Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Hockey Life: Three points

Random thoughts, in no particular order, that I'm taking away from the Holiday Invitational hockey tournament last week at Germain Arena in Estero:

~ OF ALL THE PICTURES we've taken of Colin playing hockey this year, from Lightning Made Clinics to the P.A.L. Stars to the Jr. Bulls, the one shown above is my favorite. It's not game action, so to speak, but it was taken during a tournament game.

Though I'd seen this picture before, showing members of the East Coast Hockey League's Orlando Solar Bears in a game against the Florida Everblades, I knew I had to take one of Colin and a few of his teammates when they played on the big rink. Pretty clever marketing, if you ask me.

I'm hoping, too, I wasn't the only parent to take a picture like this.Certainly, I could've waited until the kids were lined up better, but I felt it was best to use the opportunity when it presented itself. It was there for the taking.

Years from now, I'm sure Colin will still get a chuckle out of it, as it represents a comedic highlight of a season that hasn't been the most fun.

~ MAJOR STICKS TAPS for the Brandon Jr. Bulls Peewee A squad and its performance during the tournament. The kids swept their division, winning all four games. Even more commendable is they won despite scoring only eight goals. The fact the team and its red-hot goalie, Troy, gave up only two goals went a long, long way toward winning their division.

Unfortunately, they lost their first semifinal game, 6-5 in overtime. They fought back from a quick 2-0 deficit and, with three minutes remaining in the game, led 5-4. Still, there was absolutely no reason for the kids to hang their heads. It was a solid and completely respectable effort.

We'll see how their performance carries over with tournaments in Atlanta in January and Charlotte, N.C., in February.

~ THE JR. BULLS HAD a bit of a scare in its opening game when it started out with a very thin bench. All told, only eight players had arrived by the time the puck dropped on Wednesday's first game. It seems a traffic jam, brought about by an accident along Interstate 75 north of the rink, delayed the arrival of a number of players.

It wasn't until the second period that all players arrived for the game. In a way, it was kind of funny seeing them stand at a rink door awaiting a whistle so they could join the team.

Thankfully, we missed the traffic, as we left earlier in the day so we could scout the team's first opponent. That luck, however, disappeared as we headed home Friday. Another accident, this time at the I-75 and I-275 interchange north of Ellenton, backed up traffic for miles.

What should've been a two-hour ride home turned into a four-hour adventure that included a ride around Tampa Bay before we finally made it home in time for The Missus' birthday.

By the way, Carrabba's is overpriced and overrated.

P.S. Colin scored some autographs from University of Maine and Ferris State players during the tournament. Look for a post about that this week.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas, folks

From our hockey home to yours, Christmas greetings to our hockey friends all over the world.

~ Merry Christmas!

~ Prejeme Vam Vesele Vanoce a stastny Novy Rok (Czech)

~ Hauskaa joulua (Finnish)

~ Joyeux Noel (French)

~ Froehliche Weihnachten (German)

~ Prieci'gus Ziemsve'tkus un Laimi'gu Jauno Gadu! (Latvian)

~ Gledelig Jul (Norwegian)

~ Pozdrevlyayu s prazdnikom Rozhdestva is Novim Godom (Russian)

~ Sretan Bozic (Slovakian)

~ Feliz Navidad (Spanish)

~ (Och) Ett Gott Nytt År (Swedish)

~ Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia (Polish)

Source: World of Christmas

Editor's note: The original list first appeared Dec. 25, 2008, at Hound Central 4.0.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Band of brothers

Sure, it would've been much nicer, as far as we're concerned, had the Pinellas Sheriff's P.A.L. Stars won the Metro League title, but Colin was proud to stand with his teammates Saturday night to watch the Scorpions accept their championship medals.

He'll be back with the Stars, the first organized team he played for, during the spring rec season, working on his leadership and hockey skills.

The upcoming season will serve as an opportunity to pay back P.A.L. Stars alums, like Steven, Joey and Daniel, who took him under their wings back when he was just getting started. Now, it's his turn to welcome someone into the Stars family.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Hockey Life: Tourney time

Beginning this week and heading through mid-February, Colin and his Brandon Jr. Bulls teammates will be playing in more tournament games than anything else. It's that time of the year that puts the "travel" in travel hockey: tournament season.

Tournaments provide, at the minimum, four games in two days. Making the semifinals adds another game. Playing for the championship means a sixth game. All told, the kids could play 18 games in less than two months, matching the sum of their Central Florida Hockey League season, which runs from October to February.

