My first junior hockey playoff game
There are moments in everyone’s hockey career that they will never forget, no matter how hard they try. Some moments are joyful and when reflected upon bring a smile to ones face. Then, there are the moments that you cannot block them out and stop them from stirring up a feeling of uneasiness. The uneasiness starts in your core and spreads out through your body.
This story is about one of those moments. And while this moment may not seem as profound or disturbing as other ones I will share, it is it to me.
My first year of junior hockey in Canada was painful. The pain was physical and emotional, but because my love of the game was true, I forged through the difficulties like lots of other players. This particular moment happened at the end of the first season.
After being sent down, called up, and traded multiple times I landed with this club after the Christmas break. How I ended up here is a whole other story that I will gladly share later. We were a poor club, one of the poorer ones in our league, but because we were affiliated with a higher-level club with deep talent, our roster was a good mix of wise veterans and motivated rookies.
We clinched the last playoff spot right at the end of the season, much to the joy of our owner/general manager. That spot in the best-of-seven series guaranteed him at least two games of ticket revenue. Revenue that was much needed to keep this club afloat for next season.
The first round had us face one of the best teams in Canada at that time. A roster that would eventually include some NHL draft picks, a Stanley Cup champion, and Canadian Olympic gold medalist. This club also happened to be our archrival as a mere 45-minute drive only separated us. And being such a small region that competed for advertising dollars, our GM hated this particular club, as they would attract most of the money in the region due to all of their success.
Our last game against this club during the regular season ended in a brawl that spilled into the hallway with myself taking a few punches to cheek, thanks to referee holding my arms and allowing the opposing player free reign on my face.
The first two games started out much to what the newspapers had predicted; aggressive, physical play with the opposing team taking home ice advantage to gain a 2-0 series lead.
Game three in our house was the opposite of their prediction. Motivated to be on our home ice with a full crowd deafening our doubts, we pounced on our complacent opponents to win. However, game four went back to the script with us taking a hard beating. That game four was also marred by another shocking incident that I will share another time.
We were worn down after game four. Nobody wanted to admit it, but our eyes couldn’t hide the collective thought: ‘that team is better than us.’
Our deciding game five roster was missing two key elements to our strategy. One was severely injured and stuck in his bed in the hospital and the other was suspended. Our energy and focus wasn’t at that level needed to fend off our highly skilled, physical opponents. The first period was over before we even knew it as our opponents blurred us with their speed and crushing hits. Heading into the locker room down 4-0 the coach tapped me on the shoulder and said I was going in. Yes, I was the backup goalie. And being a rookie I was fine with that. Our starter was an incredibly gifted goaltender with ice pumping through his veins as cold as the surface he skated on. I learned a lot from him.
My first time playing in a junior hockey playoff game had finally arrived. The locker room was silent. Only the muffled sound of the Zamboni and the standard Canadian hockey music mix of rock and older rock filtered into the dressing room. I was sitting in the spot I sat throughout my career, right next to the door. While visualizing saves for the upcoming period the door burst open letting in that poetic scent of cold arena air laced with popcorn and nachos. The once muffled Zamboni and music came in full decibel along with our GM as he went front and center of our locker room.
“You are all playing like a bunch of pussies!” He shrieked, face red. “This isn’t fucking hockey. This is fucking embarrassing to me, to our fans. I am fucking embarrassed. You all don’t deserve to play on this team. Do you know you are facing elimination today? You fucking cowards.”
The verbal assault was a shock. I have had my fair share of verbal lashings in my career before and since that moment, and that was certainly not the worst. But, at that moment in time with how our team was battling, it hurt us collectively. Nobody answered our GM and few had their heads up as the assault continued.
Our coaches must have heard the shrieking down the hall as the door opened again with them filtering through. And just as the door opened my peripheral vision caught one of our oldest players lift his head up to look our GM straight in the eye.
“We are trying our best. What else do you want us to fucking do?” He stated assertively not breaking eye contact.
The next moment happened so quickly, yet it replays in slow motion every time. As if instinct was propelling him, our GM moved gracefully like a boxer as he raised his fist and delivered a heavy punch. The sound of fist on bone echoed around the room like an earthquake spreading out from its epicenter. My teammate dropped on to his knees as our captain sprang up like a bull released from its pen after hours of taunting and prodding. Luckily for our GM, our assistant coach was in the path of the charge and blocked him from getting to his target. Our head coach tackled the GM and then dragged him out of the locker room. With tears in his eyes, my assaulted teammate retook his position on the bench and didn’t move as his face began to swell into a rosy red lump. The shock had frozen us. One player put his hand on the defiant ones knee in a gesture that he wasn’t quite sure what would be appropriate after a situation like this. As hockey players, we are accustomed to being punched; it is a part of the game. But usually it’s against an opponent and not figures of power and from the same team.
The locker room door opened again with our coach returning. He began to speak but I wasn’t sure how many of us actually listened. I know I can’t recall a single sentence he said. As if something else was controlling me, I remember putting my helmet on and heading out the door and onto the ice. I couldn’t hear the crowd; I couldn’t smell the sweet arena aroma.
I surrendered three goals in the next two periods while we didn’t score one. We were as hallow as the figures used in table hockey. We moved up and down the ice as if someone else was controlling us, pushing the levers. We swung our sticks as the puck moved by us.
My teammate didn’t join us on the ice for the second or the third. When we came back to the locker room for the intermission between the second and third, his bag was gone along with him. In fact, I never saw him again after that game.
On locker room clean out day, our GM finally addressed us. He apologized, said he had made amends with the player and that he was going to sell the club and get out of hockey. As far as I know, he remained true to that statement. My season was over with that club, but continued with another as I was recalled by a higher club to join them as a black ace for their playoff run.
And that is the story of my first junior hockey playoff game.