Friday, July 15, 2011

Week-Old Rants: You, You, You...Ought ta' Kno-ow!

The Kansas City ice hockey scene wets its fingers like a pre-snap quarterback. It looks around, observes complexity, and maybe feels a twinge of nervousness when scanning the opposition. One more look in the mirror, another wet, and an effort to smooth some of the untamed hairs on the side of its head, it sighs.

For most of the last 10 years, the scene has expanded, embraced growth. It has not been without hiccups, but it no doubt sprouted, if only in waves. This, historically, has been the sport's trend, though. The National Hockey League granted the city an expansion franchise in the early 1970s. They lasted two seasons, netting 27 total wins. Sixteen years later, an International Hockey League team moved to town. They saw some success, appeared in two championships, and won one. After 11 seasons in operation the league folded.

Right on its heels came the United Hockey League. It turned out that it wasn’t really that united of a league; the UHL ceased operations after one season in Kansas City. The most recent venture, the Central Hockey League, has perhaps had a different approach, at least with the Kansas City metro franchise. Instead of trying to operate out of a dilapidated 18,000-seat venue, this latest hockey endeavor saw its own building constructed. It also saw two major differences in place, at least in terms of a comparison to its direct predecessor: consistent, heavy marketing and treatment of the operation as if it were the real deal, the big time.

It’s important to note the successes and failures of the sport in this market because in the end, the growth of the game is what’s important. And that always starts with youth programs. In 2000, the metro area saw the one facility, the one that guys and girls of my generation grew up skating in, crawl to its grave. Or rather, saw its corpse kinda half gutted and turned into a laser-tag facility. While a touch sad, those bundles of lone tears were dabbed by the erection of a massive two-sheet facility, a building that was bum-rushed by youth, high school, and recreational-league teams needing a home.

As the oughts passed, this facility -- at one point it was one of four facilities in the metro -- remained the hub of youth hockey, but in the end poor management sent it too to an early grave, leaving dozens of ice-hockey squads homeless. It should be noted that several prominent travel youth clubs played there, as did most of the area high-school clubs, spanning, in some directions, more than an hour’s drive from the building. There were also junior teams named for, and at one point affiliated with, the now-defunct IHL/UHL franchises that knew this building as its hockey home.

The point of it all is that what happens on the professional-team end, and even on the adult-rec-league end, matters. It has an impact on the youth programs, and that impact is an ever-fluctuating creature. Whatever the measure, it matters. If a kid attends the CHL team’s playoff game, and sees his favorite winger score, maybe he skates harder for a loose puck in his next game. Or maybe a squirt –- they rank kids by age group, and it goes something like: atom, peewee, bantam, midget, squirt -– sees a goon check his dad in his dad’s no-check rec-league game, and maybe he cleans some other kid’s clock in his next contest. It matters, and it double-dog-dare matters in a sport that forever runs in the American-sports-spectrum shadows of football, baseball, and basketball.

If we want this game to grow, we have to set examples, and not leave chunks of people questioning why hockey players sometimes come off as knuckleheads.

This is why every hockey market comparable in size to Kansas City’s must keep their Dave K.s in check. For those of you outside the KC metro hockey circle, you might’ve just raised a brow and cricked your neck a bit, but you know the precise type to whom I refer. And to most everyone inside the KC hockey community, you know the precise person to whom I refer. Before I get into details of a recent encounter, allow me to say the following:

In a cobbled-together 11 years of playing rec-league hockey in Kansas City, I have had almost every hockey-related experience possible with Dave K. This is kind of a bizarre notion, considering that he could select any single element from his skill composite and outplay me and my arsenal of non-skill in every sense of the word. The irony in that is that most facilities have some form of a rec-league ranking system that includes leagues: elite, a, b, c, and sometimes d. My skill level, even after playing for more than a decade falls into the c-ish echelon, and sometimes d. Dave K.’s skill level is closer to the elite end of things, and here’s a good point to mention that most facilities insist -– and by “insist,” I mean aggressively frown upon you not following their insistence -– that you not play more than two tiers below your ability. This means that teams that find themselves playing against opponents in violation of aforementioned insistence, must self-police, and by “self-police,” I mean tender a complaint/protest to the league manager, who will, if you’re lucky, look up from his phone and give you a sure-kid nod.

Dave, K., though, has been playing down for as long as I can remember, and we’ll get to that in a minute.

