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I always played for the fun of the game
By Kevin Panko

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I decided 10 years ago, during a game in which my team was getting pasted 10-1, that competitive hockey was no longer for me. I was taking a breather between shifts, and despite the score, the other team played like there was no tomorrow.

This, in an attempt to up their personal point totals and dole out more physical punishment. I joked with our backup netminder, who was thankful to be sitting out this rout, “I can’t believe they’re still taking this seriously. I guess not all teams are as full of good time and cheer as ours.”

We chortled and continued to make fun of ourselves and the fact that our opponents were as earnest in kicking our butts as they would have been were this the league championship. This cavalier attitude probably explains our abysmal win-loss record that season. It also partially explains why I quit at season’s end.

Let me set the stage so you can better understand where I’m coming from. If you trace the career of NHL players from the Toronto area, past and present, chances are you’ll find roots in the Metro Toronto Hockey League.

It’s the league which has provided all sorts of talent to the NHL over the years (Lindros and Orr for example). Everyone knows this, including scouts from various Canadian Junior B and Ontario Hockey League teams (another breeding ground for big league talent). The equation is simple for the hopeful. As a player, you’re made very aware of this. Then, there are people like me.

Suddenly, Grave Seriousness

I love hockey but have never had a morbid seriousness about it. As a preteen, dominating the house leagues negated all the fun and challenge the game can provide. I desired a greater level of competitiveness. So, I tried out for, and was accepted by, a MTHL team.

The first couple seasons were great. Our team didn’t do as well as the coaches would’ve liked, but everyone seemed to be having a blast in the dressing room and on the ice. Then, we hit 16-17 years of age. Suddenly, the majority of players (teammates and opposition) became gravely serious competitors.

Suddenly, I didn’t possess enough “competitive edge” to play with and against those who did. If there’s a major explanation as to why I gave it up, it’s as simple as that. Hindsight is always an excellent window to your world, isn’t it?

Recall, I was playing in one of the most competitive and talent-laden minor hockey leagues in North America. Also recall that various scouts are out and about, looking for talent. The problem is that not everyone with skates and a stick has the NHL in their future, despite what they, themselves, may think.

I knew I wasn’t big-league material. Relative to what it takes for hockey success, I was too small and had a weak shot. Dedication to hours of training and practice to increase my chances wasn’t an option. I just wanted to play the game, irrespective of the portly, cigar chomping, grey-haired men watching with clipboards and pens poised. I refused to do anything different. Skating, shooting, and occasionally scoring made me happy.


Selfish Showmanship

However, not everyone shared my philosophy and most went out of their way for attention. Two modes of attention-getting became fixtures of game play. One method would involve skating the puck behind one’s own net and attempting an end-to-end deke out of the opposition, only highlighting an inability to play with the team. In hockey, being a team sport and all, this type of showmanship is counter-productive. Internal arguments would often erupt with terms like “puckhog” and “cherry picker” being thrown about like dirty laundry.

The second tactic was to prove toughness. Everyone knows that thundering and not-so-thundering body checks are part of the game. However, the on-ice situation sank to pathetic violence, heralding the days of the Broad Street Bullies. Hits from behind, cross checks, slashing, hacking, kneeing, etc., all done with the intent to injure, became staples. It got so bad that our coach ordered every player to don additional protective equipment.

Physical play is an aspect of hockey. However, nowhere is the aspect more potentially dangerous then when teens with something to prove are involved. I would suffer the brunt of the abuse because I was usually the smallest on the ice.

Teammates attempted to defend me, and vice-versa, but you can’t stop a dirty play from occurring. No one is impressed by the ability of 6’2”, 200 plus-pound hulking brutes to drive the head of a 5’7”, 135-pounder into plexiglass. However, the hulking brutes didn’t believe that.

Being my size, going on the offensive was something that was nipped in the bud by common sense. Of course, my lack of blood lust didn’t go over well. My teammates and coaches began to chastise my “lack of intensity.”

Never mind that I was one of the top five scorers on the team and had the lowest plus/minus.

The flak would continue during the drive home. My father would ask me in true top-of-the-lungs-Canadian-hockey-dad-style, “What’s the matter with you!? Why don’t you get in those corners? Are you scared or something?!” Well, yeah. Wouldn’t you be?

All the while, I attempted to maintain my sense of humor and enjoy the regular ice time. However, I decided that I didn’t need to put up with the cajoling and disparagement. I also didn’t think my body would survive the time it would take everyone else to realize hockey is a game, and despite the competitive backdrop, first and foremost, it’s supposed to be fun. Something any pro will tell you.

I walked away.

Now, when I strap on the skates for a game of pick-up, I feel liberated.

Maybe it’s the fact I don’t have to worry about someone plotting a cross-check from behind and a dance around my fallen and twitching body. Maybe it’s because I’m now surrounded by a rag-tag group of guys and gals who are more concerned with playing, not posturing. Maybe it’s the chorus of laughs and hoots that emit when one of us falls on a clean breakaway from center, or misses a gaping empty net or something equally ridiculous, but it’s fun.

Kevin Panko is a Toronto-based freelance writer and admitted television addict of “Hockey Night in Canada” doubleheaders.



This first appeared in the 10/1997 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2003, Hockey Player® LLC and Hockey Player Magazine®
Posted: Nov 12, 2001, 07:34
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