Unlike last season, when tournament time was new to us and proved to be highly enjoyable, we're heading into this one with mixed feelings. While we always look forward to watching Colin play, there are a couple of others factors that are worth considering.

This season's journey begins Wednesday, when we head down to Estero, Fla., for the team to skate in the Holiday Invitational at Germain Arena. Thankfully, it's a two-hour ride down and we're familiar with the surroundings. Even better, we'll get to catch up with friends whose son is also playing in the tournament.

After that, we could find ourselves in Atlanta over the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday weekend in mid-January. Though we paid our entry fee and have made hotel and car reservations, I'm not sure we're going. Like any tournament, the costs can quickly add up. This one, when it's done, could cost us, at the least, between $700-$800.

To us, that's a big chunk of change. Especially when, about a month later, the team is scheduled to play near Charlotte, N.C. While that trip will likely be as expensive, there's more incentive to go on that one. We have relatives in South Carolina, so we'll stay with them. That tournament, too, will give them their first  opportunity to see Colin play hockey. That alone makes the trip, which is the most appealing one of the plate, worth every last penny.

All told, though, these three tournaments could cost us (I'm estimating between $1,700 or $2,000) more than the CFHL season fees (about $1,650).  These costs include the tournament fees, lodging, transportation (we'll rent cars rather drive our high-mileage vehicles and it'll be cheaper than airfare for three), food and incidentals. It all adds up -- very quickly, too.

For that very reason, finances are the driving force behind any decision. Only recently has my freelance work, which pays for Colin's hockey, started to ramp up. When I had a steady gig, it wasn't much of a problem. I saw the rewards of my consistent 60- to 65-hour weeks, factoring in my 40 hours at the newspaper. Sadly, I haven't had too many of those since July. Colin's hockey, unfortunately, has felt that pinch.

Yes, we knew going in, as we have with other seasons, that travel hockey isn't cheap. That's why I put in the extra time, when it's available, so we can afford this luxury. These days, it's more important to replenish our finances and be much more selective with our spending. We already passed on one tournament, down in South Florida after Thanksgiving, for that reason. Those savings will help make our Christmas a little merrier and cover some of the costs of this week's road trip.

This week's trip represents our first extended stay, so to speak, with the Brandon Jr. Bulls organization. Because we haven't had the best of times this season, because of a recurring (and hopefully resolved) issue, I'm curious how this trip will go, from how the kids play during their games to what happens off the ice.

As an aside (and, likely, a future Sunday column topic), I'm hoping that one disturbing story about parental drinking during the South Florida tournament isn't repeated. It seems, and not just within the Jr. Bulls organization, that some parents believe tournaments are a reason to party hard. Thankfully, I'm not one of those parents.

This week will also be a first for Colin and me. The Missus has to work, so it'll just be us boys. That's why we're approaching this like a pair of teammates on a minor-league road trip -- hanging out, making some memories and having as much fun for as little money as we can. I'm thinking it'll be much more father-son bonding than anything else.

Bottom line, this tournament season should be mostly about hockey and having fun. Let's hope it is.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Interesting stats

Just last week, I liked a page on Facebook dedicated to getting rid of bullying here in the Tampa Bay area. Given that we've had to deal with it repeatedly this travel team hockey season (and, sadly, it still hasn't gone away), it's a subject that hits close to home.

The group shared an image that detailed the personal consequences of bullying. Two pieces of information stand out. 1.) What the victim of bullying goes through, as we've noticed that here at home. 2.) The path that bullies can take as they grow older.

Bottom line, it's unfortunate that this remains a problem, here in Tampa Bay and across the nation. Unfortunately, some people -- adults and children alike -- just don't get it.

And, if people don't like what I'm saying here, that's too bad. I'm only telling the truth.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hockey Life: Cemetery Swamp

One of the best parts of growing up in Machias, N.Y. -- and there were many -- were pond hockey adventures during the winter. Many afternoons were spent living out my hockey dreams across the rough patches of ice in western New York.

Really, it didn't matter where we all skated. It could be Lime Lake, a pond in a farmer's field or out back behind the Gilbert's. Some of my first strides were taken on an ice patch, formed when snow turned to slush and then froze, in a cut-down corn field.

