Friday, November 30, 2012

A happy lockout memory

NHL lockouts are miserable if you’re a fan.  If you have a job in this realm fueled by disposable income, they can have an even greater negative impact on your life.  To most NHL fans, lockouts are miserable because you lose faith in your team and the sport.  But once in a great while, a feel good story will emerge from a lockout.  Marooned players will drop in on a Pee-Wee practice.  Some will use their celebrity status to play in games and events for charity that may otherwise have never happened.  But every once in a while, something special happens at random out of nowhere that one day you will be able to tell your grand kids about – this piece is about one of those stories.

It was October 2004 and the NHL lockout was in full effect.  Players who needed cash were already looking to head overseas to play.  Players that were more financially secure and had kids in school tended to stay put in their NHL cities.  Each NHL team had a group of 8-10 NHLers that stayed in town and worked out together, often renting ice at local rinks a couple times a week.  Columbus was no different as a group of players that included Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, Luke Richardson, Jody Shelley, Todd Marchant, Geoff Sanderson, and Scott La Chance would skate a couple mornings a week at the Dublin Chiller to keep in on-ice shape.  These players would reach out to former college and pro players in the area and invite them to participate in these morning skates to keep the competition level as high as possible.  One might image it would be a little more difficult in Columbus, OH to field 30 former NHL, College, and Pro players for a pickup game twice a week.  Well it was, so enter yours truly.


Yes, that's right.
 I lock you out then you have to skate with Morgan.

The wife of one of the CBJ players was on my B league men’s team – she was the right winger on my line, known as the ‘9-1-1 Line.’  If you needed a goal ‘STAT’, you called us.  Back then, I was a B-league stud, much like Jared Boll is today.  6 years removed from competitive play and 5 years before my metabolism would betray me, I still had the goods.  When these NHL pickup games started in October of 2004, pickings were slim in Columbus for talent to fill out these NHL pick-up games. At the time, I didn’t know they existed.  One night after a men’s league game we were having a couple of drinks.  My right wing mentioned to her husband that he should have me come out to their morning skates as the talent was a little lacking.  He, having seen me play, thought it was a good idea.  So a couple days later, after emailing the event’s organizer and making arrangements with my boss to come in a little late the next few Tuesday and Thursdays, I walked into the Dublin Chiller to skate with local NHL’ers for the first of several sessions.

At the time, twitter uber-optimist @johntkemp and I were co-workers.  I had to tell somebody the cool news and told John – he was my E-league prodigy at the time.  Our place of employment was about one mile from the Dublin Chiller.  Word got out to a small group of hockey enthusiasts at work that I was “skating with the Jackets.”  There was more disbelief from these folks than admiration – I guess that’s what happens to a soul when it’s never loved something more than itself.

I am not a star struck person, and while sounding narcissistic, this was not the first time I had stepped onto the ice with NHLers, but it felt kind of cool none the less.  On that first morning, this was just any other session of pick up hockey to me as I walked into dressing room 8.  I plopped my bag down to find Geoff Sanderson and Todd Marchant were getting dressed too.  A couple other guys I didn’t know where in there getting dressed to, their gear subtly hinting at being former pros.  I kept my mouth shut other than to comment on the bionic-like knee brace Todd Marchant wore under his right shin guard.  As I got dressed, Marchant noticed that I wasn’t wearing shoulder pads.  He looked at me and asked, “you don’t wear shoulder pads?”  “No,” I said, “I hate them.”  He said “Well, you may want to wear them, we’re skating against the defensemen” he said as he walked out of the dressing room.  So I pulled off my jersey and put on my decade’s old Cooper Techniflex shoulder pads, completely oblivious to the “we” that Todd Marchant had just said.

I walked out of the dressing room and onto the ice.  It was warm-ups just like before any other game.  I headed over to the bench to drop off my extra stick and water bottle.  Geoff Sanderson had just finished stretching and took a warm-up slap shot from the top of the circle that missed the net high.  “No Slappers!” Marchant yelled over to Sanderson like he had just done something illegal.  Marchant skated over to Sanderson and said, “We couldn’t get the (normal guys) to play in net this morning.  These guys are men’s league goalies. One guy is a doctor that played in college, the other is a fireman.  No slap shots today.”  Obviously, an NHL slap shot was a bit much for these guys.  There were a couple other guys out there taking slap shots on the goalie, none very hard.  I get to a spot on the ice, touched off a slapper into the far corner and I hear, “Morgan!  NO SLAPPERS!”  That was probably the best compliment that I’ve ever gotten.  I still have that shot, I bust it out in the C-league every now and again much to my teammate’s surprise.  Black and Tan till I die, yo.

