There is likely some truth to the persistent mythology that young boys growing up in northern climates play hockey. This was certainly true of most boys I knew, myself included.
Unlike most boys, however, I wasn’t very good at it. But then, hockey was about more than just playing on a team, winning the city championship, getting up during those long, long winter mornings in the pitch black and thirty below outside for a 6am practice; it was also about learning how to cope with a troubled home life, bullies, betrayals, rejection, friendships, everything in the world outside.
Some of the kids I played hockey with came from the other side of the tracks. The one rule that superseded all others was that they never allowed you to feel sorry for them.
So in taking a breather from the NFL, I have this: it started as a loosely defined essay, but somehow willed itself into a kind of poem.
The backyard rink stemmed from an ancient tide
and numbed the minds of doubters.
It was something to behold—like ice shavings peppered with
Grape shot, or a
reflection of the moon bullied into shadow.
Warm winter sun turned the ice into mud
along the boards,
Which we skated through anyway.
The boards were either rotted, full of holes plugged with snow
Or a sheaf of rusted tin.
There was even a discarded Christmas tree that lasted for weeks one year.
You skated slightly uphill or down.
Yet we played into darkness. Friendships ended, began,
And ended again.
Yesterday’s best friend just walloped the
back of your legs; by bedtime, a five inch welt.
The dream was the breakaway, a duel without paces,
pursuit bearing down like throttled rage;
The wind in your face: an enemy,
at your back, a pirate’s sail.
The goalie will go down, must go down,
Aiming for the top corner but just then your skate
Catches a toehold in the moon and now you are going down,
Sprawling—not the goalie. You.
Just lie there looking up
at the stars;
the night purports its magic flotilla
On your feet. Start again.
When our sticks were broken, we kicked the puck; if we
outgrew our skates, we slid in our boots until
sundown introduced frostbite, and
shivering that did not arrive as
There was nothing and no one to stop us.
Nobody ever called us inside for dinner.
We were never
hungry, thirsty, never susceptible to lassitude or
the ennui of repetition.
What we were was vicious and adroit, venal, mercenary;
We knew what a sucker punch was, a crosscheck, knew the numbing pain
of bitter cold or a slash across the wrists.
We were a horde of uneasy alliances, a cadre of snipers, poachers, and
One by one, boys spit out their teeth.
By spring, some had hardly any left.
Every foul-mouthed word ever spoken sounding like
Sylvester the cat when it came
through those mouths.
Those same mouths—two months later, talking to girls on a hot summer day.
The girls wore practically nothing then, and went for older boys.
So there was scorn too.
And humbled, like the poet who said,
“Spring never sees the gracious ones turn green.”
Nothing else to do...
But get a ball and play hockey on the street.
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