In the early part of the decade, back when not falling down for three periods was my biggest game-by-game aspiration, Dave K. was there. And I thought he was a dick. He played on a team called the Blue River Bears, which was, in essence, a roster full of assholes. Now, I didn’t know everyone on the team, and I’m certain that not everyone was an asshole, but it seemed as though the asshole spectrum on that squad resembled an active volcano. It’s possible, that everyone on the team was really nice, and I was just really frustrated with my own ineptitude -— actually, wait. Nevermind. That’s not possible at all.

Dave K., though, wore these 30-year old leather-toned gloves, torn pants, and not much else in the way of gear. And he was never that much of a dick on the ice, but he would always just kind of hover on the ice, seeming never to participate in a change, running his foul New Jersey -– yeah, he’s from Jersey –- mouth and, when need be, turning on the skill burner, and making a play. I faced him in games like this for some time, and would also see him in the hallway, donning jerseys for teams several leagues higher than mine. The thing was, though, was that he always seemed to play down to the ability of the league in which he appeared. I mean, he would never let you beat him to a loose puck -– he plays defense, by the way -– and you could almost never intercept a breakout pass of his, or prevent him from clearing the puck from his own end, but he almost never carried the puck into the offensive zone to try and generate scoring chances, which is a key factor, because he could, in some of these lower-league games, almost score at will.

It was an odd thing, I thought, for someone to be in the habit of doing, but maybe you just have to take your roster spots where you can get 'em.

Then, one spring, Dave K. wound up on my three-on-three squad. That primary facility would host three-on-three tournaments between
spring/summer and summer/fall breaks, as a way to keep people skating/keep cash flow coming in. This revelation yielded heavy eye-glaze material on my end. I figured he would hog ice time, holler at people for making mistakes, and probably –- dick that he appeared to be –- spend a lot of time in the penalty box. Actually, I don’t remember if they assessed in those tournaments or not, but if they didn’t, I envisioned he’d be guilty of lots of penaltyesque activity.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that, on the same bench as you, Dave K. offered tons of legitimately helpful, constructive criticism, that a percentage of his hollering –- now more audible from the same side of the ice –- had value to it, that he wasn’t just running his damn mouth to be running it. Well, he did do quite a bit of that still, but by this point, my ear had received a Master’s degree in tuning him out, awarded by my brain. It was a positive experience, though, one that left me scratching my chin. I mean, there's also the criticism aspect to his hollering, the part wherein mistakes can lead to him telling his teammates they're "playing like a bunch of shitdicks" and "fuckstains," but take that for what it's worth.

Then the facility started what was known as The Over-30 League. You signed up, paid, and each week, were assigned to either the dark squad or the white squad. You had to be, duh, 30 or older, and you had to abide by the rule that this was a game for fun, not for competition. It was a cool league. You got to know dudes from other teams. You hung out and drank beer after. Eventually, it grew to where there were two games each week, and you wound up skating and drinking beer with an even larger number of people. At one point, there were weekly awards and nicknames announced (usually the next morning on the Web site) and they were always pretty funny.

Dave K. was in this league, and I wound up playing with him quite a bit. I also wound up drinking quite a few pitchers of beer with him afterwards. Turns out, he’s kind of a funny guy. Once he introduced us to this dorky word-switch game. I can’t remember what it’s called, or how to describe it other than this (and this is precisely how he introduced it to us):

“You know what my dog’s favorite movie is? Ben-Fur.”

Yeah. Awkward silence is right. Get it, though? Ben-Hur’s a movie; dogs have fur. Anyway, one or two examples later, and the whole bar –- granted, it’s a one-room bar –- was rolling until all of our cheeks and guts were sore. There was another time when my then-girlfriend came out to watch this semi-unorganized, non-competitive skate (Editor’s Note: I’m sure the number of chapters she read heavily outweighed the number of on-ice minutes she watched.). On this night, I had the early skate, as did Dave K. Afterwards, she joined some of us outside the bar to watch the late skate and have a few beers, and somehow, late into the evening, we got into a conversation about the flexibility of hockey sticks. Prior to this conversation, I knew that they flexed. End of story.

I did not know that some of the numbers on sticks are actual ratings for that particular stick’s level of flexibility until that evening. I also did not know, until that evening that, when taking a slap shot, you are supposed to strike the ice –- just behind the puck -- with the blade of your stick just before you make contact with the puck. This, I learned, generates torque and can do things like increase the trajectory speed of the shot, or elevate the puck from the ice surface. This, I learned, was why my slap shot was always a bit lacking in slap, not quite worthy of being deemed a shot. The same theory applies to a wrist shot, only instead of striking the ice, the torque is generated from the weight of your body leaning on the shaft of your stick and flexing it with your outer-most hand, prior to your swing.

