By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
We always begin with a cheer. The referee, waiting to drop the puck at center ice, refers to it as the rah-rah shit, as in "Go do your rah-rah shit so we can start this game." The cheer is a relic from the serious, organized, desperately important sporting events we played in high school and college. Here it is mostly a gag. Together we stand around our goalie Bob, wearing our mismatched green jerseys, oddly colored gloves, and torn equipment. We stink of sweat and leather and mildew. Tom stretches his torso by gripping the end of a goal post. Brian checks the tape on the knob of his stick. Norm, our gray-haired captain, calls for attention.
This would be a good time to discuss strategy or something, how we intend to play strong defense and beat our opponents, the Dragons, in this championship game of the summer season. As usual, though, we just crack jokes. Rocking back and forth on his skates, Norm notes that Javy is missing. This is important not so much because Javy is an irreplaceable talent, but because everyone knows that a sports team performs better when it plays in memory of a dead guy, or at least for a sick teammate. So we imagine Javy is in the Ryder Burn Center with boils erupting all over his skin. The game is dedicated to him. Our gloves gather in the middle of the circle. One, two, three, Javy!
We're the Wildcats, a roller-hockey team playing at the Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center, a sprawling complex of tennis courts, swimming pools, and baseball diamonds located near the Kendall campus of Miami-Dade Community College. We play in the center's adult A league every Wednesday night, year-round. There's not much difference between the A and the B leagues, so it's kind of ridiculous to consider us members of the elite. Compared with real ice hockey players, we're laughable. We can barely skate or shoot, and we often wobble around on our rubber wheels, unable to stop.
Maybe that's a bit unfair. In the four years we've been together, we've improved dramatically. We hardly ever topple over anymore.
With a trill from a whistle, the teams gather for the face-off. Both centers click sticks in a show of sportsmanship. The ref throws the puck down, beginning its journey. From behind our goalie the puck flies in a plastic blur aimed at Geoff, our teammate hovering near center ice. He gathers the puck on the blade of his stick and carries it to the Dragons' side of the rink. When a defender charges at him, he dumps the puck along the boards. Sticks slap with audible wooden cracks in the scrum that forms in the corner. Up in the bleachers, girlfriends affiliated with the Dragons chatter among themselves while absently monitoring the game. The Rocket, a forward on our team, chirps a high-pitched "Whoop!" his secret code that he's open in front of the net.
The game proceeds in typical fashion. We score first. They tie it. We score the next three goals. They come back to win 5-4 with only seconds left to play. Gathering by their smiling goalie afterward, jubilant Dragons hoist their first-place trophies and pose for pictures. We sit on our aluminum bench with our second-place awards, mumbling consolations about a great effort. Over the years we've earned more second-place trophies than the Buffalo Bills.
We actually garnered a championship once, two years ago. Norm hosted the victory party at his big house in Coral Gables. He served an ice cream cake with yellow-and-green frosting. We ate steaks and barbecued chicken served on green-and-yellow plastic plates. Each wife or girlfriend received a large Hershey's chocolate bar, because, as Norm labored to explain, chocolate is a reasonable substitute for sex.
The evening culminated out on Norm's patio, by the pool. With deliberate exaggeration he pressed the play button on a boom box. The familiar chorus of Queen's "We Are the Champions" blared forth. Freddie Mercury warbled while Norm summoned us forward one at a time, bestowing upon each of us a cheap plastic medallion embossed with the word Winner. We also took swigs of champagne from an old tennis trophy Norm rechristened the Stanley Cup. It was corny as hell and still one of the best parties I've ever been to; topping it would be difficult. So it's probably for the best that we lost.
I grew up playing ice hockey on a lake outside Chicago. Every winter night and all day long on the weekends my friends and I skated until our parents ordered us inside to bed. Although I never played the sport at an organized level, I learned how to pass and skate well enough to make the club teams in college and at grad school. On those teams, finally playing the real game, I gained an appreciation for the hitting, for the speed, and for the talent of the best players. The game flows frictionlessly. It's the most beautiful sport there is.
On the other hand, there's nothing even remotely pretty about roller hockey at the JCC. The game spins its rubber wheels at the bottom of the organized-sports food chain, at least a full rung below Ultimate Frisbee. Only in the most basic ways does the roller game resemble true ice hockey. We play outside on a rink that can grow so swelteringly hot our fortysomething goalie sometimes collapses from fatigue. At the JCC we call it a puck, though it actually is a hard rubber ball stuffed with cloth to weigh it down. We call the playing surface ice, though it really is smooth, flat pavement coated in a slick gray plastic. Physical contact is discouraged. The equipment is flimsier. I never wanted to play roller hockey.