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The Hockey News

 

The following are the articles I’ve contributed to The Hockey News, whether just to the site, or the magazine.  For those of you who don’t know the story of how the transition from player to writer happened in an instant, I’d recommend starting at the bottom and reading my first contribution to THN, called ”A Love-Hate Relationship With Hockey.”

Oh, one more thing – I almost never remember to update this page, and the articles are as they were turned in (sooo before editor polishing).  My bad on the imperfections.

*****

Getting Cut

-by Justin Bourne

 

Roughly three days before it actually rears its ugly head, Cut Day embeds itself in the stomach of bubble players in the form of knot.  A knot made out of butterflies. 

The build-up to Cut Day, for me anyway, was filled with self-loathing.  I’m sure there’s a few of you out there that know the routine – undervalue the things you did well, overvalue the things you messed up, and in general, call yourself a slew of names that, coming from another person’s mouth, would almost certainly start a fight.

The sad reality of “tryouts”, which most intelligent people are aware of, is this:  The team is more or less picked.  Every team I made, I knew I was going to make.  Whether I had been already signed, or simply told directly, I knew.  The times I didn’t make teams, I wasn’t sure where I stood.  It’s rare that a guy who isn’t in the plans sticks, so to all you unsure players at camp right now, in your hotel room, reading THN on your laptop to kill time: You’re getting cut.  If you aren’t sure…. it’s happening, bud.  That doesn’t mean don’t try.  You still need to make a good impression.

Cut day was almost never the same on any team I tried out for.  In New York, they called me to the front of the plane where I sat in the front row between Garth Snow and Ted Nolan.  And, like the Seinfeld episode about sitting three-abreast at the bar, there I was, fully turning to the guy who was speaking, back and forth, while they tried to see around me when they were talking to each other.  I then did the walk of shame back to my seat passed the rest of the plane.

{Tangent: I’m told that when someone is told they have a life-threatening condition, they tend to not remember anything after that in the meeting with their doctor.  I swear, I remember nothing from that conversation.   I remember it being “positive without promises” as a general feel, but that’s all I got on that one.}

In Bridgeport, they called guys down to the dressing room five or six at a time, where the guys (who had inevitably car-pooled from the hotel) would sit and talk about how bad they suck at hockey and how their careers were headed down the toilet while the first person marched towards execution in the coaches office.  The others just sat on the couches, predicting the unchanging, standard cut lines they’d be hearing in mere moments: 

We really thought you played great, we’re very impressed.  It’s just a numbers game.  We’ll be keeping an eye on you down there.  Thought you worked very hard.

After practice in junior, our coach would bring the guys in for a group chat, and then mention a few guys who were supposed to come down to the office that night.  It was HORRIFIC, because not everyone got cut when they went to the office.  Sometimes he just wanted to ask a few questions or put a guy on notice, but since the majority of guys were getting axed, everybody got to feel that stress.  For those who haven’t experienced the “come down to the office tonight at seven” feeling, it’s directly comparable to the married couple’s “we need to talk tonight” – it might not be horrible, but it probably is.

Formulaic and insincere, the cut conversation with the coaching staff begins.  Nobody in the room enjoys themselves (the pink slip in your locker thing sounds like a MUCH better arrangement.  Just write the reason down and let’s avoid the face-to-face.  We weren’t dating).  And worst of all, as is standard for me, I’d start sweating like we’re halfway through the first period or something.  My moustache and forehead first, followed by having to wipe off the sweat, which means they notice, which means I start sweating more.  Chaos.

And when you finally get beheaded in that guillotine, there’s almost a feeling of relief – you’ve been stressing and stressing about it, so you’re somewhat prepared.  There’s the phone calls: Mom, Dad, girlfriend, brother, agent, texts to friends/teammates etc.  There’s the packing.  And then there’s some freedom, if only for the one evening.

Depending on your journey, the cycle is usually about to start over again.  New team in a new (lower) league.  The arena’s not quiiite as nice.  The dressing rooms aren’t quiiite as nice.  They don’t have quiiite as much staff.  But the guys are just as great, the coaches are just as serious about winning, and you adjust pretty quick.

It’s just another rung on the ladder, a step down you didn’t want to take, but what choices do you have?  All you can hope is when that next team’s Cut Day rolls around, the blade of the guillotine stays suspended in the air.

*****

The Numbers Game – It’s Time to Start Counting

-by Justin Bourne (08/30/10)

We’ve reached that special part of the off-season where hockey players pay as much attention to roster moves as Fantasy Hockey geeks.  For the guys who know which training camp they’re attending but haven’t splashed any ink on a contract, it’s a bit of a nerve-racking time.

While your body is yelling “LETS DO THIS!” like Joe from Family Guy, your brain is using the excess time to torture you, callously flip-flopping between “you got this” and “no chance.”

Inevitably, you start picking apart the roster of your destination team with a little help from the fancy interweb machine.  Where do I fit in?  Or do I at all?

It used to be: you’d get to camp, size up the competition, count the returning players, guess how many spots were open, and do your best.  You barely had time to make yourself psycho.

Now, just like then, coaches advise you to control what you can control – yourself – and let them worry about the roster.  Which is like advising you to not worry about the pending layoffs at your company, “now just go have your job-evaluation meeting with the Bob’s in a few hours and be yourself.”

Today’s players are able to stress themselves out well in advance.  It’s pretty easy research to do, since every squad has a website these days.  From the Vernon Vipers of the BCHL to the New York Islanders of the NHL, you can pull up a list of names and evaluate.

You have to take a peek at the situation, right?  You have to see which guys are returning, if they’ve updated the roster, who they’ve recently signed, what the coaches quotes are about the new signings, who they’ve recently invited to camp, who they’ve…ohmigod I’m stressed out thinking about it.

“Okay, they have four returning right wingers, but that guy could make the big club, and I’m better than that other guy.  But, I see they’ve just invited that tough guy and those two college kids that are all right wingers.  There are only two guys under contract on the left side, but the big club just drafted those two left wingers, and there are always the walk-on guys, but still, I could make the switch to…..”

A player can make himself crazy playing armchair general manager.  If you’re really lucky, maybe you’re trying out for a team with an active fan forum, where after camp starts up you can read just how “soft and slow” you really are.

Some players will tell you that they don’t like to look, and don’t like to think about “the numbers game” (The Numbers Game, by the way, is the reason everyone in the history of ever has been cut), but you’d have to be blind not to see it sometimes.  Especially when coach asks the centers to stay after practice for a faceoff tournament or something, you’d have to be “special” not to notice that there are 14 other guys on the ice.

Established, contracted players have a massive leg-up.  Not only do they have to go into camp and lose their jobs, which is only 5,000 times harder to do than winning one, but they have almost no stress.  They can take a couple chances with the puck, relax without it, and generally be more effective players.  Combine that with the fact that they probably are more effective players to begin with (since they’ve earned contracts), and sometimes the divide between those trying out for a team and those already on it can be painful to watch (or, cough, experience).

For certain players, the mental grind starts now.  Which is good for the fans, because that means the physical one is just about to start.  Which, in turn, means the season is fast approaching.

And thank goodness for that.  The wait’s been making me crazy.

*****

Why Tavares Needs Help

-by Justin Bourne

 

Can John Tavares make a Steven Stamkos-like jump during his sophomore season?

Unfortunately for Islanders fans, the answer is “no.”  Actually, it’s more of a “no” with a disclaimer: “at least not with his current supporting cast.”

Let’s not forget – Stamkos tied for the NHL lead in goals with 51.  It’s not like he took a baby step during the ’09-’10 season.  Dude took an Olympic-level long jump.

To lead the NHL in scoring (or any league, really), you need a lot of help, and a young star like Tavares is no different.  Stamkos played with elite talent in Martin St. Louis (and on the powerplay, Vincent Lecavalier). It was like being the third wide receiver on an NFL team: he was left open while opponents keyed on proven targets.

John Tavares has no such luxury.

Not only will he be the one other teams key on, but he’ll be expected to be the sole initiator of great plays.  Sure, Josh Bailey could experience inflated numbers by cashing in on JT’s ability to attract coverage, but who’s there to give Tavares’s stats a boost?

Last year the Islanders offense finished 21st out of 30 NHL teams in goals-per-game, and this summer the only forwards they added were either rookies or tough guys. 

At some point, the talent in the Islanders lineup may grow to qualify as the type of elite linemates a guy like JT needs, but for now, they’re still more than a little bit short.

While one of my favourite NHLers Kyle Okposo continues to make major strides, having him as the team’s second best forward isn’t exactly the same as pairing Ovechkin with Backstrom on the rush, Crosby with Malkin on the PP or Henrik with Daniel anywhere.

Providing elite talent with players to work with makes them and the team exponentially better.  We’ve seen the one-star system fail before.

Those stars who never get the chance to work with someone who thinks on that next level end up like Rick Nash in Columbus, or Eric Staal in Carolina. We saw (and still occasionally see) flashes of greatness, but I’m starting to get worried we’re watching potential Hall-of-Fame careers squandered by leaving them in solitary confinement on low-budget teams.

The Isles are messing up by not spending the money to surround Tavares with other offensively talented guys.  The rebuild is providing nice puzzle pieces, but not the most important ones.

The confidence boost that comes from knowing someone has your offensive back simply can’t be measured. The pressure valve is tweaked for a release, and as stress goes down, better play increases. 

Stamkos was raw talent that had the privilege of playing on a team with a couple of studs that have been atop the leagues scoring list for many years, and he’s found top gear far quicker than anyone could’ve imagined.  If a player like Nicklas Backstrom – a guy many are picking to threaten for the league lead in points this year – gets stuck in Tavares’s one-man-show situation, does he develop this nicely? Unlikely.

