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A PHILOSOPHICAL ENQUIRY INTO THE ORIGIN OF OUR IDEAS ON INERTIA AND THE PUCK-MOVING DEFENSEMAN

I recently moved to Nashville from Boston. One of my primary objectives has become landing a spot on Jack White’s beer league team, the Third Man Wreckers.

I played hockey all my life, growing up just south of Quebec in Vermont. I thought, in Tennessee, I would be something akin to a Bobby Fischer of washed-up hockey players. I’m not. I’m average at best. The talent pool of over-the-hill hockey players actually seems far better than in Boston.

Wreckers

The Greater Boston Area is a traditional hockey hotbed. The Commonwealth has delivered more Americans to the NHL than any other State in the Union. It makes no sense that the hockey in Nashville would be better. There are a couple factors at play here. Almost every little town in and around Boston has their own rink. In the Greater Nashville Area, there are exactly two rinks. All the washed-up hockey gets concentrated in Nashville while Boston’s is dispersed across the region and watered down. Nashville is also one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. I’m not playing against rednecks who think hockey is football on ice. I’m playing against other transplants. Some are from Boston too. Others are even from Canada. And evidently, all that talk about hockey spreading to non-traditional markets isn’t just hype. One of the best players I’ve ever shared the ice with is here in Nashville. He was born and raised in Arizona.

I wanted to find a beer league team because I moved here all alone. I thought that would be an easy way of meeting people, ones I might want to actually get to know. Striking up a conversation at a bar or coffee shop doesn’t work so well for me. Antagonistic would be an accurate term for describing my conversational approach. I’m 41 years old. I’ve only encountered two contexts in my life where this isn’t considered anti-social: a restaurant kitchen and a hockey locker room.

I’m trying to avoid ‘Restaurant Kitchen’ as my means of gainful employment. All I’m left with for like-minded souls is a hockey locker room.

I became obsessed with Jack White’s team my first week here. I was looking for ways to learn about my new city. A barista told me to check out Jack White’s Third Man Records recording studio (I can manage normal adult conversations in small bursts). He compared it to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. It seemed intriguing.

I went for the tour on a Saturday morning. The Willy Wonka analogy proved apropos. I know nothing about the recording process. White’s is the only studio I’ve ever been inside. Something about the place felt special. There was a Yin and Yang of striking a balance between serious pursuit of a craft and having a wink and nod good time.

The whole place is kept meticulously clean. It’s not just a bunch of stoners leaving their crap all over. On the other hand, there’s a toilet mounted upside-down on the ceiling of the men’s room, some inside joke for striving musicians surfing couches. There’s a one-of-a-kind straight to wax recording booth which allegedly put’s the Fear of God into the most seasoned of musicians. Yet there’s an elephant head mounted within line of sight of said booth. They take themselves seriously, documenting their achievements with pictures of each recording session mounted on the wall. They also made certain to round off all the right angles in the performance space, ensuring half the musicians would attempt to skateboard it like a half-pipe.

third man

I left that place not knowing any more about music than when I came but understanding it was special. If Doctor Emmet Brown, the mad scientist from Back to the Futurehad a little more cleanliness, his laboratory might look a little like Third Man Records. It was an environment optimized for creativity. It took itself seriously enough to make the artist get down to business. But it also had special touches invoking laughter or a grin, enough to keep you from taking yourself too seriously. Taking yourself too seriously leads to self-censorship.

A couple days after visiting Third Man Records, I went to play pick-up hockey at Centennial Sportsplex next to Vanderbilt University. I noticed one of the players had a jersey with a Boston Bruins color scheme and a logo that matched Third Man Records. The team name on the jersey was Third Man Wreckers.

On the bench, I complimented him on his jersey. His name was Zach. He’s a local firefighter. He told me that it was his beer league team’s jersey. They were sponsored by Third Man Records. He said Jack White came to the games when he wasn’t on tour. He wasn’t quite a coach. He wasn’t quite a mascot either.

I started passing to Zach all the fucking time.

I’m an excellent passer. I’m a savant when it comes to passing. In a beer league context of course. I was never that good at competitive hockey.

I grew up in Vermont. My brother, Marty, was one of the best hockey players that region has ever produced. It’s odd we come from the same gene pool. I rode the bench for my entire youth hockey career. It started in half-ice mites [When I played the age groups were Half-Ice Mites(8 and under), Mites(9-10), Squirts(11-12), Pee-Wees(13-14), Bantams(15-16), Midgets(17-18). When I was a Mite, I thought Midget was a euphemism for Giant.], when they set the railroad ties across the ice and virtually none of the kids can stand up on their skates.

Following my half-ice mites benching, my father pulled Marty and I out of the St. Albans Skating Association (SASA). We participated in Milton Youth Hockey (MYH). MYH lacked adequate funding. There was no rink. We practiced on a parent’s backyard pond. All of our games were on the road. It led to a lot of travel. Marty and I also complained about having to wear the Blue and Yellow Milton jerseys. We wanted to wear the Green & Gold like our Bellow Free Academy (BFA) – St. Albans heroes: Jeremy Benoit, Dale Villeneuve and John LeClair. After one season, we abandoned the MYH experiment. I can’t remember the reasoning. These are all fuzzy memories.

I returned to SASA as a first-year squirt. Due to lack of participation, there was no ‘A’ and ‘B’ team, just one team. I rarely left the bench. The following year, I was the lone second-year player to be demoted to the Squirt ‘B’ team.

