“I’m open,” I realized as I sped down the cold gray parking lot surface. “But does he see it?”
Growing up a boy on the Jersey Shore in the early 1970’s, baseball was our summer passion. We’d play all day long on a sandlot and then go home and put our uniforms on for that night’s Little League game. In the fall, it was football, of course. No helmets, no pads, barely any rules. However, in the winter, we played street hockey.
I first became aware of street hockey when three local boys, Andy, Jay and Gary, were playing outside early one winter morning waiting for the school bus. I had seen ice hockey, of course. I loved the Philadelphia Flyers and Bobby Clarke was my hero. But this was something new. There was no ice, no skates and no puck. Just a hard plastic, orange Day-glo ball and a net. When I got to school, I couldn’t wait to tell my best friend, Bobby, a diehard Boston Bruins fan, what I’d seen. That weekend, we pestered our moms to take us to the nearby sporting goods store to buy our first street hockey sticks.
“We got a two on none here. Does he see how open I am or is he going to shoot with his backhand?”
Bobby and I spent the next several weeks playing non-stop out in front of my house. We were both right-handed in everything we did but for some odd and yes, soon-to-be-fateful reason, I picked up and held my stick left-handed. Bobby soon developed a hard right-handed slap shot. With power and accuracy, his cannon shot struck fear in every goalie he faced. I never could get the hang of that big shot so I concentrated instead on a swift and deadly left-handed wrister. I learned how to flick the ball and hit open spots like a sniper. Upper corners, lower corners, underneath the blocker, between the legs, near side, far side, it didn’t matter. If I could see twine, I could kiss it.
“These guys are the local kings. We’re a new team and we’re challenging them. This first score is critical. I’m so open. God, I hope he sees it.”
When we got good enough, Bobby and I asked Andy, Jay and Gary if we could play with them. They were better than us because they had been playing a little longer than we had been. But we all decided to try playing together and maybe find other neighborhood kids and play their teams. We added Dieter and then we asked Neil to be our goalie. Neil had never played goalie before but, after a few weeks and a few thousand shots fired at him, Neil was good to go. And we indeed did find other teams to play including a very good group who went to another school in the next town over.
Before long, lots of other kids wanted to play too. My younger brother, Joe, wanted in. So did some other local boys, Kevin, Mike and two brothers, Donny and Bobby. Soon enough, Bobby and I approached Andy, Jay and Gary and told them we were going to leave to form our own team. Our first order of business, naturally, was choosing a team name. We both knew we couldn’t use Flyers or Bruins so we chose the most distant, neutral team name we could find. And so the Canucks were born.
Bobby and Kevin alternated between left wing and center. The two brothers, Donny and Bobby, played defense. And together we all put Mike through the same goalie “training” program we had previously used with Neil. My brother, Joe, three years younger than all of us, was our super sub. And with my funky but lethal off-handed, lefty wrist shot, I manned the right wing.
“This is incredible. I can see it all slowing down beautifully. Just tap it over here and I’ll put it home. Please.”
And so we scheduled our first game. Against Andy, Jay and Gary. And Dieter and Neil, of course. Our old teammates. The original gang. They were good and they knew it. They had been playing longer than us and, more importantly, they had been playing as a team longer than anybody. They were the gang to beat. We were the upstarts.
“Do it. Slide it over. I won’t miss. I can’t miss.”
Admiral Farragut Academy was a private boarding school in our little town and it had the most perfect parking lot for street hockey. On weekdays when school was in session, the teachers filled it but it was totally empty on weekends. The school owners didn’t care for us using their parking lot though. Something about liability insurance should one of us get hurt. So we had to keep an eye out for the town police cruiser they’d send to chase us off. But on this day, we weren’t getting hassled. It was a cold but clear and crisp winter Saturday and it was game on.
Neither team could get much going at first. Andy and Jay had a few good shots but Mike turned them aside. I don’t recall why but Gary was in goal for them that day and he was just as good as their usual goalie, Neil. We also took some shots at Gary but he had no trouble blocking them. We had been playing for about half an hour and the score was still tied at 0-0 when it happened.
Bobby broke loose down the left side of the parking lot and I took off after him about ten yards to his right. A two on none. The game’s first real scoring chance. He had the orange ball on his backhand and he had a head of steam bearing down on Gary. But when Gary shaded over to cut down Bobby’s shooting angle, he left the right side of his net yawning wide open.
And here’s where the hockey gods intervened. Bobby had a strong backhand but it wasn’t nearly as strong as his cannonball slapshot. He had no time to pull up for one though. Gary wasn’t going to let that net stay open for long. But as fate would have it, that strange decision I had made earlier that year to shoot left-handed was about to pay off in solid gold. By coming down the right side, with my stick facing inwards, I had both the open net and the perfect angle. If Bobby saw it, the Canucks would go up 1-0 on the big boys.
Fifteen yards away. Ten yards away. Five, four, three … And there it was. He saw it.
I hardly noticed Bobby nudge the ball my way and he never made a sound but I could see that lovely, beautiful little orange ball coming toward me in a perfect line with perfect timing. Not a pebble or a pothole in sight to knock it off stride. Nothing but a timeless moment of perfection. It was the perfect pass. And with one quick flick of my wrists, that little orange ball was nestled safely in the back of their net.
Bobby and I both ran past the goal and then pulled up in unison, turned around and casually jogged back to the center line for the ensuing face-off. We touched gloves to acknowledge the 1-0 score but neither of us said a word. We didn’t have to. Perfection doesn’t need words. The moment was all that mattered. He had seen it.
A few hours later, the cops drove by and chased us off the lot. And wouldn’t you know it, those brash upstart Canucks were ahead at the time, 4-3.
Bobby and I are both in our late-50’s now. We don’t see each other often but we keep in touch by phone and social media. And without fail, I always remember to thank him for that pass. It’s a moment frozen in time for both of us. A moment of perfection.