It was about six months ago, maybe more, on a late Sunday afternoon, when it hit me. I looked from tying my skates and before me was a collection of aged, patched up hockey players whose love of their sport transcended any conventional wisdom or common sense. Across the room sat our youngest player, Jimmy, a buff, stylish youngster of about forty two, who explains the blond highlights in his otherwise brown hair and his piercings as the signs of a modern metrosexual. He still flies out on the rink, skating with an élan that fits his description. He also plays with a stent in his coronary arteries, the result of a heart attack about five years ago.
Across from Jimmy sat a stout fifty five year old, John, still called Johnny Boy by those who grew up with him in Hell's Kitchen. He is that rare breed of person who is tough, funny and decent, and liked by absolutely everyone he meets. Back in the day when we were on different teams that shared a bitter rivlary…it was a Brooklyn verses Manhattan kind of thing…I still like him. As I looked at John, I noticed the scars on his shoulders, not the same kind of dent really that Jimmy, the heart attack guy, had on his, but nasty. John looked up and, and as is his custom, said ”what the ##@* are you looking at #@##. He is as gifted a hockey player as he is a ball buster…well, maybe not… who plays the game at a very high level of skill. He has velvet hands, a booming shot and makes everyone around him a better player.
Next to John sat Butch, a youthful fifty, also called George (His real name) or fat boy; the last handle courtesy of a perpetual pot belly that really isn't that big. Lets just say, though, that phrase fits. He too has the shoulder scar thing going on. Butch is the acting chief of a nearby police deparment and has the calm under pressure that comes with the job. He is a steady defenseman who takes warm ups with a cigar in his mouth. In the interest of full disclosure, no hockey player we know has ever referred to it as a cigar.
Next, my eyes fell upon Sal, or coach Sal, as the kids that play on his high school team call him. He is a cerebral player with good skating legs, who at the tender age of sixty, is thin and whispy. Not an ounce of fat. Thus far, other than playing with a hernia that he is till waiting to fix, he avoided broken bones. He knows the game so well, that he hides his frustration with less savy colleagues until it boils over, usually, as a comaplint to the referee, or the other team. He may not know it, though he will now, but it could be construed as whining. But that’s okay, he is also my road roommate when we head to Las Vegas every year to take a shot at an over-fifty championship. He is, sort of, my hockey wife, and what wife doesn’t whine a little bit …
Up next is one of two men I have played with, off and on, for over forty years. Joey. He is only fifty nine. Only! Joe is a gifted carry the puck defenceman who is equally skilled in the defensive part of the game. These days, he stresses defense a little more, especially when dealing with thirty somehting forwards. He is one of my closest friends in the game who travels as lightly now as he did when we were kids, which is a nice way of saying he is cheap and unafraid. I know those two things seem unrelated…work with me here. You see, he never has tape, never did, not at $3.50 a roll. The first words out of his mouth before any game are, "who has tape." He doesn't ever tape or put a knob on his sticks. He has owned, as far any of us can tell, only two pairs of skates in the last thirty years. Rather than spring for a good helmet, he wears a device that you would expect to find on a man shot out of a cannon, and wears almost no padding save shin guards. And, thank goodness, he never gets really hurt. Sure he takes the occasional cut, or stick near his eye. Still he will not wear a mask, nor get better head gear. But Joseph is a beatiful man and a beatiful hockey player. He is the consummate teammate and friend.
Then there is Cookie, alias The Captain, rarely called Bob, sometime known as the GM, as in general manager. He just turned sixty. When I first met Cookie in 1965 he was the best player on his team, and for a number of reasons has lost very little over the years. Really! It's both freaky and joyful. He is the one of us who never took a break, never, not ever. As the rest of us got older, saya round around thirty years ago or so, we all took breaks from the game. Some took to coaching like I did, others started new jobs, still others stopped for marriage and family, and many of us gave it up because we could no longer keep up with players in their primes; but not the Captain. He kept up until he was in his mid forties, playing outdoors in the toughest of leagues. He also was raise his terrific daughter and built a successful business. When he came to play over 30 hockey…which is what we do even at our advanced ages…he made sure that the league was the competitive and that he could play in its top division. He did not skip a beat. This was his primary hobby and he has never eased off that premis. My own feelings about him vary from awe that he is pretty much the same shape he was thirty years ago, to envy for his ability to consistently play well against the top younger players. Now, the rest of us are all accomplished players, as well, some who even do different things better than Bob, but none of us does as many things as well, or as often (he plays three games a week). As for his injuries, there are no visible signs, other than add odd looking face mask that only protect his teeth…they took a stick about six years ago. He too has had his share of bumps and bruises, all treated with some interesting remedies including wrist magnets, amino acids, Glucosamine and Chondroiten, Flexall and God knows what elese. Hockey is what he does, who he is. He is also stand up man, through and through.
Before I describe our goaltender, think of the Manhattan Accent and voice tone of the late George Carlin. Add the toughness of just about any Scottish character in the movie Braveheart along with the charm of Frank Sinatra. Also think of old, very old. Dennis is sixty five and plays the toughest postion on the team. He stops pucks. He is able to do this with a stand-up stlye that is so technically correct that he is rarely out of position. It is almost heartbreakng to see the faces of thirty year olds who get stopped on a breakaway by a man, older than their father, who did’nt even break a sweat. Dennis has bad shoulders and like all goelies has injured just about everything at one time or another. There is not enough column space to cover them. What is important is that he is still here. And this man goes back a ways. He was Hall of Fame NHL forward Joe Mullen’s childhood coach. Joe is already retired ten years. Denns is, perhaps the most admired player among the collection of great hockey players who came out of Hell’s Kitchen, and I am including the pro and college players who moved on to great heights in that statement. Playing on the same team with this one time foe has been one of the absolute honors of my hockey life.
And, lastly, there is me, hanging on by a thread at sixty, now almost sixty one. I still skate very well, but my hands are shot and I don’t score as much anymore. I get by on smarts and what is left of my legs. Sometimes I worry that I get icetime only because I tend to run most of the teams I play on. As for my maladies, seven years ago they put a thirteen inch rod in my leg to fix a triple fracture, one of my shoulders has the telltale shoulder separation dent in it, and my broker finger just healed. Currently, the doctors are also treating me for something called compartment syndrome in my right leg. So I am fine, or as fine as anyone else I the room at any given time. What with the leg thing I have been thinking about finally giving up the ghost. To that end I have been patching my beaten up skates with tape and making other assorted emergency repairs. No sense investing in new ones with only weeks left.
But something has been going inside me since I went into rehab for the leg thing. It is what made me think back to that Sunday over a year ago when I first wrote this column I my head. I love this sport and I love these men. We play this child’s game even as Social Security is coming up on us a fast as one of Johnny Boy’s shots. Three of us are grandfathers. But I need to leave you with this. We are blessed to have such frindships and such fun and such commeraderie at this or any other age. This short piece is my way of sharing that joy with you, and making a tribute to my friends, all of them, including those that are not mentioned for reasons of space.
By the way, if you are at all intersted. My new skates are Missions.