Yesterday was one long, but ultimately very satisfying day of hockey. We started with a 7:30am wake up call in a foreign hotel room. We were actually fortunate to get a relatively quiet hotel room, which could not be said for one of the Devil’s teammates who apparently listened to Moose Calls and barking dogs (yup, in a hotel) until 5am. Still the Devil, like most teenagers has a deep-rooted appreciation for her weekend beauty sleep, so 7:30 was not welcomed. I don’t think the shower actually shut off until 8:15, which left just enough time for a light breakfast before heading to the rink for the first of three games spread out over 12 hours.
My plan of attack for the day was presented in the pre-game talk of the Sharks’ first match. “There’s lots of hockey to play, so let’s just try to focus on one period at a time.” Clichéd I know, but in order for these girls to succeed I thought bite-sized chunks made sense. I’m trying hard to remember not to overload the message – keep it simple just like I would want it delivered to me.
Game one found us dominant from the start against a team from our regular league. The game began with a tic-tac-toe passing play ending in a scoring opportunity. Several other scoring chances would follow, however, as is too often the case in girls hockey, the red lamp would not be lit. They would remain merely unconverted chances. Between missing the net on point blank shots, the opposing keeper making some brilliant stops and in at least two cases the puck simply not finding a way to reach the mythical mesh, the first contest would end in a 0-0 tie. One particularly spectacular play featuring a pass from the point, a shot and a great deflection struck a startled goalie in the shoulder. She had no idea where the puck came from or where it was headed. Some would say she was in the right position. In this case she just got hit by the puck. There was no actual save made. That’s the way it goes sometimes. Our own keeper was given full marks for her shutout effort as well.
After an incredibly well organized team lunch (all team lunches have the potential to go sideways depending on the preparedness of the establishment, which is a topic for another day), we headed to rink two to tangle with team from the city hosting the tourney. We watched them play earlier in the day and knew we would be in a battle.
The arena we arrived at was a charming old venue somewhere between anywhere and nowhere. It brought me back again to some of the rinks I played in many moons ago. The ice surface appeared to be quite a bit smaller than a standard rink, which would require a specific game plan against a fairly big team. Even the player bench configuration was unusual as the two teams would face each other across the ice instead of being side by side. And finally, the girls were presented with a new and novel experience of jumping over the boards and down onto the ice as the doors to enter the bench from the ice were situated in a fashion which would not allow for an easy exit. After one of the first shifts, I heard one of our players quip to another “How was your first trip over the boards?” to which she replied “It was a lot of fun, but a long way down.” Priceless.
Before the fourth period of the day, I told the girls their tournament destiny was in their hands. A couple of victories would place them in a one-game, winner-take-all final on Sunday. But the focus (and there’s that word again) would be on period four to start. Focus and fight they did. They used their superior speed to cause turnovers by their opponent. They battled hard along the boards and in the corners for loose pucks. They won the first period, if only from a moral perspective. About halfway through the second period a large, labouring forward from the opposing side would wind up for a slap shot just outside of our blue line. A seemingly harmless salvo would suddenly dip and dive under our netminder’s glove. Our goalie had played so well in this and the previous tournament game that I implored our troops before the start of the third period to continue to fight; to pull even as reward to her. However, we would remain scoreless for a second consecutive contest only this time it would result in our first loss at 1-0, setting up some good potential drama in our third and final game of the day.
In order to advance, the girls would need to dig down a little deeper to defeat an opponent near and dear to my heart; the oft aforementioned arch rivals including a couple of post-tryout “defectors”. We knew they hadn’t played since the early morning and hoped a long layoff in their hotel pool (maybe even the hot tub or sauna) would provide something of an advantage. Our side, on the other hand, needed to get through periods 7, 8 and 9 in that order.
As the game began, we were the decidedly more aggressive, dominant team. Our players were putting their exhaustion behind them; pushing forward with a tangible determination. Yet, it still felt like goal scoring would be at a premium as shots zinged by the net or found their way into the glove of the animated backstop of the other team (her antics along with those of other goals are perhaps another topic to be explored down the line). The scoreboard screamed out 0-0 at the start the third (or for us, the ninth) period. I told the team we had made it to the end. We now just needed to win a single 12 minute contest. Halfway through the third our opponents did us a favour taking two consecutive penalties to give us a two-player advantage. While we again had opportunities, we were not able to convert. It looked and felt like a second 0-0 tie would be our fate, making a trip to the Finals a little bit more of a dicey proposition requiring other positive outcomes in other games we could not control. Then, will a little over a minute left in the game, our young charges decided to turn their intensity up one more notch; an impressive feat some 15 hours after this day of hockey began. An end-to-end rush by one of our defenceman culminated in a mad scramble in front of the cage holding our fate. I didn’t actually see who made the final poke at the puck, but I clearly saw it resting victoriously at the back of the net. The bench, parents in the stands and conquering players on the ice erupted. Five seconds later I was down in front of the next three forwards to take the ice shouting “FOCUS!”. The Devil reports that my eyes were a little wild, if not bulging out of my head, with excitement. Thirty seconds can be a lifetime in a hockey game. I wanted to be sure we spent that lifetime out of our defensive zone, far away from any potential tying goal. Indeed we did as the final five successfully defended our suddenly slim, but oh so welcomed 1-0 lead. The game unfortunately ended with the increasingly incensed little goalie darting out of her net and launching herself inexplicably into one of our players trying to pin the puck on the boards to finalize the proceedings. I am hopeful there are no lasting effects from that contact. The buzzer would sound bringing with it one more small off-the-bench, on-ice eruption.
In a few hours we have another date with the host squad, only this time on a bigger, more familiar rink. Regardless the outcome, our team has had success here this weekend. It will no doubt be a hotly contested affair where goals will be at a premium. I think we’ll just plan to take it one period at a time.