|Every kid should have heroes to look up to. One of|
mine was Eddie Giacomin of the New York Rangers.
This post comes at an interesting time, when I find myself at a crossroads of sorts in my coaching career. Last winter, I underwent back surgery for a condition called "spinal stenosis." It's basically arthritis of the spine, and my lower back was a mass of arthritic growth pressing on my spinal column and the nerves that branch off from it.
I tried to deal with my condition for several months via "non-invasive" measures, including chiropractic care and steroid injections. When it became abundantly clear that my back wasn't going to heal itself, I had the surgeons open me up. The laminectomy of my L3-L4, L4-L5, and L5-S1 joints is designed to take the pressure off the nerves, in the hopes that they can regain their normal function. My surgeon -- a great guy -- was honest and direct with me. He said he couldn't guarantee that I'd have any type of "miracle recovery." And whatever recovery I did have could take between six and 18 months.
"All I can guarantee is that you won't get better without the surgery," he said.
Finally, at the seven-month mark in my recovery, I got the green light from my surgeon and physical therapist to skate again. It was a disaster. I felt like a first-time skater, absolutely terrified. It was clear that while I had recovered much of my strength, my balance was way off. So it's back to the drawing board, and back to physical therapy. Our summer camps will go on without me. But I'm fortunate to have a great wife, and a great physical therapist, who won't let me mope. Whatever recovery I make, it will be because they wouldn't let me quit.
All of which brings me to the following column, which now seems more poignant than ever. I plan to get back to coaching, but if it doesn't happen, stories like this remind me that I had a great run. Let me know what you think ...
Why we play the game
It's not easy growing old in the goalie coaching business. There's the subtle-but-insidious risk of getting labeled "Old School," or a curmudgeon in training. I've been in the game for a half century now, and I understand that different generations bring different challenges. Kids change.
Parenting styles have definitely changed as well. My coaching philosophy reflects my parenting philosophy, which I learned from my mom (who would have been a great coach, if she wasn't so busy raising six kids). It's not about being friends with my kids, or my players. It's about getting them to be accountable, to dig deep, and make the most of their God-given talents. That sometimes means employing some "tough love," and bringing the hammer. If you're afraid to bring the hammer, you're probably selling your kids short.
That said, I've loved the changes in the position (even if they accelerated the demise of my hips during my 40s and early 50s). Techniques, and equipment, have evolved tremendously. But the exceptional challenge, and thrill, of being the "last line of defense" never changes. That's what makes goaltending, to my mind, really special. And that's what makes goaltenders special.
My favorite students are those goalies who absolutely relish the challenge of stopping rubber. It's not about the cool equipment, or the accolades. It's about doing whatever necessary to keep the puck out of the net, to just give your team a chance to win. Which brings me to "Cary."
Every now and then, I get a note that completely stops me in my tracks. Dead stop. The email below is just such a note. I've changed the name of the author, because I'm using it without his permission. To be perfectly honest, I was afraid he might not want me to use it. But the emotions that "Cary" elicited with his note cut to the very core of why I love this game so much, so I felt compelled to share it.
So, without further ado, here is Cary's note:
Hope all is well. It's Cary. Just checking in to see how everything is. I've been going back and reading through your Goalie Guru blog again, and really enjoying it. I'm currently sitting in an office for an internship. I've been enjoying growing up, college, the freedom, the responsibility, the accountability.
But as I sit in this monotonous office working upwards of 10 hours every day, Monday through Friday, I've been trying to build a time machine in an attempt to go back in time and locate exactly where, when and why reality trumped imagination in my childhood/teen adolescence. (I'm) trying to figure out when I stopped believing in the crazy dream that someday I would suit up for the (Montreal) Habs, even if it was for one game. Why I hung up the skates just because I was better at lacrosse, and had a much better chance of playing it in college. Why I just walked away from the sport of hockey completely.
A part of me is heartbroken over this. It's almost like I had to compromise my dreams so that they would become more realistic to me in my head. I miss getting in fights in middle school because I wore a Canadiens jersey three times a week. I miss standing in front of my house with a sign that said 'Free Shots' while using cardboard boxes as leg pads, a baseball glove, and a regular hockey glove as a blocker, guarding (my neighbor's) worn-down nets. I miss playing street hockey every day of every month with my best friends until we got yelled at by neighbors or we lost all our balls to the darkness.
I also certainly enjoyed being given the opportunity to play at the high school level. I wish I just tried to keep going, as crazy and unrealistic as the whole dream seemed. I guess maybe reality caught up to me when I started thinking that I began playing the position and sport too late, and did not have enough time to develop or compete with others. Maybe I was right, maybe I'm wrong. The chase was what it was all about, though. I still glance at those Simmons pads from time to time with a multitude of emotions.
However, I am not writing to you about me. I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your writing. Reading through it has sparked a fire in me that I haven't felt in awhile. Thank you. Hope all is well.
All the best,
That evening, an hour after Cary's email arrived, my wife found me sitting at my desk, streaks of tears lining my face. I'm sure Cary has no idea the kind of spark his email would contain, and the emotions that it brought to the fore for me. I could relate completely, because I was once a kid much like Cary.
Northern New Jersey in the 1960s and '70s wasn't the hockey hotbed it is today. But it didn't matter. My brothers and I were nuts about the game that our maternal grandfather had introduced us to. We would play any chance we had. Every … single … day. I'm sure my mom considered it "a phase," but it was much, much more than that. I simply couldn't get enough.
Eddie Giacomin and Gilles Villemure of the New York Rangers were my heroes, even though I was tall and lanky, built more like the Canadiens' Ken Dryden. I'd watch every game I could, often sneaking off to my neighbor's house, because they had that newfangled cable station broadcasting the Ranger home games (we would turn off the sound, and put on the radio, with Marv Albert making the calls). Giacomin was fiery, a guy who overcame long odds to make it to The Show. My kind of goaltender.
I may not have had the same natural talent, but I loved keeping the puck out of the net. That's what drove me as a young goaltender. Heck, it's what drove me as a beer-league goalie (where I was probably a little too fiery for my own good). And it's what continues to drive me as a goalie coach. I'm passionate about the game, and the position. That wonderful obsession hasn't waned, despite my advanced age, and despite a pair of new titanium hips.
I'm sure part of that passion is developed over time, fueled by some measure of success and encouragement. But I firmly believe that most of it is innate. It's who you are. You've either got it, or you don't. That's one of the reasons that self-actualization is critical. Kids who will do anything to stop shots are far less likely to blame teammates. They want the responsibility, and they're willing to accept the results.
Players who bring that passion to the ice are rare. Over the years, the game has kept me young. Today, it's kids like Cary who fill that role. I'm a very lucky man to be able to share their dream.