A year ago today, the plane carrying the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (the NHL of Russia) crashed with only one survivor. The outpouring of support from the hockey community was incredible. My only familiarity with Lokomotiv was via a web site that sold Russian hockey jerseys, and my connection to the team was as tenuous as a school-aged kid who picks a favorite team based on their colors or logo. But the crash reminded me that there are many things larger in life than hockey and money and daily stress; perhaps stimulated by the number of air miles I cover in a year for my job, or the number of late-night trips down the Garden State Parkway after adult league at the Ice House; in either case this one hit close to the home bench. My personal feelings toward Ilya Kovulchuk changed as he began personally financing fundraisers and support for the players’ families, taking significant chunks of his own off-ice time. It really did affect hockey families half a world away.
The IIHF website has a nice piece on the one-year anniversary of the horrific accident. As we stand a week away from yet another labor stoppage in the NHL, my hope is that Gary Bettman, and the club owners, take the time to read and think about this piece. They are arguing over how much to pay grown men to play a game, when there are so many larger issues just past the runway.
That’s the front story. The back story is that two years ago I submitted a piece to Stymie Magazine for their sports fiction contest. I didn’t win, nor do I think I even showed, but it was fun writing it and I’d like to have someone besides my friend Lemon read it. The saddle point connecting the story to today’s anniversary is that a player from Yaroslavl Lokomotiv figures prominently in the story. Again, this was a year before the crash, and I picked the team for the story based solely on their logo and colors, as any kid forced to choose with limited knowledge would. I tried to write what I knew, following the age-old advice given to budding writers, and I drew on my interactions with Coach Joe, Coach Garry, my father’s best friend Tony, Jay from the Far Hills Hockey Club (Mr. Dangle Pie), four separate days of playing poker in Atlantic City that preceded this story and one trip to the Russian food store on Route 10 in Livingston. This is a work of fiction, as team locations and history have been altered or invented to suit my ham-handed literary approach, which is only slighty less (unintentionally) amusing than my adult hockey league approach.
In memory of the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team, and in hopes that we see a 2012-2013 NHL season, here is part one of “Game Face” (presented without commercial interruption). Part two will be posted shortly unless people throw digital tomatoes.
“Just about two gallons of blue paint” is the answer that pops into my head. My left hand is holding a red Taj Mahal $5 chip on top of my two pocket cards while my brain muddles through a series of math problems to focus my attention away from the growing pot in the middle of the poker table. “How much paint do you need for the blue lines in a hockey rink” is the latest question I’ve conjured up. My head has gone into its own helmet-less hockey rush: two lines of two by eighty-five feet, painted in two coats is just shy of 700 square feet, which is what you’d get out of two gallons of paint. I file these random puzzles away for times like this, when I need a true poker face to hide the fact that there is a pair of kings under the likeness of Donald Trump on that chip. My roommates and I used to come up with all varieties of sports teasers, and they’d torture me about my glazed look until I came up with the answer, no matter how obscure the trivia domain. It’s easy to have a good poker face when you look like you’re completely out of the game. “Game face” was the nickname they gave to our late-night nerd fests, and replays of those sessions have served me well at the poker tables in Atlantic City.
I have a real job as well. It’s real in the sense that I get paid by a meager monthly direct deposit, and it also involves playing games. By day and some evenings, I’m a left wing for the Atlantic City Devils, the recently moved AHL affiliate of the same-named NHL club. The big club has been mired in a season of immense mediocrity, showing no relationship whatsoever to the team that won three Stanley Cups when I was a New Jersey youth hockey player. I’ve been a Devils fan all my life, and when my playing days at Princeton University were done, I showed up undrafted, unannounced and most likely unwelcome at training camp. I played the Jeff Halpern card, and it worked.
The Devils offered me a contract to play in their ECHL affiliate in Trenton, and unlike most of the other liberal arts majors in my graduating class, I had a job before college football season hit full stride. When the AHL team moved down the Parkway to Atlantic City, I moved up in stature and joined them. Through the last full winter season I’ve been a full-time resident of America’s Playground, supplementing my minor league salary with poker winnings, giving my parents mixed feelings about the “real world” skills I acquired on their dime. The truth is, my real world education began the day I was cut from the big club, and moved into a shared apartment in Trenton to play hockey for a living while putting those Ivy-colored plans aside.
Raking in a nice-sized pile of red chips, I feel my phone vibrate, and step away from the table but miss the call anyway. It’s a number that I recognize, somewhat terrified, as the NHL and AHL Devils general managers’ shared office in Newark. My stomach lurches as I play the voice mail, and then again when I play it a second and third time as I’m racing to the cashier and the valet.
My linemate and Russian roommate turned-quasi-brother Dmitry and I are being called up to the big club. Today. And I’m supposed to get Dmitry to the practice rink in Newark because they still don’t trust his English or driving skills enough for him to navigate on his own. It seems that injuries and a worse-than-usual start to the season have cleared two roster spots, and they’re ours to retain.