The money it would cost the Islanders to sign a free agent (or to trade for a guy with a big contract) would pale in comparison to the money lost if they don’t give Tavares the chance to succeed soon.  Making him the pack-mule for Long Island’s hopes could mean the loss of a premier talent when his entry-level deal expires – lord knows I wouldn’t stick around to flail on my own with a salary-floor team.

For a rebuild to work, at some point you have to flip the switch, commit the money, and commit to winning.  You can draft all you want, but you need to fill in the missing puzzle pieces.  And by not bringing in the type of star who can take Tavares to that next level, you’re kicking that puzzle piece under the couch and might find yourself missing it when you need to put it all together.

John Tavares is talented young star who scored 54 points as a 19-year-old rookie in a man’s league.  He’s not just any puzzle piece, he’s the big ol’ corner piece that the Isles need to build off.  And if they don’t want to waste him, they better go buy the rest of the puzzle soon, or at some point the whole project will have to scrapped.

 *****

Playing With Injuries

-by Justin Bourne

 

Playing with injuries has as much effect on your head as it does your body. 

It’s not always pain that limits your movement; it’s usually your brain.  It’s tough to convince your far-too-reasonable mass of grey matter that taking a hit to make any play is a good idea when your shoulder feels like its being held together with decade-old elastic bands.  So on a sizable number of occasions during a career in which I went over ten years without missing a game to injury, I was half-useless to my team by trying to play through the damage.

Like a couple years ago in the ECHL playoffs, when I had a bone bruise on my ankle.  Sounds like nothing your average hockey player would miss a game for, but holy smoking crap are there “this-isn’t-fun” grit-your-teeth moments with a bone bruise.  So, like with any nagging injury, I took the steps I needed to be in the lineup every night.

In my case, my trainers has devised a medical pad (wait, that sounded way too fancy – they cut up some stiff foam) designed to take the pressure off the painful area.  But all the foam and Advil in the world can’t stop a part of your foot from pressing into your skate and causing some misery.  And that’s just the way it is – you’re going to deal with some distracting pain to play in playoffs, so the (sexist) mantra is basically “man up, Sally”, or the world’s stupidest fill-in-the-blank cliché, “the ankle is a long way from the heart”.

The moment I would hit the ice for warm-up, all I could think about was my bulky, differently tied skate – not the pain.  I constantly fidgeted with the padding and tape to minimize the pressure and bulk, because the moment the game starts, lord knows you don’t want to be thinking about your ankle.  The chance to fidget with gear is reason 1,468 why warm-ups rule.

I looked like I could skate just fine (as the reporter is typing “Bourne looks like he’s skating fine”), and I could once the adrenalin started flowing.  But there was still a voice inside my head trying to protect me from further damage.  An annoying, persistent voice.  In short, I was taking jump shots instead of driving the net.  I was dumping the puck in instead of trying to beat the d-man wide.  I was doing positive, acceptable things, but not the things that made me effective. 

For some grinders, getting three shots, making no turnovers and getting the puck deep is considered a good game.  But for a goal scorer, health (mental or otherwise) is all the more essential to succeeding at your job.  You have to take the puck to trouble spots and be creative, something that’s awfully hard to think about when sharp pains are a constant reminder that there are other, more basic ways to play the game.  And sometimes, as I did, you become less effective.

When you reflect on the NHL’s seemingly ridiculous injury policy (you can essentially watch a guy get a leg amputated on the rink, then see him listed with a lower-body injury) it not hard to figure out that there’s a reason the policy remains in place.

Agitators – whether it’s Dustin Byfuglien or Matt Cooke – are looking for ways to help their teams on and off the score sheet.  As much as I hate to admit its effectiveness, these guys will find your injury and pick at it, and over time, it saps your will to push back.

In my junior days, I had nearly broken my wrist in the first game of a playoff series against the Merritt Centennials.  Merritt had the type of little punk you could backhand in front of his own parents and they’d shake your hand.  Sure enough, he isolated it.  Little slash.  Tiny hack.  Mini whack.  For games on end.  And before long, not only was I enraged, I didn’t want to skate anywhere near the kid.  I was like Daniel Sedin on David Bolland in round two.  Just completely out of my element.

These nagging, pestering aches and pains make you a different player, not because you’re consciously afraid of getting hit, but because you’re somewhat aware that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, or in this case, play the game.  You always have the option to play a safer way without getting singled out for hurting your team, but when “not hurting your team” is the goal, you’ve set the bar exceedingly low, and your play suffers.

In playoffs, we don’t know who’s affected on which teams.  Making predictions in playoffs is like flipping a coin.  There’s so much parity in the NHL, if you suddenly have a healthy Dany Heatley and a hurt Jonathan Toews, we could have to switch the “disappointing” and “hero” labels the media has thus far brandished them with.  We just never know.

And that sums up playoffs.  You need a team deep enough to pick each other up when a few guys are hurt.  You need a goalie to give you a chance every night, and you need those difference-makers to stay healthy and shine.

Of the remaining teams, Pittsburgh, San Jose and Chicago have that mix.  After that, it’s a coin toss.  So let’s throw the boys onto the ice and find out who’s hurt.  And more importantly, who’s healthy enough to lift 34.5 pounds of engraved silver and nickel.

*****

The Conspiracy of Crazy

-by Justin Bourne

 

As round one of the playoffs are heating up, crazy things are starting to happen:  Some fans are seeing their favorite team lose.

Inexplicably.

After how hard they’ve cheered, and how hard their boys have worked, some team has had the audacity to finish with more goals at the end of a game than their team.

You know why, don’t you?  The league wants that other team to win.  For TV ratings.  To sell merchandise.  For the same reason they rigged games last year so The League’s precious golden boy Sidney Crosby could win a Cup.

These theories are from people who, as Wayne Campbell of Wayne’s World used to say, have gone mental.  Sure, the league would like its top money-makers to do well, but not to the point of physically affecting games (which, by the way, they couldn’t do if they tried).

TSN’s Bob McKenzie recently did a nice, succinct job explaining kicked-in goals to the hockey masses.  He covered what’s allowed, what’s not, and a summary of accepted interpretations.

Bob doesn’t read his comment section, because Bob’s a smart man.  I, on the other hand, am not so smart.  Thus, I was privy to reading a comment section so devoid of a reasonable thought it reminded me of watching Jersey Shore.  Of course, that’s a blanket statement.  There were a few reasonable nuggets mix in.  But in general, it seems that “The Hockey Dad” is a bit of a magnet for crazy. He probably spends half his day trying to stay calm enough to respond to the lunacy hurled his way on Twitter.

Now, I write a daily blog that has an inordinately reasonable reading base, so I’m well aware that not all hockey fans are completely mental.  Most of us are all on the level.  So when people think “The League” has influenced a call because it wants the Los Angeles Kings to beat the Vancouver Canucks in game three of round one, it’s bordering on white jacket talk.  It’s a dude in a room making a call using his experience and opinion.  You can think he sucks at it, but that doesn’t make him a criminal.

It demeans what players do to imply that success comes from anything other than their own fitness, work ethic, decision-making and skills.  And logically, if the NHL were able to manipulate things the way online hockey fans imply, don’t you think they’d start with the major hockey markets?

The New York Rangers last won the Cup in ’93-’94.  They haven’t made it out of the first round of playoffs since, and have missed the playoffs eight times over that 16 year span (while pushing the limit of the salary cap the entire time).

The Toronto Maple Leafs are the biggest hockey market in the league, and the last time they saw a single shift of post-season action was the ’03-’04 season. As in six years ago, when the league still played such a gross style that its leading scorer at the time (Martin St. Louis) was the only guy to crack 90 points.  Worse still, he led second place by seven points.  That NHL seems like it died decades ago, and we haven’t seen a good Leafs team since.

And what about the players?  You don’t think they’d know if the league was up to some funny business?  “Boy, it sure seems strange that we have so many home games this year”, Crosby whispered to Malkin, who by some strange coincidence happens to be ON THE SAME. TEAM.

But no – the guys in the action, working their hardest, dealing with the Union reps, their agents, media and more have no idea that the fix is in.  Of course not.  But you, catching the highlights on TSN or the NHL Network four nights a week, you’ve got it dialed in.  Got it.

It’s the instant credibility forfeiting line, as far as I’m concerned.  Turn your focus to the ice, my friends. 

Refs make some bad calls like Dan Boyle makes some bad passes (and I write some bad columns).  We all have off-days.  A decision has to be made on every reviewed goal, and both sides can’t get their way.  That’s the beauty of sports.  Black and white, a winner and a loser.

So, in black and white, sports talk: McKenzie’s column was a “winner”; conspiracy theories are for losers.

 

*****

Devil’s Advocate – Head Shots

-by Justin Bourne

 

The head-shot water has long since reached its boiling point, and is fast approaching the overreaction phase where GM’s evaporate the issue entirely to appease those of us clamoring for change.

And clamor, I have.  I don’t want to see a star like David Booth in Steve Maddens, I want him in Grafs.  I don’t need the fate of the Bruins affected by Marc Savard’s absence, especially when that absence comes at the hands of a guy whose most important stat from a game is the coarseness of the sandpaper he played like.

But at the same time, we’re talking about hockey.

If Rick Nash has his head down in the neutral zone, I want Dion Phaneuf to lay him out.  And how’s he supposed to do that with a clean shoulder check and avoid Nash’s head if it’s down?

There’s a marked difference between skating straight ahead in the neutral zone and getting blasted by a defenseman in front of you, versus making a play while cutting across the offensive zone and getting blasted by a guy coming from behind you.

People love hockey clichés like “keep your head up”, but they blanket too many hits with that one phrase – when the hockey purists say “cutting across the blue line is dangerous”, it’s supposed to be because the weak side d-man can step up and blow you apart if you’re fumbling with the puck.  Catching a guy on the backcheck and hitting him is fine too, as long as the guy is skating towards the side-boards and the hit ends up straight-on.

