In a recent global-warming-induced fit of spring fever (meaning on a February day when it was a balmy fifty degrees outside), I was cleaning out my closet when I noticed an old jacket from high school. The jacket is made of quilted nylon, dark-blue with striped elastic around the waist and wrists, metal buttons up the front, and a big state-championship patch on the left side. Not exactly the same as a varsity or letter jacket, but it looks like something only a kid playing a team sport would wear. (The headless guy in the picture standing on the bench is wearing one, to give you an idea.) Which in fact is how I got mine: the jacket was given to everyone on my team at the end of my junior year in high school -- the spring of 1985 -- after we won the state title in Michigan. (In the above picture, which was taken that year, I'm number 12.)
Although I don't play hockey anymore, or even watch very much, the sport will never be far from my mind (and heart). I lived and breathed it for the first 17 years of my life, which is a long and influential period no matter how you slice it. My family became first became obsessed with hockey long before I came into the picture, when one of my three older brothers fell in love with the sport and quickly converted everyone else. My sister probably would have played hockey too, had it been an option back then, but instead she became a figure skater. The exception to our collective zeal was my mother, which isn't to say she didn't support us kids in every practical way possible, but she was more ambivalent about the more fanatical elements that playing hockey required, especially in Pittsburgh; she was raising four (and after I was born, following an eight-year gap) FIVE kids, so imagine how she felt getting up to drive someone to practice at five or six in the morning, which she often had to do, especially when my father's business was less established and he had to travel for work, which meant she was alone.
For me, as the youngest of the Gallaways -- a name that was synonymous with hockey in our Pittsburgh town for a few years -- a close relationship with the sport was a fait accompli. There are pictures of me as a toddler wearing my brothers' equipment, and I was skating by the time I was two (which is honestly the best time to learn). By the time I was four or five, I was zipping through the clumps of zombies who stagger around your standard public-skating session, so it was only a matter of time until I joined a team, which was also something I wanted very badly to do.
The only problem at this age was that I suffered from a crippling degree of shyness, which, just like in the song by the Smiths, stopped me from doing things that I really wanted to do. I'll always remember when one my best friends in kindergarten (Howard) invited me to his birthday party. I wanted to go, but as the day approached, I got nervous because Howard had told me that there were going to be kids there I didn't already know. In an effort to coax me along, my mother insisted that I walk up to the door and ring the bell so that I could give Howard his present, but -- and as much as I wanted to go in when his mother opened the door -- I couldn't bring myself to go in, even though I could hear all the other kids down the hall yelling and having a great time. I handed the present to Howard's mom and ran back to my own, who was waiting in the car.
Looking back forty years later, I think that part of my shyness stemmed from the (very unconscious) knowledge that I was "different" -- and not in a "good" way -- and I feared what would happen if this difference was somehow exposed in the (in my mind at least) wildly unstructured environment of a birthday party for five year olds; the mayhem was too much for me. (Half-kidding.) This theory could be total speculation, of course; it's hard to know exactly what was going on in my mind at the time, but I remember hearing the kids and knowing there was just too much uncertainty. I felt too emotionally naked or vulnerable.
The first time I went to hockey tryouts -- I was four -- I couldn't quite make myself go through with it, either, despite having begged my father to take me. (By this point my father's business was doing much better, so he had a lot more time to cart me and my brothers around.) Even though I could skate pretty well, I was still afraid of meeting anyone new, and so I backed out at the last second, which I don't think exactly pleased my father. (Understandably enough.) I remember watching the tryouts through the glass and wondering what was stopping me: it didn't look like such a big deal; some of the kids on the ice were constantly falling down and others could barely skate at all. It didn't matter: my inhibition won the day. If only I had been able to listen to Morrissey as a four-year old.
Over the next year, I tried to prepare myself, mentally and physically. One of my older brothers -- the youngest of the three -- regularly took me along (or was forced to take, as you would expect, given a sixth or seventh grader and his four y.o. kid brother) to public-skating sessions in a nearby town of Bridgeville, which had the closest rink to our house in Mt. Lebanon. Ice was scarce in Pittsburgh back then, and even though the Bridgeville rink was only about half the size of a real rink and had cinder-block walls instead of boards (making it impossible to play games there), it was fine for my purposes. I continued to improve, which is what happens when you let kids skate in circles for hours on end. (And just to be clear, I loved skating; it's not like I was being forced to go.) Forwards, backwards, stopping, starting, crossing over (when you make a turn), these are all skills that have to be pretty much second nature by the time you're actually playing games (or at least by the time you're eight or nine). It's almost like learning how to walk and run, just with skates on.
I think skating also helped to calm a nascent/constant anxiety I felt about life; the repetition was soothing and I could focus on objective improvement, which (mindless/mindful/repetitive focusing) is a skill that's clearly important for learning just about any kind of physical technique, from skating to playing an instrument. You have to train your body in ways that aren't exactly natural, although ideally, over time, it may feel like that.
The other good thing about going to Bridgeville with my brother was that I began to overcome my shyness, or at least have a few breakthroughs. Like many reserved people, I gravitated toward public performance/spectacle, which in my case meant competing in the dance contest they held just before the zamboni cleaned the ice at the halfway point of the session. The deejay would play a song (for example: "I'm Your Venus," by the Shocking Blue) and everyone interested in competing would basically line up and spaz out in front of his elevated glass booth. At the end of the song, he would pick out a handful of winners (the prize being free admission to another session.) My mother -- who must have taken me the first few times, before I felt comfortable going alone with my brother -- told me to go for it: "You'll win for sure," she said, "they love kids!" She was right. Winning a dance contest as a four or five year old is a pretty good cure for shyness, obviously.
