When Men Become Boys: A Weekend at Adult Nationals (Part 5)

From June 28th to July 8th, the Anaheim Ducks, Reebok, and the Amateur Athletic Union hosted a massive, two-part roller hockey tournament at The Rinks: Huntington Beach. The 2012 Inline Hockey Adult Nationals segment of the tournament was held from June 29th to July 1st, while the 2012 Inline Hockey Junior Olympics ran throughout the course of the week-and-a-half -long event.

I participated as a player in the Adult Nationals tournament, and played spectator to a large amount of both Junior Olympics and Adult Nationals games. This is my experience.

The Last Game

In Part 4, a nauseous goalie and the sobering effect of watching a teammate go down to a bad injury provided a few unforeseen wrinkles to what otherwise should have been a relatively predictable result in our first game of the last day of the tournament.

Following our game against Mission-Bauer 77’s (a game in which we were, again, beaten soundly), we learned that one of our forwards, Eddie Ballaris, would not be able to play in our final game, and our goalie Patrick was questionable with a churned-up stomach. To compound matters, we’d be playing a team that, while much more ‘at our level,’ still gave us a hard time in our only game against them – a game in which we had to fight back from a deficit to even achieve a tie.

With Eddie done for good, and a goaltender playing at half-strength, we’d have to seriously consider altering our game plan (which, to be fair, there wasn’t actually much to begin with) if we hoped to have any success. And I had an idea.

A Change in Strategy

Although I had played forward for the majority of my hockey-playing career, ever since I started playing in men’s leagues again a few years ago, I had almost exclusively been playing defense. For some reason at this tournament, though, I found myself playing forward again.

Now, in the grand scheme of things I’m probably still more comfortable playing up at forward, and certain qualities like my skill set, temperament, and body-type certainly lend themselves more towards the offensive side of things. However, one thing I’ve found since playing in a handful of different beer leagues over the last several years is that at this level, given the right skill set, a d-man can really control the flow of the game more than most forwards.

From our game against Off Constantly earlier in the tournament.

Think about it: playing at a level of hockey at whcih mistakes are much more common and consistently-made, if you skate smoothly, are a solid puck handler, make a good first pass, and play a smart, patient brand of hockey, there’s no reason why you, a defenseman, shouldn’t be able to control the game with more efficiency than a forward. At just about any level of hockey, the forwards rely on their defensemen to, at some point, usually in the form of a breakout pass, get them the puck. It’s rare that a forward will ever even touch the puck until at least the neutral zone.

And although it’s comparably easier to get yourself open for a breakout pass than it is to actually make the breakout pass, if none of the forwards have made themselves passing options, the aforementioned smooth skating, solid puck handling defenseman should, in theory, just as easily be able to skate the puck out of the zone and either wait for a forward to get open, or eventually put the puck on net himself.

Knowing this, and knowing that two of the major problems our team had had throughout the tournament were puck-possession and breaking out of our own zone, I suggested to Mike and Alex that I switch from forward to D for our next game. I explained my rationale, and they agreed that it was a good idea.

A good idea it may have been, but best laid plans and all that stuff…would it actually work?

The Test

I’d wager that to a man, if asked, we’d all agree that with the Bronze medal on the line, we played our very best game of the tournament. Whether this is attributable to our change in positional strategy, wanting to “win one for the Gipper” (in this case, with Eddie acting as stand-in for the Gip), the nebulous concept of “team chemistry” finally “clicking,” or some alchemical combination of multiple factors, the fact is indisputable: we played a really strong game when it counted the most.

Our passes were crisp, and on the tape, which meant that our zone breakouts were efficient and effective, which meant that we spent more time controlling the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone, which meant that we generated more quality scoring chances. This is good. On the defensive side of the puck, we weren’t running around in our own zone as much – we each took defensive responsibility for covering a man and owning the middle of the rink, pushing our opponents to the walls, so as to minimize the quality of their scoring chances. This is also good.

And Patrick played tremendously. He clearly wasn’t feeling 100%, but he more than rose to the occasion and made a couple of huge, momentum-maintaining saves. We led for almost the whole game, and Off Constantly started to really apply some pressure as the clock dwindled down, but Patrick stood tall. I distinctly remember being beside him as he made one of his handful of key stops, and after he covered the puck, after the referee blew the whistle to stop play, Patrick remained down, in an almost foetal position, his head hung, his shoulders heaving, his lungs trying to capture some breath. I tapped his pads and asked him, “You alright?”

He responded, “Yeah. Yeah.”

I’m not sure I believed him, but I knew that no matter what he’d give us his all. And he did.

A few other things stick out in my memory. For one thing, as a team we displayed considerably more tenacity in the dirty areas of the rink – behind and around the nets, in the corners, along the walls. Earlier in the tournament, I would have classified us as “an easy team to play against,” but the same label could not be applied here. We engaged in puck battles not with the hope of maybe coming away with the biscuit, but rather with the intent of doing so. It’s a thin line between hope and intent, but it can make all the difference in the outcome of not only individual battles, but the game at large.