Catching a guy on the backcheck who’s moving towards the goal, cutting across and clipping his head doesn’t fall under the “keep your head up” cliché we’ve come to know and love.

To me, whatever penalty the GMs commit to needs to include an emphasis on direction.

You can blow up anybody with the puck head on, that’s a given.  It’s a part of our game.  If the guy gets a concussion, we’re still allowed to chime in, all together now: “KEEP YOUR HEAD UP!”

The intent of physical contact is to A) separate a guy from the puck, and B) intimidate, so as to make your opponent rush decisions and make hesitant plays.  Thus, if you were to be an advocate for the devil, you’d say that of those things can happen from a legal shoulder-to-head hit if a guy is foolish enough to have his noggin parallel to the ice.

I’m aware of the obvious; we want to avoid certain situations.  We want to avoid a guy battling for the puck against the boards getting just his head hit by an incoming defender’s shoulder.  We want to avoid the sideswipe shoulder to the head, ala Richards and Cooke.  If you break it down, we want to avoid head hits that aren’t “player is moving forwards – bam – player is moving backwards.” 

Just don’t take away the raw beauty of an open-ice hit.

Earlier this year, Jonathan Toews got absolutely shoulder-to-melon destroyed on a hit by Willie Mitchell, went to the bench and said “#&$%, I had my head down.”  If you watch the replay, Toews – an honest, hard-working player who knows he made a mistake – doesn’t look up-ice so much as once.  Why shouldn’t he get hit when the puck comes his way?

I want to protect our players.  But I want to protect our game too.

A debate about changing a rule shouldn’t be a one-sided “protect the children” style argument, where anyone who says anything to the contrary is persecuted – if that’s what happens, we won’t get the rule right.  All we can hope is that the GM’s are having a fair, honest discussion about what’s right here.

And coming from the devil’s advocate side, I’m confident in one thing.  I know Brian Burke’s is arguing the same side I just laid out here.  So, we can trust those guys to get it right, can’t we?

Guys?

Anyone?

 

*****

Player Ref Relations

-by Justin Bourne

 

The player – referee relationship is fraught with difficulties.

And actually, it’s kind of…. Awkward.  For a number of reasons.  One is that it helps to be friends, but if it isn’t natural, you at least have to fake it.  Everything we saw demonstrated in the Alex Burrows situation, we already knew.  Being on the bad side of the ref is a bad idea, because he holds the “luck” in his pocket.

He can give a team the type of bad breaks that can kill it, like say, a penalty in the last minutes of a game.

So, all players go through the smile-and-fake-laugh cycle necessary to at least seem civil.  In turn, referees go through the same smile-and-fake-laugh cycle so not to appear Auger-esque.  That’s right Stephane, you’re a verb now.

Pretty sure that ref Augered me last night.

For the most part, we’re all buddies out there.  Even the angry, soundless clips you see of players yelling at refs are generally pretty decent, honestly.  Minus the blue language, of course, which flows naturally from both sides of the relationship.

“Garrett, there’s no f***ing way you make that call on me after letting his slash go” would be a lot more common than the assumed and more direct “F*** you, Garrett”.

The higher level I played, the more reasonable referees got.  They’ll listen to you, speak in a controlled voice, and actually think instead of getting defensive and reacting quickly like say, stubborn ECHL refs. (PLEASE INSERT THIS VIDEO: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sx4V1OlleRA)  In a nutshell, the best referees are confident in themselves.

The more reasonable and confident they are, the more you can joke with them, and the more they talk during the play, an underrated quality in a ref.  Some guys get so comfortable they’ll have a running dialogue aimed at you mid-play, like a boxing referee.

Behind you, Bourno, I’m behind you.  On the wall now, I’m on the wall…

A ref that catches a Burrows-like embellishment might scold him mid-play.

No way Alex, no way, get up – as in, I wouldn’t call that if I was reffing little kids, if you don’t get up soon I’m calling a dive.

Dialogue goes back and forth throughout the whole game.  At the lower level, where video replay isn’t around, they’ll ask for honesty after a goal (which leads to its own problems):

You tip that Bournie?

Of course I did.

And the better you know the ref, the easier it is to respect him and his authority.  It’s a lot easier to play the game when you can speak like an adult to the guy between whistles or after the period.

You realize I was hit into their tender last period, right Stripes?

You just stay outta that crease, Bourne.

Refs unwilling to engage with the players don’t advance, and refs that get too involved (Auger) see their performance suffer.

Like a good babysitter or parent, they have to be able to joke and laugh, but also maintain their status as “in charge”.  Great that we can laugh, but when I say it’s time to get to the box, it’s time to get to the box.

Some players – and it appears Burrows is one of these – don’t grasp the fragile relationship that we share with the officials.  A penalty isn’t a personal slight, it’s a penalty because you did something illegal.  The same way that we sometimes miss an open net, refs sometimes miss obvious calls.  And, if we were on the ice for the whole game, we’d have a lot more opportunities to miss open nets.

It doesn’t mean you can’t tell them they’re wrong – in fact, I encourage it, as long as it’s done with a certain level of repect.

You missed that one, bud, watch the video after the game.  My stick never even touched him.

But there’s always something wrong with going ballistic.

The variable that can ruin the whole relationship are players attempts to draw penalties, because refs take that as a personal slight, which it isn’t.  The dive is one thing, and the embellishment another.  I’m not opposed to the latter, as sometimes you need to demonstrate your opponent is being careless with his stick – it only makes sense to try and earn your team a powerplay the way you try to earn a goal – but the outright dive is cheating.  I realize it’s a grey area either way, but that’s the stance I take.

Auger obviously took the Burrows play personally, and when the league viewed Augers call as an error, he took it as a dis from Alex.

Referees need to know that trying to draw a penalty is no more personal than them calling a penalty on us.  In some twisted way, we’re both just doing our jobs.

My guess is, the Burrows/Auger situation resulted from the lowest common denominator being involved on both ends.  Both Burrows and Auger didn’t take the events that happened as people doing their jobs, but rather as personal slights.

By all logic, the league should clean this up quickly, discipline them both, and be on with the next game.  It’s hardly some insight into major problems around the league, just two fairly unintelligent kids playing in the living room who had to call their mom to settle their differences.

They need to grow up, and we need to move on.  Most NHL refs are great.

 

 *****

Hockey Parents

-by Justin Bourne

 

Sports parents, in general, have a tendency to take their child’s sporting life too seriously.  These hyper-involved “helicopter parents” (a term used to describe the constant hovering) frequently suck the fun out of kicking a ball, chasing a puck, or eating dandelions and picking your nose while wearing a jersey.

Hockey is awful for this.

Having played the sport myself, I thought I saw the worst of the worst.  Then, I got a job working at a sports store owned by the president of minor hockey in my home town, and was witness to the backdoor campaign attempts of parents with children under ten.

There was the Dad who, between summer and winter hockey, had his kid on the skating treadmill down at our city’s new training facility.  For those of you who haven’t seen one, a skating treadmill is a huge plastic-floored version of a normal one that they pulled from the depths of hell, put on an incline, and loaded with harness straps.  It’s used for improving cardio and building strength, both goals which it easily achieves. 

What it also does, is suck gigantic eggs.  It sucks in every conceivable way, and in my own opinion (and, from what I’ve heard, the opinion of every person who isn’t selling them), isn’t great for your stride.

The kid loves it, he just can’t get enough” the Dad would tell me when I’d ask some questions.

Then there’s the Dad who comes in around close, with a case of beer, and “just wants to BS”.  Before a top can be popped, the idle chitchat is on the upcoming tryouts.  Wants to know where his kid fits in.

“But he’s better than that Smith kid, right?  That kid doesn’t know which way he’s going half the time”.

Then there’s the burning mad Dad, who just bought his son the top-of-line skates and couple Easton Synergies, looking for the “president”, to straighten out the latest slight his son has received, from what, in his opinion, appears to be an intentional campaign to keep the man’s family down.

“F*** him and his personal agenda…”

And it’s not just Dad’s anymore.  Moms would flood into the store around hockey season, looking to buy the best skates possible for their little Gretzkys.  We didn’t carry Bauer the first year the store opened, as another dealer in town had the exclusive rights to sell their lines.  Parents of kids without full sets of adult teeth were furious that we had the audacity to run a hockey shop without Bauer skates.  What kind of a sham were we trying to pull, anyway?  We couldn’t fool them with our silly RBK witchcraft.

One Mom brought in her very own skate measuring tool, the same one which we used to make sure the edges on the blades were of equal height.  We did a premier sharpening job, of course, but the Mom felt inclined to purchase her own tool and measure the edges before paying for the sharpening, just to be sure.

Eight-year old kids are worried about the hollow in their blades?  I’m skeptical.  I’m skeptical because Jarome Iginla brought his skates in for me to sharpen that same summer, and didn’t know what hollow his skates were done to.

Me: “How do you want them done?”

Him: “Um, I dunno, regular?”

Me, slightly flummoxed: “Hmm.”

I’m sure it was just that his trainer knows his needs better than he knew his own, but still, he genuinely didn’t know. 

What this means is, one of the greatest players in the world isn’t sure, but the eight year-olds Mom needs to measure her son’s edges.  Got it.

So what does this create?

Misery.

It creates pure, awful, misery, for a kid who just likes to play some puck.

Nobody likes being told what to do, and most people feel the need to rebel against something their parents pushed.  I can’t think of a quicker way to get your kid to quit at 13 than by making his on-ice performance directly related to the type of off-ice relationship he has with his parents.

I never had a clue when I played well or not, because my parents told me that I did EVERY SINGLE GAME.  Honesty is probably the best policy, but what the crap did they care if I sucked at hockey?  They were paying a fortune (as all hockey parents do) in gear and fees so I could play, so they wanted me to enjoy it.