A month or so before tryouts rolled around the next fall, I walked into my parents' room where my father was sitting at his desk, stoically paying bills. He asked what I wanted and I told him that I was ready to play hockey, like for real this time. I promised that I wouldn't back out like I had done the previous year or on any number of other occasions, such as at Howard's birthday party or another time in Miami when my parents took me with some friends of theirs to the Fontainbleu and the unprecedented (to me) garish opulence of the hotel -- the chandeliers, the array of amoeba-shaped pools, the lush blue carpeting everywhere (I might be imagining that now), the fancy clothes -- almost gave me a nervous breakdown. Like I was short of breath and sort of staggering around as though I had been conked on the head, to the point where my parents had to take me out to recover my wits.
I'm not saying I wasn't a weird kid at times.
As it turned out, I did fine at the tryouts. (I mean, of course I did: I could already skate better than most kids my age.) I was placed on one of the mite teams, called the Roadrunners. Once I got into the swing of things -- meaning once I was familiar with the cast of characters -- I quickly fell in love with the sport. Not that I would have phrased it like that at the time, of course, but I was eager and willing to go to practice and games, and I made new friends on the team, which would not have been the case if I had felt anxious or really viewed it as anything less than a fun thing to do.
Like most hockey parents, mine suffered, at least on the sleep front, in ways that I can only marvel at now, given that our practice slots were at like 5:45am or something insane like that (not even exaggerating), and at a rink (Rostraver) that was 45 minutes away, which meant getting up at 4:30. Seriously: can. you. even. imagine. Somehow they managed, though, and I never really questioned it. Or thanked them for it (in which case, if my parents happen to read this piece: thank you). I mean, I could basically go to practice on a Saturday morning and be back home in time for Scooby Doo and four more hours of cartoons, which was my Saturday-morning ritual outside of hockey. (And which -- watching television -- is a complicated topic I'll reserve for another essay, perhaps.) At least my father took turns with other parents, but he still had to get me up and feed me before the car would pull into the driveway. I remember waiting at the dining-room window, pushing aside the lace curtains and looking for the headlights of my ride to appear through the early morning gloom.
Being on a team made me feel less strange, somehow, in part because I was good enough to fit in, and also because once you have your equipment on, it's like the tics of your personality are hidden. And I had some tics, obviously, although as time passed I learned better how to hide them. On the ice, you're judged on a more objective level, which is comforting. (And is also the message of a current anti-homophobia campaign being sponsored by the NHL, which I endorse: the reality is much more complicated, but it's important to be idealistic about where we eventually want to be.) Again, I couldn't have phrased any of this is such terms at the time, but the awareness was there, of conforming/competing in a way I felt comfortable with (in a manner that really had nothing to do with my nascent sexuality, you might say). At school, I was one of the smarter/let's-just-call-it-more-eccentric kids (like I collected pencils, for one example, and okay, eraser shavings), whereas on my hockey team, I was much more one of the gang. There's really no reason why team sports have to be tethered to sexual orientation (unlike novel writing, for example, which inevitably reflects this aspect of an author's being/personality), which is why sports leagues really can/should be on the vanguard of ending homophobia.
There were other great things about hockey, although I didn't think about this stuff so much at the time. Driving all over Pittsburgh (and later, the Midwest) also exposed me to more industrialized and impoverished parts of the city and country, which might not have been so apparent had I remained sequestered in upper-middle-class Mt. Lebanon. We passed factories, smoldering heaps of slag, smog-covered, dilapidated houses and storefronts, and other signs/symptoms of industrialization that made me appreciate the idea that civilization comes with costs. Even through the steamed-up windows of a car, it's possible to see things at a young age and appreciate the fact that you have more than many others, or that things don't just magically appear. My father's business was also related to the industry of the region, so I'm sure that was also a factor. I think it's fair to say that I developed a closer relationship with my father than my siblings at this age as a result of spending so much time in the car together, along with the fact that he was older, mellower, and more successful than he had been when my siblings were young.
I also quickly grew to love the rinks, whether I was playing in one or -- because my older brothers were also on teams -- just watching (or more often, running around under the bleachers with my friends, the way "rink rats" have always done). The best rink around, besides the Civic Arena -- or as non-Pittsburghers always called it, "the Igloo," where the Penguins played -- was Rostraver, which had the characteristic quanza-hut shape with a series of flying buttresses along the sides, all of which made it a very unusual and space-age in my five-year old eyes. Like all rinks, it had a snack bar where you could get hot chocolate, soft pretzels, candy, and soda. For years I would come out of the locker room after a game or practice and my father -- who would be talking with some of the other parents -- would automatically hand me a dollar so that I could go get a "pop" with my friends, and we would hang around cooling off for a few minutes before heading back home.
From the beginning, I appreciated the process -- or maybe preparation is a better word -- entailed in playing hockey. It required a level of organization that again helped to calm my often-racing mind: you had to check your bag at home to make sure all of the equipment was there; otherwise you would drive forty-five minutes for nothing. (Once my brother pulled out two left skates from his bag, having taken one from the wrong pair, which was a mistake he only made once; according to family legend, he played anyway.) There was the drive to the rink, followed by taking the equipment out of the trunk, lugging it across the gravel parking lot, heading to the locker rooms. Rinks always had a particular smell, a mix of cold, sweat, and rubber from the interlocking mats on the floor that protected the blades from the cement. There was a ritualistic quality in acquiring/maintaining equipment I also loved: getting the hockey stick, sawing it down to size, taping the handle and blade, and so forth. At some point my father bought a skate-sharpening machine, and it was exciting to watch the golden sparks fly as the steel blade met the spinning stone of the wheel.
