I had always
assumed that once one learned to skate, it was always there—like bicycling, or
playing Chopsticks, or swimming, or building a paper airplane. I could remember
the black ice of the Exeter River and the New England ponds in winter, and
while I was kidded for skating on my anklebones, I knew how to stop and turn,
and I developed a frantic waterbug skittering style across the ice that got me
picked quite high when we chose for teams in childhood pickup games. So when I
was assigned to write a participatory journalism account of playing hockey in
the NHL—it was arranged that I join the Boston Bruins and train for an
exhibition-game stint against the Philadelphia Flyers—I blithely told the
editors that naturally. I could skate, oh absolutely. Of course, I wouldn't be
able to keep up with the forwards and defensemen, which would suggest I'd be
better off in the goal where the demands on one's skating skills were not so
play in the goal for the Bruins?"
"That would be
best, yes. But I can skate, don't worry about that."
Just to be sure,
about a week before I was to report to Fitch-burg, Mass., where the Bruins
train, I paid a visit to the Sky Rink in New York City. I put on my new
goalie's skates, stepped out on the ice, teetered wildly and fell down. The
Wurlitzer organ was playing Waltzing Matilda. Extraordinarily capable people
wheeled by, the men with hands clasped comfortably behind their backs, chins
outthrust and dreamy expressions on their faces, while at center ice the women
pirouetted in tight circles, their heads back and their ponytails hanging down.
I pulled myself up and crept along the wall like the frightened muskrat.
Chuchundra, in Kipling's Rikki-tikki-tavi, who never dares to come into the
middle of rooms—taking little crotchety steps as I tried to dredge out of my
past the most basic fundamentals. I had forgotten everything—how-to stop, how
to skate backward. All that was left of my past style, with its fine abandon,
was that I still sagged onto my anklebones. Some of the skaters whizzing by
glanced curiously at my goalie's skates as I crept across the ice. Could any of
them have guessed that they were looking at a man who in two weeks' time would
be playing goal for the Bruins?
In desperation I
went back to the rink day after day—grimly circling the ice, sometimes gliding
slowly to a stop and hunching down in front of an imaginary goal to practice
the lateral movements required of a goal-tender. To the skaters resting on the
benches it must have seemed an odd sight—a solitary figure hopping and shifting
back and forth across a small rectangle of ice. What could they have
I left for
Fitchburg with a sense of foreboding. The friends who saw me off thought that I
was daft to be doing such a thing. In the goal? Against slap shots coming in at
130 mph? Indeed, the omens were disheartening. Fitchburg sits below a high hill
topped with the bright stones of a large cemetery, and the Gideon Bible in my
motel room was open to some verses from Job: "He shall return no more to
his home; neither shall his place know him anymore."
It evolved that
not only did my friends think me daft, but so did the Bruins when I introduced
myself to them. Terry O'Reilly, the wing who is famous for his tireless,
combative behavior on the ice (his nickname is the Tasmanian Devil), said he
wouldn't think of getting in the goal, ever, and when he told me this, his face
was solemn with worry. Don Cherry, the Bruin coach, did not lift my spirits by
telling me that he never really thought of goalies as being hockey players
anyway. Goalies were another species, he felt, pointing out that when hockey
coaches were asked about their rosters they always said they were carrying so
many hockey players and x number of goalies.
My roommate, Jim
Pettie, himself a goaltender, said I should be proud to be considered apart
from the rest of the players. " Cherry is right," he said. "Welcome
to the union." He went on to say that Gerry Cheevers, the first-string
Bruin goalie, never shook hands with the opposing players in the lineup
ceremonies at the end of a playoff series, never, never—it was a contradiction
to shake hands with someone who had been firing a puck at you—but that he would
skate past these people to shake the hand of the opposing goalie. They were
both in the union. Why, if a rival goalie got in a slump, Cheevers would try to
help him out of it. Goalies stick together. They look after each other.
all got quite a job with me," I said.
Pettie had a
number of nicknames, the one most used by his teammates being
"Seaweed," for the wild, stringy look of his hair after a
game—apparently a hereditary condition because his father's nickname turned out
to be "Kelp." Seaweed was shortened to Weed by most of the Bruins, and
that was what the fans yelled in Rochester, where he played for the Bruins'
farm club, when he made a good save—"Weed! Weed!" He had also picked up
the nickname "Mad Dog," this for his aggressive play on the ice despite
the limitations one would assume were imposed by being a goaltender.
Physically, he reminded me of a young and very agile Gene Wilder, the popeyed
Hollywood actor. He talked incessantly, often until nearly dawn, occasionally
leaping onto his bed and bouncing on the mattress as he described the more
technical aspects of goaltending. He was exhausting. Hockey absorbed him. He
told me that he had read only one book completely through—the life of Jacques
Plante, the great Montreal goalie. Most of his family was involved in a Toronto
puck-manufacturing concern named Viceroy Manufacturing Ltd. As Seaweed
described it in his lively manner, "My mother makes pucks, my sister sells
them and I eat them."