The Boy and I, along with 17 teammates, sundry parents, siblings and even a couple of grandparents in tow, embarked on what was sure to be a memorable journey to the hotbed of country music for the Nashville Fall Classic. Our enthusiasm tempered only by the absence of our Hockey Momma who had to stay behind with work and the Devil’s hockey commitments.
We met a slightly bleary-eyed crew for a midnight Tuesday departure. Most, if not all, were fuelled by the excitement of the trip ahead as we jammed suitcases, hockey bags, pillows, blankets, bags o’ snacks and refreshment-laden coolers into a waiting bus. A 15 hour bus ride pretty much mandates the inclusion of the final item on the list and more than a couple of us would make sure we took full advantage of their presence. As has been stated here previously, a significant portion of all tournaments should be focused on parental enjoyment. There would be plenty more opportunity for the same over the next five days.
With the tourney starting on Friday, the coaching staff’s well-constructed plan was to arrive in Nashville (or more specifically the suburb of Franklin, Tennessee) early to give the team a chance to experience the Music City and get acclimated to their new surroundings well in advance of their first game. We would all have the better part of two days to take in the sites, sounds and eats of Kentucky. Much of this, you will note, has little to do with hockey, but the experiences this hockey tournament afforded our Boys will last them a lifetime, as away tournaments have so often been wont to do.
After the night-long journey, which for most included little, if any, sleep we were free to check in to our hotel, grab a snooze, some dinner and whatever else we wanted to do with our evening. Most of the Boys retired to rooms while several of us gravitated towards the hotel lobby bar. A coincidental, Canadian song singing lounge act and a few local brews kept us entertained beyond the midnight hour.
Our itinerary for day two took us into Nashville on the same days as the Country Music Awards for two spectacular meals, self-guided tours of the local country bars, shopping and even some line-dancing lessons.
Our first stop, Bro’s Cajun Cuisine, (featured on FoodTV’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives) was one of the highlights of the trip for me, though others to come would certainly rival it. My only disappointment was being limited to one appetizer (Spicy Catfish Bites), one entrée (a mouth-watering Crawfish PoBoy) and a few libations (served in a tin bucket – “Ohhh those bad buckets” as one father was oft heard saying) only due to the capacity of my stomach. Had the opportunity presented itself, I would have gladly stayed and tried each menu item in due course. Prior to leaving this temple of exceptional eats, the team presented the proprietor, Darrell Breaux, with a jersey signed by each player for which he was visibly grateful.
After lunch, we headed downtown. Most everyone, including the players, went off in all directions to see what they could see and do. A couple of hours and a few bars in my bar-hopping partner and I bumped into the Boy who had already acquired a cowboy hat and was raving about all of the live music he’d encountered. His relatively sheltered suburban life to this point had not exposed him to live musicians, taking requests and playing for tips or, more importantly, exposure. He had quickly developed an appreciation for the whole scene. Now, I’m not what you’d call a Country music fan, though I readily admit listening to a lot of Western, Folk and Blues inspired bands. I likewise found myself gladly immersed in the atmosphere and spirit of the city.
Next stop, the Wild Horse Saloon for a Bronco Buster Buffet, the aforementioned line-dancing lessons and more general merriment. We were scheduled to leave at 10pm, but after two large meals and full day’s worth of bar…I mean…sight seeing, it was decided that a 9:30 departure made sense for some revelers and the players who would be hitting the ice for their first game on Friday. Of course, back at the hotel, a few more late-night parental hijinks would ensue.
The next morning appeared to come early for some as we gathered in the lobby to head out for the last of our planned team meals. Puckett’s Grocery in eclectic downtown Franklin provided an opportunity to try more traditional southern fare including pulled pork, fried catfish or chicken, sides of fries, beans, onion rings or mashed potatoes with a lemonade or sweet tea. Maybe not the best pre-game meal, but what the hell. Our finely tuned athletes would just have to work it off.
Following our couple of touristy days, it was time for the team to get down to business against a highly touted local high school team. By all accounts, they had been at the top of their division for the last three years running and generally manhandled all of their opponents. From previous experience over the years, you never know what level of competition you will run into when you venture into the US or play a team from there. What our boys initially encountered was an aggressive, hitting team. To their credit, the players took the body checks (some of which were of the elevated variety) in stride. They stuck instead to a speed and puck-control oriented game to eventually wear down their opponents in a 6-1 win. Another mom and I competed to keep Hockey Momma informed and somewhat part of the experience with rapid-fire texts. The host team was noticeably shaken, shocked or disappointed by this unfamiliar situation. Our guys left the ice with decided Canadian hockey swagger, which bode well for them moving into two more round robin games on Saturday.
Before we could get to Saturday, we had to have a Friday night post-game celebration. Well, maybe we didn’t have to, but we were certainly going to. Many of us landed in a raucous wing joint, which in time featured one of the best live 80s bands any of us had ever encountered. The Boys, who followed along for the wings, chose to disagree with our assessment of the on-stage talent and left us to enjoy the retro tunes. Suffice it to say, some (yours truly included) took full advantage of the Boys’ absence to let their hair down on the dance floor. Ohhh, those bad buckets!