Besides the players and coaches, the locker rooms for my first few years were filled with mostly dads and a few moms (as my mother was always happy to note, since she was actively involved in women's rights and thus attuned to even the slightest sign of gender equality; there were no girls who played back then, although I know that situation has changed dramatically, another sign of progress). For the first few years, we needed our parents to help get the equipment on, which is also a process: cup, garter belt, shin pads, socks (my father used thick rubber bands to hold up my socks before I started using a garter belt), pants (or hip pads), shoulder pads, elbow pads, jersey. When I was very young, I wore all of my equipment over my clothes or pajamas, which was maybe a little eccentric, but somehow didn't bother me. Once I got older and slightly more attuned to not wanting to seem weird, like everyone else, I skipped down to socks/underwear/t-shirt before putting on my equipment. Until I could tie my own skates, I used to hold up my feet so that my father could tie the laces, the skate pressed between his legs as he knelt in front of me; this was also a bonding experience, because it's a fact that only someone who really cares about you will lace up your skates. Last to go on was my helmet and gloves. After grabbing my stick (I was a left-handed shot, even though I'm right-handed in general, which is not uncommon for hockey players), I finally trudged out to the ice, where the cold, misty air would truly wake me up (assuming it was early, and usually it was). Getting on the ice is really like entering another world, in the best sense, especially when the zamboni has just left. It's a literal and symbolic cleaning of the slate that fills you with possibility.
In effect, there was a real camaraderie to the endeavor, even or especially in these early years. We weren't good enough yet for parents to be completely insane, yelling at coaches and referees (that would happen later, of course, and parents would -- thankfully -- be banished from the locker rooms). Games were pretty much clumps of kids following the puck around, except for one or two of the stars who could pick up the puck and pretty much score at will. Everyone got to play, and the coach of the Roadrunners -- his name was Rudy -- was very friendly and enthusiastic, as was his assistant, who for some reason -- maybe because his son Davey was on the team -- was known as Mr. Johnson.
My father never coached; although he was an adept student of the game, he felt like it was unfair for parents to coach their kids (or really, interfere with the coach), which I think makes a lot of sense. I did have some fathers who were good coaches over the years, but I think the older you get, the more problematic the situation becomes, assuming you're playing at a more competitive level. It's sort of like insider trading in the financial markets, where even the appearance of impropriety can be destabilizing.
When I was eight -- or a squirt -- I was good enough to make the Royal Travelers, which was Pittsburgh's best travel team. We practiced twice a week (as in, during the week) and spent weekends going to pretty much every city within driving distance -- especially Buffalo, Cleveland, Erie -- for games and tournaments. I spent a lot of time playing pinball and running up and down hotel corridors, of course. I wasn't the best kid on my team, but I played a regular shift. What was exciting about the Royal Travelers was being on a team with other kids/micro-legends who to that point were known to me more by reputation. Like I specifically remember being seven or so and being frightened by the prospect of playing against Davey Wallace (not the novelist, unfortunately), who was so good that kids on my team used to pray for snow, having heard a (probably apocryphal) story that Davey's mom refused to drive in even a light dusting of snow, which would give our team a chance to win. So you can imagine how awesome it was a few years later to find myself on the same team as Davey. We became friends: he wasn't nearly as frightening as his reputation made him out to be. He was also famous for using a very long stick, not sawed off at all, which he used to carry the puck very wide around defensemen on his way to the goal. He was what you might call a very crafty player, even at that age.
By the time kids are eight or nine, the game starts to take shape, so that at least it has a structure that's recognizable from the adult/professional form. You learn how to play a position and why it's important not to just float all over the place or chase the puck. Because I was fast, I gravitated toward offensive positions, usually wing or -- later, once I was better -- center. Even at that age, there's nothing quite like picking up the puck and feeling a kind of destiny as you blow by some players on your way to the goal, where, with some speed and luck, the puck will soon enough end up. Or maybe you break free and catch a nice pass from one of your teammates that give you an open shot to the net. One of the great things about hockey is that it's a sport of constant motion, and obviously a million times faster than any land-based game. Like many kids in Pittsburgh, I watched and played (at least informally) my share of every sport, but I had no desire to play organized football (too barbaric) or baseball (too boring) or basketball (no time, given that I was playing hockey, and you also had to be a giant). Hockey was a sport where speed and quickness could make up for any size deficiency; another great thing about hockey (unlike football or basketball) is that average-sized guys are often the best players. (Although NHL players have obviously gotten a lot bigger over the past few decades.) In fact, I was shaping up to be taller than my brothers, on account of the fact that my mother -- or so she liked to claim -- had discovered "health food" shortly before her pregnancy with me, and had imposed upon herself a rigorous regime of "tiger's milk."
I scored quite a few goals during this phase, which -- scoring -- is one of those unadulterated pleasures that feels exactly as great as it looks when you see it on television. You learn very early on to throw your arms in the air and accept the happiness of your teammates. There's really no way to get around it, unless maybe it's one of the games where the score is already 10-0 or something, and you're all like, whatever, another goal, who cares. But most of the time, scoring a goal is the greatest feeling on earth, and I have no regrets about any of them, even the time in Finland (where my high-school team stopped en route to the U.S.S.R.) when the puck bounced off my head into the net.
If I had one real (and recurrent) weakness, it was that I wasn't "aggressive" enough. I didn't always display a "killer instinct" or love to "mix it up" in the corners. It wasn't that I avoided it; I just didn't look for it like some of the other kids did. To me the speed of the game was the best part, the end-to-end rushes, that feeling of having the wind in your sails, and not the trench warfare, which is basically what happens in the corners or in "the slot," in front of the net. I was once in a tournament in Buffalo when a kid on the other team got a breakaway -- meaning there was nobody between him and our goalie -- and I was in hot pursuit. I didn't quite catch him, and rather than pull him down (which would have been a penalty: hooking or tripping), I just used my stick to slash -- or really just tap -- his wrists and stick, but I didn't slash hard enough to throw him off course. After he scored, I was chewed out by my coach: "You take him out! You hear me? You. Take. Him. Out!" He shoved me down to the end of the bench, where sat out a few shifts to think things over. I guess he was technically correct, although the logical part of my mind knew that pulling someone down on a breakaway would have resulted in a penalty shot, which is basically just another breakaway. Not that I tried to explain that logic to my coach, of course. You learn to shut up playing a team sport, which is also a good skill to acquire for later in life.