On any given summer Sunday, driving the Garden State Parkway for a hundred miles between Atlantic City and Newark is pure torture, an adventure in accidents, construction, congestion, and everything else that gives Jersey a bad name. You’re emotionally exhausted just going from Point A to B. That’s the feeling I get when I show up at the practice rink the next morning for the pre-game skate: heads are down, guys go through the routine with perfunctory precision, but no passion. I vaguely know the head coach, as he stood behind the visitor’s bench when my Tigers played Cornell a few seasons ago. His players liked him then, and his players like him now, a coach who knows the hard work that goes into playing this relatively simple sport professionally. It’s not at all clear to me why the team isn’t performing well. There’s speed, there’s skill, there’s definitely coaching ability, but there’s little in terms of organizing effort. I’m tempted to call it a game of professional shinny, but opt wisely to keep my rookie mouth shut, even if the coach gives me the slightest perceptible nod of recognition the first time I’m on the ice.
Our first week is what I expected, with two games in which Dmitry and I each get about seven minutes of ice time. We’ve taken the Hippocratic Oath of hockey – first do no harm – loosely translated as “bigger back check is a bigger pay check”. Translation is my larger role in the locker room and in our temporary housing, as the more formal travel and dress requirements, tighter schedule and generally faster pace of life on the big club are pushing Dmitry to his legal language limits. I’m never sure how much of this real-world helplessness is an act, and how much is his longing for some local family. He’s been in the country for over a year after leaving Yaroslavl Lokomotiv of the Russian Kontinental League. One afternoon I drive him over to the Russian supermarket on the other side of Essex County, and he’s in heaven, chatting with the clerks, finding a taste of home in New Jersey, and trying to explain all of the strange canned foods to me.
While the supermarket triggers some happy memories of the northern parts of Russia, the weather has been cold enough to inspire some Siberia jokes. The belts in my car complain all the way to the charter jet terminal as we load up for a trip through the Midwest, where it is colder, gloomier and more snow-covered. Outdoor hockey weather, according to our Canadian teammates, but really an uncanny and unfortunate depiction of our collective mood.
Our day-off practices on the road are usually held at a local rink that’s equidistant from our hotel and the major city arena. You can count on seeing some out of market fans there, looking for an autograph or just watching practice. Our equipment guys do their best to make sure what’s likely a pair of high school locker rooms feels like home for a few hours. Hence our collective shock when we walk into the practice rink in suburban Chicago to find everything but our skates and gloves missing from the locker stalls, jerseys replaced by heavy sweatshirts. My locker nameplate should have proudly announced my arrival in the Windy City but was taped over with a note that simply read “Shinny on the pond. 11:30. Mandatory”. Had our general manager, or player’s union lawyers seen this, they’d have gone apoplectic.
We file out the side door, skates tied and tossed over shoulders like schoolboys going down to the local hockey pond. In the middle of the deep, dark ice was a pile of sticks – our pro quality, nickname-embellished sticks – dwindling rapidly as the coach grabbed and alternately tossed them at the nets. Like riding a bike, the motions of putting on our skates while literally freezing our butts off and warming up without taking out errant figure skaters came back to us as the childhood memories I suppose they were meant to resurface.
Pond hockey is harder than indoor hockey. There are no boards to corral shots wide of the goal, or to help you angle a player to gain position. It’s about passing and precision and playing until you know where your short-term linemates will be at any time. There are no offside calls, no faceoffs, no whistles. We come out stiff, for maybe ten minutes, but realize that this really is our practice.
The fun begins.
One of the rookies flies by a veteran defenseman, hollering “dangle pie” on his way to the net. There was no dasherboard into which to check him as punishment. Dmitry and I manage to get one shift together; I hear his “To Open! To Open!” call for a pass and I give it to him with “To shoot! To shoot!”. His English has improved to include the use of infinitives in all cases, especially when he’s scoring. I’ve almost forgotten how much fun it is to skate with him when we’re playing well. He stands at rapt attention when we’re on the side of the pond, listening carefully to every word from the coaches, the players, maybe even the louder fans who have come to watch, because he is being a “student too.” Someone leaked my back story to him.
We are perhaps the first professional team to have Starbucks deliver a Coleman canister of hot water to a rink’s exterior so that we can thaw our frozen water bottles at the halfway point. We escape from pond hockey unscathed by cold weather and probing questions from the press, perhaps utilizing the same luck that lets our GM survive league meetings. I’m not sure how he’s seen by his peers, since he bought the team as its fortunes were fading, and his eccentricities for drafting players based on lucky numbers, or demanding that his hunches be played out on the ice or in trades, sometimes make it feel like we are managed by a tarot deck.
The next night, our lines are shuffled more than a little, enough to make the broadcast crew wonder exactly what happened at yesterday’s practice. Coach’s pre-game speech is his simplest of the year.
“Boys, I’m done trying to play someone else’s poker hand.” I get a quick but obvious stare.
“This is a gin game; it’s about finding what will work with what to help us win. You proved to me you know how to play and have fun and figure out how to make things work. Do that.”