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Monday, December 1, 2008

Happy Hockey Talk Day

Today is Hockey Talk Day where Paul Kukla of Kukla's Korner has asked everyone to spread the good word on hockey.

In that light, I thought I'd share a few short stories of my experiences with our beautiful game.

Bridging Nations
The first story is the most interesting to me. And unfortunately I'm going to have to condense it so I don't overload everyone on the first go.

My longtime girlfriend is originally from Pakistan by way of Afghanistan and came over to Canada to attend the University of Saskatchewan back in 1998.

And though she adopted the Canadian culture possibly even better than myself, the one thing always missing for her was that most of her family was still in Pakistan.

In 2006, that changed as she was able to sponsor her mother, sister, brother, sister-in-law and two nephews to join our great country.

The nephews were 3 and 5 years old when they came here and didn't know a lick of English. But they learned quick. A couple months into their stay, we had gone to pick up the oldest from school during a snow storm.

As the car was fogging up on the inside and icing up on the outside, I exclaimed "Son of a bitch, I can't see shit." The reply from her 5-year old nephew in the back seat was "Me either." Whoops.

Kids pick up on things so quickly when they're surrounded by it. And it was never more evident than when, a short 3 months into her families stay here, my girlfriend came home and told me that while the kids were running around playing in the house, the oldest randomly declared: "Go hockey!"

He had yet to see a hockey game live or on TV yet it had already managed to permeate his thinking. Now that's an education I can be proud of.

Safety First
I'm from a small town and if there's one thing most small towns have, it's a laid back attitude towards rules and safety. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?

One of the rules our local skating rink didn't have was a requirement to wear a helmet when on the ice, even if sticks and pucks were involved.

Well, one early winter morning I headed down to the rink with my dad. And lo and behold, the rink was empty save for the caretakers. I had the ice all to myself.

So I laced up my skates, grabbed my stick and gloves, put the nets on the ice and tossed out a bucket of pucks. It was heaven.

I grabbed a puck at one end of the ice and went racing towards the other end. I felt like Guy Lafleur the way the wind was blowing through my hair.

I pulled wide and circled for a deke on the non-existent goaltender. Unfortunately I was still to young to have the "Keep your head up!" adage ingrained in my brain.

*Ping* went the goalpost. But it wasn't a puck that had hit it. No, it was my face. More specifically, my two front teeth.

While concentrating on my insane deking skills, I had put my head down for too long and only looked up a split second before colliding with the post.

And even though my dad was inside the lobby at the other end of the ice, he said he heard that sound clear as day.

So it was off to the dentist to fix me up. And the next day I was back on the ice. With a helmet.

Coaching Love
Again, being in a small town can limit options, especially when it came to being coached for sports. You don't pick a coach from a group of candidates, you just take what you can get.

But fortunately for us we always had some solid coaches to help us out.

I was too young to remember when my dad did the coaching but I do have memories of a few other coaches.

There was our French-Canadian police constable who always implored us to "Take the shoot! Take the shoot!' I still yell that at the TV from time to time.

Then there was our club coach who decided pronouncing my last name the way it was intended was no fun. Instead, I became known as Gi-rocks to him. Always and forever. Even to this day.

And of course there was our power skating coach. He was having trouble getting kids to remember to lower their stance when skating backwards. So he employed the "shock" strategy and told a bunch of 10-year olds that the proper stance for skating backwards was to "pretend like you're taking a crap". I never forgot that advice.

And of course, nothing says "small town coach" better than when your pee-wee coach misses a game because he was out birthing a calf.

Small Town Kid Makes it Big
The best part about small town hockey is when a local kid makes it big. And no local kid in our area has ever made it bigger than Patrick Marleau.

He hails from Aneroid which is about 10 minutes away from my hometown and we never feared anything more than having to make that 10 minute jaunt to play a game.

Part of it was because Aneroid didn't have an ice plant, making their ice more like slush. But the majority of it was because even though it felt like skating through a Slurpee, Patrick managed to skate like the wind and make us all look like fools.

Every morning he would be up at the crack of dawn and out practicing on that sludge. And thanks to that horrendous ice, he now has the most deceptive speed in the NHL.

Building Friendships
Is there no end to my "small town" stories? Not yet.

When you're in a small rural area, there's only so many teams you can play against and quite often, you'll end up playing against friends from a neighbouring town.

In my second year of pee-wee, I found myself facing off against one friend many times throughout the year. He was a pest to end all pests. Small and loaded with unending energy. Any time he was on the ice against you, you could be sure to end your shift thinking: "I'm going to kill that little bastard."

