Hockey's sweet delusions

November 17, 1996|By Hans Knight

Once in a while, not often, I slide one past the goalie, and then I punch the air like a maniac. And as I skate to the bench where my teammates slap me on the helmet until my ears ring, a guy named Paul, who could be my son, cracks the same old joke: "One more shot like that, we'll get you a date with a gorgeous blonde." And Big Lou will make like a sportscaster and announce: "The wily veteran has done it one more time," as I happily fight for breath.

Because Mother Nature has endowed me with better legs than brains, I play right wing with the Reds, who together with the Blues constitute the Main Line Hockey Club, arguably the least conspicuous franchise in all of sports. Its members come from all walks of life, like the cast of the old war movies. We have a sprinkling of lawyers and even journalists, but mainly we're working stiffs like tree surgeons, plumbers, carpenters, truck drivers. Ages range from callow youth to neo-Methuselah.

Most of us don't know each other's last names. What unites us is our passion for what Gordie Howe called a kid's game played by men. Under the steel blades, the ice hisses with the seductiveness of the famous Serpent.

And so, in the dead of night each Sunday, we converge on the Skatium in Havertown near Philadelphia, plunk down $11 apiece, lace on the skates, struggle into the rest of the gear and spill out onto the glistening rink like starving seals in quest of herring. For the next hour and a half, with two-minute breaks between shifts, signaled by Tarzan yells from the benches, we chase that damned elusive hard-rubber disc, legs pumping, hearts thumping. For brief, shining moments, hearth and home can go hang. The rest of the world, too.

There are certain distinctions that separate us from the professionals. Our swiftest skater couldn't catch Wayne Gretzky skating backward - even if Gretzky had a hernia. For another thing, we do not have a referee.

We do our own cheering and booing. We do not draw huge crowds. The largest attendance comprised three young couples sheltering from a snowstorm, plus a small poodle that barked impartial encouragement.

In the cosmic scheme, whether the Reds or the Blues win on a given night might be of negligible import. But not to us. We play to win, and although the club has a no-checking rule, we sometimes swell the coffers of our friendly neighborhood orthopedists and orthodontists. I have been known to nurse a few bruised ribs. But then again, I could fall off my chair playing chess.

In rare flashes of sanity, I ask myself what I am doing in this clangorous arena, huffing and puffing in seemingly pointless endeavor.

Why do I delude myself? I'm skating like the wind even as the blur of the young ones whipping by me tells me that the calendar says I'm 73 (that's no typo, alas), and the calendar doesn't lie.

I do not understand it any more than I understand why I love Mozart and what little I fathom of Shakespeare's sonnets.

I got hooked on hockey quite a while ago. When I was 10, we lived in a tiny town in Europe. One cold evening, my father took me to my first hockey game. A visiting team from Canada called the Kimberley Dynamiters faced off against our local all-stars.

The strangers diplomatically kept the score down to 32-0, but they looked to me like gods with wings on their blades. Right there, I became a rink rat. Four years later, as the devil would have it, our provincial ragtag squad beat the snooty big-city kids, 2-1, for the championship. Did I mention I scored the winning goal?

I have long since lost the little brass medal I got that day, but I remember how the sunlight bounced off it as I flipped it into the air.

And so, my hockey career has gone on and on like the battery commercial, interrupted only by war and having to make a living.

At the Skatium, amid the cacophony, I strain to hear the distant, fading music of childish glory.

The guys - Paul, Aram, Craig, Jan, Joe, Tommy and the rest of the crazies - let me keep trying. The helmet rides the gray hair, the face shield blurs the wrinkles. Maybe this is why they yell at me with some sincerity whenever I make a horrible play. I love them for it. I mean, in the real world, kids sometimes call me "sir."

It's something to warm me when I finally hang up the skates and the illusion is gone. But this can wait. Not forever, but surely until next Sunday night.

Hans Knight is a former reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin.

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