On hockey, life, and waiting for the things we want

Photo by Jughead_Jones

The sport of hockey is powerful.  I have never been able to find another activity that so perfectly blends the physical with the mental, the instinctual with the planned and practiced. It is art and violence and poetry and fury, all wrapped up in three neat little periods. Success in the sport requires you to give much to it, but what you get back in return is worth ten times as much.

Allow me to explain.

It often starts out so innocently, with a young child asking to play because he saw it on TV, or an eager parent signing his son or daughter up as a way to scrub off some excess energy. Before long, the sport becomes a lifestyle, for player and family alike. After a few years, the child’s best friends are his teammates, and the eager parents are taking turns buying snack-bar coffee with other like-minded parents early on winter mornings. Without even realizing it, hockey has infiltrated their lives. For the families who embrace it, hockey quickly becomes more than a sport. It extends itself to all parts of one’s life, helping to build personalities and life skills and friendships and memories.  Hockey is more than just “put puck in net”.  For many players, hockey is the foundation upon which its young participants learn about things like hard work, sacrifice, teamwork, clear tape, composite materials, and five holes. 

My first game was an intro-mite tilt for BankEast in 1984.  My last game was an overtime loss to Assumption as a Stonehill College Chieftain in 2000.  17 seasons.  That’s a lot of games.  A lot of friendships.  A lot of losses, tears, frustration, and bruised forearms.  Thousands of practices.  Trillions of memories. 

Photo by Jughead_Jones

I’ve been fortunate enough to be the captain of a few teams, and have used that fact in successful job interviews, leveraging my leadership experience on the ice and relating it to my approach in the office.  I’ve sat in professional conferences, learning all about team building and managing interpersonal relationships from people in suits and thought to myself “the game of hockey taught me all of this by the time I was 12.” 

Hockey teaches its participants more than just sport-specific skills. It provides them with real-world lessons that will stay with them forever.

Most people will never know this about the sport I love.  I am lucky that my parents knew this.  Jack Falla knew this, and the members of the backyard rink group probably know this. 

John Buccigross most certainly knows this. 

John is a writer for ESPN.com and a Sportscenter anchor.  But beyond this, he is a lover of the game, a father, and a rinkbuilder.  Admittedly, I haven’t read him that much in recent years; ESPN just hasn’t been in my wheelhouse of dialy web visits.  But recently, as I start to take this blog a bit more seriously, I’m making it a point to read those whom I want to emulate.  John is one of those people.  It is with this in mind that I began reading old articles of his, giant brain dumps of intelligent NHL analysis intertwined with eloquent musings on backyard rinks, his kids, and the spirit of this great sport.  The quote below is an older example, from this March 2006 article.  But it almost perfectly embodies what I love about ice and skates and pucks and kids and hockey, and how putting all of those things together results in more than just sport.  So rather than try to imitate its sentiments, I think it’s best you read it as it was written.

That’s where I am going after I finish this, to pick up 6-year-old Jackson from Wapping Elementary school here in South Windsor, Conn. You’d like Jack. He’s the kind of kid who wakes up in the morning with smiling blue eyes, and he continues smiling until his bocce-ball-sized head hits the pillow at 9 p.m. He is witty, funny, silly, smart, knows what number Joe Sakic is and what team Mike Modano plays on. He sings along to the Ben Folds Five and They Might Be Giants CDs. He’s a great companion, the kind of person who doesn’t sap energy, but is rather an alternative energy source.

Jack is a first-year mite, a young 6 year old playing with mostly 7- and 8-year-olds. At every practice, he skates every drill all-out. His effort is not born from intensity or even competitiveness. It’s from joy. He’s a joyful kid who plays hockey joyfully. Think Alexander Ovechkin, although much smaller and without the Russian accent. The foundation of nearly every success is a hard worker who loves the hard work.

Despite all of the love and effort, Jackson had played the first 34 games of his young hockey career without a goal. Tyranny, hell and goals are not easily conquered. Hockey is hard. That is its great lesson, and its great gift. Yes, waiting for something to happen, the struggle, the sacrifice, the doubt, is a gift. Jack wasn’t tormented by not scoring. His joy for the game, for skating, stick handling, trumps everything. But it was on his mind. He knew. He sees the game. He notices the game of life and hockey. He gets it. The waiting is the hardest part.

As mite hockey practice began last fall, I told Jack that Cammi Granato was cut from Team USA. Jack has spent some time with Cammi and the two share a bond that sometimes happens inexplicably, despite having little time together. When it was time for choosing uniform numbers, Jackson Buccigross chose Cammi’s No. 21.

As the unsure, skinny 6-year-old made his way around the rinks of Connecticut in October, November, December, January and then February, that first goal, with the little blue puck, never came. Yes, hockey is hard.

For 6-year-olds, it can be overwhelming. Never forget that when you watch your kids. Hockey is a hard, demanding game.

Which takes us to Feb. 21, the first week of the Olympics. Jack had seen a lot of Cammi on NBC’s coverage of the women’s Olympic hockey the previous few days. When Cammi would appear, Jack would occasionally say, “That coach was dumb for not having Cammi on the team.” Yeah, Jack, I know. So, on Feb. 21, No. 21 packed the hockey bag he insists on carrying himself, the small caddy carrying Al Czervik’s gigantic golf bag in “Caddyshack,” and headed to West Springfield, Mass. The rink? Olympia Ice Skating Arena.

