• author
    • Tom McMasters-Stone

    • February 13, 2017 in Columnists

    What the puck?

    I have had a lifelong love affair with hockey.

    And why not? It’s a pure sport, one of the originals — physical, yet requiring finesse and agility, almost nonstop, a reasonable number of players, substitutions on the fly — methinks it is a better form of soccer, only on ice and on a smaller scale.

    The affair began in upstate New York years ago, playing on the annual ice rink in the Pelkey yard, a long block away and south from my house.

    “Uncle” George would spread that old-style rolled aluminum edging in a big circle, creating a mini-rink. The Lake Effect cold would quickly finish the project once he filled it with water. The wind was his only enemy, but it made us better skaters if the surface was wind-sculpted.

    My first pair of skates were double-bladed, but not the traditional double blades. The gap was only about three quarters of an inch, but centered, of course.

    The advantage was they very much acted like regular skates when I turned, but the snow did lodge often between the blades.

    My second pair of skates came from the rink at SUNY-Oswego. We were so poor we couldn’t afford new skates, so my grandmother took me out to the igloo to rifle, with permission, through the lost and found. I was pretty big as a child and I remember the blades ended up curving outward on me eventually.

    In 1965, we moved to the Sacramento area. What a hockey shock. There was one battered arena in Del Paso Heights and that was it. One couldn’t find anything in the way of hockey gear in the sporting goods stores, but I didn’t want to give up my passion.

    So. Golf ball. A goalie stick cut out of plywood and a spine added for strength. Makeshift goals. Softball mask, with wires woven into it to keep the golf ball out, and some old football practice cushions as leg pads. I found an old blocker at the roller rink and used a baseball glove on my left hand. No arm pads. No cup. No leg pads above the knee.

    Golf balls make lovely bruises. I particularly liked the dimples left by them, with the bruises looking much like fried eggs on various parts of my portly body.

    We managed to scrape up some hockey sticks, both the street and ice version, that had migrated west, and were now available at garage sales. We also used field hockey sticks.

    When I was a sophomore, I met Nick. He was from Boston and loved hockey. I also met the Ernst brothers — there were three of them — their father was the principal at El Camino High School in Carmichael — and summer floor hockey was born, with unlimited access to the El Camino gymnasium.

    It was hot, and it was a blast.

    I played goalie at one end and a black guy named Wiley played at the other end. He was an unorthodox goalie and was a little better than I, but we were close enough to be very competitive. It was fabulous and we played many, many games in between summer soccer practices and matches.

    Then, in 1991, the soon-to-be San Jose Sharks came to the Cow Palace and I gained another love of my life!

    There is no sporting event in the world like a professional hockey game in person. Most of the players are not high-priced superstars stuck on themselves and they play their hearts out simply for the love of the game. Hockey arenas are necessarily small and intimate and you can “feel” the game throughout.

    I have been fortunate to attend many games in person — with my children, my wife, and close friends — especially Earl, Randy and Dennis.

    Sadly, things have changed over the years in the way of fan base.

    Sure, the “Dog Pound” is still in the upper deck, with all their obnoxiousness, their tawdry cheers and the occasional visits from security personnel.

    When we first started, much of time at the games was spent standing, out of the sheer joy of having hockey and seeing it in person on the west coast.

    Slowly, though, the fans became complacent — despite very good season records and numerous playoff appearances.

    But no Stanley Cup. Boos started showing up — sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly.

    One of the best presents I ever got was a Sharks jersey, personalized with “Battalion 37.” Now, sometimes, when I’m standing up cheering, I hear, “Hey, Battalion! Sit down!”

    It’s sad — there is little of the sheer thrill of the game left.

    So the shallowness that pervades modern America has come to the Shark Tank. Oh, well, it’s not surprising, n’est pas?

    But not me — not ever…

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