First-year Pee-Wee was a return to the same mix of age groups which resulted in one team rather than an ‘A’ and ‘B’. Because of the introduction of checking and my physical attributes in relation to many of my teammates, I had hopes for an increased role. I rarely left the bench.

Entering my second year Pee-Wee season, I had gone through a growth spurt. I was among the most physically mature players in that age group. Following try-outs, all the other players were assigned roles on the ‘A’ or ‘B’ teams. Maybe it was my sheer physical maturity. Maybe it was because I was Marty Paeplow’s brother. For whatever reason, somebody wanted to give me a chance. They just weren’t ready to fully commit. I was given a personalized plan that I’ve never heard applied to any recreational hockey player before or since. Head Coach Dave Gilbert labelled it “The Bubble”. Basically, I was supposed to practice with the ‘A’ team but play games with the ‘B’ team. I can’t remember the exact specifics because the plan was quickly scrapped. I was assigned permanently to the ‘A’ team. By the end of the season, I thought I was the best player on the roster. That is subjective. Objectively, I can state that I was 1 of only 3 players on the team Coach Gilbert selected to participate in tryouts for the Vermont All-Star team.

I feel I acquitted myself extremely well during the 2-day tryout. I was not selected for the team. I was competing against many other excellent players.

This brought me to the summer before my freshman year at BFA. I had struck up a friendship with Coach Gilbert’s son, Caleb. I spent a lot of time at the Gilbert household throughout that summer. Coach Gilbert repeatedly tried to convince me to enroll at Milton High School where he was the Head Coach. He explained that, because of the lack of participation in the program and its Division 2 status, I would play regularly on the Varsity squad.

I deflected and avoided this conversation as best I could. I did not want to attend Milton High School. It had a poor reputation. It was the butt of many jokes. I also questioned Coach Gilbert’s capacity to develop me into the hockey player I wanted to be. The man could hardly stand up on skates. He looked like one of the aforementioned half-ice mites, stumbling for balance as he barked at me about a drill I had performed incorrectly or a poor decision I had made on a previous shift.

There was also a terrific buzz in the air about the upcoming BFA hockey season. BFA has a storied tradition. They were the Montréal Canadiens of Vermont High School hockey. Head Coach Red Gendron had just resigned. The new Head Coach, Toby Ducolon, was a BFA legend who had gone on to star at the University of Vermont, participated in the USA Olympic development program, and played a few seasons for the Peoria Rivermen in the St. Louis Blues organization. I really wanted to be a part of the BFA hockey tradition. My modicum of success had me deluded into believing I could make the team as a freshman.

BFA50th-hockey-team

I did not make the team. I was not ready for hockey at that level. I was assigned to the SASA Bantam team. There were very few players on that team because of the lack of participation in that age group exacerbated by some of those players being assigned to the BFA Varsity squad. I was one of the few players on the team that took the season seriously. Many were disgruntled at being cut from BFA. USA Hockey had instituted a new rule that any time a team committed over 15 penalties in a game, the Head Coach was suspended for the next game. Our team was forced into a dual Head Coach system in order to make it possible to have a coach on the bench at all times. I virtually never left the ice. If muscle fatigue became too extreme, I had to take deliberate penalties in order to rest in the penalty box. I convinced myself I was the best player on that team.

Coach Gilbert continued to pursue me throughout that season. Without a rink, Milton had to travel to St. Albans to use the BFA rink for practice. Coach Gilbert convinced me to take advantage of the proximity and participate in the Milton Varsity practices. I agreed to this unique offer. Playing against bigger varsity athletes forced me to develop other areas of my game. Dressing in their locker room forced me to develop camaraderie with those players, often in the form of antagonism and counter-antagonism. Coach Gilbert attempted to use this camaraderie to manipulate me into transferring to Milton. I continued to deflect. I still wanted to be a part of the BFA hockey tradition.

Coach Gilbert stopped pursuing me after this.

That summer, I participated in Ducolon’s off-season conditioning program for BFA athletes. Caleb Gilbert was the only other hockey player who participated in the program because I demanded he come with me. I arrived at his house every morning at 6 am to follow-up on this demand. This would remain true throughout every summer of my BFA tenure.

I also employed a second strategy beginning my freshman year. I participated in track and field in the Spring. In terms of measured success, track was the one sport where I was halfway decent. My best event was the 100-meter dash. I consistently qualified for the State Finals. In my Senior year, I finished in the top 5 at those finals. Following every track practice, I would go to Ducolon’s gym to lift weights. I had not learned about the science behind muscle fatigue and recovery back then although this process gave me an instinctive sense of its realities. Still, I thought this was a good way to demonstrate to Ducolon that I was dedicated to the BFA Hockey program.

I made the BFA Varsity team as a sophomore. Throughout my High School career, I was relegated to a third-pairing defense status and rarely left the bench. My Senior year was a time I am not proud of. I did not take the season seriously. I didn’t cause trouble or act out in any way. I simply went through the motions. I should have applied more persistence or perseverance. Or I should have quit altogether.

I chose to attend the University of Vermont {UVM [Universitas Viridis Montis (That’s Latin, darling)]} following high school graduation. My father suggested I attempt to walk-on to the UVM hockey team. This was the team led by Martin St. Louis and Tim Thomas. They would go on to play in the NCAA National Championship game. I did not take him seriously. I stopped playing hockey and watched it very little after this

Saku Koivu was responsible for getting me back into hockey. Koivu played for the Montréal Canadiens for 14 seasons. He served as Captain for 10 of those years. In the history of that storied franchise, only the late-great Jean Béliveau matched his longevity as steward of the Captaincy. Early in the 2001-02 season, Koivu was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. His life was at risk. His hockey career was barely a consideration.