I'm not arguing against the physical side of the game -- it's clearly essential -- but it just wasn't something I loved. I also suffered a few broken bones over the years, specifically both of my wrists and a collarbone. In every case, the broken bones were a result of an illegal hit (from behind, and in one case when I was a few feet from the boards, which is one of the more dangerous positions you can get yourself into), which (the pain of broken bones) has a way of making you a bit gun-shy, perhaps. Which isn't to say I avoided hitting/checking someone if the opportunity arose, most of the time legally because I didn't see the point of playing dirty, unless I was out to get revenge, such as I did against the (gigantic) kid who broke my wrist. It was a few years later when somehow we ended up on the ice together, where I had (and took) the chance to kick him hard in the stomach with my skate (I don't remember how it happened that I knew the referees weren't looking, but I knew, like I think the action has somehow turned to the other end), which hurt him enough to pause the game. He wasn't mortally wounded or anything, I just knocked the wind out of him. Such things happen in the heat of the moment, and you might think you're above revenge or cruelty, but most people are not, especially before the age of, I don't know, 30 or something.
The thing about hockey is that it teaches you not to retaliate in the moment, but to serve your revenge cold, as the saying goes. Revenge is part of the appeal; if someone hurts or humiliates you, there will almost always be a chance to get back at them, either by skating past them as they stand flat-footed, or maybe discreetly punching them in the face (keeping in mind that you're wearing a helmet and mask, so the gesture is largely symbolic) or slamming them into the boards. Cleaning their clock, as my father used to say. Hardly a day passes in my adult life -- especially as a writer -- when I don't wish that I could return to the ice with some of my favorite critics to settle a score in a more satisfactory manner. I'm joking, of course; I understand that there's really no point in settling scores. Or at least I'm half-joking. You learn things playing hockey as a kid that never quite leave you, obviously.
All of that said, and on a somewhat related note, I should mention that fighting -- at least as we see it in the NHL -- was never condoned or permitted to unfold (like there was no dropping the gloves and circling like animals). Fights happened rarely, and when they did, the players were immediately split apart. They would get thrown out of the game, and usually the next one as well, which was a big deterrent. I never understood the appeal of fighting, either as a player or a fan; to me it interrupted the natural flow of the game and was basically for unskilled louts and ignorant fans who didn't know anything about the sport. Plus, as I just mentioned, there are plenty of other sanctioned or mostly sanctioned ways to get revenge. Given how much debate there was in the 70s about fighting in the NHL, I'm shocked that it hasn't yet been banned. (Or maybe I'm not shocked at all, given the many other spheres in which the conservative factions running the world have more than held their ground.) In this picture, taken in high school, I'm mixing it up in front of the net while our defenseman takes a slap shot from the point. I'm number 12.
In Pittsburgh, from fall to spring, I played on many teams (and usually more than one, after the Royal Travelers folded for financial reasons), but also street hockey in the summer and lake hockey when it was cold enough in the winter (before global warming). Some of my favorite hockey memories are pick-up games on a frozen lake. Pond hockey was all about puck-handling and quick passing, all the "finesse" aspects of the game in which I excelled, with none of the more bruising physical elements I didn't love so much. To get to the lake, we had to cut through some houses and woods, where we worked the cold out of our fingers enough to lace up our skates and shovel off a rink. The intensity of a great pickup game is really like nothing else; you're outside on top of this frozen body of water (and the accompanying sound effects -- the echoing groans and shifts of the ice -- are amazing), doing nothing worth anything (in a capitalistic sense) with a bunch of guys from your town, which is pretty much the essence of community as I see it. Rules were pretty relaxed, and always self-enforced: you could have as many as seven or eight guys on a side, and as long as no one lifted the puck -- which hurt -- nobody got too angry. It was competitive but fun. Only occasionally did anyone fall in -- including yours truly once when I was trying to retrieve an errant puck -- but at least nobody died. Years later, the lake was sealed off from anyone whose family didn't own property on the shoreline, which meant the end of pond hockey. Sign of the times, I guess.
I also went to hockey camp for a few weeks every summer, which was a good way to meet players from other parts of the country (or Canada, which of course was the mecca). Some of these kids were pretty amazing, and certainly made me think I wasn't as fast as I liked to think. It was also where I learned to swear like a bandit, mostly on account of going one year with my friend Mike M, whose father was the coach of one of my pee-wee teams (or 10-11). Mr. M was very proper and used epithets like "cheese and crackers" and "fiddlesticks" while his son had the filthiest mouth I ever heard. Mike talked about how something tasted like "a fucking goddamned piece of shit" and soon enough we were all following his lead. Had I not played hockey, swearing would not have come so easily to me, I'm sure. It was a small rule I learned to enjoy breaking, which I'm sure seems like no big, but it was important to me.
Another great thing that happened was when I was picked with a handful of my teammates to compete in the between-period showdown at the Penguins games. After putting on our equipment, we got to stand in the passageway under the stands as the pros -- our heroes -- brushed past us into the locker room. It was mind-blowing to see professionals up close like that. Then we skated out to center ice and spent a few minutes going head-to-head with kids from another local team on breakaways in front of 15,000 people who of course were probably headed out to the concession stand or bathrooms, but still, for us kids: amazing. The question on a breakaway was always whether to shoot or deke, and I always deked -- faking one direction and going the other, which if done properly will leave the goalie flat-footed or -- as he tries to follow you -- expose the "five hole" between his legs.
The Penguins were notoriously bad-to-mediocre during this era, which didn't stop me from rooting for them with the depths of my soul. I even subscribed to The Hockey News, which was (and still is?) the leading weekly for hockey addicts, where you could memorize pages of statistics and read gossip about the pros -- like who was going to be traded where -- the minor leagues and the colleges. I also had a cousin-in-law who worked for the concessions company at the Civic Arena, which meant I was able to go to like a million games for free; the Penguins almost never sold out during this phase, so getting me and my friends in was never a big deal. If a game got boring (like if the Penguins were getting blown out, which was often the case), we would head up to the seats in the empty nosebleed section and make paper airplanes. Later, this same cousin helped me get tickets to the Mario Lemieux/Stanley Cup-era Penguins in the early 90s, and because this was during a slack period of my life between college and law school, I went to pretty much every game. Those epic seven-game series with the Rangers? Where Ron Francis scored on a fluke shot from center ice to turn the whole thing around? When Jaromir Jagr scored in OT? When Mario would dipsy-doodle the puck through guys' skates like he was playing pond hockey? I was at every game, and it was AWESOME, no sarcasm at all, it was the culmination of every hockey-fan dream I ever had. When people ask me why I don't follow professional sports now, I say that after going to heaven, there's just no point in trying to go back. (Which is true, although I also have some misgivings about the homophobic/corporate nature of professional sports, but that's an opinion I like to keep to myself in conversation, or limit it to this kind of venue, where people are free to close the tab at any point.)