Now, I don’t know if Dave K. stuck around and shot the breeze with me for as long as he did that night because he would do that with anyone over beers after hockey, or because it was an engaging topic, or if it was solely because there was a lady present, and he wanted to appear mighty and knowledgeable. He does, for the record, have an eyeroll-worthy history of strolling the hallways in a rather shirtless fashion, which, in case you didn’t know, Dave, comes off as one way to both guy and girl: creepy. It bears mentioning, though, because, at roughly this point in time, Dave K. was going through a divorce, which I only mention because he was not shy about mentioning it. Otherwise, you keep that stuff in the locker room and in the bar.

But he was going through this deal, and it was no secret that he was, for lack of better phraseology, on the lookout. That’s enough about that, though. And in case you’ve been wondering, the last-name initial isn’t done in a secrecy type way. Rather, it’s because he has this huge Hawaiian last name that’s tough to both spell and say, so that’s what everybody calls him. Well, that and Jersey Dave, and Crazy Dave, and Asshole Dave, and Super Dave (I’m told that that last one was coined not for talent, but rather for how he appears to think of himself). But mostly people call him Dave K.

Playing Over-30 hockey with Dave K., though, was pretty cool. One time, I got invited to go out for beers with him and this other guy who played defense on both my team, and up on Dave K.’s b team. The idea came up one night at the bar after an Over-30 game, and Dave K. was telling us about this new bar called Fuel, where hot server and bartender females dance on the bar and pour booze down your throat. Or maybe I imagined that last part, but apparently they invited/encouraged attractive female customers to do the same.

“Dude,” Dave K. said. “The numbers are incredible there. It’s like three-one, girls to guys.”

I didn’t really buy that, but I also didn’t need to hear anymore to be sold on going. I also didn’t think I’d actually get invited, but one night I got a call from my teammate who said, “Let’s do this. We’re going to Fuel. Dave’s already there.”

I hustled to get out of the house, and this was a shitty night to be going. It was a week night. I had about 8000 pages still to read for this boring grad-school class, and the driver-side window of my car had come off track and was stuck down. So yes, it was pouring out. Halfway there, I got a call from Jason, who told me that Dave K. had apparently been waiting for a while, and when we got to Fuel, he’d already left based on the fact that the as-advertised numbers were not accurately represented on this particular evening. Having learned that we’d arrived, though, he was on his way back, and when he joined us, he said, “Fuckin’ sucks in here tonight. Total sausage fest’. Gotta come on a weekend night.”

We had a beer, though. Maybe two. We might’ve even gone to another bar, but it was odd. I was significantly underdressed in comparison to my company, and significantly excluded from conversation, a detail I associated with the difference in level of play between myself and the other two. The point though is that Dave K. was not an asshole on this evening, nor was he rude. He was almost, a time or two, friendly.

On another level, I had the privilege of renting a sheet of ice the morning of my wedding. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and when it came down to the details arranging, we were missing a key piece: a goalie. Now every facility I've ever played at, as I said, has a Web site, and on their sites is a goaltender call list. Guys miss games all the time. You can typically find subs, and you, if need be, can skate short-handed. Coming up with a substitute goalie is a bit trickier. I ran through the list, though, and after most of a dozen phone calls, I’d gotten one half of a commitment. I was, however, given a few more phone numbers of guys to call, and in the end, zero were interested in coming out for an 8 a.m. skate on a Saturday morning.

One night after an Over-30 skate, though, one goaltender, having heard of my conundrum, mentioned that he kept a set of goalie gear in the closet at the rink, and that, were I still in a pinch, I should ask Dave K., who’d apparently filled in in the crease a time or two. I managed to wrangle up his number, get him on the horn, and with minimal persuasion, he agreed. A few minutes before eight that morning, here came Dave K. He suited up, and manned the net -– we played half-ice with half-court-basketball rules (gotta take it back past the blue line) for the entire hour, and probably witnessed the worst hour of pickup hockey anyone has ever seen.

It was an incredible gesture for him to agree to, and, strangely, he wouldn’t take the $20 or the growler of beer I brought him as compensation. For that, I’m forever grateful to Dave K. A wedding-day skate without a netminder would’ve been lame.

In getting to know Dave K. over the years, I learned a few things about him: He’s been playing hockey for a long time. He plays two, maybe sometimes three nights a week, and for a while, he was coaching an area youth team. Or maybe assistant coaching. I’m not sure. I also have heard him say, on more than one occasion, something I have come to associate as a mantra of his, and perhaps to a lesser degree, my own: “If you don’t have an organ hanging out, you’d better finish the game.”