Still, he persisted.

Somehow, he returned for the tail-end of regular season play. On April 9, 2002 he skated at the Bell Centre for the first time since his diagnosis. The 8-minute standing ovation was a gesture from the fans unrivalled since Rocket Richard closed the Forum.

Koivu was awarded the Bill Masterson trophy, given to the player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey.

I was working at a hotel in northern New Hampshire when I read about this in the newspaper. I started following the games. I watched as Koivu led his teammates to an upset victory in their playoff match-up against the Boston Bruins. He effectively neutralized their star forward, Joe Thornton.

It took me someplace I hadn’t been in years and years.

I became a Montréal Canadiens fan in 1989, growing up in rural Vermont 10 minutes from the border, an hour from Montréal. Before that I was a hockey player and a fan of the game, but I didn’t watch the NHL on TV. I read about it in the newspaper and in magazines like The Hockey News, but our house was in a cable TV dead zone. Relying on terrestrially broadcast television signals, we were relegated to the occasional UVM Catamounts game on Channel 3. There were no NHL games on broadcast networks back then.

Not American TV broadcasts anyway.

One weekend in ’89, my parents struck a deal with the parents of our squirt team’s goalie, Mark Tetrault. They were going out of town, so he rode with us to that weekend’s allotment of games. On Saturday night we returned home after probably losing a pair of games to Barre, Mississiquoi, or some other Vermont town with a French name. Usually, me and Marty would kill a Saturday night watching a made-for-TV movie or rewatching a VHS tape of Back to the Future. Tetrault was incredulous. He wanted to watch the game. Marty and I exchanged embarrassed sidelong glances. Tetrault was one of these big city types from St. Albans (pop. 5k). We were from a neighboring cowtown. One of us came clean and admitted we didn’t get cable out here.

Tetrault shook his head. He got up. This was before remote controls or at least before our parents sprung for a TV with remote control. There were two dials on the TV – VHF and UHF or something like that. He fiddled with them. It was like witnessing a Nobel Prize-worthy discovery being realized.

The screen was staticky. Then a picture began to emerge. Then the static overtook the screen again. But then the picture came again and it came clear.

He brought NHL hockey to my 3-channel TV in rural Vermont.

It was Hockey Night in Canada. We were awestruck. It was border-hopping down the Green Mountains from Quebec. It was the Montréal Canadiens.

It was every Saturday night after that. The Habs were led by Patrick Roy, Guy Carbonneau, Chris Chelios, Stephane Richer, Mats Naslund, and Shayne Corson. They were captained by the great Bob Gainey in his final season. Pat Burns was the coach. Bob Cole provided the play-by-play. I don’t think he was paired with Harry Neale then because in my fuzzy memories of that inaugural season, it’s Dick Irvin in the booth next to him.

Marty and I became Canadiens fans that year. They rewarded us with a run to the Stanley Cup Finals. They were beaten in 6 by the Calgary Flames. It didn’t seem fair. Our bitterness was exacerbated by our neighbor’s late-breaking partisanship for the Flames.

Didn’t seem right.

Montréal was strong those years. They were always contenders. They always won on Saturday night, without question. In 1991, something remarkable happened. It embedded our passion for the Montréal Canadiens.

John LeClair, a St. Albans native, made his NHL debut with the Habs. I was young. The crashing worlds and blurring of levels was my first experience with the surreal. To readers from more concentrated population densities this may not seem like much. Rest assured it was a lot. Vermont is proud to list two Presidents (Chester A. Arthur and Calvin Coolidge) as its own. Neither them or anyone else approaches LeClair’s degree of celebrity in my home state.

LeClair had starred for the BFA Bobwhites. Remember, this was before we discovered NHL hockey on our TV. He and the rest of those high school kids were larger than life. They were our heroes. In LeClair’s years BFA wore the Cooperall long pants. The Cooperall long pants are one of the great fashion disasters in hockey history. Worn on LeClair and the rest of BFA’s Green & Gold -they were the coolest. We all asked for them for Christmas.

cooperalls

After high school, LeClair went on to star at UVM. The story made sense so far. This always happened. Every year the best 1 or 2 high school players from Vermont were awarded a hockey scholarship to the school.

LeClair was the best player for UVM throughout his 4 seasons despite being hampered by nagging injuries. In his senior year, the Catamounts were eliminated from the Eastern Conference Athletic Association (ECAC) tournament by St. Lawrence University.

That’s when all fucking hell broke loose.

It was covered in The Burlington Free Pressand The St. Albans Messengerlike a papal conclave. The Burlington Free Presscame off the press in the morning. The St. Albans Messenger was an evening paper. They relayed overnight developments and daily progress respectively. The Canadiens brass were pursuing LeClair. LeClair had gotten an agent. They weren’t talking to him about a minor-league contract. Ducolon catching on with the Peoria Riverman had actually caused a minor shitstorm a few years earlier.

This was different. They wanted LeClair for the major league club – The Show.

He signed. The whole state went batshit crazy. Stories about LeClair covered the front page like an eclipse for days. The first Gulf War was in full swing. It was relegated to the back pages by LeClair’s emergence.

To be fair, he was a proxy. Whose kidding who? This was Vermont’s emergence.

