Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Go For a Skate, Eh?

I’ve been playing hockey for… 41 years now. I started playing organized hockey at 5, and played pretty much with the same bunch of guys from then until I moved to Spokane when I was 15. I played there, then in college, and was into local men’s leagues in Bellingham by the mid 80’s. Where I grew up, in Concord, Mass, hockey was religion, almost as intense as it is in Canada. At that time, there were far fewer NHL teams than today, and New England and the Midwest were the two places in the U.S. that pro caliber players came from. Hockey was way more important than football, baseball, or basketball, hands down, bar none, game over, man…

We played year ‘round – Ice hockey in leagues, outside, and school from fall through spring, street hockey or occasional rink hockey otherwise. Several neighbors had backyard rinks, but that wasn’t really necessary. Across the river on either side of Nashawtuc Road, the fields flooded and froze every year, and then Peanut McCone got his little cat out and cleared the ice. It froze under the trees in the adjacent forest, too, and you could skate through there, using the trees as would-be opponents, and we did, honing our puck handling skills.

I was more interested in fencing, though, and probably could have gone fairly far in that sport, had I not moved. Fortunately or otherwise, fencing was pretty non-existent in Spokane, though, while hockey was well established – So, you go with what you got, of course. As such, I was never as good a young hockey player as I could have been, had I applied myself, but I got better and better through college and into my 20’s.

I got good enough that I ran into a few opportunities to play against some genuine pros along the way. The first time was when a local ‘All Star’ team played the visiting Vancouver Canucks Old Timers. Now, at the time, I was in my early 30’s, and some of these Old Timers were younger than I was. Some weren’t, though, and among them was Orland Kurtenbach. Now, if you’re not a hockey fan, you don’t know who Kurt is, but I sure as hell did. He played 13 NHL seasons, scored 119 goals, had 213 assists, and had 628 penalty minutes. See those numbers? Get the picture? Whataya think Kurt's bailiwick was, huh? Kurt is flippin’ huge, probably 6’ 6” and 250, easy. He was the Canucks first Captain, in 1970, which was his 9th pro season. He was generally known as the most fearsome fighter of his era. He was a genuinely mean son of a bitch, the kind of guy you’d love on your team and hate otherwise. He'd retired in ’74 because of an ongoing back problem. When I met him, in the early 90’s, he was in his 50’s, was still huge, and still… Well, you’ll see.

I was thrilled to play, and psyched to get to see what real pro’s felt like. When the NHL struck in ’94, I played some pick up games with a local pro or two playing along; Tim Hunter was there pretty often. I’d learned that Hunter, who was considered an instigator and not a great hockey player in the grand scheme of NHL pros, could out skate, out shoot, and out play us with one arm tied behind his back, and he was gracious about it, too. Once in Spokane, playing with the Chiefs Old Timers, I was lined up against Perry Gonchar, who had retired maybe a year or two earlier. I was supposed to “Break up his rhythm,” though I pretty much spent each shift following him around and trying not to look too stupid…

Anyway, to get to be on the ice with a whole team of ex-pros was a real treat. They were being easy on us most of the game, but when they wanted to, or when we threatened to score, they turned it up pretty close to pro pace; and then the play developed faster than you can believe; the pass was made, puck was stripped, move was made, play was gone, puck was in the net before you could think, most times. Our best goaltender looked like an empty net. They made amazing moves that faked us out of our skates; we were a bunch of pylons… I saw real defensemen back-skate faster than most of us could attack going forward.

What I’ll always remember most fondly was my first shift out there at that all star game. I was lined up against Kurtenbach. I looked at him, big, stupid pro-struck grin on my face and said, “Fuckin’ A, you’re Orland Kurtenbach!” He looked at me like I was stupid for a moment, (No shit? My name’s on the back of my sweater, idiot…), then grinned crookedly, remembering where he was, and says, “Yeah, you know who I am, huh, kid?” I nodded and said, “Hell yeah, first Canucks Captain and one mean sonofabitch, I loved watching you play!” The whistle blew, the puck dropped, and Kurtenbach stepped in, stuck his stick in my side, dumped me on my ass, looked down smiling and said, “Yeah? How about now, kid?” and then skated off to the play. And there you have it, how many non-pros can say they got dumped on their asses by Kurt and lived to tell about it?

It was a total blast. Oh, and by the way, we lost big time – No surprise, that - The Harlem Globetrotters don’t loose either…

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