Growing up in Pittsburgh, I pretty much assumed that if I continued to play hockey -- and there was nothing I wanted more -- I would have to leave, and the sooner the better. As much as things were beginning to change -- and thanks in part to my father's lobbying with the township, Mt. Lebanon had built a rink that was only a few minutes from our house -- the amount of ice time and overall caliber of play just didn't compare to hockey states like Michigan, Minnesota, or Massachusetts. Two of my older brothers had already paved the way out by going to prep school in Michigan: the older one went for his senior year after meeting the hockey coach at a summer camp, and the next one had gone for two years. The school in question -- Cranbrook, in a suburb of Detroit -- offered a hockey "program" unlike anything in Pittsburgh at the time, and so by the time I was in ninth grade, it felt like an obvious choice for me to go for three years, beginning as a tenth grader. The coach -- Mr. K -- was considered a friend of the family for the support and guidance he provided to my brothers, both on and off the ice. Like my parents, he was from Boston, which helped reassure them. It was mostly the accent, I think.
The first time I visited Cranbrook, on a snowy January weekend during ninth grade: the team -- who also won states that year -- was astounding; you could tell in three seconds that they would utterly destroy any high-school team from Pennsylvania. Mr. K was charming and enthusiastic about my prospects, and it was obvious to me that if I wanted to really play (without defining what that really meant), there was no choice: I had to go. It was an easy decision for me, but hard for my parents -- especially my mother -- because I was the youngest of five kids. I was genuinely excited, though, and she wasn't about to stand in the way, not only because of the hockey, but also because Cranbrook was such a beautiful and artistically inclined campus, which resonated with her in ways I would appreciate later. I covered a lot of this emotional ground in The Metropolis Case through the lens of Martin, so I won't rehash it here. The short version is I went.
Cranbrook was an adjustment in some ways that were surprising, and in some that were not. The surrounding neighborhood was wealthier (and more anti-semitic, like I remember hearing another uninformed boarder saying, "but she doesn't look Japanese," and certain clothes -- like cargo pants and loud sweaters -- were considered "jappy") than I was used to in Pittsburgh, but I was smart/sensitive enough to adjust to this landscape without becoming embroiled in any kind of debate. (Meaning I soon became as quietly/unconsciously anti-semitic as everyone else, probably.) I quickly made friends in the dorms and with some of the day students, which (boarder/day student) was the biggest divide in the school, with slightly less than half of the students being boarders (or probably more like 30 percent for the girls). On the first day I met a couple of other hockey players -- like me, new recruits, one from Chicago (Mark) and one from Cleveland (Kip) -- and we became pals, which meant hanging out in my room trading stories and listening to Led Zeppelin, a band I had grown to love in the time-honored tradition of lifting weights in the basement of my house. Tangentially I was also really into the Police (this was right after Synchronicity, and "King of Pain" was all over the radio that fall) and the Fixx, who I thought were awesome. (Especially "One Thing Leads To Another.")
Unlike my brothers, who had struggled a bit with their coursework while making the transition to private school, I found classes at Cranbrook to be about on par with public school, and (to my hockey coach Mr. K's shock) I made honor roll my first quarter and stayed on it. School was never a problem for me, which isn't to say I didn't have many other things to worry about. Like hockey, and not just from a playing standpoint, but a social one. In Pittsburgh, hockey was a whatever sport, but at Cranbrook, it was a religion; varsity players were something like minor (and in some cases, major) deities, and pretty much the whole school showed up to games on Friday nights. (Like football in Pittsburgh.) The returning players all had jackets like the one I would get a few years later, which marked them as even more exalted.
I fell into this orbit by virtue of being a recruit, with the expectation that soon enough I would also be on the varsity. One afternoon, maybe a month or so into the school year -- hockey season hadn't started; in Michigan you weren't even allowed on the ice until a certain date, and I was playing JV soccer -- I met a girl named Denise. I was walking back from practice or something, and she was also friends with this other guy who was in a few of my classes. She invited me to a party at her parents' house that was being thown by her older sister. I was kind of shocked and honored, because in Pittsburgh I didn't get invited to cool-kid parties, but on some level I knew that being a hockey player was already paying off. Which I don't say to imply that Denise was being anything but friendly, but I'm sure it meant something to her that I was a hockey guy, in the same way I thought it was cool that she lived in a big house not far from campus. Whatever the intent, I agreed to go. I signed out of the dorm after dinner and went to the party, which was just a few minutes walk from campus. Once there, I was amazed to find all sorts of juniors and seniors -- including some hockey players -- basically hanging out, smoking, drinking, whatever. Up to that point in my life I had been pretty judgmental about partying, and while I wasn't ready to dive in -- especially after some kids in my dorm (including my friend Mark) had been suspended after returning drunk one night a few weeks earlier -- the vibe of this party won me over. It wasn't wild or out of control; they were playing David Bowie's greatest hits, and I remember listening to those songs and holding the record cover and being like, yes, this is exactly right, somehow. Many people have a Davie Bowie awakening; this was mine. Denise's parents were modern-art collectors, and their house -- an endless ranch like you see in Michigan -- was filled with all sorts of abstract art (not to mention some really cool kaleidoscopes, including some that were hilariously pornographic), which also impressed me in a good way. The overall vibe was chill, low-key, or what in my eyes at the time seemed adult and sophisticated; it was the kind of party I would later attend in Paris, for example. Most amazing to consider was the fact that my status as a hockey player -- oddly enough -- had opened that door for me, not that I realized it at the time; I was notoriously oblivious to the implications of social overtures in high school (especially where girls were concerned), an aura I (consciously and unconsciously) cultivated no doubt as a means of preserving my closet-case identity. I should also add that I'm still good friends with Denise, who's one of my favorite people in the world, and we've discussed what that party meant to both of us in our respective coming-of-age trajectories.
