Thursday, June 8, 2017

"Oh No He Di'n't!"

And I am not referring to that title.

I’ve been watching hockey since it was on radio, when I watched the radio and hockey came out.  And only recently, specifically during the recent Stanley Cup Finals between Pittsburgh and Nashville where a former state in the Confederacy goes with hockey like… wait, it doesn’t.  What the heck are they doing there?  And what exactly can they know?

“That’s eye-cin’ the puck, y’all.”

Okay, back to “… and only recently…”

…. and only recently did I see something so outrageous I felt compelled to vent blogatorially about it so I will. 

There are two reasons I watch very little hockey on television.  One is that the team I root for has not participated in the championship finals since 1967.  The other reason…
Wait, would you mind if I just get to the point?

“We would actually prefer that.”

Just one contextual underpinning and we’re there.

“We love contextual underpinnings.”

This is a particularly colorful one.

“Awright!  Bring it on!

Okay.  When I was a kid, unable to afford or get tickets to Saturday night Toronto Maple Leaf hockey games, on many of the following Sunday afternoons, my friends and I would instead step into the same hallowed venue, Maple Leaf Gardens, where for just fifty cents, we could see a double-header of games played by Maple Leaf amateur “feeder” teams, the Toronto Marlboros and Toronto St. Michael’s, allowing us to watch many stars of the future – like Hall of Famers Frank Mahovlich and Davey Keon – learning the ropes as raw but highly talented teenagers.

One Sunday afternoon attending the game, we had seats maybe eight rows above ice level, directly behind one of the goals, great seats if the action was directed at the goal in front of us, but when the action moved to the other end of the ice it was like, “What’s happening down there?”  Especially when you wear bifocals.

Okay, so the play is heading our way.  Sensing an opening, a player from long distance lets fly this blistering bullet.  The rocketing shot slams the goalie right in the face, the puck ricocheting into the stands, the shot itself so propulsively powerful, it whips the goalie’s head around until he’s looking – or so it feels – directly at me.

And all I can see is blood.

Did I mention goalies didn’t wear facemasks back then?

Well they didn’t.

Sixty or so years later, that snapshot recollection remains searingly etched in my memory – the goalie’s head swiveling around, his face, a gaping tableau of red.

That was the mid-1950’s.  In 1959, Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante, after incurring yet another serious face-lacerating injury, refuses to return to the game – yes, they returned to the game after serious face-lacerating injuries – without wearing the mask he’d begun using in practice, and his coach reluctantly permits to do so. 

Wearing a mask in those days was considered “unmanly”, a charge the Montreal goaltender was already susceptible to because Jacques Plante also knitted.  (In his spare time, not during the games.)  Plante had been known to knit toques – pronounced tooques – which are woolen head-covering caps.  (To the best of my knowledge, Jacques Plante never wore a mask and a toque in a hockey game, only the mask.) 

Eventually every goaltender wore a mask, and everyone, except, perhaps, Canadian plastic surgeons, was happy.      

FLASH FORWARD and I am watching the Stanley Cup Finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators, and at one point in the action, the Penguins are really pouring on the pressure, angling for a goal-scoring opportunity.  Suddenly, a booming shot comes missiling towards the goalie – who, of course, is wearing a mask – and what to my total shock and utter dismay does he do?

The Predator goaltender deliberately sticks his face out, jerks his head abruptly to the left, and, cool and a cucumber, flicks the puck smoothly into the stands with his mask.  (An intentional stalling technique, allowing his beleaguered Predator teammates to regroup.)

It goes without saying that no pre-hockey-mask goalie would obviously ever attempt such a maneuver – deflecting a puck into the stands with their face, although some of them like the unfortunate minor league goalie I had witnessed had done so inadvertently.  Now, however, sporting impregnable Plexiglas headgear…

They can intentionally do that.

And this goaltender did!

I was borderline apoplectic.  They invent the mask for goaltender protection and he employs it as a cheesy “bank-shot” device?  I felt personally offended.  And I never got hit in the face with a hockey puck.

Visage ravaged goalies of the past would have hit the roof at this cheapening subterfuge.  Jacques Plante would have cried,”Sacre Bleu!” (Followed by, “Would you like me to knit you a nice polka dot toque?”)

There’s something inherently wrong with that equipment-assisted strategy.  I had a friend at camp once who had polio and when we played basketball, whenever I put up a shot, he’d raise one of his crutches high in the air and inevitably block it.  I mean, there are exigent circumstances and all, but come on!

They gave them the mask.

But it wasn’t for that.

And when they use it for that…

I don’t know, am I crazy to get angry?

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