Saturday would find the squad returning to the ice against teams from Atlanta and Kentucky. The Atlanta team was said to be a AAA team with players a year older than ours, while the Kentucky group apparently represented the entire neighbouring state; facts which again could be taken as good or bad. Regardless the opponents, the team came out with all cylinders firing. They brought a combination of speed, patience and teamwork to both games, thereby securing 3-0 and 4-0 back-to-back shutout wins for a first place round robin finish and a rematch in the semi-finals against their game one opponent from Ravenwood. Watching the two Saturday games somewhat anonymously from the sidelines, I could overhear reverent comments from American onlookers like “That’s the team from Canada.” There was some buzz in the air about how the team was playing. Our final round robin game started at 10:00pm on Saturday so post-game was pretty tame for Boys and parents alike. Semis and a Championship game were calling on Sunday.
The on and off-ice events of our final day in Tennessee probably deserve a post of their own, but I’ll do my best to summarize here.
Game day started like any other with breakfast in the hotel lobby. The team would then load up and make their way to the rink an hour early as they had for previous games. The bus would then come back to the hotel where we would be checking out and loading up for the eventual 15-hour drive back to the homeland (which no one was looking forward to). However, shortly after the bus departed we received a message saying the bus had broken down….on a Sunday morning….in Tennessee. Prospects for fixing a bus….on a Sunday morning…in Tennessee…were not the brightest. Moods were understandably shaken.
In the short term, without wheels, parents and siblings were forced to march 20 minutes to the rink; arriving just in time for the puck drop in the semi-final game.
Within four minutes of the game starting, moods were buoyed by a 3-0 lead for the good guys. The Colts had definitely come to play. Their determination to win and send a message to their championship opponent resulted in a 9-0 final. We’d find out shortly thereafter the last opponent of the tournament would be the “other team from Canada” who snuck out a 3-2 win over Atlanta.
Almost miraculously…on a Sunday morning…in Tennessee, our driver was able to get the bus back up and running cueing a giant, combined sigh of relief. The players were virtually unaffected by the whole bus drama.
The few hours of waiting for the gold medal match were spent between a mall food court and the bus where many of the players snoozed or otherwise bided their time in quiet anticipation.
Entering the last match of the weekend, we were all aware of the fact we would be playing a relatively local Canadian, albeit lower level, opponent. The coaching staff no doubt told their charges to take nothing for granted. The good guys would open the scoring to set the tone for the game. Yet it would be a back and forth affair for much of the first two periods with our side getting the balance of scoring opportunities. The game was still relatively close at 3-1 entering the third period.
Then events took another fateful turn as an opposing player launched a puck up over the boards at our bench. The puck ricocheted up off the back wall then found its way to the top of the head of one of the assistant coaches. The trainer, along with several others, rushed the coach and his now blood-gushing cranium to the dressing room. After the application of pressure and several towels, it was quickly decided that medical attention was required. A local gentleman, with whom I had just been chatting and who had too coincidentally been instructing his young son who was manning the penalty box to beware of flying pucks, was good enough to drive our unlucky brother to the nearest Emergency Room. You can probably sense where this is going.
Back on the ice, the team took care of business in the third, capturing the Championship trophy with a 7-2 victory. Medals were presented, the trophy/plaque was handed over, onlookers applauded and many pictures were snapped to preserve the moment in time. This group of young men had represented themselves, their hometown and in a small way good old Canadian hockey very admirably. In fact, we’ve since heard from tournament officials this team was indeed considered the “toast” of the tourney for their classy, sportsmanlike play. This is really something you hope and love to hear as a parent; no matter the age of your kids, though particularly as they enter adulthood. Some validation of proper parenting methinks.
Now we, of course, had one last piece of unfinished business to take care of before we could hit the road for home. It involved hanging in and out of the local ER as we waited for our fallen comrade. As with any ER, the wait was longer than anyone wanted it to be, though we all wanted to be sure coach was fit for travel. About four hours and eight stitches later, the coach boarded the coach with a fully-bandaged noggin. Once everyone knew he was okay, concern turned to playful ribbing. If only he’d paid more attention to the game and less to his blackberry. While my trip home was pretty uncomfortable, I’m sure his was even more so.
On the road home, some of us were a little concerned about our driver’s ability to stay awake and alert having been up since Sunday morning…..in Tennessee and having to still be up…in the middle of the night…through Tennessee, Ohio and a wee bit o’ Michigan. He held on with the help of some conversation from the front seats. After a driver change just across the US border, we were delivered safely back home with a bucket full of stories to tell share with those who had not been as fortunate as us to have had the experience. Hockey Momma was surely left owed with an upcoming trip to Sudbury a pale consolation.
I’ve likely missed a fair share of stories or personal memories others took away via their own perspective. I welcome your comments should you happen upon my faint and biased recollections here.
For me, the full value of the weekend bore itself out when the Boy remarked to me when we were alone on Friday night, before he’d played a single game “Thanks Dad. This is the best hockey trip we’ve ever been on.” I believe there were 17 other grateful young men who owe a debt of gratitude to those who organized an unforgettable hockey adventure.