My dad was blessed with two strapping sons. As a multi-sport athlete himself, he hoped his genetic abilities would be passed down to his children. Surely we would possess the same level of enthusiasm and skill in sports as he did. Instead we grew up to be a musician and a writer. Sorry, dad.
I think my father saw the tide turning toward the arts early, and he only got more desperate to involve us in athletics after my parents' divorce. Every weekend was spent doing sports of some kind or generally being outdoors and away from the television. We played catch, we played flag football, we golfed - and I sucked at all of it. I simply wasn’t that inclined toward the arts of throwing, catching, or hitting. Sure that this was the herald of the gaypocalypse he so dreaded, he moved me from sport to sport, hoping to find a glimmer of prowess buried beneath my flab. His first attempt was hockey.
I’m from Duluth. That’s in Minnesota, where you get two weeks of summer, one week of fall, and the rest is winter. With this much cold and this much darkness your options are few. You can go crazy from seasonal affective disorder, perfect your Lutefisk recipe, or play hockey. So, it was inevitable that once I came of age, I too would don the steel blades of my Northern ancestors and chase a little black disk around a giant frozen puddle.
It didn’t help that my brother was an amazing hockey player. You know what a hat trick is (when one person scores three goals in one game)? My brother got three hat tricks in one game. He could skate, handle the puck, and had a blistering slapshot. Expectations were high for me.
Dad bought me a
brand new pair of skates and my very own hockey bag, which I couldn’t wait to fill with the smells of ass and rotting cabbage, like every other hockey bag in the world. I got a brand new stick, which my dad taught me how to tape up (for what purpose I still don’t know), and he took me out one Saturday to see how well I could skate.
It was after my fourth face-plant in less than two minutes that my dad officially gave up on my NHL career. He kept encouraging me, but his heart was no longer in it. I started to detect that he was telling me I was “doing a great job, buddy”, because he didn’t want to hurt my feelings, not because I was actually doing a great job. This was the same tactic my teacher used on the kid with the back brace who peed his pants every afternoon.
I imagined how I must look to my dad; fat and terrified, my legs and lips trembling, willing myself to stay on my feet. It didn’t help that I let out a tiny scream every time I fell. Still, I had to play, if only to justify my dad’s decision to coach my pee-wee team. If I wasn’t on it, there were better things dad could do with his time, like watching Die Hard again.
Since my dad was coach, I got to play center, the prime position on the team. Most of my teammates accepted this with a resigned shrug, as this wasn’t the first time a poor player had been given a prime position because their dad was coach. In fact, most of them had benefited from it at some point. The one exception to this rule was Mark Gunderson.
Mark was on our pee-wee team because the NHL didn’t allow third graders to go pro. He didn’t need his daddy to give him playing time. In fact, most of his coaches ended up wishing he was their kid. Mark scored all the goals on our team. I pretty much mean that literally. My teammates had to content themselves with a stack of assists, and I had to content myself with shouting winded smack talk while trying to catch up to the action.
“Hey BLUE ... (pant, pant) ... I think you ... (pant) ... dropped your ... (pant) ... JOCK back there! Right, guys ... (wheeze)?”
Then the puck would change hands and the action would whip past me as I executed a 27-point turn and lumbered back down the ice. I hardly ever touched the puck, I never made an assist - hell, I was rarely on the same side of the ice as most of the team. I was less of a hockey player and more of the team’s unfunny mascot.
One time, I was struggling to get back on my feet after falling behind the opponent’s goal. Everyone else was down at the other end of the ice, actually playing hockey. On this end of the ice, it was just me and the opponent’s goalie, who was watching me struggle to my feet with the same joyful curiosity one might use while watching lions humping at the zoo. I had just begun the trek back down to rejoin the action when the puck, smacked clear by our goalie, soared to me and stopped.
Instinct took hold. I spun in a perfect circle, somehow suddenly able to skate, and headed back toward their goal. The ice was open and empty before me, and I could see the goalie’s eyes bugging over the goal that was sure to come. Suddenly I wasn’t an object to study with bemused interest, I was a threat. I skated with a purpose, bearing down on the goalie with my heart pumping in my chest. It was just him and me.
Oh, and Mark Gunderson.
That prick had somehow managed to catch up to me and was demanding I pass him the puck. I was on a breakaway, something that had never happened in my time in the sport, and I had a chance to score my first goal. There was no way I was letting Mark and his appropriate level of body fat take this opportunity away from me.
I meant to say something cavalier and cool, something like, “I’ve got this one buddy, you just enjoy the show.” But what came out was, “No, Mark, I’m not GONNA”.
I put a move on the goalie, an actual hockey move, and the goalie slipped and fell, opening the entire net up to me. I couldn’t have been more than five feet away when I reared back my stick and fired a slapshot into its gaping maw. The puck rocketed toward the goal, lifting off from the ice and curving ever so slightly. It was a textbook, perfect slapshot.
And it hit the pipe.
I heard Mark groan, I heard my dad groan, I heard the cluster of grandmothers in the stands groan. One of them shouted clearly, “Why didn’t you pass it to Mark?” I wondered the same thing as I skated back to the box, wishing I could just keep skating down the street until I was back in my room.
I had known for a long time that my only skills anywhere near hockey involved sitting in the stands and solving an entire Where’s Waldo? book by the time Tony scored his first hat trick. I’d take a cup of hot chocolate and a pack of Watermelon Bubble Yum from the concession stand over a frozen water bottle that smelled like mold any day. I may be from Minnesota, but I’m blessed with the hockey prowess of a Florida retiree, and now everybody knew it.
That night, over dinner, my dad watched me with a sullen look on his face as I ate. When I came up for air and saw him staring, I forced myself to swallow and croaked out a resigned, “What?” I may have been young, but I knew the look he was giving me. It was his disappointed look. I had seen it a lot during my time on the ice. So, the question he asked me then really didn’t come as much of a surprise.
“Why didn’t you pass it to Mark?”
I quit hockey not long after that.