As expected, playing hockey at Cranbrook proved more challenging, but again, for reasons I didn't anticipate. As far as the coach Mr. K was concerned, the charming Dr. Jekyll whom I had met the year before turned out to be something of a Mr. Hyde once the season rolled around. A few weeks before tryouts, he rounded everyone up into a classroom to preemptively scream at us for assuming that anyone would make the team. No spot was guaranteed, he warned us (like fifty times), not even for the returning players, and certainly not for anyone new, no matter what you thought you had come here to do. Which, did everyone understand? Yes sir, can we have another. I understand it's a good message to convey on the eve of a season, but as I listened to him angrily drone on -- and he didn't ever seem to be faking his anger -- I felt my heart sink, mostly because I always hated getting yelled at, even as part of a group, and lacked the self-confidence to let it just roll off my back like the overwrought, quasi-militaristic bullshit it was. I was one of those kids who was very much into following rules, mostly because I think I feared the uncertainty of not following them, which is related to the shyness thing mentioned above. So when I transgressed, even slightly, I tended to judge myself very harshly, which made yelling feel like piling on, and when it was a preemptive yell, it just felt like preemptive/unfair judgment. Later I would learn how to break rules more judiciously, of course, the way we all do as adults, without throwing away our entire lives, but it wasn't something that came easily to me, even as an adolescent. I would have much preferred if Mr. K had written the same thing down on a piece of paper and handed it to us to digest on our own. Basically it could have said: NEW SEASON/NO GUARANTEES.
Tryouts were intense in ways I completely expected: it was really the first chance to see how you shaped up against everyone else, to get a sense of who had been talking a lot of shit (especially among the new recruits), and who was the real thing. In either case, I was surrounded by the best group of skaters I had ever encountered, which was a bit daunting and awesome at the same time. Mr. K ran a hard practice, of course, and I would never fault him for that. It was the first time I ever saw kids throw up (as in puke) after doing sprints or what were ominously called "board busters." In my case, I was highly motivated because I wanted to be the best player possible, but I was also scared to death of failing. In the end, I did fine; I don't think I made a huge impression either way on Mr K, but I made the team, although for the first month or so, I languished in a somewhat precarious third-line position in which there were four of us battling it out for three slots. One of these kids was a junior, also from Pittsburgh, who was exceedingly talented but flashy and undisciplined in a way that annoyed Mr. K, who eventually demoted him to the fourth line, where he spent most of the season warming the bench. (He did not come back the following year.)
Everything on the ice -- practice and games -- in Michigan was of course a lot faster; it was like skipping four or five levels ahead in a video game. Players were just uniformly better, bigger, and stronger, having played seriously for their entire lives. We had college scouts at our games checking out the best players, which was another level of scrutiny I had never encountered in Pittsburgh. (Not that I was one of the best players.) Not to mention Mr. K screaming at us all the time, which was just how he worked, depressingly enough, to me at least, because I had always been more of a positive-reinforcement guy. I tried to adapt, and worked hard on essential skills that all of a sudden needed remastering in a much faster venue. Like for example when you're playing wing and breaking out of your zone, you often have to pick up the puck as it rolls (or is passed by your defenseman) around the boards, and make sure it's solidly on your stick before from a standing position you either skate forward with it, bank it off the boards around the opposing defenseman, or make a pass to the center, who if things are rolling out correctly will be cutting in ahead of you, scaring the defensemen back to give you some breathing room as your team theoretically takes the action to the other end. If you miss the puck, it goes out to the opposing team's defenseman on the blueline, which could mean big trouble, or worse, if it gets caught in your skates, you might get your "clock cleaned" by this same defenseman if he suspects that you won't be able to get the puck around him in time. In short, it's a delicate but essential maneuver, and no matter how much I practiced, I started to second-guess myself in games; I felt like I was on the verge of becoming a total head case, so that I would find myself fucking up even basic skills -- and the puck has a way of just dribbling away from anyone who lacks confidence -- and dreading the larger implications of my fuckups. Performance anxiety, in other words, which was exacerbated by the constant screaming.
For some kids fear is a great motivator, but for me, it just made me feel kind of brittle. Mr. K was not the type of guy who ever said, "Hey -- you can do this, just keep working at it," but instead surrounded us in a cloud of negative reinforcement, so that not-getting-screamed-at became the standard of praise. Not to mention he would often a) stomp off the ice at the beginning of practice if he felt that the intensity of our warmup was lacking, b) throw his stick at the glass, barely missing hitting some kid in the head, c) smash the chalkboard in half between periods of a game, d) play clear favorites among his players, which introduced a whole dimension of psychological terror at the thought of what might please/displease him. Like if he found out that a certain kid had bombed a test, he'd be like "ha ha, whatever, study harder next time" but if another kid did the same thing, this second kid might find himself warming the bench or temporarily demoted to the JV team; meaning the punishments he doled out were arbitrary and had no correlation to talent (or the offense), which made it (and him) more terrifying to someone like me, who thrived on predictability. Because of his strong recruiting skills, which by the time I went to Cranbrook had turned the "program" into something more like a "factory," Mr. K had a huge reserve of talent at his disposal, meaning he could afford to drive a handful of kids over the edge every year, which is what happened. Terrifying a group of striving adolescent teenagers isn't too difficult, but Mr. K was definitely a sadist. I should emphasize that while I was far from the only one who feared and loathed him, others were more ambivalent, and one or two maybe even liked him. It was difficult to argue with the team's success, of course; the ends justified the means, etc. etc.