Naturally, this is a bit excessive for no-check, incidental-contact-only, recreational-league hockey, but I dig it. It’s a belief to strive for in playing this game, at any level. In the pros, dudes get their skulls jarred, be it from a clean hit, a dirty hit, or somewhere in the middle. In the rec’ leagues, injuries happen because of accidents and collisions, and oftentimes, those things result from a lack of ability on one or more person’s end.

To adapt that mantra, then, to our level, could look like: Walk it off, or, Stretch it out, or, more specifically, Dude, you can’t come out of the game because you took a puck off of the skate.

Anyway, that facility was managed into the ground. Mismanaged rather. And now, they’re gonna put indoor soccer in it, which to me is kind of liking lining the place with cots and pillows: makes for some big-time nap material. So that left three facilities. Until one of them shut down for a nearly-complete overhaul, which left two facilities, one of which is north of the river, and doesn’t –- if I understand correctly -– have a regulation-sized sheet of ice.

This means one thing: Almost all of the metro hockey is, once again, happening at one place. It’s where the CHL squad plays. It’s where the rec’ leagues are playing. It’s where the kids are playing, from the youthiest of youths on up to high school. You, then, are, if you’re so inclined, to be aware of the fact that there is, potentially, always an audience on hand. That audience includes kids, kids who are hockey fans, kids who are potential hockey players, kids who are already playing, or some combination of all three. Some rec-league games are late, and so there’s not always an audience, but many times there is, even if it’s less than a half dozen folks.

This, then, is why last Wednesday night’s game against Dave K.’s C-level team, was punctuated with frustration. I say frustration, but that’s a feeling that presents itself in the form of comic relief. It’s underscored though, with a bigger message:

We took an early lead, which we are not prone to do. A puck was dumped into our defensive zone, and it careened around the boards behind our net. Dave K., playing down to the level of his competition, pinched in from the blue line to position himself in the slot in case a puck squirted out. I entered the zone in a hurry from my left-wing position. A clearing attempt happened; Dave K. turned around, eyes on the puck, and began to retreat. My eyes, also following the play, located Dave K.’s skating path at the last minute, and likewise, his did mine, and we collided.

I’m less sure-footed on my skates, and he outweighs me by a bit. I hit the ice, and he was called for cross-checking. He, as one is wont to do when issued an unfair infraction, complained. The scale with which one complains upon receiving a penalty varies to a degree of immeasurability. Some guys gripe. Some guys shake their heads and head to the box. Some guys engage in hollering matches, and some guys fluctuate with how they respond. Dave K. engages. Always.

This, in my estimation, is always foolish. You are never -– and I do mean never -– going to change a ref’s mind. What’s more: You might piss off a ref who will then have it out for you, look for the next opportunity to send you back to the box. If you’re vocal enough, he might even toss you. I don’t have pristine hearing, so I can seldom hear the gripes, and this situation was no different. I do know, though, that he was making his case for incidental contact, which was justified.

One of my teammates, in skating past him, said, “Dave, what the fuck is wrong with you?”

And he exploded.

Now he had bones to pick with the officiating crew, and my entire team, and these were bones with which he was not going to waste any seconds picking.

He had many a choice phrase for our bench, only the last of which I could make out: “And fuck all y’all for thinking I hit him on purpose.”
His profanity-laden phrases continued to echo throughout the ice, even after he was in the box.

Then, on his first opportunity after serving the penalty, he channeled his frustration in one play. We dumped the puck into their zone, and he retrieved it in the corner. A play quickly developed, and his team scored. I’m not sure if Dave K. himself got the tally, but he skated right past our bench and hollered, “That’s hockey fuckin’ karma right there!”

Several minutes later, he was in the box again, and we returned the favor.

Late in the third, the game had become audibly shrouded with his continued hollering, and we were up 4-3. Again retrieving a dump of ours in the corner, Dave K. amped up his game, and this time took the puck coast to coast, beating our goalie with a wrister fired from close range. He stopped behind the net, and skated right up to our goalie with two offerings: a lone fist pump in our netminder’s mask, and one of these:

It was more like a, “Wooo!,” but that’s the best the Internets could offer on short notice.

His next move classed up the joint even more.

Again being certain to skate by our bench, Dave K. placed his stick, backwards, between his legs, and “rode” it while hopping, whooping, hollering, and cursing, and slapping its imaginary ass as he made his way back to center ice.

