I’m at work, sitting at my desk doing routine desk stuff but the day is anything but routine.
My body is buzzing with electrified dread and my stomach is a ball of writhing vipers. It’s game day.
My team in the midst of a solid playoff run despite having entered the post-season in fifth place in our 12-team league. Our Cinderella story could end tonight, however. Whoever loses is done.
I know that our opponents – let’s call them the Posies – will be eager to beat us, not only to keep their own playoff run alive, but to exact revenge for a bitter defeat we handed them two games ago.
These playoffs are set up as a double-elimination tournament, which means you play a different opponent each game and are eliminated if you lose two games. For our first matchup we beat the fourth-place team by a single goal in a fast and intense game. Next came the Posies – the first-place team – who we also beat by one goal in a game that was even more intense.
During this game, the Posies’ No. 19 was constantly taking runs at our players, being careless with his stick, berating the referees and generally behaving like he could snap at any moment.
The situation escalated during the handshake session after the final buzzer sealed our one-goal victory. One of my teammates, whom 19 had violently assaulted with his stick in the game’s waning seconds, refused to shake hands, causing 19’s perpetual frown to deepen noticeably.
When it came my turn to shake 19’s hand, it didn’t go well. You see, I had recently had my right hand crushed during an end-of-game handshake session. Whether or not it was intentional, I’m not sure, but I was determined to avoid a repeat occurrence.
So when it came my turn to shake 19’s hand, I made sure to get my hand right in there and I dialed up the PSIs to prevent him from overpowering me. I even adjusted my hand position mid-shake to ensure I was fully engaged. I’ve learned from experience that the most vulnerable position to be in is when you don’t get your hand in there all the way, leaving only your fingertips for the other guy to grab.
Anyway, as this handshake tête a tête unfolded, 19 thought my defensive posturing was an attempt to crush his hand. This lead to an exchange of glares and F-words, then some general milling around and arguing involving members of both teams.
After a few minutes of this, and having grown weary of the proceedings, I loudly reminded the Posies that the game was over and suggested they get off the ice.
“You’re going to have a heart attack,” one of their players said to me, a reference to my advanced age of 43, I guess.
“Huh, what’s that?” I said.
“You’re going to have a heart attack,” the guy repeated.
I was just pretending I hadn’t heard him. Really, I was trying to buy time until I could think of a zinger comeback. I had nothing.
“Huh? I can’t hear you,” I said again.
Real smooth, I thought to myself. This guy’s grinding your gears about being old and you pretend to be hard of hearing. Yeah, that’s some good trash talkin’ right there.
As No. 3 and I glared at each other, a different comeback finally materialized in my mouth and I spit it out without thinking.
“I can’t hear losers,” I said.
Well, the face of my trash-talking counterpart sagged as if I’d killed his dog and insulted his mother.
“I can’t believe you’d say something like that, calling us losers,” he moaned.
I was confused. Isn’t that the point of trash talking, to insult the other guy?
Anyway, the melee finally dispersed and we retreated to our respective dressing rooms. As I replayed the episode in my mind, I started feeling guilty about having been drawn into the melodrama. At the core of my concern was the knowledge that we could end up playing this team again in these very same playoffs, and if we did, they’d be looking for revenge both on the scoreboard and along the boards.
Sure enough, we lost our next game and the Posies won two in a row to earn a rematch with us, with the winner advancing to the finals. Which takes us to tonight’s game and today’s game-day jitters – not just about the game itself, but also about the game within the game.
So like I says, there I am at my desk with the day crawling by at glacial speed. Then I’m at home having supper then I’m putting kids to bed, all through a fog of slow motion, until I finally find myself driving to the arena.
In the dressing room prior to game time, as I apply protective armour to my body, I’m working hard to keep the butterflies in check and my body relaxed. A few minutes later, as I walk down the tunnel toward the ice surface, I force myself to stride with purpose, with my head up and an artificial swagger in my derriere. If I’m walking to my doom at least I’m going to do it with dignity, I figure.
Within the short distance from the dressing room to the ice surface I jettison all extracurricular concerns, leaving only one thought: time to just play.
Fast and close
The game is fast and close. In the early going one of our young guns scores on a breakaway. A little while later the Posies respond. It goes back and forth like that. It’s an intensely played game that’s forcing us to skate and pass more quickly than I would have thought we were capable. Thankfully, we’re keeping up OK and the game is all hockey – no B.S.
We’re clinging to a one-goal lead as the third period winds down, but they tie it up, sending the game into overtime.
As I’ve done all season, I’ve concentrated on playing a safe, defensive type of game, leaving the offence to our more skilled and fleet-footed players. But during the four-on-four overtime session an opportunity to generate an attack falls into my lap as I suddenly find myself with the puck at our blue line and some open ice in front of me.
Even though my legs are feeling lethargic, I feel obliged to try to make something happen, so I race into the Posies’ zone with as much speed as I can muster (which isn’t so much speed as it is a less exaggerated form of slowness).
Back in the day I would have found another gear and gone blazing wide on the defender without hesitation, which may have afforded me an unfettered path to the goal crease and a chance to score (which I would have frittered away).
However, this is 2014 and what actually happens is a pretty feeble attempt to dart into shooting position followed by a more feeble wrist shot that the goalie easily deflects to the corner.
Out of gas, I retreat to the bench. Shortly thereafter the five-minute overtime session ends and we head into a shootout to decide the game.
The Posies send out their first shooter and our goalie calmly turns him aside.
Our first shooter is the young gun who scored on the breakaway. He casually deposits the puck into the net.
Their next shooter meets the same fate as their first, setting us up for the potential game winner. We send out our next best young stud. He strides toward the goal, makes a move to deke then quickly fires a shot from close range.
The goalie crumples in an attempt to close his legs in time. From my spot on the bench I see a black speck emerge from behind the folded legs and fling itself soundlessly against the twine at the back of the net.
Our bench erupts in unison and empties onto the ice. We’ve beaten the hated first-place team and we’re off to the final!
Later, in the dressing room, the beer tastes extra sweet and the satisfaction of a hard-fought victory is soothing the fatigue in my body. There’s no feeling quite like winning.
Except we haven’t really won anything yet. Next week we’ll engage in a best-of-three series for the league championship. Our opponent will be the team that has already beaten us once during these playoffs. And the series will unfold over the course of four days.
The prospect of playing that much hockey within such a short span is both exciting and daunting. It won’t be easy on my body, which has grown weary in the season’s late stages.
So, while I bask in the satisfaction of victory tonight, and take a day to recover tomorrow, I know that the following days will involve merging my butt with my training ground as I prepare for next week’s ultimate battle.