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
I'm here because Norm recruited me. He found me one afternoon on a basketball court in South Miami, where I was killing time by slinging a tennis ball into a hockey net. This simple motor skill more than qualified me to play with the Wildcats, so Norm extended an invitation. I turned him down. He took my number anyway, bombarding me with phone calls during the work week. Several times I rebuffed him. Finally I agreed to one season with the team, as a trial.
When we first began playing, the Alper Jewish Community Center was still learning about the sport. There were no boards surrounding the rink, just an oval of thin foam pillows; every errant slap shot caused a 30-second delay for puck retrieval. A rough blacktop surface chewed up our wheels. Without dressing rooms we changed clothes on the bench. There was then and still is no roof over the rink, which leads to frustratingly frequent rainouts when big black clouds move in from the Everglades. We lost every game we played my first season.
To prove my allegiance to hockey, I simultaneously joined a team at the Miami Ice Arena in North Miami Beach. The caliber of play on the ice far surpassed that at the JCC. My ice teammates, Canadians all, skated fast and shot with a level of skill and accuracy I have rarely seen. The rink is indoors, of course, so rainouts weren't a concern. Best yet, we actually won a few games. Even the level of exercise was superior; just keeping up with these guys generated a deep oxygen burn in my lungs. Everything was better.
I quit midway through the season.
My ice hockey compadres were just players. We'd dress before and after games in near-total silence. In contrast the Wildcats were a genuine team, one giddy with camaraderie and composed of a wonderful mix of personalities. Norm fought in Vietnam. Brian is an accountant. Geoff owns a jewelry store. Our goalie is an electrician, semiretired. Bruce is a commander in the war on drugs. Tom told me on several occasions about the product he sells, but I can never remember its specific industrial application. Javy says he works "in the corrugated cardboard box industry."
Javy is a family man, married twelve years. Steve is a parent to two adorable daughters. Norm helped Maurice through his divorce. I like the fact that we never call Maurice by his real name. To us he is known only as the Rocket.
All of us have our problems away from the rink. One forward openly debated leaving his wife. One of our skating attorneys is battling the other partners of his firm. Brian missed games and logged a lot of late nights at work after his company was sold. Last season two Wildcats had to sit out a few games to pass kidney stones. My marriage was floundering.
I signed on for another tour with the Wildcats, then another. We improved with every season. So did the JCC facilities. Along the now-smooth blacktop rose regulation-size boards. Bleachers appeared for fans. Behind the bench now stands a concrete locker complex, though people still tend to change outside. Four years later I find myself counting the days until Wednesday. When I refer to the Wildcats, I refer to them as "my team."
Howard is on injured reserve with a busted lip. To avoid the irresistible temptation to play, he doesn't even show up to watch tonight's game, which again finds us facing the Dragons. Dan isn't anywhere to be found either. Brian has disappeared. Even the Rocket is absent once more, though he's been sighted around town. "He keeps stopping in to my shop to ask about the next game," reports Geoff. Norm hears from him regularly, yet he can't explain why the Rocket (who in tribute to his heritage and his uneven play sometimes is called the Cuban Missile Crisis) has missed three games in a row. Maybe a Dragon is spiking his food.
Short-handed is no way to play, making for a tough game. We're helped, fortunately, by some roster changes. Since we lost to them at the summer championships, the Dragons' best player joined another team, the Outbreak. (Actual pregame cheer: "C'mon Outbreak, let's give 'em a disease!") The Dragons' newfound vulnerability affords us some sweet chances at their net, which we fail to convert. Through two periods no team scores a goal.
On the bench at the second intermission we gulp moist air. We talk strategy. We compliment Bob on his goaltending, Norm and Javy for their production in the corners, everyone for hustling. Norm prescribes deep breaths and says we should hold the air in our lungs for five seconds. Steve, who is a bit of a fitness psycho, scoffs, "No no no no no, Norm! That's 30-year-old army info. You've got to get the carbon dioxide out of your lungs." Norm counters that it actually was seventeen-year-old Lamaze-class info. The debate rages until Javy adds his experience with marijuana to the equation, tilting the argument in Norm's favor.
The third period turns into a goal festival. We manage to score three times, each goal well earned and postmarked with masculine shouts of triumph and glove pumping. Yet within a minute of our goals, the Dragons net an equalizer. At two minutes left and with the score tied 3-3, the rain starts to fall. We probably could have finished the game if the Dragons captain hadn't called a time-out.