And so, I grew to love the game in my own right.  I liked scoring goals.  I liked getting assists.  I just liked hockey.

Not once in my life was I worried about my parent’s reaction to how I played.  I wanted to impress them, but knew I didn’t have to.

For parents, sports are a fertile ground for teaching points.  You can use them to explain to your child “what you did to that kid was wrong and here’s why”.  Or “it was great that you shared the puck on that play.  Teamwork is effective”.  Passing the puck doesn’t emasculate your son, Dads.  It makes them better.

We’ve all heard horror stories about the kids afraid to get in the car with their Dad after the game, how the Dad always yelled and got upset when his child screwed up.  I’d quit in a heartbeat if playing the game made my life that miserable.

No kid whose age is in the single digits should be playing hockey in the summer.  Kids need well-rounded life experiences to learn to think creatively, play effectively, and appreciate the game. 

They’re still kids, remember?  Let’s let them have a childhood.

 

*****

Entitlement

-by Justin Bourne

 

In every small town of every hockey playing country, some kid is chucking up ridiculous numbers.  Like, five-goals-a-game numbers.  At least.

And it’s only five because the coaches have tried everything they can to limit the mini-stud’s dominance – they’ve got him playing defense, playing wrong-handed, playing blind-folded, just anything, so the other kids can play.  Other parents paid for their kids to play hockey, and they want their little guys to touch the puck on occasion too.

So the mesmerizing mini-Malkin moves up levels, and quick.  He starts playing with older kids, and he’s still good.  Simple as that.  He can’t explain it.  But he ends up playing at the highest levels a kid of his age and size is allowed to play.

He starts to get the free gear, the praise, and the type of coaching that comes with the best teams.  And he gets better.

At some point, he starts to actually believe he’s the second-coming of Crosby, and he gets to turn off the rest of real world and enjoy the ride that is his blessed little life.  Bantam draft, selected, boom.  Junior hockey, recruited, boom.  And maybe, if he’s extra special, he gets to miss a class or two that other kids have to attend.

Before he knows it, his name is included in the NHL draft.  …Not as high as he’d like though.  He played against that one guy who got drafted in the first round, and that guy was bruuutal.  Pff.  What a joke.

And just like that, management’s little nightmare is born.

But this is how it works in all sports.  You take the best players from all the cities and towns and villages and subdivisions, states and provinces.  You lump them together, pare them down, and take the best from each.  So professional sports are made up of the people who have grown up hearing they’re the best at what they do.  And to some extent, they are.

How we get from there, to clips of media blowups where baseball’s Randy Johnson is yelling at a media member “Don’t you talk back to me!” is completely insane.

Somewhere along the line, the kid grew from confident, to full belief in himself, to belief that no matter what, he can’t mess this up.  He’s officially entitled. 

Confidence is a necessity for athletes – they’re frequently challenged, they need to take chances, and they do need to genuinely believe that they can beat their opponent.  In most cases, players are extremely confident, but by the time they move up a few levels, they realize: Wow, I’m not so “special” after all.  A lot of people were given this gift.  It takes an intelligent person to make that connection and adapt to be better.  Guys like Rod Brind’Amour, and Mike Peca are great examples of guys who came up as goal scorers and developed into valuable two-way players to keep their dream alive.

And realizing your gift isn’t “special” isn’t a bad thing – you can still be an amazing, hardworking, talented athlete – but for most non-Ovechkin/Crosby types, you’d have to be a fool to think you’re a one-of-a-kind shining star for the sporting world to cherish.

Yet, like in every profession, there are the fools.

The dark side of the pro sports empire ends up being made of a group of people who are talented, but were overhyped for years, and got stuck on that.  They’re somehow unable or unwilling to see that their gift is not as unique as they’re parents thought it was at eight, and that not everybody passing them by is getting “lucky” (note: the “greatness” they demonstrated as a youth often has something to do with being eight inches bigger than other kids, thanks to that early growth spurt).

This sense of entitlement occasionally turned me off one of the best places for conversation on earth, the locker room.  Between watching these “coulda-been-a-contendas” talk down to the training staff, and hearing their stories of stolen success every time they get in the same room as a beer, I’m left bitter.  It’s always the same thing:

  • Our (free) post game meal sucks.
  • You did a shitty job sharpening my skates (for less than minimum wage, if you broke it down hourly).
  • It sucks being at the airport two hours early (for our paid-for flights to go see a new city and play a sport for a living).

And you know what?  It’s often the same thing from the guys who coulda been a contender, but had this attitude sour their reputation.  The big picture is entirely foreign to those blinded by the glory of their own being.

We all bitch because we’re bored, because we’re tired, or because let’s face it, bitching is fun.  You can’t take that away from our culture, or we’d all kill ourselves.  Or each other.  Or worse, both.

But the guys who sincerely mean it do an unjust job of representing the majority of players who’ve figured it out, though the jackasses seem to be the ones people often remember.  Other sports have their problems and prima donnas too.  People aren’t perfect, and for that, they are to be forgiven.  What’s unforgiveable in hockey is the sense of entitlement kids pick up from being good while they’re young. 

So congrats on your kid doing great, moms and dads of towns A through Z.  Now it’s your job, as a parent, to make sure the kid knows that “hockey skill” is of secondary importance to things like “reality”.

*****

 

Head Shots – A Question For Players

-by Justin Bourne

 

The question of the day isn’t “what’s taking the NHL so long to act on head shots?” It’s “what’s taking the players so long?”

Clearly, hockey players are aware that the growing highlight reel of head shots has caused a bit of a kerfuffle. Most guys have sampled a concussion or two themselves, and don’t care to try the latest flavor.  So why don’t we see anyone passing up the chance to fold an opponent like a pretzel?

A major reason brings the blame back to the mindset of the guys signing the paycheques.  General managers love physical players.  Players know that a knock-out hit can earn you a reputation. It can also earn a three-game suspension, but that’s a small price to pay.

The risk/reward ratio provides zero reason to not pummel the vulnerable player.  You make some guy yard-sale his gear, and your team loves it.  It builds momentum.  If the angle is funny and the guy gets hurt, you take your three games and collect your “edgy-player” raise come the off-season.  It’s not like anyone avenges an injured teammate like they did in the 80s anyways, so charge away.

The NHL could step in and give the headhunters some real punishment. The game will never get worse by punishing the idiots.  Very few events suffer when you eliminate the people who pee in the pool. 

But what amazes me is that players seem to be waiting on the NHL to dispense justice on out-of-control headhunters. I’m sure these same skull-crushers have watched teammates struggle after concussions, needing a three-hour nap after a three-minute bike ride due to brain trauma.  Why don’t they seem to care about the whole “causing brain bruising so bad that people fit to climb mountains can’t climb stairs” thing?

So it comes back to the same question.  Where’s the uproar from the players? Guys can’t want it in the game.

I understand the argument about protecting yourself, as a player.  I’ve been one.  The only cliché more overused than “keep your head up” in hockey is “keep your head down” in golf.  But, both are grounded in logic.  In hockey, guys do need to stay out of dangerous situations, or occasionally, you deserve to get run over. 

But as the aggressor, you can see when the guy you’re about to hit doesn’t know it, and you need to do your best to avoid the head.  That’s all we’re asking here.  You can still stop a guy’s momentum and separate him from the puck without separating his brain’s communication from his body.  This doesn’t need to be happening so often.

Change tends to come like game seven of a playoff series – “if necessary”.  As team defense improved, we made goalie gear smaller to avoid soccer scores.  And soon we’ll be adding “when hockey players got as big as football players, only faster and on a hard surface, we had to protect them,” because we do.

These guys play 82 games going mach six (ballpark) on slippery concrete.  Injuries are going to happen.  And I want to see guys blown up too, but I want them to legally crisscross some opponent’s shoulders, not the wiring in his brain.

Damn near every buddy I have comes from hockey, and I’ve yet to speak with one who thinks a “please try to avoid that human’s motherboard with your shoulder” penalty is a bad idea.  The word “concussion” is so common now it goes by like “sprain”, but I can assure you, it’s not the same thing.

Is there someone speaking up in defense of head checks?  Where’s the other side of this argument?  By not acting on these violent acts, we’re tailoring our game for more Jarko Ruutus and less Marian Gaboriks.  Which direction do we want to go?

Someday, rules will be in place that will make it the referee’s call. And at some point, players will decide the knockout blows are not worth the risk.

But until that rule goes into effect and players open their eyes to what needs to change, I’ll steal a line I heard nearly every game on the bench – NHL, players… what’re you, blind?

*****

 

Life After Hockey

 -by Justin Bourne

 

It’s a weird feeling walking into a hockey rink these days.

It’s like walking into your old apartment and remembering the person you used to be. 

There’s where we had some laughs.  There’s where I felt some pain.  There’s where I made decisions that affected my life.

I went to the Coyotes/Kings exhibition game, the first game I’d been to since a puck hit my jaw in December – a puck that forced my teeth wired shut for almost seven weeks, resigned me to the couch for months, and incidentally launched my writing career.

Man, that slapshot hurt.

But this hurts in a different way, being at this game.  For the first time, I’m watching a hockey season start without me, with uncertainty, excitement and potential buzzing throughout the rink like a skate sharpener.  And just then, the questions started creeping up on me: am I really on this side of the glass?

In a small way, I can relate to Brett Favre – I can still play, so why shouldn’t I? 

And, I guess the answer is “because at some point, you have to grow up and make the right decisions.”  It’s just hard.

I stopped playing the game because I felt the dream slipping.  The physical damage done to your body is easy to justify if you play in the NHL.  But can you justify it if you’re earning a modest living playing in the AHL or ECHL?  Without the big bucks to lean on, won’t you still find yourself waking up one summer with that inevitable question:

Now what?