Which is not to say my sophomore year was a disaster in any way. Even though the season was not a success for the team -- anything short of winning states was considered a failure -- I was a solid varsity player, which all things considered was a pretty decent start. There's no question I had improved dramatically from my Pittsburgh days. We also went to the Soviet Union over spring break that year, which was an amazing experience even if Mr. K continued to scream at us for "embarrassing our country" when we were getting our asses handed to us by an elite team of Russians. (If you're curious, I've reprinted my journals from those trips on this blog, here, here, and here.)
That summer, Mr. K sent my parents a letter telling them how pleased he was with my progress, and I just about fainted when they showed it to me, because it was the first kind/encouraging thing he had ever said. I returned for my junior year with (relatively) high hopes, but that fall made the big mistake (in Mr. K's eyes, anyway) of running cross-country. A fall sport was by no means unprecedented for hockey players, but everyone else either played football or soccer. I had made some new friends on the cross-country team, though, and had always been a good distance runner, so I joined the team, not seeing how it could hurt; if anything, I expected to head into hockey season in great shape, at least from an endurance perspective, and I was still lifting weights. I mean, of course I was lean, but no leaner than most of the other kids on the hockey team: at like 5' 11", 160, I was average.
The real problem (in terms of my hockey season), I think, was that our cross-country team did better than we expected -- we went to states -- which didn't give me any time off. At tryouts, I found myself again battling for a spot on the third line, and about a month or so later, ended up sitting on the bench when Mr. K decided to give the last spot to a senior who was clearly one of the worst skaters on the team (but for whom he had an inexplicable soft spot). I ended up spending most of the year killing penalties and playing games with the junior-varsity team, which was the equivalent of being sent to the dungeon. This was the year we won the state championship, although for me, the victory was somewhat bittersweet given my benchwarmer status.
As I looked back on the season (and lacking any sense of perspective), I felt destroyed, like I had basically gone from being a hockey hero in Pittsburgh to a hockey nothing (as I saw it) in less than two years. Worst of all, I felt like I was backsliding, which made me more nervous, more gun-shy, more paranoid about what the coach had lined up for me. It's difficult to perform with any kind of grace when you start hearing voices in your head, and I hadn't yet figured out how to make them go away. I don't want to sound too overwrought about it now, and part of my purpose in laying this out is to remind myself of some of the great moments from that year. Like the game we played at Trenton, which was a working-class/public-school town with a seriously good team, and how just unbelievably loud it was when we stepped on to the ice, even before the game, because they -- and their fans, who were pounding on the glass -- wanted to beat us with a vengeance; playing a bunch of rich kids (even if we weren't all rich) from Cranbrook had social overtones, obviously. It's the kind of thing you only have to hear once to understand, in terms of both its danger -- like it would have been easy to kill someone in that state of mind -- and also its appeal, like just skating through the warmups I felt electrified by the adrenaline. It was seriously like being on a drug.
Another time we were playing in a Christmas tournament at Culver Military Academy in Indiana, and we had a pretty lackluster second period in the semifinals, which led Mr. K to dig into us pretty hard, even for him; I mean, nothing unusual, but still sort of insane by most standards, screaming at us with the overt implication that in addition to our sub-par play we were defective human beings for letting this other team beat us. It's kind of weird to consider now, a hulking grown man screaming his face off at a bunch of cowering teenagers, but that's how it was every time we started to lose, or even if we were winning but not playing with enough zip. For some reason at Culver, this kid Lew snapped: he stood up and delivered a tear-streaked, sobbing speech to Mr. K, the basic message being "why the fuck don't you shut up and leave us alone?" Mr. K basically scoffed at Lew, which, just like it would have happened in a Hollywood movie, motivated us to go out and score three or four goals in a comeback third-period victory that got us into the finals. There were also some seriously amazing kids on our team that year, like this guy Chris from California, whose father was a former Olympic athlete. Chris was maybe the fastest kid I ever saw on the ice; during warmups of one of our first games, when everyone else was skating forward in circles -- sort of a pre-game tradition in hockey -- he was skating backwards, with a complete nonchalance that was frankly awesome to behold. He later went to Wisconsin and was invited to try out of the U.S. Olympic team. (I'm not sure what happened to him after that.) There were a couple of other kids on the team who were also pretty much forces of nature; in total, probably five or six went on to play Division I college hockey, which should give you an idea of the overall caliber of the team.
When senior year started, I had a stress fracture in my leg that kept me from running cross-country (it didn't effect my skating), so I had plenty of time to lift weights and otherwise prepare for the season. Except the more I thought about (or really, neurotically obsessed over) what I had gone through the previous year, the less I wanted to go ahead with it. Not that I could really even admit it, even to myself. Not playing just seemed too foreign, too ridiculous, too at odds with my overarching purpose for going to Cranbrook to begin with. Then, maybe about a week or so before tryouts, I noticed that my arms were breaking out in a rash -- something I had periodically suffered during the hockey season from the abrasion of the the pads on my skin -- except this time, I wasn't even wearing equipment yet, so I knew the rash was completely stress-induced. Looking at my splotchy arms, I knew I had to quit.
I called my parents to explain, and though I think it's fair to say that my father was somewhat nonplussed by the decision, he didn't complain and only offered support. After all, my academic record was still strong, and it's not like I wouldn't be able to go to college or anything. Still, to quit playing hockey represented a fairly major shift in my identity, and one that would be paralleled by the time ten or so years later when I told him I was gay. (Not kidding.) As for Mr. K, I think he was genuinely surprised by my decision: clearly he knew that he had been pushing me hard the year before -- there was just no way I deserved to be on the fourth line or slumming it with the JV team -- but his strategy backfired, at least for me. Not that he really cared, of course: he had a small army of very talented kids ready to go. Maybe I was wimping out, but mostly I felt relief: not playing hockey gave me a lot more time to spend on stuff like pottery and guitar and hanging out with some kids whom to this day I consider the best friends I ever made (and only one of whom -- Mark -- was a hockey player).
