Playoff beards. Dropping the flippers. Right skate first. Warm up tunes. Post game snacks and rehydration. Chirping the other team's goalie. Superstitions. Early morning practices. Freezing in the stands or on the bench. Riding the pine. Arena burgers. Going end to end. Road trips!!!
If you have played, watched or coached hockey, I'm sure you know what I mean. How does it get better than hockey? I can really remember the last 35 years of my life. I've been involved with hockey for each of those years. I've been concussed, elated, suspended, protected, selected, responsible, irresponsible. I've been a leader, a prospect, washed up, a coach, a teacher, a parent and a diehard fan. I've spilled buckets of blood and tankers of sweat. Hockey paid for my university education, but it still cost my parents thousands of dollars. It is full of paradoxes but it is oh, so perfect in so many ways.
With the possible exception of my family and fishing, nothing gets me more excited than hockey. The speed, the violence and the skill of the game set it apart from every other sport. Skating is not natural for the vast majority of people in the world. Anyone can throw, hit, or kick a ball. Very few can execute a pivot from forwards to backwards, throw a head fake and crank a tight turn on skates. Even fewer can pull off a toe drag at top speed, freeze the d-man and snap it over the goalie's shoulder. Fewer still can stack the pads, flash leather for a glove save and stretch a butterfly while doing the splits. Hockey is special. It is Canada's little secret that only a few people around the world really understand. Hockey is to sport what The Tragically Hip is to music.
I spent the past weekend watching the western Canadian Junior B hockey championship tournament, the Keystone Cup. The host team, the Sherwood Park Knights, is a team I captained and coached. I have many great memories associated with hockey and so many of them involve the Knights. As a good friend of mine pointed out, the young men who play for the Knights have no illusions. They understand what every kid who dreams of playing in the NHL eventually understands. Very few are selected and even fewer make a living in this game. When you play Junior B, you stop playing for yourself and your parents and really start playing for the guys beside you in the dressing room. You play to be around the game and hang out with the team. If you work hard enough, you get a chance to win your league, play in provincials or, if you are really fortunate, play for an even bigger prize like the Keystone Cup.
On Saturday, I volunteered and worked security for the tournament, which meant that I spent my entire day in the Sherwood Park Arena. I watched 5 games between 6 different teams. What struck me was that, no matter where the team was from, the differences were minimal. The language, the energy, the intensity, the look, even the smell of each team was incredibly similar. The players, coaches, fans and volunteers for each team were passionate about hockey. They grew up playing the game and they all knew that this tournament was, for the majority of the players, their last chance to win something big.
My nephew played for the host team like his dad and his uncle. The Knights proved they belonged in the tournament and made it to the gold medal game. The arena was packed and the energy was unbelievable. The host team scored the first goal, but was not able to hold on to the lead. They hit posts, crossbars, and had many chances to even the score. When the buzzer sounded to end the game, the cheers of the winning team were drowned out by the sound of hearts breaking throughout the arena.
When I got to my truck after the game, tears poured out of me like I was attending a memorial service. They weren't tears of sadness, though. They were tears of fierce pride.I was proud that two Alberta teams played in the championship game. I was proud to be a former coach and player. I was proud of the host team and the organizing committee for creating a first class tournament. I was intensely proud of my nephew and his teammates because I have watched many of them play since they took their first uncertain steps on skates. The Knights left nothing in the dressing room and poured their hearts into the game.
More than anything, though, I was proud to know that I am a hockey player. A hockey parent. A hockey coach. A hockey fan. Hockey makes me shout at the television, jump in the air, wake up at 5:30 on a weekend and occupies a great deal of my waking hours regardless of the season. It's the greatest game around and it's a huge part of who I am.