I always felt like Jack Kerouac every Presidents Day weekend since it meant that my boys and I would be on the road. One if not both of my sons would play in an ice hockey tournament, often in some far-flung city.
Boston, Tampa, Niagara Falls, Montreal, Washington, D.C., and Hershey are just some of the cities that hosted our teams over a 12-year span. You haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed ice hockey in a ramshackle rink in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, which was once the home of future NHL goaltender Brian “Bouch” Boucher. Don’t you love hockey players’ simple and predictable nicknames?
We knew that this year’s tournaments would most likely be on ice after chatting with Spokane’s gift to the hockey world, Denny LaRue, who is the president of the Spokane Americans Youth Hockey Association.
The former NHL referee, who has officiated nearly 1,300 NHL games, a record for an American, told me in October that a season couldn’t commence until January at the earliest and games would be played in Idaho and Montana due to the pandemic.
That was so for youth baseball last summer, and it was fine, but we opted to not drive out of state for every hockey game and practice during winter. Instead of playing ice hockey over Presidents Day weekend, my boys and I looked back at some of their highlights and reminisced about other favorite memories.
There is nothing like the camaraderie of hockey. We each looked back at teammates racing through hotel hallways, endless knee hockey games played in hotel conference rooms and of course some amazing games and tournament championships.
However, our most indelible memories were from experiences far from the youth hockey arena.
Ice hockey rinks in Montreal parks are as commonplace as basketball courts in America. During an off day in Montreal, Eddie, then 8, asked if we could visit an outdoor rink and fire the puck around. Eddie, Milo, then 5 ,and I asked our hotel concierge how far a public rink was, and he said it was close. “No need to drive,” the friendly concierge said. “It’s just a few blocks east of here.”
I followed his directions, which were way off. We wandered out of downtown during a frigid afternoon with wind chills at about zero. “I can’t feel my right foot,” Milo said.
We stopped at a gallery to avoid hypothermia. We eventually found a rink, which was snow covered. After clearing a patch of ice, we laced up our skates and played for a half-hour. After walking three blocks back to our hotel, Milo gave up. “I can’t feel my left foot,” Milo said. “It’s frozen.”
As a woman was about to enter her car a few feet away, I explained our situation and asked for help. “Can you please take us back to our hotel or to the ER?” She was kind enough to drive us to the former.
“Did you notice that the concierge is a little off?” my wife, who never learned of our adventure until now, asked that night.
“We kind of missed that,” I said.
“I asked him about the Underground City, and it didn’t sound like he knew what he was talking about,” she said.
In Tampa Bay
In between games of a tournament in Tampa, Milo, Eddie and I attended a Tampa Bay Lightning game. We were fortunate enough to receive a tour of Amalie Arena before the game, which featured two of the top teams in the conference.
For years, many fans would say that hockey and the Sunshine State should be mutually exclusive, but that isn’t so. Lightning games are SRO during the season. The base is passionate.
As we were watching Spokane’s Tyler Johnson play from the Lightning suite, Milo made his usual request, which was granted. I had to explain to an old friend from my days at the Tampa Tribune that Milo has to leave his seat with a few minutes left in the game so he can score a hockey stick.
“Oh, you’re going to the shop downstairs for a mini-stick,” he surmised.
“No, he’s going to get one of the player’s sticks,” I said.
My friend looked at me like I had just sustained head trauma after getting slammed by a puck, but he followed us downstairs.
Milo was decked out in his Lightning gear since he had hoped to catch a puck from one of the Lightning’s three stars of the game. However, that wasn’t going to happen. The Flyers were blowing out Tampa.
I asked Milo what his plan was since the members of the Lightning figured to be in a foul mood. He stopped at the top of the section, which would allow entrance to the Flyers tunnel. “You’re not wearing any Flyers gear,” I said. “How are you going to get anything?”
“I’ll figure it out in about a minute,” Milo said while walking down the steps.
I watched as my then 10-year-old son took off his hoodie and shirt as the Flyers entered the tunnel. Only one stick was given to the 20-some fans gathered at the ice exit.
Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas handed off his CCM to a topless Milo.
“I can’t believe it,” my friend said. “How did he do that?”
I explained that Milo had left six of his last 10 NHL games with sticks from players.
One of the drags of playing in tournaments is the price of hotels. Part of the deal is that everyone on the team agrees to pay the high tariff. However, I was shocked by how much the bill was for a pedestrian hotel in Marlborough, Massachusetts, which is 40 minutes from Boston.
While discussing the figures with the hotel, I learned that our team met the requirement of player stays, so I was free to seek shelter elsewhere. I scored a great deal at a new boutique hotel, the Verb in Boston, which is across the street from Fenway Park.
There are stacks of vinyl with a turntable by the front desk. The rooms are kitschy, comfortable and decorated in music fashion. We stayed in a suite adorned by albums and photos from Boston’s one-hit wonder Letters to Cleo of “Here and Now” fame.
I was ecstatic that we were staying in a city with so much culture and history as opposed to a sterile suburb and at a fraction of the price to boot. A snowstorm the following night would turn Beantown into a winter wonderland. Both of our games were slated for the morning, so we would be ensconced at our hotel before the first flake fell.
We walked out of the Verb into an early morning daze. It was 5 a.m., and I was shocked. The meteorologist somehow blew the call. There were already four inches on the ground. The call for snow was off by 12 hours! It was a Saturday morning, so the roads were barely treated. We were on our way to the rink, but I traveled at a crawl.
“I know this is all my fault since the rink is closer to Marlborough, but I’m not going to die for a hockey game,” I said.
We didn’t arrive until the second period. We were smoked by a terrific team from Maine. Eddie missed that game but played in the following contest, and we hit the slopes during the afternoon. My boys had never skied since ice hockey ironically prevented such a fun-filled winter activity.
In New York
And then there were the games. I’ll never forget playing in Lake Placid in New York. Eddie scored the first goal of the finals, which was at the 1980 rink where the “Miracle on Ice” occurred.
My favorite memory was of Milo’s tournament in Niagara Falls at this time last year. His team was given little chance of enjoying success at the event. Somehow, his squad earned a trip to the finals. The night before, we were having drinks with our opposition, a team from Cleveland, which had flattened each team it faced. Their gracious coach hoped for an even game. Be careful what you wish for.
Milo said that this might be his last ice hockey game. However, Milo threatens to “retire” from hockey at the end of each season. “They think they’re going to kill us,” Milo said. “Well, good. I’m going out during my first shift, and I’m going to crush someone. On the next shift, I’ll score the first goal of the game, and we’ll never look back.”
Milo did exactly that by setting the tone. After he scored, his team never relinquished the lead. It was so much fun watching Milo and his teammates on the ice as the clock ran down to zero and their gloves were tossed into the air and they embraced after a 5-3 win.
There is nothing like youth hockey, and that’s so in Spokane, which has such a great hockey history. It’s a shame the pandemic delayed and altered youth hockey and so much else. However, hockey will be back. Anyone who ever considered it for their children should try it next season.
I’m guilty of complaining about the early games, the long drives into the middle of nowhere and the exorbitant cost, but I can’t imagine what life would have been like without it. Hockey is such a great game, and we always had a blast at each tournament.
The hockey experience helped mold my children into the young men they are today, and for that I’m eternally grateful to the magnificent sport.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.