Part 2 of the saga of one team’s trip to the league championships north of the border
By Fred Sommer
Hockey Moms in the Stands
Since the day’s first game of the Toronto rec hockey tournament was at 1:00 pm and we had never been to the Brampton Rink, we decided to meet in the hotel lobby at 11:45 am. When we tried to contact center Charlie Vento, we first realized he wasn’t staying at our hotel but still had a reservation! Immediately we made sure to cancel it before the room was charged to Gary Mayer’s credit card. As soon as Charlie, his girlfriend, and his son arrived, we began our five-car convoy to the rink, with me and my carload of Garys in the lead.
Our first rec hockey tournament game was to be that afternoon, when we’d face the DC Panthers in the second of three games we were certain to play. Although the Panthers were not in our division, a win against them would go a long way towards helping us make it to the playoffs. Once at the rink, we found ourselves sharing a locker room with some 8-year-olds who had the ice before us. We took the ice to warm up when I realized I had forgotten my water bottle and went back to retrieve it. By then the kids were gone and it was there that my college friend, Eric “Hondo” Hahn, his son Ryan, and I met. Eric and family lived nearby and we arranged to get together at the game. We now had four cheerleaders compared to the dozen or so parents the other team brought with them. This was evident when, after the first Panthers goal, a roar erupted from the partisan DC crowd. We looked into the seats above the locker rooms to see people our age. “Look, they brought their mommies with them!” one teammate exclaimed, sounding as if taken from the movie Slapshot. “They brought their [freakin’] toys with ’em!”
Despite a season in which we compiled very few penalty minutes, the Fire Ants took some bad penalties that game and trailed 2-0 in the second period. The door to the sin bin had barely been latched before the Panthers would capitalize on the man advantage. On the next shift, we would cut the lead in half. I took a pass from Gary Lehrman and skated down the right wing and beat the goalie with a slap shot on the short side, which glanced off his pad and went in. Shortly after the ensuing faceoff, the puck was again in the Panthers defensive zone. As I pursued the puck, one of the Panthers went down and cut my legs out from under me and I landed on my head. I slid into the end boards, but having not lost consciousness, it seemed like an eternity until the whistle sounded and players came to my aid.
“It’s Saturday, right?” I looked up and asked. I stayed prone for a moment until I was sure my squash and teeth were intact, and then got to my feet.
“Go slow, Freddy,” left wing and alternate captain Warren Tabachnick cautioned.
“That’s my regular speed!” I shot back as I skated to the bench to the polite applause of the mommies in the stands. I never did get the license plate number of the truck that hit me. Luckily for me I had invested $1 in a mouth guard which, I believe, spared me several visits to the dentist but I would have looked much more like a hockey player had I not. The Panthers would go ahead 3-1 and then 4-1 again on the power play, before the seat in the penalty box got warm. Captain Rick Koh would score a late goal to produce the final score of 4-2. We played a much better game that day than we had the night before. A couple of more bounces and a few less penalties and who knows? We were satisfied with our effort but our fate was sealed. We would not be playing hockey on Sunday, in the finals.
Hondo and son had followed us back to the hotel, where we planned to go swimming in the third-floor pool. However, as I stepped into the water I decided I did not want to be poached by the scorching water and rid myself of any energy I might have had left to play in our final game that night. So we decided to go out to the adjacent sun deck and enjoy an absolutely picture-perfect afternoon with some of my teammates, where they laid their equipment out to dry. Defenseman Frank Miceli, Warren, Kevin, Hondo and I enjoyed the bright sun and cool breeze while some of our other teammates went back to the rink to watch the Ducks play, in a game they would need to win in order to secure a playoff berth and the right to play another day. Rick Koh returned to report that after the second period the Ducks trailed 4-1. As the Ducks played their third period, we soaked up the sun and tried to recharge our batteries for our final game.
A short while later the Ducks filed back to the hotel and joined us on the sun deck to regale us with their tale of how they overcame a 5-1 deficit to win, 6-5. The Ducks had completed a furious comeback after trailing 5-1 by scoring five goals in less than three minutes. Albeit with different results, the Fire Ants never quit either in our two losses, which is why I was proud to be a member of that team. Although we sometimes quibbled over ice time and line combinations, we always managed to put the team first and believed that the whole is greater than the sum of our parts.
Two Days, Four Games, Four Losses
We met in the lobby at 7pm for our 8pm game. Brian was already at the rink after being shelled 9-0 while tending for the Icemen. The team we were playing that night in the rec hockey tournament, the Boston Phantoms, had no chance to make the playoffs either, managing only a tie in their first two games. So we were playing for pride, and for what it was worth, second place in our division to the eventual champions of T4-L4, the Chicago Ducks. If not for ourselves, we wanted to win our final game for Brian, who had had a very rough trip so far. Two days, four games, four losses and a very roundabout trip to the rink the day before.
Well, we got off to a very inauspicious beginning as the Phantoms would score on the first shift of the game. It would have been very easy to hang our heads and say to ourselves, “Same thing, different game.” But as mentioned before, there is no quit in this team. Goals by Kevin and Charlie put us ahead 2-1 for our first lead of the tournament, but the Phantoms showed some grit of their own and tied us at 2-2. At some point in the second period, I reached for a headman pass by Gary Halman and pulled my right groin. I considered taking myself out of the game but figured I would have the next day to recover. Shortly thereafter, Kevin cracked his skate blade and I was pressed back into service anyway. Fortunately, defenseman Mike Woltmann had an extra pair of skates in the locker room. Kevin hobbled off and traded the broken skate for one that was a size too small, but yet effective. He then went back out and scored the goal that put us ahead 3-2 (credit half a goal to Kevin and half a goal to Mike). Late in the third period our thirst for victory would not go unquenched, when I put home a rebound of another of Kevin’s shots. We had our insurance and just had to kill the clock for the last two minutes or so.
The final buzzer sounded and we congratulated each other on a satisfying 4-2 win. Assembling along the blue line, we had our team picture taken, a single moment frozen in time that will be remembered by most of us forever. Winning that last game was our focal point and neither our vision, nor this picture, would be blurred. Who said there is no satisfaction in a moral victory?
More pats on the back were shared in the locker room as we stripped off our sweat-soaked jerseys and gear for the last time that season. Our equipment bags would be sealed until our arrival back home and the fermentation process that converts sweat into ammonia would begin.
Dinner that night was at Pat and Mario’s, a short walk from the hotel but no small task with my injured and now-stiffened groin. As the waitress received our menu selections, she would acknowledge them with either “perfect” or “excellent.” Our hockey was less than perfect, but excellent certainly did justice to the description of that trip north of the border.
Coming up next: “The Hall of Fame”
Fred Sommer is a lifelong hockey addict. He also repairs and customizes hockey equipment as a hobby. You can reach him at email@example.com