You’re at square one again.  What do you want to be when you grow up?  Playing in the NHL means you never have to answer that question, but I realized I would have to.  I made what I thought was the smart choice.  Doesn’t it make sense to start that second career younger than older?  I obviously thought so.

Choosing between practicality and passion?  It’s a harder decision than people realize.  In trying to make the right life decisions, I gave up that passion.  Watching this game now isn’t making it any easier for me.  What have I done?

When you give up your dream – not because you have to, but because it is the right decision –how are you supposed to cope?

As players, we continually evalute our teammates and our competition – saying “he’s not that good” under our breath and to each other because “I” need to be better than “him” to survive.  Now, as a writer, all-too-often I find myself saying “he’s not that good”, only to get responses from readers in stats, dimensions and potential.

I’ve never been a guy prone to negativity – “he’s not that good” is just fully burned into my competitive psyche.  To be good, you learn to think you’re the best.

I poured hour upon hour of after-practice time skating into off-hand one-timers.  Do you have any idea how hard that shot is?  Four years of college I worked on that after practice with my roommates, Chad Anderson (past season: Hamilton, AHL), Charlie Kronschnabel (past season: Iowa CHOPS, AHL) and Nick Lowe (past season: full-on scientist).

And what good is that skill now?  What good was taking rocket passes on my backhand?  Toe-pulling the puck?  What about the hours of conditioning?

It feels like time wasted.  Maybe writing is my attempt to justify the hours I put in, one at a time, for almost 27 years.  The funny part is, I can’t let go of all those power skating schools I begrudgingly attended instead of playing golf during the summer months.  I knew that was a waste of time.  You bend YOUR knees, buddy.

So I sat down at the game and ordered a beer.  I stood and listened to the anthem – watched the players rock in anticipation. I looked up and watched a couple players I knew from junior, college and pro.  He’s not that good.

I played on my BlackBerry.  I drank my beer.  I’ll never be able to get into it like a fan.

Ignorance is bliss, and for me, the game is tainted by knowledge.  That guy isn’t mad, he gets paid to enforce.  That guy skating really hard?  The “buzz-saw” that fans love?  He’s over-pursuing, making his teammates have to compensate because he’s out of position.  I’ll never be able to cheer for guys I competed against.  It’s like admitting defeat.

Something about my separation from the game makes me numb toward it now.  Don’t get me wrong – I was ready for this change.  I’m ready to live in one city, in one home.  But it doesn’t mean I won’t miss that other life.

My Dad spent 14 seasons in the NHL, then made the mistake of trying to fully leave the game when he retired. It took years for him to realize that hockey was the piece he was missing.  I’m not making that mistake.  It was good for me to face the game head-on last night, but I realized one thing: this is going to be harder than I thought.

Some day every player has to leave the game, and we’ll all experience the change differently.

For now, I’m sticking with “numb”.  The 2009-2010 season began without missing me, without missing a beat, and with a little dust in my eye before the puck dropped.

But I’m ready now.  It’s time to drop the puck on career number two.

Cause those other sports writers out there?  They’re not that good.

*****

 

Put it on the Board, Yes!

-by Justin Bourne

 

Pete Rose has been blackballed for decades for gambling on his own team in baseball.

Professional hockey players literally do it every single game.

It’s an accepted part of dressing-room culture, like heaping verbal abuse on the nearest human in range.  The difference between Charlie Hustle and the hockey hustle is that when hockey players put “Money on the Board”, everybody wins.

Before each game, a few players will saunter up to the dry-erase board in silence and put their jersey number down, with a dollar amount beside it.  It means that “if we win, I’ll donate this number of dollars to the team pot.”

12 – $50

For most games, there are three or four numbers on the list. For bigger games, the list of participants gets bigger. If the game is big enough, even the coaches might put some money on the board.

The dollar amounts differ depending on which alphabet you use – in the ECHL, most guys put up 25-50 bucks.  In the AHL, $50-$100.  In the NHL, the numbers just get weird.

One rule is consistent: You’re better off hitting the starting goalie in the collarbone during warm-up than writing something as offensive as ten dollars on the board. 

“Ooo, there’s something to play for fella’s, T-Rex is risking his next paycheck on a win!  I’m definitely blocking shots now…”

If you’re new to the club, the rules can seem a bit dicey, but it is accepted that the newest member of the group is expected to part with a chunk of their not-yet-earned money. Doe-eyed rookies who are new to pro hockey, and therefore to Money On The Board, always end up being major donors to the team party fund.

“*cough*”

“Isn’t it someone’s first game in here tonight?” one of the veterans will say before a rookie’s first game.  Guys are almost fully dressed before the game when these hints start coming out.

“*cough*”

“Nobody’s first game in here, eh?” he will continue, waiting for the rookie to put some money on the board.  Usually the rookie’s stall-mate has to let the kid know under his breath why he’s the focal point of the room.  And then the rookie is appalled and doesn’t believe he has to pay to play.

He does.

Here are the basic rules for mandatory MOTB contributions:

• First professional game.  Damn rights you’re putting on money on the board, and it better not be the team minimum.

• First game with a new team.  Just got dealt?  Make yourself at home.  Contribute to the fund.

• You are playing against your former team.  They didn’t want you.  You want to beat them, right?  Prove it.

• Your family is in the stands.  They drove all this way to see you.  Don’t you want to motivate the boys?

• Your girlfriend is here.  Awww, isn’t that sweet.  Lookit you Tiger, you big ladies man, you.  Seriously, put some money on the board.

And the fun part is, the money doesn’t have to go to the team – it can go to an individual.  Unless specified, the money is earned by a team win.  But when specified, it can go towards any of the following Money On The Board abbreviations:

• GWG: Game Winning Goal.  A nice bonus to go with winning the game, and scoring.

• GTG: Game Tying Goal.  Usually added between the second and third period of a game that the team is losing.  Always makes for a good silence breaker in the room.

• FG: The game’s first goal.  Looking for that jumpstart.

• SO: A ballsy abbreviation to write.  Aimed specifically at the goalie.  I can’t even type it out loud for fear of the wrath of goaltenders everywhere.

Or, you can always write something completely random, based on the specific team you’re playing that night. 

Hockey players might have short attention spans, but they have long memories. Sometimes when an opponent runs your goalie and the game is close, retaliation has to wait.  You’ll hear coaches and captains alike yelling “we play them again, settle down, we play them again!”

“Bounty” is a bad word, but you can imagine what might show up on the board the next time that team is in town.

The money is not the important part of the exercise. “Money on the Board” is something that unites teammates. 

Sometimes, early in the season, it’s hard to get everyone pulling in the same direction.  Jobs aren’t secure, and friendships are yet to be formed.  This loosens things up a bit.

Plus, the real bonus for the core guys who make it through the year comes when there’s thousands of dollars in the pot for the end-of-season wind-up.

On payday, the team “treasurer” makes his rounds, making you instantly regret you ever thought putting money on the board was a good idea.

And for those rookies, collecting their first paycheck as a professional, nothing makes the guys laugh harder than finding a hundred ways to funnel it back into the party pot.  Especially those young bucks making max cap in the NHL. 

“*cough*”

Isn’t it somebody’s second game in here?” 

 

The Art of Slump-Busting

-by Justin Bourne

 

Slumps are a bitch.

After game two, the media tried to proclaim Sidney Crosby’s two-game drought a slump.  It isn’t.  The guy hit posts, pads, pants, people and pillows in games one and two, but the damn thing just won’t go in.  As I’ve been listening to the sports networks use his stats as the story, rather than to illuminate the story, I got thinking about real, actual slumps.

Did I mention they’re a bitch?

Attempting to slump break is freaking impossible, and, as a player, if I could give you a successful method I’d be a rich man.

I went through stretches of great success in college and pro hockey, tying together point streaks of double-digit games on multiple occasions.  As you may have guessed, I also went through stretches of great misery, tying together streaks of wall-punching and pulling my hair out at the root for double-digit games… on multiple occasions.

The standard song and dance about slump breaking is, in my opinion, what prolongs them.

“Keep it simple.  Shoot from everywhere.”

Garbage. 

Nothing twists the knife in your already stabbed confidence like a goalie casually gloving down your shot from left field that you only took because technically, that spot by the boards at the blueline fell under the category of “everywhere”.

 The only known antidote for the slump sickness, of course, is to work so hard Rod Brind’Amour looks lazy.

It takes a couple games of driving the net, hovering around the crease and generally playing violently before a shot from the point redirects off the bridge of your nose and goes in for you to get back to normal.

As far as slumps go, a few games wouldn’t be a huge deal.  The problem is that there are stages of slump denial, which tend to add extra games to it before you realize you’re mired in one.

For starters, there’s the Bad Luck phase:

“Ha, what a lucky save.”

“I can’t believe that hit both posts.”

“If another puck bounces over my stick around the net I’m going to sacrifice a goat to the hockey gods.”

The Blame Placing phase is only a few steps behind the Bad Luck phase.  Sadly, some players never get out of this one, convinced that their whole career was on the same path as Sid the Kid had they not had this awful nine-year stretch of bad luck.

“My linemates are awful.”

“I’m not getting enough powerplay time.”

“This ice is horrific.”

As the sad, slumpy realization sinks in, superstition becomes the only friend to turn to.

You start taping your stick with white instead of black.  You stop playing two-touch soccer with the boys before the game.  You even write something different on the knob end of your stick, something usually along the lines of “WWJD”.

As the slump shovel hits bedrock, thoughts on the home front start to drift, potentially all the way into “maybe I’m just not good enough” territory, highlighted by such classics as:

“I really should finish that degree.”

“I could probably work for my sister-in-law’s husband.”

And:

“#$%$  @#!$#ing &%@#!”

But just then, just as you’re about to re-drywall your bedroom and commit career suicide, a puck goes in.  And not a two-on-one, fake-pass snapper off the post snipe-type goal.  Always some dumb, “I can’t believe it was that easy” freebie-type goal.

