Cross Border Hockey Challenges

Hockey Road TripThe Devil, her Sharks teammates, several parents, one grandpa, Momma and I embarked on a 6+ hour road trip this past weekend to play in a tournament in Pittsburgh. This city is one of a few U.S. hockey hotbeds thanks to guys like Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and some kid name Sid, who’ve led the success of the Pittsburgh Penguins over a couple of decades. One of the advantages of playing so far away from home is the opportunity to play against teams you won’t otherwise compete against during the regular season. Indeed this particular tournament offered up three U.S. based teams and two from our home province, albeit from distant regions. Of course, for some there is simply the attraction of visiting a somewhat foreign country or city. We did, in fact, ourselves transport one player on her longest trip to this point in her life and her first across an international border. Another reason for travelling as a team is a chance for the players and family members to get to know each other better off the ice, at the hotel or at breakfast, lunch or dinner. From the girls perspective, there is at least one other benefit to playing games in the U.S…..Shopping…in this regard, girls will be girls; though I readily admit to being something of a shopper myself (apologies to other proud hockey dads). During our three-day experience, most of us crossed all of the aforementioned benefits off our lists, while also getting our share of exciting hockey action.

With a game on Friday afternoon and uncertainty around border traffic, we decided to travel on Thursday evening so we could wake up near the rink, which we knew was only 10 minutes from our hotel. Little did we realize how difficult it would be to find the latter. Finding Pittsburgh was relatively easy, but it turned out our hotel wasn’t actually in Pittsburgh, leaving us at the mercy of an ill-instructed GPS. What should have been a 6.5 hour trip was extended by roughly 60 minutes. So much for extra rest before Game 1.

Luckily, day one would only see our squad playing one game as one of the original seven tournament combatants from the U.S. had to bow out after having incurred a goalie injury. I’m fairly certain female hockey players and particularly hockey goalkeepers are not in ample supply. Case in point was our second match opponent; the Carolina Lightning who, yes, were the Tier II Girls Hockey representatives for all of the Carolinas (and they only had 11 players in total as opposed to our squad of 17). However, our first game was against a team from New York State, where female hockey players are more plentiful. When you play new teams you never know what to expect and such was the case with this opponent. Our charges came out hard maintaining the balance of play and creating several scoring opportunities through the first period and a half. Unfortunately, they surrendered a goal on one of the other side’s few shots deflected in front by one of our defence, which would be a bellwether for the next two matches. Nearly another 12 minutes of game time passed before the next goal was scored…again by the wrong team. As some times happens in girls hockey and/or sports in general, the “dominant” team is not always the victor. Not the start we wanted, but there were a lot of good things to build on over the next couple of days.

Devil is SidWe would get to play tourists before any more hockey would be played; starting with an hour long drive to a somewhat local outlet mall. Again, to be clear, I am in touch with my metrosexual side and enjoy shopping as much as the next hockey mom, so don’t immediately assume I’m complaining. Momma and the Devil actually had to remind me dinner would hold precedence over bargain hunting. A few hours later, back at the hotel we settled into delivery from a local takeout joint and had a few families pile into our room. With two games the following day, the evening was relatively uneventful.

A few of us made plans to check out downtown Pittsburgh and the home of the Penguins the next day as game two was scheduled for late afternoon. At the Consol Energy Center, we got more than we bargained for as we knew the home team was on the road. A kindly older security guard named Dennis, beaming with Penguin pride, was more than happy to give us our own personal mini-tour of the joint; telling us stories about the history of the building, Mario Lemieux and the Penguins along the way. A perk of being Canadian hockey-type visitors. After lunch at the aptly named Blueline Cafe across the street from the rink, we made our way to face our next foe with hopes of better results.

Our game two opponent would be the aforementioned, short-handed troop from Carolina with a diminutive goalie giving us ample hope for a notch in the Win column. While we were pretty dominant again (shots on goal were probably 3-1 in our favour), the Sharks continued to have a tough time finding the back of the net. We would settle for a 1-1 tie, forcing the need for a positive result in our third and final round robin game.

Waiting to Take To the Ice

Bring on the final US opponent, a NY team from the Southern Tier, and a chance to secure our first win of the preliminary round. We knew we were guaranteed a fourth game, but wanted it to be a semi-final instead of a consolation game, or as one of our players referred to it, the Numby Bowl. I don’t know what the Numby Bowl means. I do know it doesn’t sound good. The third game with a 9:20pm start followed a familiar pattern to the two which preceded it, with the Sharks maintaining the balance of possession and scoring opportunities. Yet, the score at the end of a somewhat heated affair was 2-2; leaving me wondering where we’d finish. I was suspicious when the opposing coach pulled his goalie in the tie game to try to secure a win. Little did I know a loss and two ties with a very low goals against record was good enough for a 3rd place berth ahead of the team we’d just played. We’d take on the 2nd place team, likewise from Canada, bright and early the following morning. The girls would have to figure out how to find the ever-elusive W if we hoped to play in the Final.

