This is a story I submitted ten years ago to a fledgling sports magazine as part of a sports fiction contest. Neither the magazine nor story did very well, but the shinny hockey pictorial essay in the November 29 New York Times made me revisit it, update it, and decide to share it on the day that indoor hockey has been postponed in New Jersey. We will all hold onto our game faces a bit longer.
“Less than a gallon of blue paint” is the answer that pops into my head. My left hand is holding a red Borgata $5 chip on top of my two pocket cards while my brain muddles through a series of math problems to focus my attention away from the growing pot in the middle of the poker table. “How much paint do you need for the blue lines in a hockey rink” is the latest question I’ve conjured up. My head has gone into its own helmet-less hockey rush: two lines of one by eighty-five feet, painted in two coats is just shy of 400 square feet, which is what you’d get out of a gallon of good paint.
I file these random puzzles away for times like this, when I need a true poker face to hide the fact that there is a pair of kings under the cursive B on that chip. My roommates and I used to come up with all varieties of sports teasers, and they’d torture me about my open-mouth, droopy glazed look until I came up with the answer, no matter how obscure the trivia domain. It’s easy to have a good poker face when you look like your spaceship just docked for the week. “Game face” was the nickname they gave to our late-night nerd fests, and replays of those sessions have served me well at the poker tables in Atlantic City.
I have a real job as well. It’s real in the sense that I get paid a meager monthly direct deposit, and it also involves playing games. By day and some evenings, I’m a left wing for the Atlantic City Devils, the recently moved AHL affiliate of the same-named NHL club. The big club has been mired in a season of immense mediocrity, showing no relationship whatsoever to the team that won three Stanley Cups when I was a New Jersey youth hockey player. I’ve been a Devils fan all my life, and when my playing days at Princeton University were done, I showed up undrafted, unannounced and most likely unwelcome at training camp. I played the Jeff Halpern card, and it worked. Then I moved back to the west side Mercer County.
The Devils offered me a contract to play in their ECHL affiliate in Trenton, and unlike most of the other liberal arts majors in my graduating class, I had a job before college football season hit full stride. The AHL Devils team moved down the Parkway to Atlantic City, and I moved up in stature to join them. Through the last full winter season I’ve been a full-time resident of America’s Playground, supplementing my minor league salary with poker winnings, giving my parents mixed feelings about the “real world” skills I acquired on their dime. The truth is, my real world education began the day I was cut from the big club, and moved into a shared apartment in Trenton to play hockey for a living while putting those Ivy-colored plans aside.
Raking in a nice-sized pile of red chips, I feel my phone vibrate, and check it once I fold an ugly hand. It’s a number that I recognize, somewhat terrified, as the NHL and AHL Devils general managers’ shared office in Newark. My stomach lurches as I play the voice mail, and then somersaults as I’m racing to the cashier and then the parking lot.
My linemate and Russian roommate turned-quasi-brother Dmitry and I are being called up to the big club. Like now. And I’m supposed to get Dmitry to the practice rink in Newark because they still don’t trust his English or driving skills enough for him to navigate on his own. It seems that injuries and a worse-than-usual start to the season have cleared two roster spots, and they’re ours to retain.
On any given summer Sunday, driving the Garden State Parkway for a hundred miles between Atlantic City and Newark is pure torture, an adventure in accidents, construction, congestion, and everything else that gives Jersey a bad name. You’re emotionally exhausted just going from Point A to B. That’s the feeling I get when I show up at the practice rink the next morning for the pre-game skate: heads are down, guys go through the routine with perfunctory precision, but no passion. The head coach stood behind the visitor’s bench when my Tigers played Cornell a few seasons ago. His players liked him then, and his players like him now, a coach who knows the hard work that goes into playing this relatively simple sport professionally. It’s not at all clear to me why the team isn’t performing well. There’s speed, there’s skill, there’s definitely coaching ability, but there’s little in terms of organizing effort. I’m tempted to call it a game of professional shinny, but opt wisely to keep my rookie mouth shut, even if Coach gives me the slightest perceptible nod of recognition the first time I’m on the ice.
Our first week is what I expected, with two games in which Dima and I see about six minutes of ice time. We’ve taken the Hippocratic Oath of hockey — first do no harm — loosely translated as “back check protects the pay check”. Translation is my larger role in the locker room and in our temporary housing, as the more formal travel and dress requirements, tighter schedule and generally faster pace of life on the big club are pushing D to his legal language limits. I’m never sure how much of this real-world helplessness is an act, and how much is his longing for some local family. He’s been in the country for over a year after leaving Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Russian Kontinental League. One afternoon I drive him over to the Russian supermarket on the far side of Essex County, and he’s in heaven, chatting with the clerks, finding a taste of home in New Jersey, and trying to explain all of the strange canned foods to me. One of my teenaged friend’s mothers conveyed the secret that helped her navigate geography as an Army wife: “Find something familiar in every new city.” Her advice has served me — and now my linemate— quite well.
