FOR THE LOVE OF HOCKEY by Peter Nolan Smith

My paternal grandfather had a saying about the seasons in Maine.

“There are two seasons up here; winter and preparing for winter.”

My early childhood contradicted this adage, for my five year-old senses recognized a very short and wet spring followed by a little longer and slightly warmer summer capped by a short and wet autumn before a very long and cold winter. Whenever I mentioned this to my father, he would correct my theorem by saying, “Spring, summer, and fall exist, but only as a time for battening down the hatches for winter.”

My mother was from Boston. The distance from Falmouth Foresides to the Charles River was a little more than 90 miles. The difference in climate was immense, for in Maine winter continued into April and debuted early in November. She dreamed of swimming at Nantasket Beach, for the water temperature at Old Orchard Beach rarely rose over 60. My mother had her own comment on the Maine weather.

“There are only two seasons; winter and August.”

My older brother and I knew winter was coming whenever my mother had us try on the previous year’s snow clothing. He and I were the same size. We never got hand-me-downs and every cold season my mother was disappointed by our steady growth.

Benoit’s Department Store had a sale in mid-November. My mother waited for that day and drove across the Back Cove Bridge into Portland. My sisters got pretty coats and galoshes. My baby brother two snow suits. My older brother were given matching outfits. My mother liked passing us off as Irish twins. My eyes were bluer than those of my older brother.

Once the temperature dropped below freezing, my father constructed an ice rink from 2 by 10 planks and filled it with water. We played hockey from time we arrive home from school to after dark. The Boston Bruins were our team. I listened to their games on the radio. The Chief, Johnny Bucyk, was my favorite player.

I dreamed about playing in Boston Garden. My father’s attempt to teach me how to skate backwards was cut short by his tripping on the backyard rink’s uneven ice. He sat up with blood gushing from a jagged gash. I never got the hang of skating in reverse. This failing didn’t prevent my playing pond hockey or celebrating the Bruins’ Stanley Cup victories in 1969 and 1971. Their theme song was NUTTY, but as Ranger’s defenseman Brad Park said, “Bobby Orr was – didn’t make – the difference”

The owners’ dismantling of the Big Bad Bruins sent the team into a hockey purgatory in the 70s. The fucking Canadians beat them in the finals in 1978 and 1979. I was living in New York.

Two days before Christmas 1979 a Rangers fan stole a Bruin’s hockey stick at the end of the game. The team charged into the stands and I cheered every punch.

It was a lonely town to be a Bruins fan.

My Aunt Jane had moved to New York in the early 60s. Her husband retired from the Merchant Marines and bought three tenements on East 11th Street. Carmine earned good money as a plumber on the Lower East Side. Landlords called him to right violations. The two of us conducted some business together. We never told anyone what. The cigar-chomping curmudgeon loved his wife for putting up with his idiosyncrasies and bought her season tickets to the Rangers in 1987.

Aunt Jane had attended U Maine. My alumni was a rival of the Black Bears, but we shared a love for the Bruins and hockey.

“The only way you’re going to Madison Square Garden is if you accompany me to the opera.” Jane came from Columbia Falls, which she called the last place God created before he had his rest. They grew people tough that far Down East.

“The opera?” Opera was theater with screaming fat people on stage.

“Yes, opera. You don’t get to see the Beast unless you sit through the Beauty.” Jane drove a hard bargain. Her husband Carmine had nothing to do with opera. He was a jazz man.

“I’ve never seen an opera.” CBGBs had been my La Scala during the late 70s.

“Not Jesus Christ Superstar?”

“I’m an atheist.” The Red Sox had tested my faith early in life and I had failed the final.

“Tommy?” Jane was a decade younger than me. She had been a hippie, which was another shared brick in our heritage.

“Rock opera’s different?” I knew every word to The Who’s opus of a blind pinball player. “It has soul.”

“And so does Carmen.” The heavy-set Maine native held up tickets in both hands. The left two were for Lincoln Center and the right pair were seats for the Bruins-Rangers.

Raymond Bourque and Cam Neely had transformed my hometown team into a Stanley Cup threat. The Rangers had been exiled from the finals since 1940. They sucked and their fans were even worse, but Jane’s tickets were good seats.

“Count me in.” Five rows from the ice was an easy sell.

“The opera too.” Jane wasn’t one to let his fish wiggle off the hook.

“Carmen.” Somehow I knew the opera was about a cigar. They were Uncle Carmine’s favorite vice.

