Street hockey’s dead end
Late in Thursday night’s frenetic Flyers-Bruins matchup at the Garden, analyst Andy Brickley transported NESN viewers of a certain age back to their childhood with one word.
“Car!’’ said Brickley.
The goals came fast and furious, plays broke down all over the ice, crazy shots sailed into the net at both ends, goalies Tim Thomas and Brian Boucher flopped around like tunas plucked fresh from Stellwagen Bank.
It was that all-too-rare occasion in professional sports when the unexpected became the expected. No one had a clue what would happen next, except that it probably would be wonderful. The ride was precarious, joyous, simple, and fun.
Systems? There are no systems in a 7-5 barnburner, with each side racing up and down the ice like double-runnered jailhouse escapees. Coaching, video, dry-land training, and meticulous attention to nutritional standards delightfully swirled down the drain. This wasn’t made-for-TV, modern-day, New NHL, two-referee, $200-stick, and 34-second shift (maximum!) hockey anymore.
This was street hockey come crashing down on Causeway.
And when Brickley called, “Car!,’’ it was official. Oh, yeah, game on. Grab stick and get to the street! Let’s all hope Old Man Fletcher doesn’t come tooling wide around the corner with that chrome-grilled ’68 Impala (“Car!’’) and mess up a great game.
“You kind of get the feeling here,’’ Brickley mused during Thursday night’s delicious mayhem, channeling his own hardtop hockey days in Melrose, “we’re going to have to move the nets.’’
The NHL could use a load more of such nights. All of our pro sports, now so precisely coached and scrutinized and button-down professionalized, would be wise to take one giant step (yes, you may, please) backward toward simplicity.
What better example of the sports world gone wrong than those ridiculous NFL video reviews, with the referee slipping under a camera’s canopy for forensic dissection of a play that his fellow officials possibly missed. Hello! All those guys out there with their wisdom and whistles and we have to resort to the tale of the tape?
Look, I know the coaches want their players to be perfect, at least as close to perfect as their game plan, but frankly, all the games we watch are better for the players’ mistakes. Don’t we expect them to miss coverages, trip and fall, fumble on the goal line, boot the field goal attempt wide right? Of course we do.
So if we can’t expect the players to be perfect, then why should we expect it from the officials? It’s called the human element, and the guys in stripes at the very least should be considered human. It might even buy them a little respect from the players, something every sport could use.
Street hockey around here in the ’60s and ’70s was a way of life, not just for those of us who played it, but also for the Old Man Fletchers whose cars disrupted our games. Somehow we all got along. The play stopped, the nets were scooted to the edge of the road, the car passed, with driver and players exchanging gracious nods and waves of the hand (and, OK, some shared silent mutterings over the annoyance of it all).
Street hockey was best for the days immediately following big snowstorms, because snow piled high along the side of the road made for perfect sideboards. Or if we opted to play the game across the width of the street, near-perfect 24-square-foot “nets’’ could be fashioned, scoop by scoop, out of the snow banks.
No need then to move the nets when the cars came. And no chasing the tennis ball down the street, in a race against a golden retriever, for shots fired wide of the net.
It’s all but impossible now to find kids playing street hockey in and around Boston. In fact, I never see it, can’t tell you the last time I waited patiently for a game to clear from the front of my idling car.
I called my favorite skate shop, H.A. Zwicker, in Bedford yesterday and asked where all the street hockey players went. As a kid, Zwicker’s was where I bought scores of those plastic replacement blades that all of us used for street hockey. The blades were beige and slipped easily over the end of our wooden sticks, usually secured by a single screw that threaded into the shaft.
My game, where did it go?
“Uh, you don’t see that game anymore,’’ said the shop’s owner, Wayne Zwicker, easing me into the news gently. “Kids just don’t play it.
“It’s a different generation, and I don’t want to say the kids are spoiled, but . . . they’ve got a lot of different things competing for their attention now. Street hockey really isn’t one of them.’’
Is that right? Well, I can tell you street hockey helped Brickley shape his game and get him to the NHL. Rick Middleton, among the most gifted players the Bruins ever had, played street hockey morning, afternoon, and night in his Toronto neighborhood of Scarborough.
Marc Savard loved the street game, too, best of all when he was playing goalie on the streets around his house near Ottawa. He painted his pillowy leg pads to look just like those worn by ex-Maple Leafs goaltender Felix Potvin.
OK, the street hockey game that I knew has gone down the road and isn’t coming back. I get it. Another part of my life has been relegated to a scrap heap that includes such artifacts as turntables, 8-track players, leather Tacks, wooden tennis rackets, vinyl records, Jiffy pop, racquetball racquets, wooden anything, thick woolen skating socks, hand-turned can openers, a stack of golf woods fashioned out of persimmon (see: wooden anything), and, oh, the slide rule that obviously suffered a horrible factory malfunction long before it came into my possession.
From all the heap, it’s street hockey that held the sweetest memories. We were all Orrs and Espositos and Bucyks and Hodges, Stanfields and Cheeverses. Our banana-shaped blades fired slapshots that hooked and dipped and burrowed a foot deep into snow banks. We learned to grit our teeth and wait for that gripping pain to subside when shots below the belt caught us unaware. We played in snowstorms, under both sunny skies and streetlights. Each of us smacked home the Stanley Cup winner, Game 7, in overtime.
Now a game we loved so much has disappeared for good, though not for the better.
Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.