The opponent was Holy Name, a team that the South Windsor mites had lost to 2-0 three days earlier. It was also school vacation week and three of our forwards — an entire line — were away. We were down to two lines. Jack would see lots of ice time.

As if someone had flipped a switch, Jackson was a different player that day, flying all over the ice. He was even skating around, attempting to do multiple crossovers, just like he’s seen the great skater, Jack Skille of Wisconsin, do on television Friday nights. One Jack noticing another.

It didn’t take long. Following a turnover at the blue line, Jackson rushed toward the net on a mini-breakaway, and with his all-wood TPS stick, fired a wrist shot in the far corner to make it 1-0.

After almost five months of weekend games, Jackson had scored his first career travel goal in the 35th game of his rookie season. As he sprinted to the bench to receive the high fives from his teammates and dad, his skates didn’t touch the ice. He floated. Blue eyes as big as red face off dots. He did it. This little 42-pound perpetual Christmas present had found the back of the net with the little blue puck. Why did it take so long?

Heaven knows how to set a proper price upon its goods. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.

As it was a blessing for Ray Bourque to win his first Stanley Cup in his last NHL game, and a blessing for Mike Eruzione to win gold in his last hockey game, it was a blessing Jackson waited almost five months to feel the exhilaration of scoring his first goal. He had chosen uniform No. 21 to cheer up an Olympic gold medal winner embarrassed by grumpy old men. And five months later, his first career goal came on the 21st of the Olympic month in a rink called Olympia? Against a team called Holy Name? God only knows.

Yes, this great game has so many values we can choose to use in our everyday lives. Heart, courage, mental toughness and artistic expression are four. And the greatest virtue of all will be evident in rinks all over North America this month. When it is all said and done, success — whether it’s revolution, your first goal, a state championship, NCAA Championship or Stanley Cup — requires patience and an understanding of what it takes. And what it takes is why hockey is the greatest teaching game of all.

Always remember in times of battle:

Nothing comes cheap.

I read this four-year-old article about a kid I’d never met, and marveled at how ballistically it resonated in my head.  But not because I could relate directly – I don’t recall my first goal, and my son has yet to play a game.  But because this simple story of hockey goes so much further than a kid wanting to score his first goal.  It is just as much a story about desire, about wanting something, waiting for something.  It’s about effort and determination, undying drive and maintaining vision and focus. 

We all have wants.  iPods.  New skates.  Smoother backyard ice. A larger house.  A child. Sometimes it feels like the list of wants is unending, a constant hovering reminder of what we can’t have.  But try if you can to remember your mental image of 6-year-old Jack Buccigross, and the pure elation he felt after five months of waiting for his first goal.  And remember the two sentences his father John borrowed from Thomas Paine that illustrate why we must keep pushing forward, keep fighting for the things we want:

Heaven knows how to set a proper price upon its goods. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.

Here’s hoping that heaven’s price for the thing you most covet is becoming a bit more attainable.  Until then, pounce on any turnovers and shoot far-side low.

Happy skating.

2 thoughts on “On hockey, life, and waiting for the things we want

  1. scott

    Spot on, as usual Joe. Your experiences (and John’s) resonate greatly with me. Youth hockey has become our lifestyle – which fills me with mixed and conflicting emotions at times.

    Waiting – and working – for the things we want is a lesson that can be taught in many ways, shapes, and forms. However, there is something about the game of hockey that is unique, infectious, and addicting; and it is often misunderstood by those who aren’t involved in youth hockey or those that are but think that goals and wins indicate worth and value.

    I look at Danny’s steady growth and development as a hockey player over the years with pride, but hope that the success he has on the ice translates into success in life later on, as it did for you. I don’t want these to be the best years of his life. I want them to be the begining of the best years of his life, and a time he looks back on with appreciation and sense of understanding.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Write on.

  2. Joe Post author

    Thanks for the comment Scott. I don’t know if it’s just the “gray area” period of life that I’m in now (where I still feel like a kid, but clearly am not by time-based standards), but I seem to be reflecting back on my upbringing quite a bit lately. And every time I do, it amazes me how the same things can be viewed differently simply by changing one’s perspective. Back when I was Danny’s age, these were the hockey-based things I cared about, in order of importance: not making a mistake, scoring, winning, and having fun. Twenty years later, I look back on those years and only now do I realize that the important lessons I was learning at the time revolved around dedication, time-management, and how to deal with successes and failures. That is why hockey is such a wonderful game: the fact that I could learn these heavy lessons at such a young age, all while I only knowingly cared about hanging out with my friends at tournament hotels and not tripping over the blue line.

    Just as it took me 20 years to come to these truths, so too will Danny exist only in a land of stats and wins and laughs with buddies for the next few years. But I’m sure that one day he’ll realize the sacrifices you and Deb make for him, and realize what a tremendous game you introduced him to, and have these same thoughts. And that’ll be a pretty cool day for you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *