The Melting Ice
Anatomy of an Ice Hockey Game in late June
TD Garden Press Box, Boston, MA. Monday, June 24, 2013 7:37PM
Let me begin with the weather outside. Ninety degrees, fahrenheit. Boston is on the proverbial griddle. Before I left the Nine Zero hotel on Tremont Street, a local teevee weatherman was mentioning severe thunderstorms marching steadily east across Massachusetts. However, a wall of warm air is shielding the greater Boston area and preventing those storms from reaching us. It’s a 3-H day: Hazy, Hot, and Humid.
So much so that here on the sheet of ice laid out before us tonight, this morning there were reports of fog wafting up from the ice while the Boston Bruins warmed up (pardon the pun) for this sixth game of the Stanley Cup final. There appear not to be too many nerves among the New Englanders who seem to have come from all over the region, hoping the Bruins can avert an untimely demise at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks. There are, however, many thoughtful, if not outright stony visages on the fans’ faces. Watching the Twitter feed, there is at least one person claiming that he/she would kill to be in this building right now. The DirecTV blimp is apparently dawdling around the perimeter of the building and the banks of the Charles River; one wonders what it has to look down onto because the big event is taking place indoors.
I haven’t been back to Boston since the Marathon was attacked in April. I would like to see the Bruins win this game and the next. The fact that the sonofabitch who planted the bombs was caught seemed to relieve the populace a great deal; the fact that fifteen hours or so of martial law were re quired to nail him, while eerie and more than a little frightening, was entirely understandable. The sports teams here in Boston have done more than enough to alleviate, however temporarily, the lingering grief among those who lost loved ones. The runner who won the Marathon recently returned his medal, doubtless out of a mixture of guilt and solidarity.
It’s 8:00PM, twenty or so minutes before face-off. NBC goes on the air. Their announcers, Dr. Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk, are doubtless full and sated from what was reportedly a delicious pregame meal. It was lobster. Privately, I’m glad I stopped at the Wendy’s on Summer Street.
The arena is mostly dark. Green light shines on the words “STANLEY CUP FINAL” on either side of the ice. Zambonis saturate and even the ice surface. Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” blares on the P.A. system. The seats are occupied just about as high as the rafters.
Note the date: June 24. Were it not for the poisonous mix of greed and hubris resulting in a lockout that delayed the start of the season until January, we would not be sitting here in late June about to watch an ice hockey game. The season was shortened from eighty-two to forty-eight games, but someone at either the National Hockey League, NBC, or even the CBC still insisted on playing a full complement of playoff games and series--four rounds of best-of-seven games. Common sense would dictate that the playoffs be shorter this year; ostensibly neither the league nor the networks hold common sense in very high esteem.
The arena is darker still now. The crowd noise escalates, like the engine on a jet airplane; one has to shout in order to be heard. On the in-house monitor, Dr. Emrick tells me that this ties the latest date on which a hockey game has ever been contested in a season; the season ended on this date in 1995 with the New Jersey Devils winning the Stanley Cup.
Players take the ice, the Chicago Blackhawks without fanfare or much notice. By contrast, homestanding Bruins are met by waving yellow towels and a cacophony of cheers, to say nothing of ear-splitting rock music. Rene Rancourt, a Vietnam veteran, sings the National Anthem and, to the delight of the masses, pumps his fist after accomplishing the song.
The game begins at 8:22PM. What ensues is three twenty-minute periods of bearded, helmeted men on skates armed with crooked sticks mauling and beating one another, the object being similar to soccer, to score goals. Of course, hockey players use the sticks to maneuver a round black puck not much bigger than a Klondike bar, only far less edible. Chants of “Let’s go Bruins!” waft through the Garden every so often. Flies flit about the upper reaches. I recall an occasion in 1975, under worse playing conditions, when a bat flew through the Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo.
Boston shoots once, then twice, overshooting the goal both times. More skating about takes place. Ten “hits” have been registered by the two sides in the first six minutes of competition. Although no scoring takes place, a mad scrum takes place at the Chicago goalie’s net at Boston tries desperately to stick it in without success.
The overhanging scoreboard and the ribbon boards tell the fans to “MAKE SOME NOISE”. Bostonians need little encouragement, nor any exterior prompting a scant ten seconds later, when the Bruins’ Chris Kelly scores the first goal of the game. A spotlight shines on Kelly and a foghorn sounds as Kelly indulges a fleeting glory. With seemly merriment, the P.A. Announcer details the goal. Two more shots fly from Boston sticks, both errant. A Chicago shot is met with resistance from the Boston goalie. I wonder how the beat writers and hockey columnists do it, keeping up with the speedy, intermittently violent action.
The boisterous Boston crowd came to cheer with every fiber in its collective being. They cheer louder still when a Chicago player is sent to the penalty box for hooking, permitting the Bruins a two-minute power play. The band of the Chicago goalie’s mask breaks, and the crowd hoots. The power play ends, and it has been unsuccessful despite six (by my count) shots on the goal. But still the Bruins persist, and they have been the dominant players in the orchestra in the first movement of this icy symphony. Another Bruins shot is turned aside, and the crowd becomes a wave of noise, rising with hope, falling with dismay. A puck hits the back of the head of Andrew Shaw of the Blackhawks, sending him face-first to the ice and stopping the spree.
Teevee gets a shot of Bruins legend Bobby Orr, enjoying the action. The injured Blackhawk seemed okay and came off the ice. The Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” gets rudely interrupted by game action; luckily I have not seen Mick Jagger nor Keith Richards among the spectators here. A long blasting shot by a Bruin ends up in mesh above the glass. Mesh became an extra level of protection some years ago when an 11-year-old girl got hit with a puck in a Columbus Blue Jackets game and died of the injury. Another Boston power play is occasioned by a Chicago player raising his stick too high. It will carry over into the next period. Eager fans ooh and aah over a near-miss on the goal, and then two more before a siren sounds, heralding the end of the first period. Boston leads Chicago 1-0, and their fans feel good about the efforts the home Bruins have put forth.
I catch my breath and stretch my legs as the Zambonis reappear to smooth the ice surface. I learn twenty-nine hits were registered between the two warring factions in the first period. My God. If the price of obtaining a large trophy that you and your team can’t keep in the trophy case involves bruises, blood and missing teeth, I would think twice, perhaps three times about lacing up skates.
In the back of my mind, I wonder what will happen if the Bruins lose and the Blackhawks prance about with the Stanley Cup on Boston’s ice. What if, God forbid, there are riots. Two years ago, when Boston won the Stanley Cup on Vancouver’s ice, the citizens in that town were enraged and rioted. Last week, when Miami won the NBA championship, some poor teenager got wounded by celebratory gunfire. I wonder why I didn’t buy a bulletproof vest at the nearest army surplus store, just in case. I also wonder how smart it was to book a room downtown, if the riots take place downtown. But then, the angel on my shoulder starts to speak a little louder, telling me that after the horror at the Marathon, the Boston fans, though depressed and disappointed, would have the decency not to riot.
But there are forty minutes of ice hockey to be played on soft ice on a muggy night in late June on the banks of the Charles. We will cross that bridge if it is to be found.
The teams reemerge and play resumes. On the captions on the monitor,Dr. Emrick tells me that “These are hardy souls that play this sport.” No disagreement here. The power play ends without any scoring. But the Bruins continue to press with a shot after it ends.
I heed nature’s ill-timed call, and I come back to find another Blackhawk in the “sin bin”, this time when Shaw is ticketed for “roughing”. Roughing can mean any number of things in the context of ice hockey, none of them terribly fragrant. But Chicago’s defensemen tighten like a guy wire, and the Bruins are once again futile on the power play; this time they do not even shoot at the goal. And just as the Blackhawks get back to full strength, their captain, the Canadian Jonathan Toews scores the equalizer. Some isolated shouts ring from the upper reaches, presumably from Blackhawk fans that made the trip from Chicago. The P.A. man sounds considerably more subdued. Another Blackhawk, Brent Seabrook, is cited for tripping, and the crowd perks up. Four (at least) Boston shots are futile, however, and the crowd sighs in dismay. The action stops just long enough for NBC and the CBC to pay some bills.
The ice is deteriorating noticeably. The puck, rather than sliding, is bouncing. The ice seems heavier and there are wet spots where the ice has apparently melted. According to Dr. Emrick, the players and the ice are on the third floor of this building; the press box, where I am, is on the ninth floor. The good thing is that there appears to be no fog. Halfway through regulation, the teams are level at one.
Men shift onto and off of the ice roughly every minute. More chants of “Let’s Go Bruins” punch and pepper the air. More fruitless shooting on the parts of both teams. For the first time tonight, a Bruin, Tyler Seguin, is penalized. So the Chicagoans try their luck with a power play. They haven’t had much, if any luck; in seventeen power play chances over the preceeding five games and twelve days, they have scored one goal. Make that one for eighteen; Boston tightens and does not permit the Blackhawks to score.
The crowd is getting louder, their cheering tinged with a little more desperation as the night wears on; the game has been going on for ninety minutes now. Moments later, the second period ends. The teams are tied at one. For fifteen minutes, the bearded, by now breathless men of both teams will rub and polish good-luck charms, change sticks and skates, and pray that their aches and pains vanish for at least another hour.
The teams come back out. It is 10:10PM EDT. By 11:00PM, either one group of guys will be happy to back to Chicago to play a seventh and deciding game, or another group of guys will be hoisting a very large trophy. Word filters into the press box that the Cup itself is on its way, being driven in a Honda Odyssey, driven by a man named Phillip Pritchard from the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, whose entire job it is to accompany the Cup hither and yon, all the while wearing white gloves. Part of the perk given to the winning team is that its players and personnel each get to spend a day with the Stanley Cup, while Phillip Pritchard sees to it that it does not get destroyed.
Action has resumed. The men seem to be tiring a little; never underestimate how quickly adrenaline can be expended, nor how quickly it can be redoubled. The teams have played the equivalent of seven games, including the triple-overtime first game, and so they must be like La Motta and Robinson in the thirteenth round, tired and bloodied but determined. Four minutes elapse off the clock. Then five. Six. End to end the Blackhawks and Bruins float and scramble, the puck bouncing from one blade to the next. Play stops; breath is caught, and the tension slowly escalates.
