The Return of Hockey

Consider this a rough draft. I needed to just post it and get it out, for now.

I’ve had a love of hockey for as long as I can remember. Whether its playing the game myself, or watching any level of hockey in person or on television, I’m thrilled by every second of it. Hockey returns at the best time of the year. The fluctuating period between summer and autumn. Leaves are just starting to change colors and fall, crackling and rustling along the ground. The temperature is fickle. Some days are perfect for a stroll around the block or a bike ride along your favorite route. Other days remind you that winter is coming with the sharp bite of a cold breeze. Daylight begins dwindling down, the twilight hour arrives earlier and earlier. To me, all are reminders that it’s the beginning of hockey season.

Whether you’re in an empty rink that you have all to yourself, or a sold-out Stanley Cup Final, every sound, every noise stands out and has its own cause and meaning. Hockey has a symphony unto itself, playing out over the course of a game. The dull clunk of a puck when it hits the ice during warmups. The clicks of skates stepping onto the ice. The slices and cuts and carves as players pivot and stop, spraying ice into the air. The echoing crack of a perfect slapshot. The high pitched ping as the puck ricochets off a post. The clicking and clacking of players’s sticks jostling against each other and the ice as they fight for puck and position. The shrill whistles of the referees. The dull thump of the puck hitting the goalie’s pads. Players calling out to one another on the ice. The bass-heavy thumping of players checked into the boards. And the organs, forever tying hockey to its past through old chants and revelries, sometimes interspersed with renditions of newer pop and rock songs. Each arena’s unique signifier of a goal, be it a horn or a siren or something else, equally as loud and consequential. When you’re at home, that sound is the end, be it a glorious win or a devastating loss. ((Although victories are ever more often being accompanied by a particular song of choice, emphasizing a great win.))

Even the crowd is part of a game. Each arena has its distinct sound, some are more open and sounds drift out into the concourse. Others are more enclosed and you can tell when you cross the boundary between at the rink and away from it. The clamor preceding a game; conversations, cheers, screams and whistles all meshing together in an undefined cacophony. It drops off into respectful silence for the start of each anthem, then sometimes sings along, sometimes not. On the last note, the commotion returns and grows until the opening faceoff, and then slowly falls to its normal sustained level at the drop of the puck, following and responding to the actions on the ice for the rest of the night. The constant discord becomes its own character, responding to every moment on the ice. Disbelieving jeers and boos at infractions, real or imagined, by the opposing team. Jubilance greets an opponent’s penalty. A building roar preceding a power play. The rise in volume of the crowd as a player nears the goal, some fans screaming, some simply holding their breath. Despondent moans and groans if the goal is denied or the puck goes wide of an open net. The exuberant roar when a goal is scored, followed by the horn. The even louder cacophony when you win a game. And in the playoffs, everything is amplified. On the upper levels of the Civic Arena, the sections rattled and shook from the cheers of the fans.

Then there’s everything you see. The brightness of the ice. The patterns of the lines around the rink, light blue for the territory of the netminder, red faceoff circles, dark blue lines denoting the neutral zone. The team logo at center ice. The aesthetics of the jerseys. The comfortable familiarity of your home team. Your blood boiling at the sight of rival colors.

Stepping onto the ice is one of the best feelings in the world. The smell of fresh ice right after the Zamboni is finished. There’s nothing like it. Clean and crisp. You breathe in as deep as you can and feel the coldness in your lungs. You take a couple strides and just glide, the boards and glass flying by. Lean to each side and turn, angle and dig in to stop. The boards and glass fly by.

Then there’s the speed. When you’re playing, you’re flying down the ice You have to be able to stop on a dime. And whether you’re playing, or watching, you always have to think ahead to where the puck is going to be. If you’re skating to where the puck is, you’re behind the play. Hockey doesn’t have set plays. You can have a plan for entering the offensive zone, or positioning on the powerplay, but it never works exactly to plan. At its core, hockey is split-second reaction and improvisation. The best players have to be able to temper their instincts with their knowledge of the game.

this is why Sidney Crosby is the best player in the game; he’s among the smartest. Add that to a machine-like dedication to conditioning, diet, and practice and it becomes clear why he’s been able to dominate the league at such a young age. When he began in the league, Crosby was more known for his playmaking skills and had a reputation as the setup man. He would dish out perfect passes to the exact spot his teammates would want the puck at. He racked up the assists, chipping in goals every so often, and won the Art Ross trophy in his second year, the youngest player to ever accomplish that feat.