And so the pendulum swings.

When I think about real slumps, I can’t imagine Mr. The Kid is too concerned about his play.  Hard work is in that guy’s bone marrow.  I highly doubt he’s rounding up too many goats these days.

In fact, if I had to guess, I’d wager “I really should finish that degree” has never formed as a sentence during any of his mini-slumps. 

I have a feeling Sid’s mental state is juuust fine.

**********

Interpreting Growth

- by Justin Bourne

 

What part of the NHL playoffs should I write about for my next THN blog?

Should I write about how the Star-Wars-worthy epic playoff series between the Washington Ovechkins and the Pittsburgh Crosbys dropped like the stock market the second Varlamov landed back on Earth?

Nah.  That’s been done.

Should I write about how the entire city of Vancouver is going through breakup-like symptoms once again, after another year of the Canucks winning back their hearts just to stomp on them once again?

Probably no need to salt that fresh wound.

Or maybe I should write about the re-birth of skill, of high-scoring games and scintillating performances by legends in the making.

Nooope. 

Beards.

Has it ever been more apparent that the leagues base of stars is just out of pre-natal care than this years second round?  The only reason a Sidney Crosby interview is remotely interesting these days is because you can place bets on what year his mutton chops will connect to his Abe Lincoln fuzz (I refuse to address that mustache).

Patrick Kane?  Ol’ Gino Malkin?

These guys have faces smoother than Matthew McConaughey on xanax.  I only get two weeks into playoffs before I start looking like Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite, and these guys are genetically exempt from having to look stupid?

Remember the days when men like Clark Gillies were in playoffs?  Grizzly Adams watched him during the ’83 cup run and thought “damn, that guy needs a trim”.

That whole Islanders team looked they’d been stranded on a desert island with a volleyball for a half a dozen years by the time they were hoisting the cup.  I guarantee you the shampoo consumption of that dressing room in the finals ate into the Islanders bottom line that season. 

For some reason, we tend to associate manliness with hairiness.  And I feel like you need to be a pretty physically developed man to play in the NHL.  So what the hell is going on?

Evolution?  Are we in the stages of completing our journey to hairlessness, finally distancing ourselves from the Apes?

Where is Mike Commodore and his preposterous clown-wig/pirate beard combo? 

The only players left with quality face-warmers sport them peppered with grey – guys like Bill Guerin and Scott Niedermeyer, who was the recipient of the Harry Neale quip “is that a beard, or is he eating a muskrat?”

So where am I going with this?

Potential for growth, but in a different way.

What an amazing sign for the NHL that in the midst of the best playoff season I’ve watched, the stars of the show have voices that occasionally squeak.  The rest of the sports world that had so feverishly written off the NHL post-lockout is waking up to the game’s well-refined product.

Around The Horn and Pardon The Interruption have both regularly included hockey in their topic base, including a unanimous agreement between the ATH panel that the NHL playoffs are better than the NBA’s.  They used words like compelling, dramatic, and thrilling.

Aside from the well-discussed egg laid by the Capitals in game seven against the Pens, this season has done nothing but increase fan interest and hope, sporting a young cast of characters that are successfully leading their teams deep into the playoffs, forcing the type of head to head battles that the NHL would punch their own mothers to make happen.

Though the beards look sparse, the future looks full for professional hockey.

And if I could give any advice, to those endless stock-market-strugglers out there, it’d be this:

Pull your money out of Gillette, and sink it into the NHL.  You’ll probably shave yourself a few bucks.

 

 

 

**********

Post-Whistle Phonies

-by Justin Bourne

 

Playoffs has brought to light a revolutionary new breed of tough guy in the NHL.  The Post-Whistle Phony.

Let me preface my thoughts with a disclaimer.  I myself do not claim to be a tough guy on the ice.  I periodically get angry.  I occasionally chirp at chumps.  But my most common rebuttal holds somewhere along the line of “Yes, I realize you could kick my ass – does your coach know you’re out here?”

And I know my type exists in the NHL today.  There are guys like Jonathon Toews, players who play the game to win, without the slightest interest in a high-schoolesque testosterone-off.

But, there are certain requirements to be a hockey player.  You need to stick up for your teammates.  You may have to fight someone tougher than you (read: wrestle) because they did something stupid and you’re the first one on the scene of the crime – even though you are acutely aware this could end badly (read: my nose is now crooked).  You have to demonstrate your team’s unity.

I wasn’t a fighter, so I simply played the game.  No cheap shots, no snow-spray on the goalie, no picking on the little guys.  You know why?

Because if you do those things, you have to fight.  Rather, you should have to.  You used to have to, anyways.

  1. They’re fun to have on your team, provided he’s not the type that leaves you short-handed all game like the media-magnificent Sean Avery.

But I don’t like the recent evolution, this new breed of rat that can smell a linesman coming like a piece of gouda, and then suddenly grows a foot taller

Old time players sit at home watching these guys and want to jump through the TV.  In this, the year of the facewash, how many glove to face interactions can fans see before they go “hmm… I’m not so sure those guys actually wanted to fight…”

The fact is that for the most part, if you want to get to an opposing player, you can.  These men are big, strong, and skate like a gazelle runs.  If players don’t want to fight, that’s okay – then just play the damn game.

As much as anybody, I enjoy a game played at a fever pitch, laced with animosity, hard hits, and palpable tension.  But the facewash?  That’s a snowball fight move.

I’m not saying I don’t like a little action between the whistles, but the game has changed.  In the Broadstreet Bully days, hockey nonsense ruled.  The frequent bench-clearing brawls were stupid, awful, dangerous, and entertaining.  In describing those melees, my Dad (Bob Bourne) admits it was a scary time – if you started losing your fight, you could be losing for a looonnngg time before help arrived.  Scary sounds like an understatement.

In no way is that type of violence better, but there needs to be a middle ground for agitators in the NHL.  If you wanna fight, fight. If you wanna play, play.

But every successful playoff team needs some grit, and that’s just a fact.  This year has been no exception. 

For the Boston Bruins, a guy like Milan Lucic has been no phony.  He mows guys over, jaws at them, and if they’d like to fight, he punches in their face for free.  I can’t think of someone I’d rather play less.

Toughness is a valued quality.  Players feel obligated to represent ourselves as having that trait, to our fans, our teammates and our coaches.  And just playing hockey makes you tougher, and quicker on the trigger.  I assure you, nothing decreases the length of your fuse like getting cross-checked in the back, having your jersey held or your ankles slashed.

So we need to reward the guys who carry themselves the same way after the whistle as they do before it, and learn to discern toughness from being the post-whistle fakers – the guys who need to be “restrained” until the puck is dropped, the same guys who aren’t there to actually answer the bell when their opponent has rung it. 

The good news is, as series go on, phony-laden teams disappear.  We start to learn who’s been faking it, and who’s actually got the cards.  Good luck trying to bluff Lucic.

So for all the “tough guys” who need their gloves re-palmed every other week, the NHL has some bad news about the rest of the games in playoffs:

They’re only getting tougher.

**********

The Early Rounds

-by Justin Bourne

 

Fans that keep one foot on the NHL bandwagon, hop on. 

Round one is upon us.

In my past two seasons as a player, I’ve played in six playoff rounds, the most exciting, intense and demanding of which were in round one.

 Playoffs start like a car accident.  It’s out of control, anything can happen, and all of a sudden it’s over, and everything goes silent, except for that long horn at the end. 

 And you’re left wondering, what the h-e-double hockey sticks just happened?

 By the time I got to the third round last season, I was playing with a separated sternoclavicular joint (get out your medical textbook) and what was basically a bad shoulder.  I was 10 pounds below my normal playing weight, pale, and sported a beard that made girls throw up a tiny bit in their mouths.

 Without fail, at season’s end I would emerge from playoffs looking like some castaway that floated home on a coconut raft.  It takes a heaping mental effort to get up to the necessary level of nightly intensity, so after a few rounds of beatings and bus trips, it’s tough to be the player you want to be.

 And as a fan, I feel the same way about the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  I get so into the early rounds, and watch so much hockey, that by the end (I think the season ends in August now), I’m pretty much indifferent.  When you think about NHL playoffs, hasn’t the most fun always been those early rounds?

 Oh, those rivalries.  Boston-Montreal.  This is the 32nd time they’ve met in playoffs, and their last game was vicious.  Watching Chara throw windmills at Komisarek, I felt like somebody had finally pissed off Lenny from Of Mice And Men.  I’d let Chuck Lidell punch me in the throat to go to one of those games at the Bell Centre.

 Capital-Rangers brings Ovechkin to the Big Apple, and puts Sean Avery in the playoffs.  Networks are going to be tripping over themselves to cover the fiasco at Madison Square Garden.

 The Crosby-Malkin equipped Pens play the Flyers, a team with six 20-plus goal scorers?  And everybody’s first-round-fresh?  Yes, please.

 The first round means the decline in the productivity of every hockey fan with a television.  Four games a night?  It’s like they served the Super Bowl buffet style.

 By the third round, we’re down to four teams, a mere single game a night. There isn’t a hockey fan that shouldn’t be a little bummed about that.  SportsCentre shows less highlights, and adds more interviews.  There’s less to talk about.  The sensory overload that was the first round disappears, and life gets so… normal.

 The sheer quantity of passionate hockey games night in night out in this first round raises the entertainment value to its yearly peak. 

 Following these 16 teams epic quest is like watching Lord of the Rings: its one chaotic thing after the next, the odds of succeeding look thinner all the time, and they both take forever. But to get to the fires of Mordor (okay, dropping the analogy) – to get to the finals – is a journey unlike any other: the NBA isn’t as physical; the NFL playoffs are four games total. And at the peak of the biggest moments, in the biggest games in baseball, 95% of the team can be eating sunflower seeds. The Stanley Cup is clearly the hardest trophy to win.

