Two of the Best Things

Two of the Best Things
(Part I of II)

When I was in Berlin, people would sometimes ask me what I missed about New York. To which I would usually respond, “Bridges and hockey.” Because New York has the best bridges. Everybody knows that. The Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, 59th Street1, Triboro2, GW, Verrazano and so on. And it’s not just the bridges themselves, which are majestic and wonderful and powerful. It’s the ridiculous views you get when you stand on them. It’s the peace and quiet you get when you’re stumbling home over one at five in the morning.

One of my favorite sunrises ever was when I was coming home over the Williamsburg after a long night out in Brooklyn. I met these two fellows who were out doing some photography. I asked them if they had gotten up early just to shoot the sunrise from the bridge. They said they had. We chatted for a bit, making friends in that way you can only do at that time of day. Or night. Then we went our separate ways. “Good night,” I said. “Good morning,” they said. Beautiful.

So much for bridges.3 But hockey. Now that’s not really a New York City thing per se. I’ve never actually even played in the city. I mean, how do you trek your goalie gear anywhere without a car? And more to the point, where do you keep that stinky stuff in a tiny apartment? So I only ever played on the Island. But close enough. And when people asked me what I missed, well, I missed playing hockey.

I played tonight. What a beautiful game. First, just the sounds. Skates cutting the ice, stick on puck, puck on glass. And best of all, puck on pads. I say that because I am a goalie. And man, that position will do your head in.

–Interpolation: I started this post last Thursday, after that night’s game. But I only got this far. Partly because it was very late. And partly because I was too sober to get anything flowing, which was far the more powerful of the two reasons. When I was doing my Berlin Diary posts, I would typically go through a bottle of wine per post. Which was easy to do, not only because they took several hours from start to finish, but because you could just pop down to the Späti for a four-Euro bottle. Anyway, all to say I’m struggling to get this done on one-to-two beers. It may not be my best work.

Anyway, goaltending. It’ll do your head in. It’s a pretty lonely position. You’re not really afforded the luxury of making mistakes. Anybody else makes a mistake, and the game carries on. You fuck up and the puck’s in the back of your net. Or Lady Luck bailed you out. So there’s that pressure.

But there’s another pressure as well. In many ways, the quality of the game hinges on your play. What I mean is, if you suck and pucks are going past you left and right, you’ll notice that the guys begin to feel like the game isn’t very serious. And when they start to feel that way, they start to play that way. There’s a loss of intensity and a loss of effort. Conversely, if you’re standing on your head, you’ll see guys on the other team busting their asses to try and beat you any way they can. And you’ll see the guys on your own team giving everything they’ve got to support you.

So you always want to give the guys a good game. Perhaps even more-so under the circumstances in which I play. The circumstance being this: I play for free with a group of guys who pay to play. I play for free because they need a netminder. And so while I get on well with them, they’re not my ‘friends’ per se. I don’t hang out with them outside of hockey. At most, I’ll have a beer in the locker room after a game. But that’s really it. So my one function is to show up, stand between the pipes and stop the puck. If I can’t do that, I’m not much use to them.

If I’m lucky, I get to play once a week. I don’t get to practice in between. As a result, I tend to get better as the session (usually about three months long) goes on. The games are my practice. Which means I’m usually more of a head-case in the early weeks.

Playing goal requires a certain degree of mental discipline and even-keel-edness that I realistically probably don’t have in great abundance. I played my first game back from Berlin two weeks ago, after a three month hiatus, and I was a nervous wreck. I spent most of the game praying that the puck would stay in the other end and basically being terrified anytime it came near me. As you can guess, I didn’t play very well. And as my parents will tell you, I came home in a very sour mood.

Last week, however, I played quite well, for whatever reason. And it’s a totally different feeling. Instead of dreading the puck, I wanted it. And I didn’t just want it, I wanted it off the stick of the best player on the ice. I wanted the best shots and the most challenging plays. I felt like I could stop anything and I wanted to prove it. It’s godsdamned exhilarating. And whereas two weeks ago I was counting down the minutes until the game would be over, last week I left wondering why we couldn’t play a fourth period.