LeClair played his first NHL hockey game on Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada. It was against the Vancouver Canucks. He scored. It was a lucky goal at best. He stumbled upon a loose puck in the corner. A defender put him under duress. He lost his balance and maybe his composure. He just flung the puck in the general direction of the goal. It caught Canucks goalie Trevor Linden by surprise. He fumbled the puck and it wound up in the net.

None of us in Vermont were interested in particulars. He scored his first goal in his first game. The folk story was cemented. We did it.

LeClair would go on to score many more goals in a near-Hall of Fame career. He would score two overtime winners in the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals when Montréal won its 24th(and last as of this writing) Stanley Cup. After getting traded to Philadelphia, he would score buckets of goals playing on a line with the iconic Eric Lindros. For Vermonters, none of them would match that first fling-the-puck goal.

I never fling the puck. Not in beer-league play. In beer league, I’m a puck-moving defenseman. It’s the highest state of being a hockey player can hope to achieve.

No player should ever aspire to be a wing. Most of them skate their lanes north and south, all kinds of shame in their game. There’s no creativity – just relentless pursuit. They barrel full speed ahead toward the net on the off-chance of whacking at a rebound. They hustle back on defense, tasked with pressuring an opponent into a rushed decision leading to a turnover.

Some wings don’t fit this mold. They don’t relentlessly pursue the low probability of a loose puck. They don’t crash and bang to the front of the net like drones.

They float.

They disappear for long stretches of the game only to emerge with a dazzling play generating a glorious opportunity. They glide around going through the motions. They contribute the very least they can to defensive zone coverage, forechecking, or anything else which may require discipline, exertion, or putting the team first. They’re waiting. They’re waiting for a break in the play or a lapse in the opponent’s judgement or coverage. Who knows exactly what they’re waiting for. I don’t. All I know is that they wait, and they get what they’re waiting for once or twice per game. The rest of the time, they’re invisible.

Centers get a lot of glory. Some of it is deserved. Some of them are fine players. Some of the games great playmakers happened to be centers. Gretzky was a center. Of course, it’s a particular strain of playmaking. It occurs in small windows and tight lanes. It’s micro. It’s short set-ups from behind the net. It’s opportunities generated off scrums along the wall. It’s give-and-go’s through the neutral zone. It’s counter-punching.

Puck-moving defenseman conduct their affairs at a macro level. From their rear position, they have a God’s-eye view of the play like generals on an ancient Roman battlefield. They are ice generals.

This is the point-of-view from where Bobby Orr conceived all his end-to-end rushes. Paul Coffey did it after him. PK Subban and Erik Karlsson carry that mantle today. They see all the chess pieces laid out in front of them. They think three moves ahead, envisioning whether tacking left, right, or galloping up the middle will result in the seas parting, providing a gaping lane to the net. In this mode, they are similar to punt-returners in football. Both roles are capable of soaring moments which bring the crowd to their feet, instilling memories that last for lifetimes and get passed down like folk stories.

Think about it. How old are you? Have you seen Bobby Orr rush the puck? Or have you just heard all about it

orr subban

Carrying the puck doesn’t encapsulate a puck-moving defenseman. However dynamic, it’s not even their primary function. The building block of their trade is their passing.

They’re generals. They’re quarterbacks.

They pass on that macro level. Visualizing the breaks in play three steps ahead of relentlessly pursuing wings, they shred defensive schemes apart. Sometimes, these are long stretch passes through seams in coverage. Sometimes, these are high lobs past overzealous pressure. Other times, they are short innocent-looking passes generating quick transition, setting a chain of events in motion adding up to a scoring opportunity.

Puck-moving defensemen process these equations in milliseconds somewhere down deep below the conscious functions of the brain. They factor in the positioning and momentum of the opposition. They account for space and the skill-sets of their deployed teammates. They don’t think it. They feel it. They give birth to them. They are jazz musicians.

A puck-moving defenseman should never be confused with a stay-at-home defenseman.

Stay-at-home defensemen are the mules of the hockey world. They are there to muck and grind for pucks in the corners, clear out the front of the net, throw their weight around, and be intimidating in general.

When in possession of the actual puck, a stay-at-home defenseman’s operating protocol is limited to a narrow spectrum of options. In the defensive zone, unless a gaping passing lane is obvious, they chip it high off the glass out of harm’s way into the neutral zone. In the neutral zone, they heave it deep into the offensive zone. This allows the relentless wingers, in their never-ending function of pursuit, to chase it down. Relentlessly pursuing wingers and stay-at-home defensemen are two sides of the same coin. They complete each other.

In the offensive zone, the stay-at-home defenseman has exactly two choices. Ideally, they fire their big heavy slapshot on net. The goal is never to beat the goalie clean. It’s to generate a rebound creating chaos in front of the net. The theory is that chaos in front of the net drives up the probability that the puck will randomly wind up in the actual net. The fallback option, if a shooting lane is unavailable, is to chip the puck down low into a corner or behind the net. This creates chaos in those areas. It’s settling for chaos just a little closer to the front of the net. It’s volume offence.

At its essence, the stay-at-home defenseman plays a territorial game while the puck-moving defenseman plays a possession style. I began my so-called hockey career as a stay-at-home defenseman. It was instinctive.

The other kids were better skaters. They were better stickhandlers. They were just better. The longer I held the puck, the greater the probability of something bad happening. This would lead to a goal-against. I understood I had to move the puck and move it quick. I didn’t care to move it somewhere strategic. If there was a wide-open teammate that would do but the broad goal was to simply get the thing the hell off my stick. The puck symbolized negative outcome. I needed to get negative outcome away from me quickly and efficiently. Typically, this meant firing it off the boards in the general direction of away from our goal.