In the end, we scored two unanswered goals, and Dave K.’s ridiculous, continued yells of the profane variety resulted in his ejection. This was our second victory of the season, one that didn’t do a ton of favors for our then negative-30-plus goal differential.

His behavior was all we could talk about in the locker room, and, as his acts tend to do, it triggered story swapping of previous skates with Dave K., which included: a recent tournament at this same facility wherein he was ejected for firing a puck, post-whistle, at another player’s head. Allegedly, he’d just been penalized for an act against this player, and this was his retaliation. It also included the oft-shared tale of how he was banned for one year from the previously mentioned mismanaged facility for firing a puck, post-whistle, at an official’s head, a supposed statement of his disagreement with that ref’s call.

Also in the department of puck-firing, it should be noted that Dave K. has a wicked slap shot. He can blast them, as if out of a cannon, from the blue line, and when they’re high and off the glass, it sounds like ignited dynamite. It should also be mentioned that he, in the vein of playing down to the level of abilities of his teammates and opponents, seldom lets them rip full-steam in this league. It would seem that, most of the time, he will refrain from shooting at all, perhaps aware of his superior skill, perhaps trying to help better the play of the "shitdicks" and "fuckstains" that wear his same jersey. When the time is of the essence, though, he will let one go. On no fewer than two occasions last week, he fired pucks from the blue line that can only be defined as of the head-hunting variety. These were shots taken with more traffic in front of the net than a Los Angeles rush hour, so, suffice to say, they weren't finding twine, save for some sort of miracle deflection.

Now, the argument can be made –- and it often is -– that when you put pucks on the net, good things happen. This, to me, means: Try to get the goalie to cough up a huge rebound, and maybe one of your teammates is in position to put the second effort in the net. Actually, it can mean a number of things, but in these instances, it didn’t seem like there was much opportunity for anything at all, and both pucks hit a teammate in the chest.

Hockey players take pucks off of various parts of the body several times in every single game played in every rink in the world. Usually, and especially at this level, that occurs when someone at the point takes too long to shoot, and an opponent has positioned themselves in front of that player, a rebound off the shin happens, and a breakaway in the other direction results. If that’s not the case, it’s something similar. People almost never, in C-league rec-hockey, take pucks off the chest, let alone twice in one game. These “shots” were not high-caliber Dave K. slappers. They were probably not even 50 percent the trajectory of which he’s capable, but they were still moving pretty well.

Nobody dropped to the ice, and nobody left the game, but those occasions were post-collision, and it was obvious that his irritability was high, so it’s hard to imagine that these chest shots weren’t deliberate. Having said that, though, I will give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they were not.

Having offered said benefit, however, here is the point, best summed via cliché: Your reputation precedes you.

I’ve only played at three of the four mentioned facilities, so I have no idea if he’s played at the fourth. What I do know is this: Kansas City, as we are often reminded, is a small market. Or a tight-knit community. Or, big town/small city. Whichever you want to call it. Ice hockey communities, then, are even smaller, considering that, compared to the three other major sports, its numbers are dwarfed. So, if you’re in a smaller community, and you’re playing a sport over a long period of time, and that sports community is also small, people are going to get to know you, in one way or another.

Therefore, when you have a history of exhibiting goon-like behavior, getting tossed from games, ejected from tournaments, and banned from facilities, the people against whom you play, and the referees who officiate your games are going to know who you are. And you’d better believe they’re going to have their eye out for the smallest hint of shady play, even if it’s not, especially if it’s not, shady play. They’re expecting your play, along with the way you carry yourself on the ice, to be disrespectful and trashy, even if that’s not how it was intended.

In the end, few people have notoriety in Kansas City hockey like Dave K. Rec-league guys know him, officials know him, and you can bet that some kids and spectators recognize him, or at least his voice. And in a community –- heck, a country –- where we’re trying to grow the game at the youth level, it’s important to set good examples, to make kids love the game, and want to play it the right way.

Dave K. has an admirable level of skill and hunger for competition within him.

Sometimes, though, the view of him through the looking glass distorts that, and what we see is negative. Last Wednesday night’s game, a rare win for our squad, was prime example of that. Believe me: The last thing we want to feel, post-victory, is frustration. We get that enough in the form of losing. Don’t get me wrong: Our locker room was cheery, void of gloom, but like I said: At the core of what went down, courtesy of the reactions and play of one guy, was nothing shy of frustration.

Don't misunderstand. This isn't the kind of frustration wherein the play of one guy gets in your head, messes with your game. This is much more global.

Hockey in Kansas City needs better displays of sportsmanship.

As a matter of fact, it demands it.