Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Born To Be Hockey Players

"You were born to be hockey players, every one of you. You were meant to be here...tonight." USA head coach Herb Brooks, Lake Placid New York, 1980.

Noting the passing of Bob Suter, member of the 1980 gold medal-winning US hockey team.

In Upstate New York, winter usually began in late October. By Thanksgiving the ponds, and many of the smaller lakes, had frozen over. By Christmas there were few bodies of water that did not play host to sharp blades etching hard ice, wood clattering against rubber and adolescents trash talking while playing hockey. It was a rare day indeed that the sun did not set on a game, somewhere, a thirty-something mom announcing dinner and hoping her voice carried across the snow.

Everyone emulated a pro, adopted their nickname and envisioned hockey greatness. The Maple trees surrounding a pond were, of course, festooned with "Leaf fans." It was Maple Leaf Gardens - after a fashion - and we were playing before a standing room crowd. Vendors hawked "Hockey News and programs" as the inanimate fans looked down on us. Bundled against the cold, rudimentary equipment preventing significant injury, hours passed in the pale grey of northern winter. The score? Who knew.

Most of us progressed into organized hockey. Lucky ones found spots on the local high school team. The talented few advanced to college. Occasionally - someone made a living under the bright lights of the real Maple Leaf Gardens across Lake Ontario, Boston Gardens or one of the other rinks across the US and Canada.

So when the US hockey team - a conglomerate of college players - skated out to face the Soviet Union....

Defenseman Bob Suter was there, and played in that game. It is now called the Miracle on Ice, the moment when a collection of American college kids beat the mighty Soviets. And for a while  the "Leaf fans" looking over ponds across the US became Lake Placid ticket holders, witness to one of the great American sporting triumphs of the twentieth century.

Some of the players found their way into the NHL. Bob Suter did not. Those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s chasing glory and a rubber disk on frozen ponds shared a kinship with him that is hard to explain. Our moms and dads sipped coffee at five AM games, put twenty-plus thousand miles on cars, sacrificing their needs to pay for the expensive equipment and disposable sticks. We played the game for the love of it, and on a winter day in February 1980 saw a collection of athletes who had grown up on snow-covered ponds and bitter rinks - as had we - win a hotly contested hockey game.

Deep meanings, geopolitics of the Cold War...? I suppose. Bob Suter played the game we loved. He played it exceptionally well. He was born to be a hockey player.

Just like us.

With deepest admiration.

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