Then came Coach Dave Gilbert.

Before him, coaches would level their criticism at my results. Coach Gilbert was much louder and much more intense than all these coaches put together. But his criticism wasn’t results-based. The catalyst of all his screaming and cajoling was my ambition with the puck, or lack thereof. He ridiculed me for whacking it indiscriminately off the boards. He snorted – snorted – when I wrapped it around the wall for a winger to pick out of his skates. He said I was no hockey player. He accused me of trading in the low-brow field of “Fling-the-Puck”. He had zero respect for my game.

Sometimes I would fling the puck and it would happen upon the stick of a floating winger who would race down the ice and score. That meant credit for an assist to me. However, when I returned to the bench, I would get no credit from Coach Gilbert. He would shake his head and ridicule me just as though I had turned the puck over and it wound up in our own net.

He loathed me.

I was in a weird head space. Coach Gilbert had me under pressure and I was learning about myself. I always thought I flung the puck to avoid making bad plays. I was realizing that it was the criticism from coaches and teammates resulting from those bad plays, not the bad plays themselves, that I feared the most.

But now I was catching exponentially more flak for the very art I had mastered which minimized glaringly bad plays. Sometimes I would fling the puck and it would get flung directly to a teammate. That teammate would do something, in my opinion, far stupider than my puck-fling. He’d get stripped of the puck which would then be promptly deposited in our goal. We would all file back to the bench where Coach Gilbert would single me out with a level of ridicule that bordered on performance art. I was astonished. I was incredulous. My teammate – who had demonstrated a far greater degree of incompetence than me – was getting off scott-free. I had to cobble together his reasoning. The best I could figure was that, if I hadn’t flung the puck, if I had made a more ambitious choice with the puck, then maybe it would have wound up at a point in time and space more advantageous to my teammate.

I was pissed. I didn’t understand why we had to bend over backwards to cater to these floating wingers all the time. I felt like he was piling on. We weren’t exactly an all-star team that season. I saw other teammates go out on the ice shift after shift, just dying to be jack-asses. They didn’t have to put up with all this grief every time they returned to the bench. I hypothesized that Coach Gilbert was unwell mentally. Something about me in particular triggered his episodes.

I didn’t have the luxury of indulging myself in this line of thinking. I was getting ridiculed all the time. Sometimes it was anticipatory ridicule. He would engage the entire team before the game in a round of brainstorming, speculating about my upcoming puck-flings. They all knew I would fling. But how would I fling? It got to a point where teammates started to recount particularly memorable lines from Coach Gilbert when he discussed my flinging of the puck. It was like co-workers standing around the coffee machine, recounting some comedian’s greatest bits and butchering the deliveries all to hell. Coach Gilbert was an insult comic and he’d stumbled across a goldmine in his Fling-the-Puck Monologues.

I was all out of options. I had to adjust. I waged war with my instinct to get the puck off my god-damned stick immediately. I would hold it and hold it and hold it. I would skate with it. I would force my head to rise in order to locate a teammate I could pass directly to.

Honestly, the results weren’t much better than flinging the puck. They might have been worse. Instead of flinging the puck into a turnover far away from me, I was holding the puck and succumbing to turnovers directly on my person. Or, in an attempt to pass directly to a teammate, it would go directly onto an opponent’s stick. This actually led to a small departure in Coach Gilbert’s comedy routine, a bit about telegraphing my passes.

But that bit didn’t kill. It manufactured a few snickers but nothing like the roaring belly laughs he used to bathe in with his Fling-the-Puck Monologues. Even though I was still a turnover machine, I had beaten Coach Gilbert at this game. He was forced to move onto other whipping boys. I was free to cause my team all kinds of problems in peace. That’s all I really wanted back then.

I don’t think it came together until the next season. Maybe it’s like learning a musical instrument. You have to stumble through until there’s a feel for the patterns. Muscle memory needs to be established. You have to stop deliberating on every single variable. You have to feel it.

As a first-year bantam, I started feeling it. I knew when it felt like this, pass like this. When it felt like that, skate toward there. Things started opening up. Plays slowed down. I wasn’t the best player on the ice, but I was pretty fucking decent. Everything wasn’t all chaos being pushed or resisted against. It was making sense. There were patterns. It became a matter of making our patterns make more sense than our opponents’ patterns.

The season after that was when I made the BFA team. Something curious happened there. The coach didn’t evaluate results. Like Coach Gilbert, he focused on the process. The problem was, he didn’t approve of the process that had become embedded in me.

In our zone, he wanted the puck chipped high off the glass and out of danger. In the neutral zone, we were instructed to take one step over the center line and fire the puck low. In the offensive zone, defenseman were to shoot the puck hard along the ice, never off of it. By shooting along the ice, there was a greater chance that the puck would ricochet off a skate or stick and create all kinds of chaos. Coach Gilbert had done everything short of beat me into playing a puck possession game. This new coach wanted to reprogram me into playing a territorial game.

He wanted me to go back to flinging the puck!

There are no coaches in beer league. Maybe that’s what I like about it so much. That and the beer.

