Ice Follies

February was not the best month for the Keene Blackbirds. A shoulder separation, a couple of concussions and a seriously sprained ankle left the team depleted, especially in the offensive zone, and loses began to accumulate. The games were close, mostly, but the team was not firing on all cylinders. Hockey games are long enough to allow a weaker team’s weaknesses to be exposed and the better team, more often than not, will come out on top.

Nathaniel’s folly: figure skater he is not

How a high school team responds to challenges can say a lot. Nathaniel’s team has done relatively well; and the relatively young and inexperienced coaches (both police officers, as it happens) have done a good job keeping spirits high and helping the kids put less satisfying games behind them and move on. Nathaniel, as we all know, is unflappable. The difference between a win and a loss is clear to him. But even when he was younger, in higher stakes games, he would respond to situations in his own way. I remember locker rooms when tears were falling and anger was flashing and he would look around and say, “I don’t get it, daddy, it is just a game.”

When a goalie sustains a concussion, though, and there is no back-up goalie, a team is in a fix—especially when the only kid who has played much in the goal hurts his ankle and shows up to practice on crutches. So imagine my surprise when I see Nathaniel walking out of the rink after practice with goalie pads over his shoulder.

The position of goalie in ice hockey is a curious one. The lore that goes along with the so-called “net minder” has parents of youth hockey goalies wondering what they have gotten themselves into. It is expensive and the psychological pressures of the position require a special kind of person to succeed. When we heard that our niece Nica was playing goal up in Maine we were excited for her at the same time we empathized with Rachel and Bill.

Warming up for the game
Warming up for the game

As it happens, this past weekend we read Charles McGrath’s profile of the legendary New Jersey Devil’s goalie Martin Brodeur in the New York Times Magazine. He explains the uniqueness of the position, and how a goalie is perceived:

“Playing goal is not fun,” Ken Dryden, the Hall of Fame goalie for the Montreal Canadiens, wrote in a memoir. “It is a grim, humorless position, largely uncreative, requiring little physical movement, giving little physical pleasure in return.” While his teammates zip around, the goalie lumbers, weighed down by his cumbrous equipment, and he spends the whole game by himself, down at one end of the rink, within easy earshot of heckling fans, in front of a red light that flashes on whenever he fails and lets a goal slip by. He has flurries of activity, but a lot of the time he just watches and worries. There’s very little he can do to win a game, and mostly he hopes only not to lose it.

In hockey mythology, it’s an article of faith that all goalies are a little flaky. You have to be a bit nuts, the theory goes, to want to play the position in the first place — to stand in front of the net while people sling hard rubber discs at you at more than 100 miles an hour — and only certain personality types can withstand the strain.”

In contrast to Dryden’s summation, the goalies I have coached and known in youth hockey over the past few years love playing goalie. It is fun, they say, and the athletic skills of a practiced goalie are beautiful. The team supports the goalie and protects what players call “the house.” One of our favorite defensive players, Ellinore, is often seen battling for position in the goal mouth and shoving opposing players to the ice if they persist in digging for a puck in the crease, especially after the whistle blows.

So here we are in “The Barn”—the euphemism that people use to repress the fact that the rink in Keene is really a summer barn in which draft horses pull and people scramble to catch pigs—in the penultimate game of the season and Nathaniel is dressed as the goalie. He is in the corner of the barn and the real goalie (the guy with the concussion) is tossing pucks at Nan and giving pointers on moving from side to side, dropping into a butterfly, protecting the post and using the blocker and glove. And then the warm up and people smiling (and his team mate and friend Max unable to stop laughing). But then a murmur that in spite of awkward moments the kid is making the right moves and stopping pucks.

The team is introduced. The announcer’s voice rises as he introduces “the one. . .the only. . .Nan Todd Long!” and the barn erupts in cheers for the kid who volunteered to play goalie when there were no options knowing that as a key player in the defensive unit the team would be weaker as a result. Then the puck drops. The game begins.

There could be many ways to tell the story of what happens next. And one could imagine, as our friend Kath did in a dream the night before after hearing that Nan was going to play goal, that the other team would score 432 goals. But the first period was Nan’s. I counted over 12 saves while one made it into the net on a wraparound that even a first-strong goalie might not have stopped.

Out of position, eyes on the puck, but another save

The game wore on. And Nan was the talk of the rink. When he made a save, the crowd erupted. Again and again. By the end of the second period the score was 3-4. One of Izzy’s friends came down from the stands and said that she overheard one of the opposing team’s parents exclaim after Nathaniel stopped what looked like a sure break away goal, “Wow, their goalie is good!”

In the zone
Focused and in the zone

The third period wore on. The game ebbed back and forth. Nan weathered a 5-3 and then a 4-3 as the other team could not get the puck past our boy in the net. But then the game turned. The Blackbirds were on a power play and their defensive unit cracked, not once, but twice, and the oposing team scored two short-handed goals. With the game at 4-5 and a minute left Nan skated to the bench. The starting players then went out to see if they could tie the game with an open net. There was a big scramble in front of the net. Nathaniel watched hopefully from the far end of the rink. Alas, as the coda to the story, there was no tie in a memorable game in which Nathaniel stepped into the net in a division II high school game having never played a game in goal.

After the game, as we were driving home, I asked him what it was like. He said that he was really nervous in the warm ups. But when the puck dropped, he added, all he could do was play the game. The coach sent him a text after the game saying that he had carried the team on his shoulders and that he was proud of Nan, though disappointed that the team had let him down. For us, another day in the life of this ice hockey-centered phase of our lives.

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