backward. Four feet, 11 inches of concentration standing—well, wobbling—on 11�
inches of Bobby Bauer blades. His rear end probes the air, rotating blindly,
fatalistically. His helmet hangs askew like a distress signal. His glazed eyes
stare down at the S's of his wake—the small miracle of where he has been.
indifferent well-wishers on the dock, a line of teammates watch him zigzag out
to open ice. He is alone—boy against gravity—beyond comfort, beyond help.
Somewhere behind him his unseen enemy, the coach, screams the litany of all
hockey coaches: "Dig! Dig! Dig! Hustle! Hustler!"
In the stands his
father, all the fathers watch—an oil painting of 40-year-old jocks, hiding
their paunches under windbreakers, holding their breath on cold cigars until
their jowls hollow out.
There is a crack,
an insignificant crack, a tiny hairline fracture in the ice. But it's enough. A
skate stubs, the cautious rhythm is lost, angles begin to go all wrong. The
soloist wobbles like a rheumatic conga dancer and, just before he reaches the
blue line, down he goes, as if the ice were pulled out from under him in slow
Crash, for the
moment, goes the hope of America.
In hundreds of
rinks from Maine to, yes, California, variations on this drama are being played
out by a growing army of young ankle benders. Not to mention that supporting
cast of coaches and fathers who get up as early as four or five o'clock on a
Saturday morning and drive as far as 50 miles to make the scene.
The scene is known
in fiat prose as the youth hockey program. But it can be described with a touch
of locker-room poetry as the making of an American Bobby Orr. for grand
illusions fill the bone-chilling air. Behind the drone of just another
community-recreation activity—the mimeographed schedules on the bulletin board,
complete with coach's phone number (call day or night, his wife answers
anyway)—there is, in this case, a dream. A secret, delirious dream that one day
all those five a.m. whistles for quick starts and stops, all those ice machines
with their bored hum laying down new surfaces, are suddenly going to produce an
American champion at a Canadian sport: a Babe Ruth of hockey.
The Little League
mania of a decade ago has laced on skates, more than 50,000 pairs of them.
Mitey Mites (6-to 8-year-olds). Squirts (8- to 10-year-olds). Pee Wees (10- to
12-year-olds). Bantams (12- to 14-year-olds). Midgets (14- to 16-year-olds).
Ten times as many diggers as 10 years ago, and they're everywhere.
is a sport that technology made possible. Once upon a time hockey was the most
provincial of pastimes. An American puck chaser was a hardy local species to be
found wintering in three principal areas: Minnesota, Michigan and New England.
Frozen-ponds-and-ears country. All that has changed. Man, the toolmaker, cannot
only land on the moon, he can even make ice in the summer with help from
chemicals. Ethyl-glycol or Freon are in the pipes instead of brine, and those
pipes, by the way, are now plastic.
Hockey no longer
is nature's unequal gift, and it has suddenly dawned on Americans that anything
is possible. In Duluth or Los Angeles, in January or August, backward or
forward, that young skater with the grim look of concentration now hustles,
hustles all year round. He is going for broke, competing not only against Pee
Wee peers but against a phantom in his obsessed little mind. He is catching up
with the Canadians.