My beer league team in Boston never thought to come up with a creative name or sponsored jerseys. We were just Team Black. In Boston, the closest we had to a coach was Walt. That’s odd because Walt is the epitome of the soft floating wing which I so thoroughly disparaged earlier in this examination. He used to play on an opposing team. He’s a left wing and he literally never enters the defensive zone. It doesn’t matter how long his team is hemmed in. The closest I’ve ever seen him come is straddling the blue line, barely dipping his toe in the defensive third.

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Playing against him as a defenseman presents a conundrum. Do you take advantage of the hole left by his vacating of his defensive zone assignment? Or do you recede into the neutral zone in order to guard against a quick turnover and transition pass giving him the breakaway he so relishes? I would usually opt to stay in the offensive zone. I don’t care to dignify his cherry-picking crap.

He just showed up in our locker room one season without explanation. Logic and deductive reasoning suggested his former squad got fed up with his floating. It was astonishing to discover that he, of all people, is an absolute taskmaster. He barks – literally barks – all game long. He gets on us for not forechecking. He gets on us for not backchecking (the nerve!). He gets on us for not picking our heads up and finding an open man. Nothing’s good enough for this guy. Except his own inconsistent play. He seems fairly content with that.

He gave Chris some kind of complex. Chris is another guy who just showed up. That’s how we compiled our roster. People just show up in our locker room. If they don’t get fed up with our antics, anti-social behavior, and general lack of hockey talent, if they keep coming back, then they’re part of the team. Fairly simple. Chris showed up one season as a goalie. The guy never stopped talking. He displayed an uncanny ability for turning each and every locker room conversation into a conversation about him. He used to play minor league baseball. He played with Michael Jordan during his baseball experiment. He played under Terry Francona. We heard those stories and all the other ones. We’ve heard each of them, like, 5 times.

After that first season in goal, he came back again, thirsty for more. The goalie experiment was disastrous. We moved him to defense. After a couple games we moved him up to the wing. After that we tried getting in touch with Francona about any advice he might have about how best to hide Chris in the line-up. This was during the Cleveland Indians postseason run. Evidently, playoff baseball occupied his time. Francona never got back to us.

We stumbled onto a solution. We were out of options, deploying Chris as a center because that was the only position left. Chris randomly posted a few locker room pictures which included Walt onto social media. It turns out Walt has some type of borderline paranoia disorder about his likeness showing up on the internet. I’m not going to inflate my word count relaying that individual’s ravings. I’ll just say that he blew his stack on Chris. He blew his stack and it persisted. He blew his stack in the locker room. He blew his stack on the bench. He blew his stack on the ice during the flow of play. He blew his stack game after game after game. It got to the point where the only place Chris could go to find some degree of respite was our own defensive zone. He inadvertently became a grimy defensive-minded center in the mold of Patrice Bergeron or Guy Carbonneau. Problem solved.

If Walt’s not our coach, maybe it’s Jim although Jim is probably more like our General Manager. The few guys who were recruited to the team came via Jim. He’s also the one with a knack for locating subs when guys bow out just a few hours before game time. This tends to happen during football season. We play on Sundays. Usually one or two guys will have a few too many beers while they’re watching the Patriots and patting themselves on the back, acting like they sent Bill Belichick an email suggesting he give this Brady fellow from Michigan a second look. They’ll reason they’re in no shape to play hockey no matter how sloppy it is. They’ll fire a text at Jim to make it his problem.

Jim recruited me for the team. I was getting back into playing, getting my sea legs under me at a pick-up game just north of Boston. Jim was a regular. He started talking me up. At first, I was apprehensive about engaging him. I knew he was a financial planner. I was worried all this beer league talk was just a tactic for greasing the wheels, so he could get his hands on my money. But he was relentless. I finally succumbed. I’ve been playing ever since. He hasn’t weaseled in on my ‘portfolio’…yet.

He also found Ted. Ted’s not the fastest skater or best stickhandler or the hardest shooter. He’s just our most prolific goal scorer. I don’t know how he does it. The puck just finds him. He always winds up with the puck on his stick and a yawning cage in front of him. He also brings IPA’s to the game. Every team needs to have an identity. The 80’s Edmonton Oilers were known for their speed and skill. The Boston Bruins have always been known for their physical style. The 70’s Philadelphia Flyers were notorious for fighting so much that some questioned whether they even knew there was a puck out there on the ice. Our identity is that we drink good beer. Ted played a key role in establishing that.

Alchemist

Brian is the lone holdout that still brings cheap beer. His swill of choice is Bud Light. Brian used to be the GM, saddled with tracking down subs, until he deftly pawned that role off on Jim. He used to play defense, but he found himself caught up-ice almost more often than Walt. He tried giving us some history lesson about the role of Rover in old-time hockey. It sounded well-rehearsed. We told him to shut up and get his ass on the wing.

Brian had to coach me up a little bit when I first came back to playing. Pick-up was one thing but having an operational scoreboard and referees brought back all the suppressed instincts from a childhood playing hockey in northern Vermont, just within the Quebecois sphere of influence. All my dirty tricks were coming out and I didn’t even realize it. I was hacking. I was slashing. Some might say I dove a couple times. I would say that they got their stick around my legs and I just kept my feet moving like any hard-working player should.

It all boiled over one night when I had some wing parked in front of our net like he was trying to establish squatter’s rights. I tried a forearm shiver. I tried boxing him out. He wouldn’t budge. Before I knew it, I was deploying the method taught to me by Coach Gilbert although he may choose to deny it. I took my stick and ran it perpendicular down his spinal column. This causes most players to involuntarily come out of their forward lean and stand straight up like a stick figure. That allowed me to transport him free and easy like a shopping cart. There’s also a bonus option of kicking his legs out from under him. I chose to exercise this option.

