In my previous post I referred to a friend who passed away this week, and said that we “grew up” playing hockey together. What I didn’t mention is that we still played hockey together, if only for a few months this year.
I play for a beer league hockey team called the Chiefs and it’s a pretty interesting team. When the team started over a decade ago, they adopted the blue and yellow Chiefs jerseys made famous by the movie Slap Shot. A few of the guys run a local auto body shop, and they found some old van, painted it bright blue and, plastered CHIEFS in yellow across the side. Many of the guys ride the “Chiefs bus” to every game. There’s even Chiefs bobble-heads of the Hanson brothers on the dash!
I played with the Chiefs for one season before we moved out west for six years, and it’s been really neat to reconnect with them since we moved back. I played with some of these guys when I wasn’t even old enough to tie my own skates! There are some new faces, of course—things change in six years—but there are still a handful of guys who have been playing together since they were in grade one. It’s a pretty unique situation, I think, and it’s been a lot of fun to play with them.
Despite his ongoing battle with cancer, my friend actually played with us for the first month or two of this season. I was amazed by how well he played—he didn’t look anything like a man fighting much bigger battles than those involving pucks and sticks. He took pretty short shifts, but he didn’t look out-of-place at all. He scored a few goals, made a few plays, shared some laughs in the dressing room after the game…. And then, he stopped coming. Nobody really said anything when one month, then two, then three went by. I think we all knew what was going on, but didn’t want to say anything. We probably didn’t need to. Sometimes speaking things out loud makes them more painful.
Tonight was our first game since our friend’s passing. It was a playoff game. The dressing room was a bit quieter tonight, the faces a bit more somber, the ordinarily raucous conversation a bit more subdued. Before the game, one of the guys passed out some stickers with our friend’s initials that he had made for us to put on our helmets. It was just another beer league hockey game, of course, but somehow tonight didn’t feel like just another game. It felt different or important or… something. We had a lot on our minds. Some of us were probably thinking about our childhoods—about tramping around the frozen prairies with our friends in pursuit of hockey glory, feeling like we were invincible, like we would never die. I don’t know. We don’t talk about these kinds of things at hockey games.
For the first half of the game, we played terrible. We couldn’t complete a pass, made a ton of dumb mistakes, and probably looked like it was the first time we had ever played together. We were under siege for long periods of time, and defended with a combination of desperation and sheer determination. Miraculously, we were still tied 0-0 going into the last period—thanks in large part to our goalie, who played the game of the season for us. And then, with about 12 minutes left, we scored. And then we scored again. And then we hung on for dear life. An empty-netter made for a 3-0 final score. Chiefs win!
Of course, ordinarily there’s nothing very dramatic about a win in a beer league hockey game, but tonight it meant a lot. Nobody wanted to lose this game. We may not have played very well, but I don’t think we’ve put that much collective effort into any game this year. We wanted to win this one for our friend.
After the game, the room was quiet. There were a few red eyes and even some tears. Not many words, though. Nobody was quite sure what to say, even if we were all probably thinking along the same lines. And words can seem pretty useless, anyway, when thinking about a life cut short, about why he had to go through what he did, about why him and not us. Someone had brought a cooler and some plastic cups along and we filled them up with our friend’s favourite drink. Someone said a few words, we nodded, rubbed our eyes, and raised our plastic cups to the boy and the man we knew.
Cheers, my friend. This Chiefs win is for you.