THE RAT TRICK by Peter Nolan Smith

Hockey was bred into the blood of many New England boys. Frozen ponds and backyard rinks were our winter playground. My dreams of playing for the Boston Bruins ended with my father giving my older brother and me a lesson in how to skate backwards. We were standing the wind-swept surface of Watchic Pond. My father said, “Watch me.”

My father was wearing his college sweater. He had earned a letter for football. His feet were a shoulder-width apart and his knees bent slightly before pushing off with his skate. The blades cut half circles in the smooth ice. He was blessed with frictionless grace, until he caught an edge and fell backward onto the hard ice. His head smacked the black ice with a crack. He sat up with a hand holding the back of his head. Blood seeped through his fingers. My father rose to his feet and skated to the edge of the lake leaving a trail of red.

My older brother and I regraded each other and our eyes conveyed the shared knowledge that skating backward was dangerous. 

Throughout our youth we were fearless attackers. On defense we were useless. Both of us posted more defeats than wins on the frozen pond next to Rubber Road. MY best friend was no better and my two young cousins were forced to play defense in many losing efforts, which honed their skills for high school play.

I didn’t bother to tryout for the team.

I sucked, but I supported our blue and gold team throughout three disastrous season. My senior year the squad went 0-17. I attended every game and was renown throughout the league as a fighting supporter. We never lost in the stands no matter the odds.

That losing tradition changed the first time my youngest cousin put on the team uniform. He was a natural athlete and excelled in football, hockey, and baseball. Oil Can scored two goals in his first game. My cousin was unstoppable throughout his career at the all-boys Catholic School south of 128.

His last game for my alumni was at the old Boston Garden on Causeway Street. My hippie friends from college bought tickets for the game versus our arch-rival, Catholic Memorial. I knew the ushers from the Celtics and Bruins and they gave us better seats. My uncle and cousins were rinkside. We chanted the team slogan.

“Go Hawks Go.”

This was the big time and I went into the guts of the Garden to visit Oil Can before the opening face-off.

“Oil Can.” I shouted, as I stepped into the locker room. This dump was the same place that Bobby Orr suited up for the Bs. Twelve-inch pipes ran up the wall. It was only heat source for the home team. The actual lockers had nails pounded into the concrete. A shredded carpet covered the floor and a banquette provided seating for the players. Our old high school gym was in better condition, but this was the Garden. The Stanley Cup had been won by the players in this had been

The coach in a cassock spotted a long-haired hippie at the entrance and yelled, “Get out of here, you furry freak.”

“It’s me, coach.” I lifted the long hair from my face.

“When did you become a hippie weirdo?” The brother was a good old tough guy. He had taught me Latin, even though he had a lisp.

“The minute I left this school, but I’m still a big fan.”

“Do us and you a favor.”

“Yes, brother?” He gave me good grades.

“No fights?”

“Yes brother.” I was trying hard to be a peacenik, but old habits were hard to kill. “You mind, if I wish Oil Can good luck.”

“You know he has a real name?” The old brother shook his head. He hadn’t been young in many years, but his life was devoted to the betterment of their minds and bodies. I nodded my respects and walked over to Oil Can, who was seated on a battered wooden bench. His gloves held a battered hockey stick. The handle was notched for every goal he had scored with it.

Oil Can lifted his head and smiled upon seeing me.

“You know where I’m seating?”

“In Boston Garden.”

“On the same bench as Bobby Orr.”

“Number 4.” The Bruins were heading to the Stanley Cup and if all went well, they wouldn’t have to play the Canadiens. “My cousin in the same room as Bobby Orr. It’s a miracle.”

“Watch out.” Oil Can snapped his stick and a cat-sized rat flew through the air. It struck the wall and hit the carpet running for shelter.

“Damn, that was big.” His eyes were as big as mine.

“Bobby Orr has to deal with rats?”

“And stinky rats too.” Oil Can sniffed at his stick. “I’ll never get the smell off it, but that could come in handy tonight.”

“You get out of here.” The coach pointed at me. “Only team now.”

“Yes, brother.” I exited from the locker room and joined my friends. My uncle came over and I told them the story of the rat. We looked under the seats. The players took the ice.

We cheered Oil Can’s first and second goal and threw our hats on the ice for his third. He picked up the offerings with the blade of his hockey stick. After the game Oil Can returned mine. The temperature on Causeway Street was in the 20s. I tugged on the watch cap and pulled it off a second later. The material smelled like rat. I threw away the hat and washed my hair three times before the stench was gone.

From that night on we called Oil Can’s feat ‘the rat trick’.

Every moment of glory has its price.

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