For the most part, though, my home rink, so to speak, was Cemetery Swamp, just down Roszyk Hill Road from where I grew up. As long as it froze over, and none of us fell in, that's all that mattered.

In a way, it was my hockey classroom. A laboratory, perhaps. It was my place to learn how to skate, practice my dekes (if I ever had any) and put the puck on net.  It was where I could try, fail and, every once in a blue moon, succeed.

As you can see in the picture above, taken in the mid 1970s, hockey equipment was optional. Though we all had skates (I was rocking a pair of Bauer Special Pro 95s, size 12), few of us had hockey gloves, shin guards or shoulder pads. Forget helmets and cages, too. We didn't get those until later, shortly after I knocked out a kid's tooth playing street hockey.

For me, my hockey uniform consisted of layers. Two to three pairs of socks. Long johns under sweat pants or a pair of jeans. A warmup jacket over a sweat shirt (or two), long-sleeve turtleneck and a T-shirt. Looking back, the layers likely served just as much as bodily protection against hard spills as for simply staying warm.

Making our way onto the Cemetery Swamp ice was a bit of an adventure, too.

After getting ready at a friend's house across the street, we'd run down the driveway, across the road and traverse a downward slope in Maple Grove Cemetery to reach the swamp's edge. Like any cemetery, not all of the grave markers stood erect. No, some were flush with the ground. Every so often, when a steel blade met granite, someone would take a spill. Laughter, predictably, would ensue.

For the most part, winter's brutal grip meant the swamp froze solid to the edge. During the so-called shoulders of the season, when temps reached the 40s, there would be some gaps between terra firma and ice. At times, these gaps were mere inches, easily covered in a single step. Others, though, meant taking a leap. Those, too, often solicited laughs, especially after an awkward landing, hard fall or a small splash.

Then, and only then, did we begin to clear the ice. With shovels in hand, we clear away enough snow to form a playing surface, with the piled-up scrapings serving as boards. Not by NHL standards, mind you, but large enough for eight to 10 kids, at the least, to play. In time, we'd learned to build a plow -- a half-sheet of plywood attached to two 2-by-4s -- that two of us would use to clear snow from the rink.

The biggest thing I remember about Cemetery Swamp was the ice being bumpy, rippled and rough. Reeds would stick through. So would small branches. Warm days (relatively speaking) followed by cold nights turned footprints into obstacles. Only once, in the increasingly windy hours before the Blizzard of 1977 that socked Buffalo with mountains of snow, did we skate on smooth ice.

As a result, I was something of a "mudder." I could easily navigate the perils of Cemetery Swamp, but struggled to maintain my balance on any suburban Buffalo rink. It would take me a good 10 warmups laps before I got my legs under me. Once, before trying out for the Buffalo Jr. Sabres, I took a spill, nearly wiping out another kid as I slid into the boards.

It was not my finest moment on ice.

Many years later, after moving to Florida, it was that embarrassment, which I remember just like it happened yesterday, that motivated me to not make the same mistake with Colin. Not only did he start skating at a much younger age (6, vs. my 15), but he has always skated on a rink. That's why, I'm proud to say, he's 10 times the skater I ever was or will be.

I'll admit, though, that I wish, for many reasons, we could move back north, to either western New York or New England. Sure, it would be nice to live closer to family and old friends. I miss the change of seasons, too. And, yes, it would be nice for Colin to play a little pond hockey -- just like his old man once did -- out on Cemetery Swamp.

Some day, we'll make that happen.

Friday, December 14, 2012

What a sad, sad day

I can not, for the life of me, begin to fathom the tortured pain that the parents and kin of those slain Connecticut schoolchildren are feeling. What a horrible, senseless tragedy.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A worthwhile read

Doesn't matter if you're a parent, hockey fan or whatever, if you don't tear up at times reading about this family's journey, you have a cold, cold heart. I'll admit, it does require a sizable investment of time, but it's worth every last second.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Hockey Life: Positive messages

It's not that I want to throw my support behind the National Hockey League and team owners during this extended lockout, but I have to give props to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and its owner Jeff Vinik, for their continued support of youth hockey here in Hockey Bay.

For the past few years now, the team has held its Lightning Made Clinics for players 12 years old and under at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. In these sessions, the kids run through skills-based drills and, if time allows, participate in scrimmages. Colin, shown above at Friday night's clinic, has been fortunate enough to participate in quite a few, including one earlier this year.