 But by the time teams limp into the later rounds, they’re an injured, beleaguered sack of mentally fatigued warriors.  It’s rarely a fair representation of what kind of team they are.  The playoffs are an endurance test.

 But round one is a sprint.  Actually, its wind sprints, where the competitors periodically get punched in the face.

 So on Wednesday, the hockey world explodes.  Eight finely tuned teams bring their highest levels of aggression, mental focus and passion to the rink and take their shot at immortality.

 Teams that try to pace themselves get slaughtered off the hop, and all the analysts get to start pointing fingers.  These days, NHL fans are abuzz with the volume of information to process, gamblers’ accounts fluctuate like the Dow, and Don Cherry’s head nearly explodes.

 Every year I’m sad when this part ends.  Why?  Because that means I have to start eating dinner at the table again.  When it’s only one game, you can have dinner, and catch the game.  There’s no excuse for the pizza box/couch combo.

 There’s nothing better than getting a plate set, a drink handy (coke in a glass with ice), and starting the nightly double header (complete with highlights of the other two series).

 It’s not that I’m trashing the later rounds; I’m praising the early ones.  This is the hockey smorgasbord I’ve been waiting for.  This is where true hockey fans point to justify their obsession.

 So let’s do it.  Let’s stock up on chips, ice cream and popcorn (Orville Redenbacher’s buttery salt and cracked pepper). 

 We’ve reached the pinnacle.  Join me, won’t you?

 Enjoy round one folks.

**********

Survival of the Wittiest

- by Justin Bourne

 

Playing hockey for too long has turned me into a complete jackass.

When I first walked into a junior hockey dressing room, I was 17.  I didn’t drink, smoke or do anything all that “cool”.  I had a steady girlfriend who I was faithful to.  My favorite color was purple.

I got crucified.

I needed a copy of: Getting Beaked For Dummies: How to Respond When You’ve Been Called a Duster, Bender, Joke, Plug and Six Variations of Homosexual.

The basic rule of dressing room trash talk is that the “best defense is a good offense”, but most guys aren’t able to think of anything snappy — especially if somebody, heaven forbid, hits them with something clever.

And that’s what separates the trash-talk all-stars from rest of the room: You need to make specific, personal cuts that make a guy think. You gotta cut deep. Yes, this damages friendships, but they heal; it’s not The Hills.

It’s like the jail theory we’ve all heard:  On your first day, kick somebody’s ass so people know you aren’t to be messed with.  You have to take it too far a couple times so people know you’re one of the guys who will throw a guy under the bus if he gets too personal with you. 

To get good at this, it helps to take constant notes.  This is how good guys end up being bad people.  You’re listening to every conversation, often as a friend, but secretly taking notes for future ammo.  You do it so long you don’t notice that you’ve become Judge Judy, mentally persecuting while smiling and nodding.

The best-case scenario is a buddy mentioning that he cried when his dog died or something completely legitimate.  It’ll be exploited the next time he says something hardcore.

“Why don’t you quit whining about ice time and man up?”

“Shut it, you cry for puppies, you’re opinion is void.”

Note the mild exaggeration from dead dog to puppies; this move is key.  The trick is to find some truth and stretch it to the point of embarrassment.  The guy can’t defend himself with “no I don’t”, because the worst thing he can do is further dwell on the topic and give someone a chance to tell the whole story of his tears to more ears.

The most common chirp involves girls.

There are some guidelines: serious girlfriends and wives are generally off-limits (to the guy’s face).  You’re allowed to abuse the player in regards to his conduct with the wife (leaves team functions early, calls her “Schmoopy”, wags his tail at her every request/command), but personal attacks like “sooo, she never lost that baby weight, huh?” qualify as across the line.

There are very, very (very) few secrets in a dressing room.  There are always two to five conversations going on about the room while guys get their gear on, but the real fun starts when a topic is so hugely important the whole room is involved in a main-event worthy conversation. 

It usually starts with a raucous reaction to some piece of news somewhere in the room – let’s say some guy dated a teammate’s sister – and everybody is listening to that one conversation.

The mob mentality heightens the pressure, and all your buddies are dying to pull the trigger on a verbal knock-out punch.  Wear your thick skin and orate like Obama, because the hammer’s falling regardless.

Beyond the permanent girls, nothing is off-limits.  You’re fat?  Get your “I can lose weight and you’ll still be ugly” responses ready.  Balding?  Good luck.  These are the pettiest of petty issues that get players abused without having done anything wrong.

Chubby player: “Hey, that was my seat.”

Jackass player: “Well, now you have to stand on your fat feet”.

Anytime you get 20 guys in a room, doing nothing but working out and finding the next thing to laugh at, it doesn’t matter their profession; jokes are going to be constant. 

And that’s what guys miss when they leave hockey.  Maybe they’ll go golf with three buddies, but you can’t compare that to the volume of material created by a dressing room of wannabe comedians everyday.

So when you see old teammates down the road, don’t forget your basics: keep note of embarrassing things, offense for defense, and keep it personal.  There will always be buddies that you can get together with years after playing and pick up right where you left off.

My dad took me to a Canucks vs. Islanders game five or six years after he retired, and popped in to see his old coach from the Island.

Arbour:  “HEEEYYY! Sh**head!!!”

 **********

Chemistry Experiment #39

Written January 22, 2009, revised April 1st, 2009 for the magazine

-by Justin Bourne 

 

As a hockey player, every winter you get handed 20 new friends.  I usually got along with about 19, genuinely liked five and found one gem. 

But what happens when there isn’t that one gem?  Or even five you genuinely like?  What happens when you only get along with 16 of your teammates?  Does it affect your performance?

It was my opinion that talent is what it is, you’re either good or you aren’t.  When you get the puck, you make good plays or you don’t.  Confidence plays a small part in these decisions, but it comes from successes and failures.  False confidence, like your Mom’s “great game” after playing like a donkey for 60 minutes, means as much as “Mission Accomplished” from George Bush.

Obviously that same comment holds more weight from a teammate than a parent, but can that little bit of feel-good translate to better play?

My first year out of college, I played for the Utah Grizzlies, an immensely fun group of average hockey players, led by fan (and team) favorite Travis Rycroft.

Talk about passion for the game.  Ryks lived and breathed this stuff.  A Dave Matthews die hard, Trav wrote and played his own music at team parties.  He was a motivator.  He never quit.  But most of all, everybody liked him.  I mean everybody.  And that doesn’t mean he liked everybody.  In fact, if I had to guess I’d say my team-liking figures of 19-5-1 would be a little high for him (minus the 19 part, he probably got along with 21 of every 20 guys).  He literally says “you betcha” when he agrees, and isn’t being the slightest bit facetious.

So I got to thinking…. How important is team chemistry?  Our team in Utah was about an “okay” out of ten on the talent scale, but managed to go deep into playoffs as a scrappy, hard working team.  We had a great leader and liked each other.

There has to be a certain level where talent trumps chemistry.  I’ve never been a big believer in team chemistry, believing that a talented team with a good coach could hate each other and it wouldn’t matter; they’d still find success.  But the more I think about it, the more skeptical I’ve become of this idea. 

Rycroft was the team captain for four years and never got his chance at the next level, but he had to have been close.  Character isn’t something that can be measured and put on a scouting report, but its value is tangible in the locker room. 

Ryks missed some playoff games with torn knee ligaments (after being an iron man the previous season, never missing a game) and called the team in for a meeting without coaches to talk about that night’s game.  He cried.  He was so busted up he couldn’t play, he cared that much.  You don’t think that motivates a group of people who like him?  Of course it does. Some guys were playing for contracts, but the focus shifts a bit when you see something like that.  Something about it just sets you straight.

The Dallas Cowboys have been the picture of the team I had been thinking of, all talent and no chemistry.  They were a huge disappointment last season.  I’m starting to take this theory a little more seriously. 

All I know is that when I leave this game, I can take something from Ryks.  For one, he’s a good friend, but two, that this sort of stuff matters in any job.  No matter what it is you do, if you dread seeing your boss or co-worker, it’s miserable.  But if you’re pumped to see them, any day can be decent, and your job can be a treat.  I know I didn’t enjoy everything about being in Utah, but Trav made it fun.  I know which co-worker I wanna be.  And for that little tidbit that should have been picked up in grade school, I say thanks to Trav.

So when the NHL analysts spout their genius and lay down their playoff predictions like gospel, don’t bet the house on their words; who knows which team has a Rycroft.  It’s those un-measureables that create winning teams. 

 ********** 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The Pro’s of Rec Hockey

 - by Justin Bourne  (March 3/09) 

 

 

Playing hockey for a living offers some perks that recreational players aren’t afforded - namely, free gear.  My senior year of college included 38 games and two dozen Nike/Bauer Vapor XXX sticks, which at the time retailed for just under the cost of a human baby on the black market.  Along with the sticks, I get two new pair of custom Bauer skates to account for That-Thing-That-Cannot-Be-Explained on my heels. It’s a good deal.

Junior, college and pro hockey allowed me to be the best buddy a rec player can have, enabling my closest friends to pilfer what they can from the pseudo sports store I’ve assembled in my garage. 

I understand the benefits of pro hockey. We play a game for a living.  We travel with a group of like-minded males in a similar age group, and occasionally, fans love us.  We even travel places in suits - girls tend to notice that. (Easy Bri, easy now…)

At the same time, “playing” changes to “working” when you start earning that paycheck. Out of every 20-man line-up, there are probably four guys “playing hockey” and 16 others working. If you aren’t Sidney Crosby or one of the other ridiculously talented, you better get that puck in deep when you’re over the red line.  You better block that shot.  You better win that d-zone face-off. 