In retrospect, I feel a bit more conflicted. I'm not sure why I had to abandon the sport so completely; it never occurred to me that I could take a year off and go play at a small college or something. There was something in me -- well, I think we know what it was -- that led me to view the world in very black-and-white terms, so that if I strayed beyond the boundaries of expectation even a little, there was no point in going back. Which I now tend to think of with some regret, because I genuinely loved playing, had invested a lot of years in it, and could have definitely enjoyed it without feeling like my entire future was at stake if for example I botched a pass. You could say that I cut off both of my legs when amputating a finger or toe would have done the job. Or maybe my current regret arises from recognizing a larger pattern in my life, a tendency to invest in something pretty seriously but then back completely away from it, like there's no middle ground. I sometimes hate to think of myself as a dilettante. (Although sometimes I embrace it.) I'm not saying I didn't have good reasons for quitting hockey (or the many other things I quit), but whenever there's a pattern in life, potentially disturbing questions about the exact reason why are hard to avoid, unless you have the capability to turn your mind off. (Which I do not.)
Or maybe the question of what I did/didn't do is irrelevant, and what's really important -- and the reason I've taken the time to write about my hockey experience here -- is to transcend more superficial regrets and identify (via memory) a more nuanced picture of my past, and specifically my hockey past. To reclaim it, in a way. Rather than dismiss it out of hand, as I've sometimes been inclined to do -- having left the sport with a bad taste in my mouth -- I want to remember the love I felt for the sport and my part in it, while acknowledging what was really just one bad year at the hands of an arguably demented coach.
There's also a part of me that, as a gay guy, also wants to document my hockey past to help counter or dissolve the stereotype that gay kids don't or can't play team/contact sports. Thankfully that attitude is changing, but until there are out players in the professional leagues -- which I think is inevitable, but damn it's slow getting there -- it can't hurt to add my story to the mix. As someone who's gay, I get very tired of what I'll just call the "mainstream narrative" depicting us as weak and immoral; it just feels so self-defeating, like we're not going anywhere. Which I'm not saying the solution is to present ourselves as physically strong -- which is really irrelevant -- but to recast our stories in ways that prove that we exist, that we are no worse (or better) than anyone else, that expose the two-dimensional/wooden placards of gay people we so often get from Hollywood as the bullshit they are.
One thing I'll note in this regard is that I never felt uncomfortable in the locker room; granted I wasn't out, but I never felt threatened or disliked by any of my teammates on account of something intrinsic to my personality or being. One of the great things about sports -- not unlike the army, I suspect -- is that you learn to set aside personal differences for the good of the whole. I really believe that most professional athletes would not have a problem sharing a locker room with gay teammates, mostly on account of the fact that it's your talent and ability that wins the day. I find homophobia to be almost more insidious and damaging in those sectors of society where people in power like to avow or pretend that they're not homophobic, while their actions reflect otherwise; the post-war literary culture in our country is a perfect example of an area where gays (and women, and ethnic minorities) still tend to be quietly (but obviously) excluded and denigrated as a matter of course, which is maddening for different reasons than open (and more obviously idiotic) homophobia.
Which is not to deny a connection between playing a sport and being comfortable in my skin, which I was not, and I certainly hope that other kids in my position will fare better in the future if they can come out at an earlier age. Another memory from my junior year is how inept I felt about girls, and specifically this one girl who I sort of liked or pretend-liked. (I mean, I really did like her, just not in that way.) She was a tennis player, and my friend Mark had done some investigating to find out that she was also interested in me, which led to some long phone calls that were pleasant enough but (for obvious reasons) lacked the chemistry for me (or her) to really want to push it forward. I was already a nervous wreck thinking about hockey, so being a nervous wreck about girls only compounded the problem; if I had been less nervous about girls, I think I might have also been more confident on the ice. You get the idea.
We non-heterosexuals often have a complicated relationship with the past. We tend to obsessively romanticize historical periods that have come before us -- as in before we were even born -- but to view our own past, as in the years of our actual lives, and especially our youth, with more skepticism. Which is not exactly surprising: before we "come out," our lives, no matter how pleasant or rewarding in some ways (and not everyone gets beaten to death, fortunately) are almost inevitably marred by the dishonesty we feel about hiding something that's very fundamental to our existence, as one's sexuality generally by definition is. It's a dishonesty that in addition to inhibiting us at the time can also seep into our minds or pysches, acting like a filter that shades even the happiest memories, or sometimes even a lens cap that prevents us from seeing the past at all. Often there's a tendency to completely dismiss our youths, to want to "move on," or put it behind us, etc. Basically the opposite of nostalgia, this attitude represents a kind of emotional pruning implicit in actively forgetting something, a symbolic suicide, a complete negation of who we once were (and now are).
One of my all-time favorite songs is "Don't Let Our Youth Go To Waste." Originally written by Jonathan Richman, it was gorgeously covered by Galaxie 500 on their first album. Twenty years ago, when I first heard the song, I thought it represented an active desire not to squander youth as we live through it; that we should take every chance during these precious years to become the person we want to be. Don't be bound by convention or expectation, etc. etc. Which of course is a fine message, and one that I would never argue against, but which is also more difficult to reconcile with middle age, when we are almost inevitably filled with some regret at the way our lives have unfolded or panned out. Nevertheless, I still love the song, and understand that with youth being nothing but a memory, we should still not waste it; rather, it's a vein of experience that -- just by remembering it -- we can mine for wisdom and meaning, again, to find solace in knowing where we've been as we attempt to figure out where we still want to go, and why. In the end, whether I played hockey for fifteen or twenty years is irrelevant; what's important is that act (or art) of remembering, of recasting the past in a way that basically shifts the power into the hands of a narrator. This process is one way to gather/share strength, and end the ruination of our lives so often implied by our enemies.
Every story, every memory, becomes an act of reinvention or -- let's just say it -- revenge. Those who reach out to stop or check or impede us will find themselves grabbing at air.
I may not have ever worn the hockey jacket in my closet, but it will continue to hang there for a long time, is what I'm saying.