While the supermarket triggers some happy memories of the northern parts of Russia, the weather has been cold enough to inspire some Siberia jokes. The belts in my car complain all the way to the charter jet terminal as we load up for a trip through the Midwest, where it is colder, gloomier and more snow-covered. Outdoor hockey weather, according to our Canadian teammates, but really an uncanny and unfortunate depiction of our collective mood.
Our day-off practices on the road are usually held at a local rink that’s equidistant from our hotel and the major city arena. You can count on seeing some out of market fans there, looking for an autograph or just watching practice. Our equipment guys do their best to make sure what’s likely a pair of high school locker rooms feels like home for a few hours. Hence our collective shock when we walk into the practice rink in suburban Chicago to find everything but our skates and gloves missing from the locker stalls, jerseys replaced by heavy sweatshirts. My locker nameplate should have proudly announced my arrival in the Windy City but was taped over with a note that simply read “Shinny on the pond. 11:30. Mandatory”. Had our general manager, or player’s union lawyers seen this, they’d have gone apoplectic.
We file out the side door, skates tied and tossed over shoulders like schoolboys going down to the local hockey pond. In the middle of the deep, dark ice was a pile of sticks — our pro quality, nickname-embellished sticks — dwindling rapidly as the coach grabbed and alternately tossed them at the nets. Like riding a bike, the motions of putting on our skates while literally freezing our butts off and warming up without taking out errant figure skaters came back to us as the childhood memories I suppose they were meant to resurface.
Pond hockey is harder than indoor hockey. There are no boards to corral shots wide of the goal, or to help you angle a player to gain position. It’s about passing and precision and playing until you know where your short-term line mates will be at any time. There are no offside calls, no face offs, no whistles. We come out stiff, for maybe ten minutes, but realize that this really is our practice.
The fun begins.
One of the rookies flies by a veteran defenseman, hollering “dangle pie” on his way to the net. There are no boards into which to check him as punishment. Dmitry and I manage to get one shift together; I hear his “To Open! To Open!” call for a pass and I give it to him with “To shoot! To shoot!” His English has improved to include the use of infinitives in all declensions, especially when he’s scoring. I’ve almost forgotten how much fun it is to skate with him when we’re playing well. He stands at rapt attention when we’re on the side of the pond, listening carefully to every word from the coaches, the players, maybe even the louder fans who have come to watch, because he tells me he’s studying. He’s remarkable at teasing me without full command of English.
We are perhaps the first professional team to have Starbucks deliver a Coleman canister of hot water to a rink’s exterior so that we can thaw our frozen water bottles at the halfway point. We escape from pond hockey unscathed by cold weather and probing questions from the press, perhaps utilizing the same luck that lets our GM survive league meetings. I’m not sure how he’s seen by his peers, since he bought the team as its fortunes were fading, and his eccentricities for drafting players based on lucky numbers, or demanding that his hunches be played out on the ice or in trades, sometimes make it feel like we are managed by a tarot deck.
The next night, our lines are shuffled more than a little, enough to make the broadcast crew wonder exactly what happened at yesterday’s practice. Coach’s pre-game speech is his simplest of the year.
“Boys, I’m done trying to play someone else’s poker hand.” I get a quick but obvious stare.
“This is a gin game; it’s about finding what will work with what to help us win. You proved to me you know how to play and have fun and figure out how to make things work. Do that. Do something, please.”
For the next three hours, we have more fun. It’s a repeat of yesterday’s pond adventure.
We beat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, in their building, snapping a five-game losing streak. We win our next game, and the one after that, the first time this team has had a hat trick of wins since I was in high school and watching on television. And Dmitry has turned into a fan and media favorite. He’s still the fun loving, “Look at me I’m a Russian bear” guy in the locker room, but on the ice he’s a point producing machine. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s scoring, maybe it’s the fans in the stands wearing his jersey completing the virtuous circle. One possibility is the t-shirts that are an allusion to his Magnitogorsk days. Rather strangely promoting “Heavy Metal Dima,” I find the image of a rolled steel tube barreling along with arms, legs, hockey stick and helmet on top of Dmitry’s smiling mug more frightening than inspiring. It’s Paw Patrol as drawn by Salvador Dali on a bad acid day. But it’s working, so once again I’ll shut my rookie mouth and remain thankful.