He bounced right back up, grabbed me in a headlock, and started hammering me with uppercuts. He was screaming something about slew-foots. I was having a hard time making out the words exactly. I don’t know why these Bostonians get so worked up. That’s just hard-nosed hockey where I’m from. Brian pulled me aside on the bench and explained to me about tact and sportsmanship and not being so much of an asshole.

Jerry was my defensive partner on that team in Boston. At first glance one would assume that Jerry is a stay-at-home defenseman. He’s 6’5 and he doesn’t skate so well. Rest assured, Jerry is a puck-moving defenseman. He doesn’t rush up the ice like Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey, but he never panics or flings the puck. He always tries to make a play. He usually tries to execute a well-conceived pass. He knows Walt’s always floating around somewhere along the horizon. If he’s under extreme duress, he’ll pass laterally to me. It’s like a pressure-release valve.

I enjoy having Jerry on our team because he’s a Detroit Red Wings fan. It’s beneficial to avoid over-saturating a team with Bruins fans. I’m a Canadiens fan. This has the potential to create dissension in the room. Jerry’s presence as a neutral fan helps defuse this.

The Bruins-Canadiens rivalry is easily the most storied and intense in hockey. It has taken many twists and turns over the years. The Bruins have always been the physically imposing team. The Habs have always been the smaller faster team. There’s been glorious victories and humiliating losses on both sides. It’s great fun. However, the joy dissipates when the games are over and it becomes two rival fans arguing with each other. The Canadiens fan will call the Bruins goons. The Bruins fan will call the Canadiens whiny divers, always working the refs for the call. It will eventually devolve into disparaging each other’s local cultures. The Canadiens fan will insult the Boston accent, the dropping of the R that borders on a speech impediment. The Bruins fan will insult Quebec’s insistence on their language and anything vaguely French. It becomes a battle of identity politics. It becomes just as tiresome and tail-chasing as arguing about abortion or gun rights.

Handshake

It’s quite ironic considering Montréal and Boston may be more alike than either care to admit. Traditionally, both are blue collar. Both are predominantly Catholic. The only true difference appears to be one speaks something approaching French and the other speaks something vaguely resembling English.

Unless an actual game has been played or a Bruins fan wants to debate the merits of the two teams honestly, I choose not to engage them anymore. If it’s not about hockey, Bruins fans go straight for the jugular, accusing Quebec of being xenophobic and the Montréal Canadiens organization of enabling the xenophobia and even perpetuating it.

A lot’s been written and said about the French-English divide in Quebec. It’s Canada’s reigning champion of wedge issues. It’s rooted in the French and Indian War or something else that happened hundreds of years ago. That’s their Civil War that they still fight even though most of them don’t even know why. Hugh MacLennan wrote all about it in Two Solitudes. It might be the Great Canadian Novel.

I don’t know that I have anything new or insightful to add. I guess I might have an odd perspective on it, growing up in Vermont and observing the bizarre and unpredictable ways Canada’s issues have spilled over into my little corner of the world.

Beyond being a Montréal Canadiens fan, my primary experience with Quebec society was within the context of underage drinking. Their drinking age is 18. In the actual city of Montréal, they have a tendency to adhere to this law. In the small cowtowns along the border, its mostly just a guideline. 16 appears to be the true cutoff in these places. They’ll ask for your ID. You’ll explain that you forgot it. That’s right – you just crossed an international border and somehow forgot your ID although you brought the rest of your wallet and plenty of money. They’ll play along. They’ll demand your date of birth. You’ll respond with the actual date – minus a couple years. They’ll try to rattle you – grilling you about your astrological sign. Luckily that never changes no matter how many years back you were born. With their examination complete, they’ll frown and finally nod, letting you pass into some dingy barroom where you’ll be relieved of your loonies.

The older I get and the further away I go, the more these southern Quebec farmtowns amaze me. Back then I just accepted them because I didn’t know any different. Only Catholics could tolerate this level of hypocrisy on a daily basis. These are towns with populations in the mid to low hundreds. You’re talking about nothing more than a handful of extended families. There are five public buildings: A school, a gas station, possibly a convenience store, a church, and a strip bar. Typically, and I shit you not, the church is directly across the street from the strip bar.

What does all this have to do with the French and English divide? I have no idea. I just feel you need to understand what these people live with on a daily basis before you start trying to solve their problems for them.

These towns don’t just stop at an imaginary line some politicians made and called a border. People have been coming and going over that line for generations, scattering commerce, bloodlines, and problems in all directions. You might have a family with the surname Messier. Half of them are in southern Quebec. The other half are in northwest Vermont. A few second-cousins might be in upstate New York – the black sheep. The Quebec Messier’s pronounce their name French-style, Mess-ee-ay. The Vermonters pronounce it phonetically Mess-ee-err. The upstate New Yorkers just spout gibberish all day long.

There’s a lot of long French names in St. Albans. Almost everybody’s French. There’s some Irish but most of those families can assure their neighbors of some French blood somewhere along the way, at least on the maternal side. In Quebec, it’s ideal to have French blood on both sides. Some families can brag about being able to trace their lines all the way back to the old country.

Pure Laine they call it.

In St. Albans, families mimic this by bragging about being able to trace their lines back a couple generations to whoever hopped the border from Quebec. It’s their bastardized version of Pure Laine. Quebec is their old country. Those long French names weren’t up to Pure Laine snuff in Quebec, so they came to the New World to erect their own caste system.