It’s hard to figure out why you can play well one night and shit the next, or vice-versa. Best I can tell, it comes down to two things. One is just dumb luck. Last week, very early in the game I made a nifty stop on a bang-bang play. That sort of thing ups your confidence in a hurry. You make a save like that and you realize, “Oh yeah, I fucking know how to play this game. Bring it on!” Whereas had I failed to make that stop, it’s very easy to start thinking, “Ugh, it’s gonna be one of those nights.”4

The other thing it comes down to, for me at least, is technique. As with any position in any sport, there is a science and an art to goaltending. On the science side, we’re talking about skating, positioning, how you hold your body, reading the play, situational awareness, and other such things. These things are more or less constant for any goaltender. By which I mean, we all need to know how to do them correctly and skillfully.

As for art, that is a question of style. And one of the things that is difficult for me is that my personal style is a bit old-fashioned and no longer particularly in vogue. In and of itself, that would be fine. What makes it difficult is that I can’t turn on the TV and watch others play as an aide to myself. These days, most goalies play what’s known as a “butterfly” style. This means that on almost all shots, they will drop to their knees and splay their legs to take away the low ice, where most shots are likely to come. Many goalies have great success with this style, and when you’re over six-feet tall, you still have plenty of body left to cover the upper part of the net.

I, however, am five-foot-six. When I butterfly, my legs aren’t long enough to take away a great deal of low ice, and I don’t have much upper body left to cover the high parts of the net. So I play a sort of standup-butterfly hybrid. Now, Martin Brodeur played this way, and he was one of the best ever. So there’s precedent for its success. But everywhere you look, you see butterfly goalies. And when that’s all you see, it’s an easy trap to fall into, to start playing that way too.

Well, two weeks ago, I was butterflying all over the place. And what happened? Low shots were sneaking past me into the corners and high shots were sailing over my shoulders. Last week, however, I was able to play my game, my style. And that’s what I need to do to be successful. And I was successful. I stood up for the high shots and I was catching them in the shoulder. I stayed on my feet for the low shots that were coming square to me and only went down when I had to.

When I’m playing, I somehow need to keep all this in my mind. And at the same time, it needs to be subconscious. Or unconscious. You don’t have time to think to yourself, “OK, this shot is high, so stay on your feet.” All you can do is react. But after the play, you need to be your own coach. You need to be aware of why you were able to make a save or why you failed to. You need to tell yourself what adjustments you need to make next time. But then you have to be able to push all that out of your mind when the play comes near you again and just trust your reflexes and your instincts and hope you’ve internalized your own lessons.

And then sometimes luck and technique converge. Some of my favorite saves come when I never even see the puck. For example, I know a guy has the puck up by the blue line. But I can’t see it, because there are a couple of bodies between us; maybe guys from my team or my opponents’. You see him wind up to take a slap shot, but you still don’t see the puck itself. Then it hits you in the leg or the arm and bounces safely to the corner. And you never saw it. Well, that’s luck to some extent. But it also means that your positioning was spot on. You did everything right based on your read of the play and you made the save. That’s not about reflexes or skill, that’s just being technically sound. It means your doing the little things right. And that is somehow very gratifying.

OK, so I got a bit into the weeds there. But I wanted to give some sort of accurate impression of what it’s like for me to be out there. In any case, playing goal can be nerve-wracking and mentally taxing. But when I play well, it’s just so much damned fun. And after last week’s game, I floated home on Cloud 9. I’m supposed to play again on Thursday, and I can’t fucking wait. But you’re only as good as the game your presently playing. So come Thursday, last week’s game is out the window and it starts all over again. And no matter how nerve-wracking that’s going to be, I know one thing for certain. Whenever I get back to Berlin, I am going to miss playing hockey.

  1. With all due respect to hizzonner, Mr. Koch. []
  2. ‘Triboro’ is such a uniquely New York name, and I’ll never call it by any other. []
  3. Not really. I mean, I could go on for a while about the bridges. []
  4. This is where the mental discipline and even-keel-edness comes in. The best goalies will be able to give up an early goal and then forget about it. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. At least for me. []

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