The next three weeks are a blur, as our expected outcome for the year — a high draft pick — has officially been replaced by dreams of a second season. We’re only a few points out of the last playoff spot, and selling out every game down to the wire. Game 82 is really a Game 7 for us: win and we were in the playoffs for the first time in a long time, lose and we can all keep our early April tee times.
The last night of the regular season is what you dream about as a kid. It’s 16,840 people screaming for an hour before the puck drops, wearing anything with a logo on it, first-time fans dragged to the game by significant others and parents in the hopes that they’d bear witness to a small piece of sports history. I’ve never seen people so excited when faced with the opportunity to spend another $500 on playoff tickets, but there they are, part of something larger for one night. You can’t study this; you only experience it first hand.
We nurse a 2–1 lead into the third period, and every shot, every clearing attempt, every hit has the fans up from their seats. Dmitry slid to block a shot from the point with under two minutes to go, and misjudged the release. Instead of deflecting the puck off of his shinguards or pants, he caught it in the face, the pool of blood on the ice immediately silencing the fans. A towel pressed to his bloodied face, he leaves the ice wobbling, but waving. The place goes nuts, and that wall of sound alone was enough to carry us to a 3–1 win on an empty net goal.
Our GM comes to see us in the locker room, and tells us a story that I imagine is supposed to be inspiring. Seems he knew about the shinny game we played that day, and wailed that it was just an invitation to an injury. But nobody got hurt then, and he saw Dmitry shuffle off the ice a local hero after suffering an injury tonight, and that turn of events had changed his perspective. He was dispensing with superstition and hunches and going to follow our example of hard work and belief in positive outcomes. I’m not sure if he was channeling too much Phil Jackson on his way in, or if his belief system really was shaken by the last two months of hockey. The Dima t-shirts didn’t seem so weird at that point.
We get the playoff pairings early that evening, knowing already we’ll be going to Boston for a first round matchup. It doesn’t really matter, as we’ve accomplished the Rocky ending simply by going the distance to another set of games. We lose to Boston in five games, but we had declared success before the series started. One of my college roommates’ fathers used to yell at us, as he departed our fragrant dorm: “Just do something, you goofballs.”
We did something.
This past summer was the first one in a decade that I appreciated in its entirety, despite — well, because of — its shortened duration due to an extended hockey season.
That season ended five months ago, as summer waxed stronger and Labor Day was a quarter away. Today it’s crisp and you can smell the hint of winter in the air. Snow is around the corner. I shudder, not because of the chill but because I’m wearing a new uniform. Custom suit, dark grey, not a Reebok jersey with “team in front, name in back;” it’s just my face without a hockey card to prompt recognition. I’ve traded for something in the real world, working for an agency that represents athletes, arenas and other public people and places. Buoyed by draft picks and making trades on the appeal of joining a playoff contender, the Devils didn’t need the services of a fourth liner called up from the AHL. Coach’s final bit of advice to me was to do one thing I do, very well. Do something, differently. I solve puzzles, and that just doesn’t come up a lot on the ice.
Today’s brain teaser, however, takes me back to the practice rink I called my office earlier this year. Dmitry and I have some unfinished business that involves a gallon of blue paint.
Dmitry was tragically killed in a car accident exiting the New Jersey Turnpike, probably missing his intended exit while running late the whole time. His agent insisted that with his family’s blessing, I’d know what to do now. The fact that all of those late nights in strange hotels had revealed the answer didn’t make me feel any better about it.
Dmitry’s heart-felt wish was to play a solid career New Jersey. He made a home here, and was loved here.
I have his cremated remains in a small canister, and while the ice engineers keep careful watch, I sprinkle a little bit of Dmitry’s ashes onto the blue lines between coats, then mix the rest into a gallon of blue paint in storage. He’ll be with the guys for another season, and I’ll come to visit as often as I can, with potential or current clients. For now, though, as I’m working through a problem involving promotional rights, obscure copyright claims or contract clauses, my eyes glaze, my mouth hangs open, and I swear I hear Dima yelling to me. I haven’t yet learned how not to mouth an answer to him.
My game face gives me away.
Notes: This is based on a few real life stories — The narrator is an amalgam of various Princeton hockey players with whom I’ve become friendly, a work associate who bought his first house with poker winnings, and a few guys I played hockey with during a month of Friday nights. I played in an outdoor shinny game, and the guy who zipped by me was the CEO of a hockey equipment company. A series of Boston Globe articles from 1989, when former Soviet bloc players first joined the NHL, began my fascination with the cultural acclimation demanded in major sports. My father’s best friend was a solid baseball player, and one of his kids managed to drop a few of his late father’s ashes in a certain stadium, where his Dad will forever play the short hop. “Do something” is the watchword of my daughter’s best friend, and she deserves a stick tap.