The team came out strong for a fourth consecutive game, only this time they were able to find the back of the net in relatively short order; scoring the first of a tournament high three goals just a few minutes into the first period. Another strong performance from our goaltender resulted in only one marker against and we were Championship game bound. At this point, the tourney was a success regardless the result. The glass half full scenario we now faced was a game which would not start until 4pm, which meant we wouldn’t be starting our 6+ hour trek home until after 6pm. Monday morning would not be pleasant. Ahh, the things we do for our kids.

Finalist TrophyGoing into the final we knew we were in tough against the first place finisher from round robin play (another Canadian squad from Southwestern Ontario), who had outscored their opponents 20-5 in their four prior matches. Undaunted, in my pre-game talk, I told our players they had more than earned the right to be in this final contest and they would be rewarded if they stuck to the game plan, which had brought them this far. This little talk was preceded by a synchro dance move, which the team had apparently been working on a fallback should the hockey thing not work out. I was both pleased and scared to see the girls so loose.

A game plan primarily consisting of hard work and communication. At the risk of sounding like a whiny coach, this championship game was marred by terribly inconsistent refereeing. Our girls took their share of bad penalties, but there were at least a half dozen or more called against both sides which took pretty much all of the flow out of the game. We alone were assessed seven trips to the sin bin in the 2nd period alone. The Sharks held their own through and trailed by a score of 1-0 until the Devil and a linemate streaked into the offensive zone with less than a minute left in the 2nd. A certain hockey dad was beaming on the bench as the Devil fired a shot up over the blocker of the opposing keeper to knot the score at 1-1. The third period saw no goals so we headed to a tense 4 on 4,  five minute overtime, in which we were assessed one more penalty for good measure. Isn’t there some unwritten rule about penalties in OT? Again, not that I’m whining or anything. Luckily, we survived the OT, which meant the worst solution to decide a game was nigh – the dreaded shootout. Prior to the game I was asked to pick 10 shooters, hoping I’d never have to see them take the ice. The team with the most goals after the first five shooters would be declared the victor, otherwise shooters six through 10 would engage in a sudden death showdown. In the showdown, I unfortunately missed what I’ve been told was one of the finest cellies (hockey celebrations) in recent history, as the Devil re-enacted the team’s pre-game dance right in front of the oppositions bench. When she returned to our bench she said “I feel like such an asshole.” Ah Midget hockey. The showdown was uber-intense to say the least, but long story short, we lost this portion of the competition by a score of 3 goals to 2; thereby settling for 2nd place overall. An excellent result overall, albeit bittersweet in light of how close we had come to winning it all.

Mentally and physically drained, we jumped in our vehicles and headed home. Two of my three passengers, who had played five games in three days, deservedly slept most of the way. I can honestly say six and a half hours later I could not have driven another kilometre. And the next day was a long day indeed. However, the weekend overall was a decided success from my perspective both on and off the ice. The team was challenged and fought hard for their Finalist trophy. Only time will tell if this weekend will give them a shot of confidence as we head into the teeth of the regular season. They’ve certainly proved to me and I hope themselves, they have the ability to play with any team when they work hard as a team.

Hockey Sharks in PinkEarly returns are positive as just yesterday they won their first regular season game back 2-1. This match also happened to be their home opener and an opportunity to promote breast cancer awareness with some funky pink jerseys. Even yours truly got into the act, sporting a lovely hot pink boa on the bench. If nothing else, I get the sense this team is really starting to come together; another critical component of their long term success methinks.

We’ve a couple more games this weekend and plenty more challenges to follow. We’ll see how far this current momentum can take us, then adjust as needed when an inevitable lull comes, cuz we all know hockey, sports and life in general is all about ebbs and flows. As always, with the blessing of the Hockey Gods, we’ll gladly take more flows than ebbs thank you very much.


Music City Midget Major Hockey Marathon

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.

Colts Team Pic with The Bro

Team Pic with The Bro – Darrell Breaux

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.

Line Dancing

Some should stick to hockey….

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.

Bucket of BeerBefore 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.

walking to the hockey rink

Who needs a bus?

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.

Barrie Colts win Nashville Fall Classic

Nashville Fall Classic Champions (including the Spirit of Coach Clayton….Far Left)

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… 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.