We started separating into different sides and got ready to start playing.  I looked around the ice and noticed a couple of ex-Columbus Chill guys as well as a couple ex-OSU guys.  I had my custom made pair of Vapor XX skates that sported some crazy flop to go with my contra ban Tampa Bay Lightning game jersey.  I at least looked the part, whether I would embarrass myself was just a puck drop away. There were also a couple people on the ice that had no business being at a normal drop-in game, let alone with current and former pros.  But, like earlier stated, skilled players were on short supply at the NHL pick-up game in Columbus, OH.  I was channeling my former AAA stud self from the early 90’s, hoping that I wouldn’t be a total joke out there as the ‘starting five’ from each side took the ice.  I was one of those five for our ‘team.’  I looked up in the stands to see a couple of my co-workers and Kempy standing there looking down at me in dis-belief – “Gooner” as they called me around the office was on the ice with 6 NHL players.  I really wasn’t paying attention while looking up into the stands, the play started and I found myself back on defense with the play coming into my end.  I was able to win the puck in the corner from an ex-OSU guy and make a breakout pass to Marchant on the half boards, and got the hell off the ice.  I didn’t want to get stuck out there on defense, not at this pick up session. 

Sanderson and Marchant came off the ice about a minute later and sat next to me on the bench. Marchant looked over at me and said “You’re skating with Sandy and me.”  Without even realizing it, I went into that familiar feeling of relief knowing I wasn’t going to be playing with a bunch of slow guys during pick up.  It was that warm pick-up hockey feeling knowing I was playing on a line with skill.  Not that I was skating with two of the fastest skaters in the NHL, but that that my linemates weren’t going to be total hacks.  In retrospect, I’m proud of myself for thinking that.  I was happy to be playing with good skaters and not gushing over who they were.  I am not wired for fandom, but I did relish that first session.

I remember four distinct plays from that very first morning.  The first distinct memory is the ‘quickness’ that Sanderson and Marchant possessed.  I, until very recently, had very good speed and it was largely undiminished in 2004.  On the breakout and entering the zone, I kept up with a hustling Marchant and Sanderson.  But when the play switched from offense to defense on the fore check, those guys were in their spots before I knew the puck had been turned over.  I had speed, they had all-world quickness.  Given the difference in quickness, I found myself in the high slot as they pounced on the puck in the corner waiting to start the cycle.  This led to my second distinct memory from that first morning patrolling the high slot – I was completely snake bit my first several shifts.

You can't have full extension without full recovery.
I picked the wrong morning to pull at Trevor Letowski and not be able to hit the net.  In two consecutive shifts, Marchant hit me with two beautiful passes in the high slot – two of which I ripped wide, two of which I completely shanked.  I still had ‘pick up’ hockey mentality going and thought ‘great, now these guys are never going to pass to me.’  We got to the bench after that second lousy shift, Sanderson sat down next to me, and with a grin said, “Why don’t you stand in front of the net and I can shoot them in off of your shin guards.”  I laughed, he smiled, and it lightened the mood after two lousy shifts.  If nothing else his quip raised my confidence – setting the stage for my third distinct memory; and possibly the dumbest thing I’ve tried on the ice.

A few shifts later, we were breaking in on Luke Richardson and J-L G-P.  I was over on the left side, and Marchant put a beauty of a pass on my tape at the offensive blue line.  In front of me was a mountain of a man, Luke Richardson.  I thought for the briefest of fleeting moments that I could beat Richardson wide.  And why not, he had only played in like 1200 NHL games to that point.  It looked like he was waiting for me to cut to the middle being a right shot on the left side, so naturally I thought I had him.  At the top of the circle I threw a head fake to the middle and went to pull the puck wide.  Before I could even finish my head fake, he stepped into me, threw his arms and shoulder into my chest, put me into the glass, and smeared me for what felt like 7 miles.  I was easily four feet in the air the entire time I was in contact with the boards. My body made contact with nothing but glass – my skates may have touched the top of the dashers as Richardson used me as mortar to fill the gaps in the glass.  The puck dribbled into the corner and Richardson turned to get it – Red Bull sponsored my subsequent return to earth.  I got up to fore check, but not after I looked to the stands to be certain my co-workers had left.   Thankfully they had left and weren’t there to witness me getting plowed into the glass by an NHL defensemen.  I believe you can still see the 25 foot long smear on the glass in chiller 2 just before the Zamboni doors.