Prodded again by the scoreboards, the crowd screams and cheers, but the tension could be cut with a Ginsu knife. Hearts flutter all over this building, and all over New England, I’m sure, as Boston’s would-be go-ahead goal is turned away by the Chicago net-minder. Now nine minutes have elapsed; less than eleven remain in regulation. I wonder when something, anything will happen. It almost does when Boston, then Chicago, shoot and miss on would-be goals. I have no patience when there are clocks involved, and even less when the thought of overtime gets involved. In hockey’s postseason, there are no limits; the next goal is a winner no matter how long it takes. Conceivably, that could be all night. I don’t have that long to wait.
Some of the fans start waving yellow towels, stirring memories of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Terrible Towels. Another Boston shot is blocked, and more tension ensues. I glance at the clock; inside of nine minutes now. Finally, Milan Lucic of the Bruins busts through with a goal, Boston goes to a two-to-one lead, and the crowd goes into paroxysms of ecstasy.
Another glance at the clock--seven minutes and thirty seconds. They must seem ten times longer to diehard fans. The P.A. man’s faux buoyancy returns as he announces the goal. Now six minutes twenty remain and the crowd’s chanting is relentless, even through the Blackhawks’ vigorous attempts at retaliation. Boston is whistled for a penalty with about five and-a-half minutes left. Now the tension is getting to me. I remind myself of something Vin Scully would say at similar times in the World Series: “I really don’t care who wins, I just hope one thing: No goats. Just let them all be heroes.”
So the Blackhawks start on a power play, and they would be elated to get one at this tenth going on eleventh hour. Another glance at the clock: four-and-a-half left now. The Bruins tighten and induce offsides. Finally, Chicago is unable to score; nineteen times over the course of the Final they have had the power play and still have a single, lonely goal to show for it. The clock spins to three minutes and the knots in the stomachs at the TD Garden on a hot Boston night tighten ever more. Chicago grows desperate and continue to attack the goal. Play finally stops with two minutes and fourteen seconds left to play. There may be places louder than this right now, though I can’t imagine where. Clock spins to ninety seconds; Chicago’s goalie leaves for a sixth attacker, and would you believe, it pays off. Chicago gets the equalizer. Brian Bickell scored the goal.
And just as quickly, Chicago goes to the lead. Two goals in seventeen seconds. They lead inside of a minute. Dave Bolland, if the score holds, may never have to buy another deep dish pizza in Chicago as long as he lives. Teevee shows the Stanley Cup on a stand, Phillip Pritchard polishing it with that gloved hand.
The final minute. The Boston goalie deserts his net. Six attackers go hard, but cannot get the equalizer before time runs out. The Blackhawks throw off their helmets, cast aside the gloves, and embrace each other to my right. All the while, Boston’s crowd continues the “Let’s Go Bruins” chant, half out of disbelief, half out of pride. I would like to think there is more of the latter.
Finally, the teams come to a handshake line, embracing each other for a job well done over the twelve days it has taken to contest the series. It is a marvellous custom, one I wish would be more prevalent. The P.A. Man sounds considerably more subdued, if not outright sad. The Bruins tarry a moment on the ice, raising their sticks to the outpouring of love from their fans, and then cede the ice to the Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Then the noise subsides, and the place becomes eerily quiet. A red carpet is rolled out, and Gary Bettman, the league’s commissioner, first bestows the Conn Smythe Trophy upon Patrick Kane. A teevee graphic tells me he scored nine goals over the eight weeks of postseason. It also tells me that Kane’s from Buffalo.
The Stanley Cup is brought out by Pritchard and an assistant. Oblivious to the boos being volleyed down upon him, Bettman plows through memorized remarks, beckons Jonathan Toews to the table and gives him the thirty-five pound Stanley Cup. He then raises it over his head and skates about. Each of his teammates will then do the same. Blackhawks fans who have rushed down take cellphone pictures. The players kiss the cup, skate, and yell. More and more empty yellow seats show up in the TD Garden as the victors cavort. News crews and photographers document the moment.
For the Boston Bruins, the summer seems longer and hotter, and of course, it’s a little more glum. But you need only look at certain t-shirts to see what they were playing for. They all read: “Boston STRONG.”
I open a new tab on this computer and summon up WLS-TV Chicago’s website. They’re streaming their newscast. I never fail to be curious and even a bit amused as to how cities celebrate their sports teams’ great victories. The anchors drop all pretense of journalistic integrity, cashing in their pens for pom-poms, if only for a while. Fans of these teams seem suddenly unable to string two polysyllabic words together. They’re hoarse. Mostly, I wonder if, heaven forbid, there are riots breaking out, and how busy Chicago’s finest will be. Hopefully, not very.
The crowd has thinned out considerably. The Blackhawks have posed for a team photo. And with that, this winter game at the beginning of a very hot summer passes away, to be, as William Faulkner once wrote, “stored with pleasure in my memory.” And life continues, another milestone etched, another possibility realized.