Big Daddy, or Why Hockey Left Me Before I Left It

jari-kurri-east-havenI miss hockey. I miss the rush of it—skating full bore, legs pumping. And I miss the insane blood lust of it—chasing a puck carrier the length of the ice, poking and slashing at his arms, legs, and body with my stick. Harassing the shit out of him. I read once that a hockey player at top speed exceeds 30 miles an hour. I also read once that 30 miles an hour is the speed at which serious injuries begin to appear in car accidents. I have no doubt these two facts are somehow related.

It is fully within the rules of hockey to hit someone at full speed. You can’t line someone up and plant them into the boards, you can’t hit them with a raised stick, and you can’t connect primarily with your arms, elbows, or an outstretched leg. Technically, if I remember the rules correctly, you cannot take three or more strides directly at an opponent and then check him. But the reality of hockey is that very little skating is done in a straight line. You are constantly shifting, cutting, turning, deking—doing anything to get around obstacles and get the best angle on the puck. So if someone is in open ice, head down, and your trajectory just happens to intersect with him, well, Katie bar the door and you better check your dental insurance, may the best man win.

I have been at both ends of such collisions, but more often on the receiving end. Once, retrieving the puck behind my own net, I turned 180o and started to head up ice. Bad idea. I was looking up ice and never saw my opponent, who hit me low—I felt the impact at mid-thigh. As I was pin-wheeling through the air, I found myself admiring the little prick for executing such a perfect check.

Smaller opponents loved to take me down. At 6’2” I was often the tallest player on the ice. This gave me a significant advantage in terms of reach, but I was so damn skinny that my center of gravity was somewhere between my sternum and my Adam’s apple. And smaller opponents took advantage of this. Once, lining up for the opening face-off against an all black team (yes, a rarity then, and now), I found myself facing off against a menacing boy a foot shorter but perhaps three times wider than me.

“Oh, Lordy!” he said, before fixing his mouthguard in place. “I’ve got myself a big one here!”

His linemates chuckled knowingly. “Get him Big Daddy! Take him down!”

When the puck dropped and play started, I found myself putting as much distance as I could between myself and Big Daddy. But hockey doesn’t work that way. You can’t challenge someone for the puck from 30 feet away, no matter how tall you are. On the first line change, my coach greeted me at the bench. Grabbing my facemask, he leaned in and hissed, “What the fuck is wrong with you tonight?” He then let me sit for a good long time before finally putting me out to kill a penalty. “Now go out there and hit somebody,” he barked before sending me out.

Killing a penalty was my thing. I was not a good scorer or passer, but I was an above-average skater, and tireless. I also had that great reach and the witless tenacity of a terrier. As the opposing team tried to use their extra skater to set up some kind of play, I would relentlessly dog them. Check them, poke at them, chase them all over the ice—anything to get them to hurry their play and make some kind of mistake. Being a penalty killer meant being an agent of chaos, and I loved this role.

As luck would have it, Big Daddy was on the ice for their power play. Standing at the “point,” the blue line that straddles the ice about 45 feet from the goalie, Big Daddy was at a safe distance from the corners where he could do me grave harm. But being at the point also put Big Daddy in a position where he might get set up for a shot, and I would have to close the gap to him as quickly as possible.

Of course, this is precisely what happened. The puck came out to Big Daddy and I was the closest defender. As he lined up his shot, I had a very clear thought—Big Daddy might be scary, but my coach was scarier. I was not going back to the bench without challenging this shot.

So challenge I did. I headed straight for Big Daddy and closed the distance between us in two strides. Now there are perhaps two safe ways to challenge a shot in this situation. You could slide, putting your skates and well-padded shins in the path of the puck and your head a safe distance away. Agile players do this, and you see professional and major college players do this brilliantly. You can also simply skate directly at the shooter, in the hope of rattling him, confident that the shot will hit you fairly low on the body and in a well-padded spot.

Bizarrely, though, I did neither. Desperate to attack the shot, I instead lunged at Big Daddy, reaching out to my full length to put my stick in his way as quickly as I could. Big Daddy unleashed a furious shot. My teammates later told me that his slapshot glanced off the oncoming blade of my stick and rose to hit me squarely in the face.

“You went down like a ton of bricks,” one teammate told me, with too much glee. “You were out fucking cold.”

Another teammate chimed in, “It’s like you said, ‘Here, shoot it at my face instead.’”

I came to in the ambulance. The puck had hit me high on the facemask, almost where it meets the helmet, so I felt like I had a divot in my forehead. The EMTs were unimpressed, though. This was a tough neighborhood, and they had seen far worse. “You’ll be fine,” one said. “They call us because of the insurance or something.”

My next concussion would convince me to quit hockey. I was killing a penalty (again!), chasing the puck carrier around the net when my skate caught a stray piece of netting. I hit the boards head first, at close to full speed, and got my second ambulance ride in a year. This time, the EMTs seemed more concerned. They must have asked me who was President 25 times, and never seemed satisfied with my answer, no matter who I tried. The smelling salts finally brought me around.

“You really should think of a different sport,” the EMT offered. He was right of course. Even at 17, I was smart enough to know it wasn’t worth it. I wasn’t much of a player, but I loved it. God help me, I loved it so.

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