Undaunted, I kept skating hard the next few shifts.  I certainly didn’t belong in the NHL, but there wasn’t any reason to think I couldn’t be out there with those guys this Tuesday morning.  My moment of confirmation came two shifts later.  Again, the crafty Marchant hit me with a beauty of a pass breaking up the right side crossing the blue line.  As I crossed the blue line, Scott La Chance was stepping across to challenge me before the top of the circle.  This time I was going to keep my speed.  La Chance stepped up on me before the circle and I was at his 10 o’clock.  As he stepped up, he lifted his stick and opened his legs ever so slightly.  I poked the puck between his legs leaned left, stepping under him and flew by.  The puck was back on my tape at the dot, with La Chance draped on my back hip.  The play happened so quick the goalie was still coming from the other post a little slow to react.  I pulled the puck back and went to tuck it high corner on the short side.  Somehow, in a Cechmanek/Brouder like post-to-post move, the goalie, in a pure act of desperation, got his glove on the puck just enough to deflect the shot over the net.  La Chance had let out an “Ohhh!” as the goalie made a great save, but not before I wrestled the puck form between his feet behind the net to try and salvage the play.  He had the humility to give me an “atta boy” look as we skated off the ice.  I had cleanly, legitimately, and intentionally beaten an NHL defenseman one-on-one.  But like my co-workers will wryly say, “Any defenseman Morgan can beat isn’t long for the NHL.”  Scott LaChance had played 819 games in the NHL before I was able to sneak around him that Tuesday morning.  Some people say La Chance never lived up to his potential, and maybe that’s true.  But he did spend 819 games doing something right and few play in that many games.  As it turns out, those Tuesday mornings would be fleeting for him also - he never again made an NHL roster and retiring from pro hockey 3 years later.

The session soon ended and we headed back to the dressing rooms to shower and change.  I did take a moment to savor this time on the ice.  I had a lot of fun skating with Marchant and Sanderson – who wouldn’t.  It felt good to know I held my own with some speedy skaters. I will always remember Luke Richardson as a machine who methodically tried to integrate me into the glass. Jean Luc Grand-Pierre, if possible, has like negative 8 percent body fat.  Jody Shelley looked huge out there on the ice and was a nice guy.  I was able to make it out there for a couple more NHL pickup sessions, but those kind of blend into one big memory, but I distinctly remember that first day. After those first few sessions, I asked my boss if I could come into work an hour later and stay and hour later every Tuesday and Thursday to skate for the next couple months, he shot down the idea.  Kempy knew my boss at the time and will attest, he was clearly the kind of guy who wouldn’t give you an hour to do something cool like that. You could beat the quarterly goals he set for you, and he would find a way to cut you down while handing you a bonus check.  He was that kind of guy. 

No sir, not found in Columbus.

When I got back to the dressing room after that first session, my “linemates” were undressing.  I was stuffing my equipment into my bag whining to the guys how I had to go to work next.  Marchant then asks Sanderson what he was doing the rest of the morning.  Sanderson replied, “I’m going to go workout for a couple hours.”  My jaw dropped.  We just had a hard skate for 90 minutes and he was going to go workout for a couple hours.  Wow.  It was those words that have stuck with me the most.  I have been around pro athletes all my life.  But Sanderson, during a dismal lockout, skated for 90 minutes and then wanted to go work out for two hours.  He was looking for a contract pending a waiver claim, and even during a lockout, was committed to staying in shape.  That kind of dedication was rewarded unjustly.  Once the lockout ended he was signed to a contract, then he was traded to Phoenix two games into the upcoming season.  No loyalty, no reward for the hard work – that was the front office culture.  The Jackets weren’t very good then, but I wondered how the Blue Jackets could ever remain competitive if they were willing to ship off a work ethic like that.  8 years later, the Blue Jackets are looking to bring that kind of attitude back to the dressing room.  Go figure…

Phoenix via Colmbus #TrendSetter

     

3 comments:

  1. Talk about Living The Dream!

    And you never told me you had a slap shot... :-)

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  2. Awesome story Morgan. I was going to write up the Buckeyes' 1-0 win last night, but couldn't bear to stick that over top of this post. Nice work!

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  3. You did what we all dream about, keep those memories man!!

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