This spring, I took a creative non-fiction writing course at Santa Clara. Being that it was writing for a class, the tone is slightly more formal than usual, and the content isn’t strictly the sort of stuff I would write on here, but I had the good fortune of a teacher who allowed me to write about more or less whatever I wanted, even encouraging me to continue to write about sports when I admitted that I should switch it up.
The next two posts from the 175 Files are going to be about a subject that I rarely, if ever, talk about on this website, and that is myself, not as a fan, but as a player. This first one is an essay about my last game at Prep School, and the experience I had playing with that team.
I suppose that it would have been possible for me and the six other seniors that I played hockey with my last year of boarding school to end our careers better than we did, but I have a hard time imagining how. It was a special group, and even though we played our last game together for Kent School more than three years ago now, it was an experience that I keep going back to. I don’t remember every detail from that day. I’m not even sure I could tell you the final score of the game (it was six or seven to one, but I would have to look it up to know for sure), but the highlights and emotions that I shared with 19 of my best friends and teammates the last time I had the privilege of playing with them are as plastered into my memory as anything.
It may seem a trivial event to most. Two prep school teams finishing up the 2008 season with a lopsided contest. For me though, it was the end of an era. It was the last game that I would play with a team that had returned eighteen of twenty players between my junior and senior year, and that went 31-2 over those two seasons. The two additions hardly disrupted the chemistry junior to senior year. One is a close friend to this day, a stud goalie named Matty Madrazo. The other was my brother, Rob, who had transferred to Kent so (or so I told myself) we could play together for my senior year. In name I had one brother on the team, but really I had nineteen. It was a group that had become as close as it is possible for a group of teammates to come.
Our record spoke for itself, but didn’t tell you about how we had about fourteen of our eighteen games that season wrapped up after the first period, or how Coach Minneman installed 3 systems in as many weeks because he thought it was important to keep pushing us. It didn’t say anything about the fact that we went into every game not just knowing that we could win, but knowing that we were going to win. It didn’t tell you any of that, and it really didn’t tell you how we ate every meal together, or how we spent hours in the locker room and training rooms before and after each game and each practice, just because we liked hanging out with each other. And this was the end of it.
We came to play every game that year, but it was hard to get truly fired up for each game when you knew that you were about to roll on the team on the other side of the ice. As great as the season was, there were nights that were just going through the motions. That wasn’t the case that Saturday afternoon, though. It was our last chance to do what we did so well, play hockey together. Not one person in that locker room we loved so much wanted to go out with anything less than our best effort. Some of us would play in college. Some had another year at Kent. Some of us were done after this. None of us would play with that group again. We owed it to each other to leave everything we had that day.
On top of that, we just didn’t like Choate. Admittedly, we were no blue collar group ourselves, attending a high school with tuition over $30,000, but Choate was, to us, elitism in its worst form. They were the stuck up kids who didn’t work for anything. They were the ones who acted as if they were better than you even though they weren’t. It may have been equally true of us. It may not have been true of them. But it helped fuel rivalries on the playing fields, so we were fine with keeping the illusion. It made putting them in their place that much more satisfying, especially when it could be done convincingly. We didn’t just want to beat them, we wanted to destroy them.
It was special to me, too. I left Idaho for a Connecticut boarding school at age fourteen. That meant that my mom and dad, the people who had driven me to the rink at ungodly hours, dropped thousands of dollars on equipment and supported my passion in elementary and middle school, barely got to see me play in high school. In the five years I played at Kent, I would be surprised if my dad saw more than eleven or twelve games. But he had made the trip for my last ones, and he was in the Nadal Center stands as I filed out of the locker room, down the hallway, around the corner, down another hallway, this one lined with pictures of alumni playing in college or pros, walked through the door to the ice, tapped our captain A-Rod’s helmet, yelled a ‘here we go boys,’ and took the ice to Basshunter’s Russian Privjet one last time.
Destroying Choate was what we wanted, and that’s exactly what we did, carrying a huge lead into the third period. It became less of a game that a celebration. Our normally stone-faced coach became jovial. Instead of making criticisms of sloppy passes or bad shifts, he made jokes. Wolinski, four years and you still don’t know where Jack is going on that play? Snydes, how many open looks are you gonna need to score today? The lines were his domain, something he lorded over, but today every line got shuffled as kids began to call out guys that they wanted to play with. We passed, skated and checked as hard as ever, but did it not for the reward, but because it was our last chance to do it together. With time running down and the game long decided, there were two more memorable moments before the final buzzer.
With less than a couple of minutes left, my friend James picked up the puck and sprinted down the right wing. The Choate defenseman did his job, keeping James to the outside and forcing him to turn the corner below the goal line and head behind the net. When James was going around the outside, I did what a combination of instinct, years of teaching and hours of practice led me to do. I slowed up a little bit, trailed the play, and found a bit of open ice just inside the right faceoff dot. Standing there, just before James went behind the net, I hollered my favorite word not in the English language: ‘YAP! YAP! YAP! HEREYAHGOHEREYAHGO!”
Unintelligible to anyone other than a hockey player, James understood perfectly. He dropped it to me with a slick behind-the back pass, which I took and shot before the goalie had time to adjust his angle. It went past his leg pad as he dropped to his knees, a meaningless goal that I will never forget; the last of my high school career and the team’s last of an incredible season.
Then, the end came, but it came with a bang. Regular line combinations having long since been torched, I found myself lined up at defenseman, rather than my customary wing, along with four other seniors and my brother (the real one). With eight seconds left, Sean Maniuszko, a defenseman taking the last faceoff of the season because…why not, I suppose, got beat cleanly on the draw. The Choate defenseman took the puck, and started up through the neutral zone for one final rush.
I angled him to the outside, and was within arm’s reach when I noticed that his head was buried in his chest, staring at the puck and barely aware of where I was. I could have poked at the puck, let the clock run out and called it a season. I believe strongly in playing the game to the buzzer, though, so I did what you do when an opposing player carries the puck with his head down. I bent my knees, loading all of my 160 lbs. I dug my blades into the ice, turning sharply ninety degrees into the Choate player. My shoulder caught him cleanly in the chest, taking his feet off of the ice. I unloaded my weight from my knees, sending him onto his back. A huge, perfectly clean, and perfectly satisfying hit.
One of his teammates took exception to my hit, rushing over and shoving me. As the refs blew the whistle to call a penalty on the retaliation, my brother sprinted over and grabbed the player who had shoved me. Soon enough, all ten players on the ice had come together, shoving, grabbing and generally roughing each other up. It was tame by hockey standards, but the refs saw no point, running the final three seconds off of the clock and ending an era. As I was roughhousing with an unknown Choatie, I remembered. My dad was there. He had never liked it when my brother and I engaged after the whistle, preferring that we kept our attention to the game itself. Worried, I snuck a glance to the stands, only to see him chuckling and clapping with Sean’s dad as we wrestled away on the ice. It was a perfect ending to a perfect season.