The clinics, utilizing methods promoted by USA Hockey's American Development Model, are led by Brian Bradley, a former Lighting player. It's not uncommon, though, to see other ex-players, such Dave Andreychuk, Chris Dingman and Jassen Cullimore, among others, helping out.

For the kids, it must be a hoot, skating on an NHL rink. Colin tells me that it's some of the most fun he has ever had playing hockey. I can imagine. To be out there dreaming that, one day, the seats could be full and it isn't a clinic, but a real NHL game.

To me, that's what it's all about. And, really, it doesn't get any better than that.

*  *  *

Before heading into work Saturday, The Missus told me that Miracle, the movie about Team USA's gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics, would be airing later that night on AMC. After making a mental note to turn it on at the office, I also suggested that the young American hockey player in our house watch it.

Honestly, I knew he would watch it without my asking. We've watched it together a couple of times before. I've told him stories about what it meant for the nation and USA Hockey. I've even shared how I still get goosebumps watching certain scenes, especially the ending.

Basically, my line of thinking is that if any American-born hockey player (or a fan, for that matter) doesn't get pumped up watching Miracle, there's something wrong. We'll see today, when Colin suits up for the Pinellas P.A.L. Stars, how much of an impact the movie makes on him.

*  *  *

I must say, and I'm happy to do so, that life within our Brandon Jr. Bulls travel-team season has become far more enjoyable. It seems the message was sent -- loud and clear -- that teammates deserve respect and rules must be followed. It's nice going to games and practices these days, when all we're thinking about is how well the team will play.

Really, that's all we wanted. I bet, too, that's all anybody involved with this wanted. Well, we have that now and we're looking forward to the weeks ahead to see just how good this team can be.

We'll be busy over the next 10 week or so, with tournaments in Estero, Fla., Atlanta, and Charlotte, N.C., on the agenda, as well as the team's remaining six games of the Central Florida Hockey League regular season.

Addendum 12/14/12: Colin was concerned that there may have been another incident after Monday's practice, but I told him, as I have before, it's best to ignore what this kid, as well as most others, have to say to him. Some day, they'll all grow up.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Hockey Life: Simplest of gifts

When I was a kid, my favorite holiday wasn't Christmas or Halloween. Instead, it was Thanksgiving. And while it was nice to gather with family and stuff myself silly, the day always meant a little more. It meant that my birthday was only days away.

Over the years, my priorities changed. In my 20s, it was simply another reason to have another cold one ... or two ... or three. In time, though, especially with each milestone birthday, I realized there was more to life than partying, with or without birthday cake.

Now that I'm older, inching along on my second half-century, birthdays are becoming just another day among the 365 or 366, depending upon the year. Sure, I like getting presents, though most have become, at my own request, far more practical in nature. My need for toys, or another shot of tequila, has long since passed.

These days, I appreciate more of the simpler things. To take the time to slow down and look around. To soak up the surroundings. To savor the moments. To understand -- finally, after more than 50 years of roaming this planet -- what's important.

That's why, without a doubt, it was one of my best birthdays ever this past Saturday. Even though I had to use a personal day to get the time off from the paper, it was time well spent. It was more than watching St. Petersburg's Santa with The Missus and Colin. Same, too, with the mind-clearing walk home from downtown.

What made my day was as simple as this: watching Colin play hockey.

While we've circle specific games on the schedule this season, Dec. 1 had the biggest red one around it. Colin had two games with his Jr. Bulls Peewee A squad that day and, because of my shrewd planning with vacation time, I was able to watch both. That, alone, was my present to myself.

Knowing that friends would be joining us added to the enjoyment. I've been fortunate enough to renew a friendship from my college days, so it was pretty neat when he and his daughter came out to watch Colin play. It's always a hoot, too, when one of my hounding buddies shows up, sharing stories of his adventures from the road.

Colin did his part, scoring his team's first goal -- the eventual game-winner -- and adding a pair of assists in the first game of the evening. Later, in the second game, he showed poise and that lessons have been learned in making two solid plays while killing off a penalty. It's a shame the kids, who all skated hard, didn't sweep the day.

But, really, no complaints. None whatsoever, not even in the least bit. Thankfully, it was a day to stand back and watch my son play my favorite game. It was appreciating that he's 10 times the skater I ever was. It was seeing again, in his ever-increasing flashes of recognition, that it's worth all we do to have him play. And it was knowing that we're headed down the right path with him.

I couldn't have asked for a better gift.