My Mom was a Vermonter but she grew up a few towns south. She was 100% Irish. That’s the wrong Pure Laine. My Dad was from Buffalo, New York. That’s not even upstate. He was German and Scottish and maybe two or three other things. That effectively meant he was from the moon.

When I was really young, I had the sense that there was something different about us. I wasn’t sure why. We weren’t outcasts or looked down upon. There was just something slightly different. I thought it might have been the money. My Dad was a veterinarian. Everybody else seemed to be farmers or worked in the trades. Our house was bigger than other people’s. Our cars were newer. It seemed like Marty and I had a few more toys. The farmers worked hard all year long. In the end, weather determined if the ends would meet. We went on vacations.

The obvious answer seemed that these people were slightly jealous and vaguely suspicious of some carpetbaggers with actual savings accounts.

But it wasn’t a homogeny of working-class people. No community ever is. There were families that were just as well off. They were just as educated. There were a few that left us in the dust. It didn’t seem like they ran into the same speed bumps.

Struggling for playing time in SASA didn’t make sense to me at first, not even as a half-ice Mite. I thought I might be better than some of the other kids playing regularly. It seemed like I was at least as good as them or at least close enough to warrant a little ice time. But nobody else seemed to find anything odd about it. Not the kids. Not the adults. Maybe I just wasn’t that good.

My brother was good, though. He was excellent. It’s fair to state that he was a prodigy. When he became a squirt, he was easily the best player in his age group in St. Albans. He was arguably the best squirt in the state of Vermont. If not the absolute best, he was certainly among the top handful.

He was relegated to the ‘B’ team.

I was young but that told me there had to be something else going on. It might have been jealousy over what he had and what they did not. Other more elegant possibilities crept into my head and became inescapable.

My last name is Paeplow. That’s a rare last name. It’s hard to place. Nobody pronounces it properly. Nobody spells it correctly. Even when I walk them through the spelling, they resist. They bristle at the concept of the A and E being thrown together like it is in my last name. There are very few other Paeplow’s in America. There are none in St. Albans or any other part of Vermont.

It’s a rare name and it isn’t French. It isn’t Messier. It isn’t Savard, Gilmond, or Montcalm. It’s not even Irish. I noticed the long French names weren’t just families. In St. Albans they were more like brands. There would be three or four families of Montcalms and Gilmonds. If you looked closer, you would notice that a Gilmond was married to a Montcalm. These people weren’t always old, sipping coffee out of a Styrofoam cups in the stands while they watched their kid play hockey. They had been young. They had gone to high school together. They had gone over the border into Quebec to do some underage drinking. Together. The Montcalm’s, Gilmond’s, and Savards together in the same car.

Now they were grown and their kids were playing hockey together. I still couldn’t be sure about my own benching, but it explained my brother’s demotion precisely, at least in my head. They weren’t lashing out at him. It wasn’t designed to belittle us. They were protecting their own interwoven and deep network of friends and family. They might not even have known they were doing it. They might not have been protecting the status quo. They might have just been adhering to it.

We were just off the boat but eventually we broke through. For my brother, his talent was far too obvious to keep him down. He was better than everyone else and it was obvious. Not only was he better than everyone in his age group but he was becoming better than everyone in the age group above him. Not only did they relent and allow him to play on their ‘A’ team, he started to become a source of pride in the community. They were talking about him like the next John LeClair.

For me, I got a little better at hockey. I crossed paths with Coach Gilbert. He terrorized me into improving some. I also began making friends with the players in my age group. When we were squirts and mites, the kids almost didn’t matter. The friendships of the parents mattered. At that age, parental friendships dictate childhood friendships. Gradually, kids decide who they actually like. The influence of parental friendships recedes. Parents grow less inclined to gerrymander the process of things like the selection of recreational youth hockey teams. Eventually, true childhood friendships neutralize parental alliances and water seeks its level.

That’s what happens in youth hockey. I wonder what happens in everyday society. Do those tribal instincts influence who gets a bank loan? Who gets a zoning permit? Who gets a better deal on a new car? Who gets the Lion’s Club scholarship?

I’m not sure but my guess is it’s at least a small factor if it’s allowed to be. If your credit is perfect or you’re a straight A student, it doesn’t matter. If you’re just plain way better, tribalism can’t hold you down. Being gregarious or persistent might help. If you’re going to just keep working your ass off, you’ll get past it. If you’re some louder fucker, they’ll let you through, just to avoid you making a big stink.

It’s still there, that speed bump, that inertia which must be overcome.

Tribalism is there but it’s nowhere near as imposing as a couple generations ago. Its influence will continue to lessen as time rolls on. But it will always lurk somewhere. That speed bump won’t be so robust, but one must be conscious of speed bumps. They are there to serve a purpose.

My hockey career never amounted to much. Some people would say that my most impressive hockey achievements happened within the context of beer league play. I would concur. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Everybody in St. Albans thought my brother would follow John LeClair’s footsteps to UVM and eventually the NHL. He was recruited by UVM, but he chose not to attend. He was burnt out. He moved out of St. Albans. He went to school. He got a good job. He got married. He has a family. He seems happy. Sometimes we go back home to visit family. Sometimes he’ll run into an old acquaintance. Sometimes that acquaintance will tell him how disappointed they are in him, that he didn’t make more out of his hockey career.

That town had such high hopes for him.

 

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