Yahoo!’s Puck Daddy, one of the web’s best hockey blogs, ran an item over the winter titled “Five Reasons I Love Hockey.” The blog asked its readership to come up with the top five reasons why they watched, played, or were a fan of hockey. I penned a 2200-word response and submitted it two months ago, with the thought that if it wasn’t published there, I’d post it here over the summer. In my response, I cited, among other things, the frequency with which you hear stories of professional hockey players scaling down their game and sharing the ice with us mortals. The fact that professionals enjoy the sport enough to play with and against people 10 rungs under them on the talent ladder makes hockey unlike any other sport on earth, I argued. If I may self-plagiarize:
I’m convinced that hockey players are among the most accessible professional athletes in the world. And I’m not just talking about autograph sessions or charity events either. I’m talking about how relatively common it is to end up in the same locker room as guys who make their living playing professional hockey.
From the kids at the learn-to-skate programs to the world class players taking part in the Olympics, every hockey player shares the same love for the game. So when it comes time to hang them up, be it for a union lockout or a career, it’s difficult for these players to stay away. And when the fans and contracts and stadiums disappear, what’s left are the blue collar lunchpail leagues, the charity tournaments, and the outdoor events.
Then last week, along came Maxim Afinogenov to prove my point. Mad Max, the winger who finished his 10th season in the NHL two weeks ago, was bored. In Alabama with tennis star girlfriend Elena Dementieva as she competed in the Fed Cup, Max needed a frozen fix. His agent made a few calls, and on a random Tuesday night in April, the man with nearly 400 NHL points lugged his gear into the Pelham (AL) Civic Center for a game of pickup hockey.
“He was very professional, sharing the puck and everything,” said Jeff Cheeseman, director of hockey for the rink. “Then I told him we have a little better level of competition on Thursday nights with BASH (Birmingham Area Select Hockey). These are guys who played college or minor league, a few of the old Birmingham Bulls. As a general rule, we don’t allow drop-ins.”
Correction: The rink doesn’t allow drop-ins, unless you have over 650 games in the NHL, you’ve played for Russia in the last three Olympics, and you’re one of the fastest, most skilled players in the world. Afinogenov passed the test.
So Max returned that Thursday, and even against the best Birmingham-area men’s leaguers, Mad Max was in a stratosphere unto himself. Scoring seven goals for the black team and giving them a 7-2 lead, he was then “traded” to the white team. He subsequently potted 10 for the whites en route to a 16-13 win. Working on his conditioning ahead of next month’s IIHF World Championships, Afinogenov opted to stay on the ice for all of the second and third periods. “Who was going to tell him to come off?” says Cheeseman.
As much as Max exists on an entirely different realm on the ice, it would come as no surprise to any hockey player that he fit right in off of it. While hanging around with the guys after the skate, word got out that a bona-fide NHL superstar was at the Pelham rink. Kids rushed to the building with sticks, pucks, and jerseys, and the Russian stuck around to sign every last one. He then made a point to thank the guys for letting him play, and off he went.
Stories like these are why you should urge your children to look up to hockey players. In an era when the NFL commissioner is most well known for his behavior-induced legislation, and the NBA is full of me-first whiners, the NHL employs 950 men who only differ from their men’s league counterparts in on-ice talent. Hockey players, even those who make more in a month than most of us will see in five years, are wired very similarly. So when guys like Maxim Afinogenov show up to weeknight pickup games at local arenas, it’s not to showboat or draw attention to themselves. It’s to play a little hockey. And while it was just another day in the life of a zillionaire professional athlete, you can be sure that for the Tuesday and Thursday nighters at the Pelham Civic Center, it was an experience they’ll never forget.
Thanks to commenter ‘BestTimesNow’, we have video of Max in Birmingham. Check out all four videos by clicking here