The Crosby decided he wanted to score more goals. He worked on it for an entire Summer, and the result was dominating the league in scoring, hitting 51 goals and winning the Rocket Richard trophy. This continued in the next season as Crosby put up points at a torrid pace. He had the longest scoring streak in ?? years and was on pace to have a ?? season. he was clear cut the best player the game had seen in almost a decade, and was imitating all the greats in their primes. Then the concussion happened and an MVP season was ended far too short.

This year’s opener has a bit of a dampener on it, however. Sidney Crosby is still out. The Captain is not leading his team on the ice. The best player in the league is not in the game. Yet. As hockey has returned from a long summer, Sidney Crosby is due to return from a long injury. He’ll be back eventually. Until then, everyone will see why it’s such a great TEAM sport. Everyone has their role, and when someone is out, they pull together even stronger.

I love this sport. it’s had some tough times in the past twenty years or so dealing with the neutral zone trap, the lockout, and the loss and an entire season. But it’s recovering. It’s doing better financially than it ever has before. The skill level of the game — at every position — is higher than it ever has been before. Every single aspect of the sport is amazing and I’m glad it’s back. It’s been too long. Drop the puck.

Karma on the Willowemoc

It was the last night of the annual fishing trip to the Catskills. I was already far ahead in making up for the previous year when I went home empty-handed. On the first night out this year, I had caught a fourteen-inch brown trout within the first ten or so casts. After that, I could relax and just enjoy the escape. There’s no feeling like not having any pressure to catch something. Especially when you’re first. Over the course of the week, I had caught an additional two or three smaller trout, nothing worth taking a picture of or remembering in detail.

My dad parked the car at the cabin the rest of our group was staying at. They were already fishing upstream. We put our waders and vests on, assembled our fishing rods, and walked across the road to the bridge. It was perfect, there were only three people there. One guy just out to the left of the bridge, one guy a little ways downstream, one guy just on the other side of the bridge. Plenty of room. There had easily been eight or so anglers crowded in this area the first night.

We stand on the riverbank, tying flies onto our lines, assessing the water and looking for where the fish are rising. The guy in the middle of the three people on the river turns around and sees us on the bank. He immediately turns ninety degrees to his left and starts casting directly downstream.  It was a completely selfish, passive-aggressive move that said, “Go somewhere else. This is mine.” He does this a few more times, then turns completely around, faces upstream, and starts casting again, completely perpendicular to any reasonable intent. “I need all of this. I refuse to share.”

Not only was this bad fly fishing, it was inconsiderate and ill-mannered. The self-centered pig does this for a good while as we’re tying our flies on, so me and my father give each other a look and walk back across the street, around the bridge and behind the cabin. We were upstream from the bridge a good fifty feet or so to start. I go upstream just a bit further to where a rabbit had swam past me on a previous day. The water was channeled between two sets of rocks and settled down afterward. I thought it’d be a good place to start, but I hadn’t caught anything in this area the entire week. We were upstream from the bridge and the big fish were usually right under it or downstream.

I cast my line out into the water and watch the fly drift lazily downstream. Nothing. I wait for a few moments, pull it back into the air, and cast again. Still nothing. I remembered the Pirates game was on, so I pull out my phone and turn that on. I keep the volume low, wanting the sounds of nature to rustle around me. The announcers were settling into their routine as I got into mine. I cast again. The fly hits the water and starts drifting along with the current. Then it disappears. There’s a sharp tug on the line. It’s a bite. Strong. Heavy. The fish is tugging away at the line, then swimming out as far as it can. I start fighting with it, pulling the rod back, reeling the line in and letting it go back out depending on how far the rod is bending. Meanwhile the Pirates score a run to tie the game. It couldn’t have been any more fun. I continue to grapple with the fish, slowly reeling it closer while dodging the branches overhead. The Pirates score another run as I pull out my net and catch the fish. It’s a big brown trout, sixteen inches and fat. My dad gets a photo of the fish in the net and then me holding it. Probably one of the largest fish I’ve caught.

After the photos were done and the fish was released, I walked a little bit back upstream to get to where I started at. I cast my line out again and move my phone around in my vest so I can hear the baseball game a little bit better. There’s a tug on the line. Another bite. I wasn’t even trying. It was nowhere near as big, but I have fun reeling it in anyway. Meanwhile the Pirates scored another run to take the lead. Two fish within minutes of each other and the Pirates playing good baseball. It was great. The day was already a success and I had only been on the water for a quarter-hour.

Those guys down by the bridge? Nothing but karma.