Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Children of Winter

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

It's Christmas time. There's no need to be afraid.

Kids, you will get your favorite jersey that completes the uniform, or those skates that make you feel as fast as Claude Giroux, or that crucial piece of hockey equipment that prevents you from being gonged in the head and acting like Dan Carcillo.

I have it on the highest authority.

Just because the NHL's been strapped to the gurney with fading vital signs due to the lockout, it doesn't mean those letters and pleas to Santa Claus will go unheeded. As long as the spirit of hockey exists -- in the dozens of places the owners and union cannot touch while it's out of business -- you will have places to play and the proper dress to complete your post-Christmas hockey fantasies.

Even if your parents are angry with or apathetic about the fact that they can't share the gift of professional hockey with you this year, rest assured they won't give up on your dream. It's important to know that they will separate the business of the sport from the innocence of the game; it's the only way the survival of the game can be ensured, through the open eyes and open mind of the young.

You can't tell from the picture of this Canadian Five dollar bill, but the quote reads, in both English and French as is Canadian law: "The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places: the school, the church and the skating rink. But our real lives were on the skating rink" ~ Roch Carrier "The Hockey Sweater" 1979.

It's true, whether it's an actual Winter like in the interior lands of our neighbors to the north or the variable climate of Philadelphia's concrete jungle or the arid expanse of suburban Phoenix, who doesn't strap on the pads, brace themselves against the weather and play a game of let's pretend? Everyone's a child of winter at some point in their lives if they love the game enough.

Who are you supposed to be in school? Little Johnny Too Good, never shirking his duties, always attentive, striving for knowledge, learning the Golden Rule and behaving himself and earning rewards from adults for compliance and correct answers. Who are you supposed to be in church? A God-fearing, humble, penitent, quiet, still little person awed by the rhetoric of the men in the white robes.

But out there -- on the hidden pond, the perfectly tailored sheet of ice or the asphalt painted with rink lines -- you are who you want to be, who you dream to be, with nobody to tell you to stop until it gets too late to play or too dark to see.

Unlike millions of Canadian and northern American youth, my introduction to playing the game wasn't so magical and glamorous.

It was a 3 1/2 block walk to the local sporting goods store in 1985 for my Dad to buy a black Koho stick which had an untreated wooden blade, along with an orange Mylec puck. My first goal was the front door of a house on Emily Street in South Philly. My second goal was a pilfered Abbott's Milk crate, and my arena was the school yard across the street from where I once lived and from where I write this now.

Picked on as the small and smart kid, I seemed consigned to imitate Pelle Eklund, Brian Propp and Lindsay Carson rather than Tim Kerr or Dave Brown. But the Flyers were one of the best teams in the league, made the Stanley Cup Finals twice in three years, and it planted the seed. It did too much of a good job; whenever I performed poorly on a test in grade school, the go-to excuse was "thinking about hockey."

After a few years and a generous boost in family business, the suburbs came calling. That first Christmas in the new digs, a feverish and tired Santa managed to construct my first actual net: a red, iron-framed Mylec construction that often fell over in a stiff breeze. Suddenly the dream began to refine itself. I then had my first taste of ice, at the ungodly hour of 6 AM, in the ungodly heat of Summer, at the Skatium in Havertown.

A few years later I was back in the city at Rizzo Rink playing in a competitive league and scored four goals in one game against players older and bigger than I was. That's my personal Al Bundy tale. After each of the first three, I tripped and fell coming off the ice and back to the bench. After the fourth goal, I managed not to fall over and the luck dried up.

None of this would have been possible without parents who believed in my daydreaming and provided the tools to fuel imagination.

Now that things in the NHL have evolved to become way more complicated than 21 teams, no Russians or salary cap to speak of, the dreams of thousands of children still remain. Parents: don't blow it.

There's the light of your life waiting to descend the stairs this Christmas morning, tear through the wrapping paper and ribbons to get to their favorite player's jersey, the pads, the stick, the net, all of it, to unleash their inner Danny Briere or Wayne Gretzky or Jimmy Howard.

Chances are he or she doesn't care one bit about how you think billionaires and millionaires are ruining the sport, or that you want to organize a boycott, or that you won't watch or attend games if the NHL returns this year.

All that matters is the giving, the investment in imagination, and the chance for the recipient to act out a normal part of being a kid. Add in a dose of friends and neighbors who receive the same and that's a memory waiting to happen and the things about which artists paint frozen snapshots: a game ruined by men, still invigorated by children.

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