoffs four best-of-seven series.  The NFL has three or four intense games, awesome.  A lot more rides on those specific games.  But there is NO grind like hockey playoffs.

And when the playoffs end, it’s a surreal feeling.  Like the last day of school before summer vacation, only you don’t want it to come.  You’ve put so much time and effort into the season, the team…. You don’t want to start again.

You’re not ready to start again.

I don’t want to start a….

It’s mid-May, maybe early June, depending on how long the previous playoff drive lasted, and It’s time to pick up your first weight.

**********

(Note: The series “A Hockey Player’s Life” starts with the article above.  From here down are other contributions to Max Hockey.com)

The Playoff Push

- by Justin Bourne

Playoff preparation begins months in advance.  Most players will be in one of three situations: One, they’re on the well-established playoff team taking intermittent nights off, much to the chagrin of their coach.  Two, they’re on a playoff bubble team and are busting hump harder than ever to squeak in.  Or three, they’re so far gone that they’re playing for next years contract or roster spot, focusing solely on stats and praying for 7-6 hockey games.

Depending on which roster your name is on, you’re either going to be distracted, focused, or in a bar.

The playoff bound team enjoys something the other two do not — a pleasant environment.  As hard as the coach tries to make each game seem important, the players are usually well aware that they can coast in with a .500 record down the stretch and be sitting pretty.  While these successful coaches pull their hair out trying to come up with reasons to hustle, players will inevitably play the exact same way (note hair situations of successful coaches like Scotty Bowman, and more recently Randy Carlyle). Most professionals are prideful people, and don’t want to be embarrassed.  But once that’s avoided, floating by on talent seems reward enough for starting the season hotter than Marisa Miller.  It’s easy to feel like you’ve earned the right to ease off the throttle because you’ve put yourself in a situation to do so.

“Didn’t coach promise us we could settle down once we clinched home ice?  What’s he yelling about now?”

The obvious problem is the gearing back up part.  You forget what hard work feels like after awhile.  Usually that team that barely snuck into playoffs is full of snarl and bruises and comes out hunting flesh.  It takes getting winded, a bloody nose and a mild concussion to remember the sacrifice real success requires.  In his autobiography, Wayne Gretzky mentions walking past the Islanders dressing room after they had beaten the Oilers for the Stanley Cup, and seeing the Islanders players not celebrating, but tending to injuries while generally looking like they’d lost a cage match to a Tazmanian devil wearing a rosebush.

Winning ain’t easy, and that’s how upsets happen.  You can forget how to work if you take too many nights off, hence the previously mentioned Gollum-like state of many coaches’ hair in their latter years.  The good news is, talented teams will usually rally when pushed, and get it figured out quickly.  Some eek out a few wins on talent alone before regaining that edge.  And every year, some number one or two seed is driving home with their equipment in their trunk looking waaay too pretty, shocked as all hell.

The best place to be in is that team that has a spot clinched, but has to fight for home ice.  They’re still playing for something, so the games matter.  At the same time, they’re already in the playoffs, so they can rest the right guys, and live in a slightly less stressed environment than the playoff chasers.

Playing on a bubble team is all consuming.  Whole weeks fly by like those days at work where you were just so busy.  The playoff bound team was checking their watch every eight minutes to see if it was playoffs yet, but they come up just a tad too quick for this bunch.  Guys are taping up broken wrists and going through smelling salts like Takeru Kobayashi does hotdogs. These guys are on fire – with only so much fuel to burn.  Those that sneak in by a point or so can burn the fumes in the first few games, but have very little chance against a talented number one seed that was letting players sit out games every time they had indigestion or their tamogotchi died (and there’s your 90s reference of the day).

It’s a fun time for a player, because making playoffs justifies all the crappy things that happen throughout the course of the year.  Playoff memories are vivid and meaningful, so the thought of narrowly missing the chance to earn more makes players throw themselves in front of pucks, bodies or zambonis, whatever it takes.

The worst place to be, of course, is wearing a New York Islanders jersey (unless you’re one of the many young players who’s so excited to be a part of the NHL you’d skate in a plaid skirt and fishnets to be involved).  The Islanders have the luxury of claiming talent development at least, where some teams that far gone do not.  The assortment of failures that goes into a losing season makes for a stew of malcontents and haters.  It’s every man for himself.

The other team has a breakaway?  Quick, line change!  You can’t afford that minus.

Defenseman scored?  You tipped that didn’t you?  Yeah, it definitely clipped your pants.

And of course, coach sucks.  It’s rare to hear of an unsuccessful team that doesn’t recite some variation of the coach sucks mantra.  It’s a negative environment so miserable it makes a DMV experience feel like a back rub.  It feels like working at Initech in Office Space before the Bobs fire everyone; you know most of you aren’t about to get promoted, so steal something on the way out.

The month leading up to it is all so uncertain it gives your stomach knots.  What place are we in, can we catch them, can they catch us?  How many points to clinch home ice?  What’s the playoff roster going to be?  Can we just drop the puck on game one already?!

But I sure miss it.  This is my first time not being a part of a playoff run, as injuries have set me aside for the season.  I miss getting so caught up in a game that your life shrinks down to 200 x 85.  I’ll miss celebrating a playoff win with the guys.  But most of all, I miss the truth in the Vince Lombardi quote that was up in the dressing room of the Vernon Vipers the year we won the BCHL championship:  ”Any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”

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