One shift, in particular, I remember as being particularly dominant. We controlled the puck in the offensive zone for what seemed like a full two minutes. We were cycling, moving our legs, playing positionally smart hockey – passing the puck with authority and intent, not a hope and a prayer. We may not have actually scored on that shift, but it played an important part in taking control of the larger game.

I also remember a specific goal. I had collected the puck in our own zone, and without much of a passing option, I decided to skate it up the left side and into the offensive zone. Off Constantly did a good job of not giving me a shooting lane and forcing me to go wide and around the net. At the very last second though, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Alex crashing the crease at a diagonal, and there was a passing lane – but only if I whipped the puck around and threw it behind my own back to Alex’s blade. It’s a risky play – if the pass misses, and with one defenseman (read: me) already deep in the offensive zone, the potential for an odd-man break is awfully high – but in the split-second it takes to decide such things, I shielded the puck with my body, used the toe of my stick to drag it behind me, and then flipped my blade over to throw a strike on the backhand, behind my own back, right to Alex’s stick. He buried it behind their goalie. You could almost see the other team deflate as we celebrated.

I remember another goal, too. Steve, one of our grizzled veterans, may not be the fleetest of foot, but he’s a good distributor of the puck, and has a bomb for a shot. On this play, though he’d be surprising a lot of people – perhaps himself, most of all. Off a turnover, Steve gathered the puck in the neutral zone and went the other way, he made a couple of moves around the few players Off Constantly had back to defend, before pulling off a gorgeous move on the by-now hopelessly out of position goaltender and depositing the puck into the back of the net. It was a thing of beauty to behold, and another deflating moment for our opponents.

What I remember most of all, though, was how I experienced the last few moments of the game. With less than a minute left, and trailing 4-3, Off Constantly pulled their goaltender for an extra attacker. I was on the court, and found myself with the puck and an open lane ahead of me. I started to skate, but Off Constantly was in good defensive position, and with their backcheckers closing on me quickly, I made a mistake. I should’ve just gotten the puck deep, content to take time off the clock. Instead I tried to make one last move around a defender to gain a clear lane to the empty net. Before I knew what was happening, their sniper (who Patrick had been frustrating all game long) was on my back, and I coughed up the puck. He started to go the other way, and in an act of desperation, I tangled myself up with him. We both went down – unfortunately the referees noticed and whistled me for tripping. There was about 30-seconds left in the game, and I’d just put my team down a man. This was going to be difficult to watch.

I sat in the penalty box and held my breath. The face-off was in our own zone, to the left of the net. Off Constantly collected the puck off the draw and quickly put a shot on net. Patrick swallowed it up. No goal. One more face-off. This time our center didn’t go for the face-off win, but rather for a tie-up. A battle for the puck ensued and it finally squirted into the corner, where yet another battle awaited. Finally, Steve came out from the corner with the puck on his stick, and he sent it deep. The clock continued to tick down, though not fast enough.

They quickly re-entered our zone and tried to put a puck on net, but it went wide, back to the same corner. By now there was less than ten seconds left. “Kill it! Kill it!” I yelled from the penalty box. I don’t know whether anyone heard me, but that’s exactly what they did. They kept the puck in that corner, and as the clock finally ran down to zero, I found myself rushing out of the penalty box to join my teammates in our celebration.

As is seemingly instinct amongst hockey players, we all gathered around Patrick. High-fives and hugs were exchanged. Lots of “Whoo!!”‘s and “Yeah!”‘s were loosed from our lips. Mike was frantically waving at his wife and daughter and Eddie to come out onto the rink with a camera for a team picture. One-by-one, we all went through the handshake line, gloves off, congratulating our foes on a game well played, and one-by-one we all circled back to our net, where we gathered for a team picture.

To see it all happening, you’d think that we’d just won a much more impressive medal, in a much more important game, on a much more important stage. After all, we had just won the Bronze medal in the lowest Adult division in the tournament, and hadn’t won so much as a single game until this point. There were only four teams in the whole division. Some might say that we weren’t third best so much as second worst. But try telling us that – you would have had a hard time getting us to stop from smiling long enough to listen.

*          *          *

This is the power that hockey holds over us. It doesn’t matter how old you are – at it’s heart, whether played on blades or wheels, or even in street shoes, hockey is a child’s game, and in order to play it the right way, you’ve got to posses a child-like sense of wonder – a yearning to experience possibilities yet to unfold. Going into a game, it’s impossible to say whether you’ll win or lose – anything can happen, but I think that that’s exactly why we play the game – to discover. Not just the outcome, but even more so to rediscover the all too fleeting feeling of what it’s like to be a child simply playing a game the way it’s meant to be played – with passion, joy, and an open-ness to whatever may come.

If you’re lucky, you may just find yourself feeling less like a man and more like a little boy, hopelessly in love with endless possibilities.

HB Fury, Bronze Medal Winners (From Top Left: Mike Ballaris, Eddie Ballaris, Alex Bletsos, Andrew Rossiter. From Bottom Left: Steve Lancaster, Collin Insley, Chris Rossiter, Patrick Demers. Not Pictured: Greg Schulman)

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