So when the coach isn’t on the ice and the players get to have a shinny game, it looks like someone threw a tennis ball into a Golden Retriever convention.  It’s every man for himself. Because in reality, the mid-play thoughts of a professional hockey player are usually a jumbled potpourri of: 

Coach: “Get it deep or get undressed!”

Teammates: “You didn’t see me open there?”

Teammate’s father: “If you have an open shot, take it.”

European teammate: “It’s okay to stickhandle.”

You: “Yeah, it’s probably okay to stickhandle.”

Any given play can end in:  Why didn’t you pass/shoot/make a play/pack your bag yet, you’re cut?

Rec hockey was something I dreamed about as I worked my way through the Mike Vandekamp school of junior hockey, which I should add was extremely effective.  I dare you to come to one of Vandy’s practices without having met your quota of bodychecks in the previous game.  Or to show up on video turning the puck over at the blueline.  I had a funny relationship with Vandy, but we had a mutual agreement.  He would let me smile and laugh, provided I never screwed up and hit everything that moved, or else he’d get to kill me and sell my organs for profit.

It’s a well-known fact that under-talented teams can be successful with a stingy defense, and most coaches believe their team to be under-talented.  So you better be able to play defense.

Though I don’t disagree with the logic from a coaching standpoint, there’s no doubt that North Americans have the creativity beaten out of them where many of the Euros don’t.  So here we sit, watching the rec leaguers toe-drag, stretch for breakaway passes, and try multiple passes on a two-on-one.

 Lucky. 

I can’t walk past a rec league game without ending up nose-against-the-glass like a kid looking for Santa, fantasizing about what spin-o-ramas must feel like, and generally noting that the legacy of Denis Savard was just offended by some guys’ weak-ankled sow-cow. 

To play the game like this, to play because the game is truly great is to honor the roots of hockey.  Fakes, creativity and trickery were sacrificed to the Gods of positional play and hard work in North America’s recent past, and we’re just now waking to the realities of the super-skilled NHL.  I bet most rec-players couldn’t tell me where they should be in a left-wing-lock, and I’m confident none of them lived a less satisfying life because of it.

I’m going to join a rec-league and play center because face-offs look like fun.  Only I’m going to completely neglect my duties in the defensive zone.  I’m going to use “center” as a synonym for “rover” and cruise around until I get the puck, then I’m going to attack on a one-on-three and not shoot until I skate it into the net.  My official stat line will read 3 goals and 4 assists for 7 points, because nobody is there to let me know the rest of it reads: 11 shifts for 33:01 Time-On-Ice, 15 turnovers and -9. 

I could go home with a smile on my face after that.  Especially after I drink a couple quick beers in the dressing room.  Now that’s hockey.

 **********

 

A Love-Hate Relationship With Hockey     

 

 - Justin Bourne  (Feb. 15/09)

 

As I sit here and type this, my jaw is in four pieces.  I’m equipped with two plates, 10 screws and a bottom row of teeth that would rival the finest set in any backwoods pub in England.  I’m a hockey player, and this is my life

My dad, Bob Bourne, was a hockey player, and a pretty good one.  He won four Stanley Cups with the Islanders back in the dynasty days, and has his name in the rafters at Nassau Coliseum.  I’m pretty sure it was his name they were raising; it was tough to see from the huge shadow I’m in.  At least I have the option of being a professional clown with these huge unfilled shoes of his.

But really, I never tried to fill them.  In fact, I was never married to hockey.  If hockey were a girl, I’m fairly certain I could go to the courts and get a restraining order.  Hey, I just liked it.  Maybe I led it on a bit with the late night games and the odd early morning rendezvous, but it knew what we were.  This all just happened so fast.

By 16, I was 6 feet tall and built like Clay Aiken.  After I sat down with my gangly limbs and convinced them to work as a team, we started to make progress.  I stopped having disappointments on cut day, and even started to become an efficient offensive threat.  I captained our Midget AA team to a provincial championship, lead a Junior B conference in scoring, and found myself a part of one of the best organizations in Junior A hockey in the Vernon Vipers.  Doors started to open.

After enduring a barrage of oranges (a navel attack?), threats of death by gas and repeatedly having my sexuality questioned by my coach, I went on to have success there too.  We won a championship and I earned a full ride college scholarship to the University of Alaska Anchorage, a NCAA Division 1 program in a conference with more national titles than any other, the WCHA.  The Seawolves haven’t, um, contributed any of those, but we turned out consistent victories against major programs like Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Denver – consistent being a generous adjective.

College was the best time of my life.  Nothing I’ve experienced as a professional so far has compared to skating out in front of 10,000 college kids in Minnesota, the band playing and the whole crowd chanting that we suck.  College hockey is an experience I’m blessed to have had.  It gave me an education and my best sports memories, like sweeping North Dakota, beating Wisconsin in playoffs, and installing a beer tap over our sink.  Yes, the last one counts as a sport.

It was at UAA that I started emerging from Dad’s shadow.  I led my college team in scoring a couple seasons, and realized there were some professional prospects on the horizon.  At the end of my senior season, I joined the ECHL’s Alaska Aces so I could stay in Alaska to finish my degree while getting a little professional experience.  I managed to contribute to a talented team that advanced to the conference finals. 

My big advantage over every other kid with a helmet was that Dad had left a shoe in the door to Long Island when he left, so it was already a tad open for me.  I had numerous AHL tryout offers, but the New York Islanders represented a chance at the big time.

   I’ll admit, I did have a little moment the first time I put that Islanders jersey on.  And the pleasant twist was, I really did well there, which I think caught the scouts off guard.  Before I knew it was I was back on the Island, this time for main camp.  Sitting on a chartered jet with Bill Guerin and Mike Comrie and eating a steak felt like I was at bring-your-kid-to-work day.  It was surreal.

I wasn’t in the Islanders’ NHL plans, but I caught enough attention to sign a two-way contract with their AHL affiliate in Bridgeport, and their ECHL affiliate in Utah.  I made the ECHL all-star team and spent the majority of the year after Christmas with the Sound Tigers in the AHL, enjoying an ocean view and rooming with Kip Brennan, who I’d like to point out I’m much tougher than (unless he’s back playing on this continent, in which case, um, sorry sir).

But in this roller coaster career, up and up for so long can be a scary ride.  I just wish I had seen the drop coming. 

For the 08-09 season I was off to training camp with the Hershey Bears of the AHL.  It wasn’t my intention to crack their talented line-up, I just wanted to represent myself well and hope for a chance later.  I had a signed deal with the Reading Royals of the ECHL, a team that had the highest number of call-ups per year, plus it had one other major perk: it was within driving distance to Clark Gillies house.  This may seem like no big deal to the average fan, but I happen to be dating his daughter, Brianna.  Dating a hockey player’s daughter just sort of happened, and is further proof of hockey’s unhealthy interest in me.  I equate this to hockey calling me late at night and slowly breathing into the phone.

In the first contact drill of the year in Hershey, I got hit funny.  My body moved, but my skate had found a comfortable rut in the ice that it decided to stay in.  I was heading to Reading a day later with a freshly torn MCL, a month until the first regular season game, and a lot of optimism. Reading seemed excited to have me.  The doctors cleared me to play two days prior to the first game. And I felt ready to play.

“Ready” to a hockey player is a slippery slope.  In three years of Junior hockey I missed zero games (largely due to said questioning of my sexuality by our coach).  I hold the UAA record for most games played, only missing one due to a healthy scratch, the ultimate nad-kick of managerial moves.  And though I claimed “ready” for my first game in Reading, I was awful that first night.  But, I had just gotten back on skates from a month off, so I gave myself a pass.  I wasn’t however, so fortunate to receive one from the Royals.  One game in, they traded my play-for-nickels contract across the continent to Boise, Idaho.

I decided to test the waters in Europe, but it was going to take some time to broker a deal. Idaho agreed to have me while knowing I might leave if the right offer came along.  Well, during the wait for a deal, my MCL took a run at Comeback Tear of the Year, and sidelined me for another month.  I made a greatest hits album of self pity in my head, combining distance from my girlfriend, car and friends, and played that on loop.

But I worked hard at my rehab, and got the green light to go with the team on a road trip to Alaska.  Friends!  You know you still love the game when you’re excited to be included in a trip to Alaska in the dead of winter.  It was December 12th, my 26th birthday, and first game back from knee injury.  What a birthday present!  I was going to play a few shifts in front of a few fans who remembered me from college, in my old home rink of Sullivan Arena.

What follows is something I’ll never forget.  It was my fifth shift, and we were cycling the puck in the offensive zone.  The puck got moved to our defenceman, so I headed to the net.  I beat the guy covering me out of the corner, and headed to screen the goalie.  As I got near him, I started to turn to look towards the point in hopes of tipping the shot  Our defenceman had fired a hard, aerodynamic blast unscreened and untipped, which hit me square on the jawbone.  Now that’s a birthday present.

I literally said “okay” as I was face-down on the ice assessing the damage, like somebody who knew they were about to embark on a journey of hurt.  When I tried to bite down and didn’t make contact with my bottom row, I was concerned.  When my tongue pointed out to me that, “hey buddy, um, you got some teeth over here and others over there”, I was scared. 

I’ve always liked writing and, with some encouragement and a lot of time on the couch, I’ve gotten back to it. It’s been cathartic for me.  The last two months of rotating surgeries, infection and braces have really forced me to take another look at my life.  I want my stuff, a place, and my girlfriend all the time, not just when we’re at home.

As this year rolls to a close, I doubt I’ll be able to play again.  My friends that don’t play have always described me as a bit of a double agent, someone who played the game but was able to give a little real-world insight to the ridiculous lives of professional athletes.  So now I write.  Something gives me the vibe that hockey isn’t breaking up with me.  I’ve got a sneaking suspicion it’s going to keep texting me when it gets drunk, and somehow, someway, it’s going to win me back.  Because the truth is, I secretly still love it back.

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