||11-13-2004 01:57 PM
My First Taste of Organized Hockey
We were a rag-tag group of high school sophomores and juniors with varying degrees of equipment who never played any kind of organized hockey. None of us could have afforded it until we had paper routes and other lucrative sources of income. Plus we didn't have transportation until some of us were old enough to drive. So we contented ourselves playing on the local ponds. Word got around during the summer that a guy was sponsoring a new team in one of the local leagues and was looking for players. We decided it was time to show the "rich" kids how hockey is played.
A couple of the guys were still using figure skates, none of us had helmets, and quite a few were using sticks with plastic blades. So that summer was spent earning money to buy the necessary equipment. I cut lawns and delivered papers. My best friend cleaned pools. Luckily we were able to find a place in Fort Erie that sold used equipment.
The big day finally arrived and we all showed up for practice. None of us quite knew what to expect. Our coach was a grizzled veteran, somewhere between 60 and 65 years old, with a marine crew-cut, and knew all the drills. He barked out orders and we did our impression of complying. The owner watched so we all tried to make a good impression. He wore a trench coat, smoked a big cigar, and was accompanied by a couple guys who looked like thugs. We quickly surmised that he was one of those guys who made the kind of offers you can't refuse. Needless to say, we could have made the Bad News Bears look like all-stars, but we were determined to get better.
When we showed up for the next practice, our coach was gone, and a long-haired hippy (this was the 70's), who smelled like he just rolled out of a field in Mexico was our new coach. He was just a few years older than us, could barely skate, and had never played hockey of any kind. But he had seen a few Sabres games. He called us to gather round, and informed us that our coach had died from a heart attack shortly after the first practice. Deep down we knew it was probably our fault. The shock of seeing what he had to work with did him in. So we blamed it on this kid nobody liked named Tim and proceeded with a clean conscience. The coach let us know that he was the only guy they could find who was dumb enough to replace dead guy. He also had a van, which was vital transportation to games and other "team functions". Since our coach had no idea how to run a practice we used the icetime to play pickup games. The coach was always the last guy picked.
We were not a good team, but we had moxie. Post-game parties were mandatory, and the coach often bought the beverages. Most of the games were played in our own end. We were outshot by margins like 53-15, but all our shots were "quality scoring chances". We lost our first 10 games and were outscored something like 110-20 due to a lot of lucky fluke goals. Then our coach came up with a brilliant strategy; get the lead and start fights. Our goalie chimed in, "I can hold any lead as long as I don't have to make any saves". That was enough to convince us the strategy was sound. There were no allowances for exceeding the ice rental time (90 minutes per game), so if you're leading and the ice rental time ran out, you won! In those days fighting was just a 5 minute penalty, no ejections or suspensions unless you maimed. We had an ample supply of bodies to send to the penalty box and managed to finish the 2nd half of the season 5-5.
We had high expectations for the next season as we had found a way to win. Over the course of the summer our sponsor-owner was gunned down in a gangland hit, and the Vona Bruins were no more. Vona Vending Machines assumed new ownership by the Castellano family who had no interest in sponsoring us. Things didn't turn out the way any of us had expected or could even imagine. We had a lot of fun, and quite a few of us went on to play in beer leagues together. Most of us have stayed in touch, including the coach, and every year we have at least one hunting or fishing expedition. It was a memorable, worthwhile experience, or a "long strange trip" as the Grateful Dead would say.