But he was quick and just when you thought you had him, he was gone. Until the very last game of the season.

It was midway through the third period of a tight game and I was on the ice trying to defend a lead. Of course, the little pest was out there too since he knew how to find the back of the net. And it was my job to keep that from happening.

And glory of all glories, he made a great pass which he admired for one split-second too long. I caught him with a full head of steam while he was looking off to the side and planted him on the ice. And then I stood over him for a second before skating away, just to rub it in.

For the rest of the game, when he was on the ice, so was I. And in all that time, he spent more time trying to catch me with my head down than trying to tie the game. It's funny how individual egos can sink a whole team sometimes, isn't it?

Once the buzzer sounded and we did the obligatory handshake, I got a quick shake and a brief "Nice hit" out of him before we headed to our respective locker rooms.

When I finally popped my head out, it was just as he was heading into the lobby himself. He looked at me. I looked at him. Then he grinned and said "Want to share a load of fries?"

Building Communities
If you count up the number of outdoor rinks in any state in the US, I think Saskatoon alone will have you beat.

There are more outdoor rinks than you can shake a stick at in this city of 200,000 and I love it.

If you carry your skates and a stick in your car, then you can make an impromptu stop in any neighbourhood and be less than 60 seconds away from getting your skate on.

But my best experience with an outdoor rink is within the Brevoort Park neighbourhood, which is where my boss lives.

Every year, the community hosts the Brevoort Park Shinny Tournament as a fundraiser for the community. And every year, we put a work team in to take on the locals.

It's an all-day event which ends with a mixer at the local community center with all the fine folks from the area. And the kicker? It's on ice but with no skates. That's right, to level the playing field, skates have been removed from the equation.

Needless to say, it makes for some hilarious moments. And though you can feel the competitiveness, the entire tournament is all in good fun.

There are some people who I only see once a year during that tournament but when I do, it's as if we'd known each other our whole lives. All communities should strive to be as welcoming as Brevoort Park.

Every year, as soon as the snow hits, my mind drifts to the tourney and the glories that lie ahead. D-side runner-ups baby!

Building Relationships
And of course, what more can you say about hockey than the bonds it forms.

My dad's side of the family was French-Canadian which meant he, his brother, his uncle and his father all were Habs fans. In fact, his uncle passed away in bed right after watching the Canadiens beat the Boston Bruins. Not a bad note to end on.

Of course, being surrounded by Habs fans meant that by default, I too was a Habs fan. Then I became a teenager and the "rebellion" phase kicked in. I decided it was time to choose my own path. And what more antagonistic path can you take than to start rooting for the Quebec Nordiques?

Not only were they the Habs biggest rival but it allowed me to retain a bit of my French-Canadian roots at the same time. That the Nords had Joe Sakic, whom I had idolized during his junior career in Swift Current, was just icing on the cake.

I still follow the Habs closer than any team outside of the Avalanche as they retain some sentimental strings in my heart. In fact this weekend I spent a lot of time rewatching their '86 and '93 Cup wins along with a few other Canadiens classics.

As for my dad? Whenever he sees me watching an Avs game, his first question is "So are we winning?"

6 Comments:

poop*ghost said...

Great stories shane. I was a rink rat in Duluth, MN until I was 12 and then I depositted rather unhappily in Texas.

My memories of playing pickup hockey at our local rink every day after school and all day on the weekends... well, they are great memories.

Our love for the UMD Bulldogs college was phenominal... every 10 year old knew which goal tender had played the previous 5 games, who was on which line... and we only got the games over the radio for the most part!

Rage said...

http://wraparoundcurl.wordpress.com/2008/11/28/paint-it-black/

Isn't Johnstown the Avs affiliate? Not so happy hockey...this is just hot garbage, actually

Shane Giroux said...

Thanks, pg. It's amazing how involved you can get in the game even with just a radio.

Rage, yep, the Johnstown Chiefs are the Avs CHL affiliate but that story is taking about a whole different Chiefs in a whole different CHL :)

In this case it's the Spokane Chiefs of the Canadian Hockey League who are being completely brain dead with their rules.

Adam Hersh said...

Great post, Shane. I enjoy reading about small-town hockey communities, especially since it's the exact opposite here and I never got the chance to experience something like that. Keep up these stories whenever you have the time. I'm out of town for the week but my tivo is set to record all three games, so when I get home Friday night, it will be an absolute Avalanche marathon! Unfortunately this means I will have to stay away from the blog world to avoid any scores, but here's to a 3-0 week for our boys!

Shane Giroux said...

Thanks, Adam. I might be all storied out but I'll see if anything else springs to mind in the next while.

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