A week later Jane and I taxied uptown to Lincoln Center. The Upper West Side was terra incognito for the denizens of the Lower East Side. I wore a suit for the occasion. Aunt Jane proudly entered the red and gold auditorium, as if I were a gigolo. She waved to her fellow affectionados. Our seats were dead-center in the second-tier balcony. I examined our fellow opera lovers.

At 34 I was one of the youngest men in the audience.

“How do you like it?” Jane smiled with contentment.

“Ask me in 30 minutes.” I resisted any sign of pleasure. I was a punk, not a fat lady fan.

“Sssssh.”

The curtain parted on the stage and two seconds later I was transported to Seville, Spain 1820. Carmen was a bitch. The fat lady playing Carmen dallied with the love-smitten corporal. I sympathized with his throwing everything away for her love. I had done the same on more than one occasion and if Aunt Jane hadn’t stopped me, I would have jumped to my feet, when Don Jose killed Carmen for betraying his love.

“Not bad?” Jane applauded softly with gloved hands.

“Good. Not bad.” I answered from my standing ovation. I was a convert. “Count me in.”

“I knew I would.”

A week later Carmine drove Aunt Jane and me to MSG.

“Don’t do anything stupid.” Carmine had frisked me before getting into his modified station wagon.

“I’ll be a good boy.” I was wearing a black leather jacket and heavy boots. No one could see my Bruins skating jersey underneath and if they did, my gloves had pennies stitched into the knuckles. Three of them taped together packed a good punch.

“Just remember it’s only a game.” Jane waved good-bye and the station wagon roared up 8th Avenue. Carmine was heading up to Charley’s Soul Kitchen in Harlem. He liked their fried chicken.

We walked into the arena with thousands of Rangers fan. They hated the Bruins, but their real enemies were the Devils and Islanders. A flutist before the arena played POTVIN SUCKS. I hadn’t been to an NHL game in years and I thought about my father’s rink in the backyard.

“Fucking hockey.”

“Damn right.” Jane clapped my back. Women from Columbia Falls liked a good swear.

Sadly the Rangers bettered the Bruins on the ice. The fans nearest us were familiar with Aunt Jane’s ties to Boston and assailed her with light-hearted ribs. I almost changed my opinion about Ranger fans, except once the play on ice was stopped by a fight in the stands between Ranger fans.

“Bums,” my aunt muttered knowing her place.

“You got that right.” I sipped my beer thinking about Bobby Orr beating Eddie

The two seats next to me were empty, until the 3rd period. Two drunken yahoos from the upper decks commandeered the seats. I said nothing, since liberating the good seats was an honored tradition at sporting events, but the one closest to me caught my accent.

“Tonight, but not all season.” They were 2nd in their division.

“Boston sucks.” Rogaine had failed to cure his baldness and his rug was slipping off his head.

“Keep it clean.” Aunt Jane sensed the water boiling in my pot. Her hand clasped mine. The message was to let it go.

“Don’t tell me what to do, old lady.” He smelled of Budweiser. It was a cheap beer for the masses. They didn’t sell that slop at Lincoln Center.

“Old?” The word body-checked Jane harder than ‘fuck’.

“Old like Gerry Cheevers.” The rug-wearer knew his hockey and his friend laughed at his quip.

“Nice wig, You look like Ron Dugay’s brother.” The bald guy never saw me flick the gloves.

I heard a ring when the wrapped pennies stuck his temple. He was out cold. Jane covered her mouth. Her smile was too wide for her fingers, even though the Bruins were losing 4-2.

Outside in the winter air Jane asked, “So what is better? Hockey or opera?”

“The crowd is better at the opera.”

“And hockey?”

“Hockey is hockey.” I shrugged and pointed to Carmine’s station wagon.

Inside the car he asked if we had a good time.

“The Bruins lost, but we did just fine.” Jane patted his hand. She loved him more than hockey.

“No trouble.” He looked at me in the rear view mirror.

“Hey, it’s only a game.” I put my gloves in my pocket.

“Only a game?” Carmine didn’t believe me, but he didn’t know anything about hockey otherwise he would have known that Kate Smith sang at the beginning of the Philadelphia Flyers games and nothing ever starts until the fat lady sings.

Not in hockey and most certainly not in opera.

One Comment

  1. Jonas
    Posted March 1, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Genius as always, loved the story!!!!

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