A Slap Shot Straight to the Heart

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.

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.

"What?! I wanted to call a time-out so I called a time-out!" he exclaims as angry players from both teams circle around him. Calling a time-out is fine normally, except that in this drizzle there's almost no way it will be safe to resume. And sure enough, after the break, the rink is so slick the game ends in a draw. Fucking Dragons.

I sit out a rain delay with the Rocket under an awning by the baseball diamonds. I have two small wrenches in my hands, which I'm using to rotate the wheels on my skates to ensure the rubber wears down evenly. The Rocket is fully dressed in his pads and skates and the terry cloth headband he always wears. Sometimes it's a blue headband. Sometimes it's white. There's apparently a science to his color selection, but we haven't figured it out.

I ask him about his divorce.

"She left me," he says quietly. "We were married for fourteen years, then she thought she'd be happier with someone else, I guess. A grass-is-greener kind of thing." The Rocket looks out at the softball fields as he talks. On the hockey rink, some kids are using towels to wipe up puddles in the corners. We'll probably play soon. I don't say anything.

"So she left me for this guy," he continues, "but he decided he didn't want to be with her. Now she's all alone." The Rocket has two kids from the marriage; he won the legal battle for custody. He has a new girlfriend, too, who came to our games last year to videotape his exploits. The Rocket once showed us the tape, featuring nothing but images of him skating in circles, which was funny in a way he hadn't intended. I ask him if he looks forward to playing roller hockey as much as I do.

"This is the most important part of my week, definitely," he says. "I look forward to this. I need the team." Norm once told me that a lot of the guys probably feel the same way.

Even with the Rocket in attendance, and playing a poor team, we barely squeak out a win. Bruce slides a boneheaded pass onto the stick of one of their forwards, who carries it the length of the ice for an easy goal. I completely miss the net on several shots. Norm, the oldest player on the team, is skating so poorly he seems to be leaning on his stick for balance. In the first period he bobbles a puck headed straight at his blade. Moments later a crisp pass from Howard dissects his legs. In the third period, with the game still close, I slide a pass to Norm in front of the goal. The puck is only slightly behind him, yet he doesn't even touch it.

"Norm!" I shout with venom in my voice. "You gotta get those!"

When play stops he gives it back to me. "The pass was behind me!" he barks, implying that I am the one whose skills are lacking.

"Don't even start!" I shoot back as if I am about to unspool a litany of reasons why he sucks and why I'm so damn great. "Don't even start with me."

Norm is funny, engaging, upbeat, generous. I could fill an entire page with glowing adjectives. He's the one who put the team together, recruiting a client from his law practice for the defense and picking up a friend of a friend to man the right wing. He is a successful attorney, managing partner of a substantial law firm headquartered in the tallest building downtown. I've lunched with him there, in the penthouse dining room, a place where you have to wear a sport coat just to be seated. He has a long-term marriage and a son preparing to go to college. Norm is a man of substance.

And here I am, about half his age, chewing him out like I'm Knute Rockne.

Norm is self-assured enough to brush off my grumbling, and I'm self-aware enough to regret my barbs as soon as they leave my lips. Sports reveal our true natures, stripping us down to the kids we used to be, playing touch football after school or pond hockey on Saturday afternoons. Impulses we've been trained to suppress in the adult world have a way of bursting out.

After the game I sit next to Norm on the bench, pulling off my pungent equipment down to a sweat-soaked T-shirt and shorts. I act as though I hadn't snapped at him. He plays along. I compliment his alma mater on an undefeated record in football. I tell him a piece of good news I'd heard about my job. But I never apologize. We walk toward the parking lot separately, Norm veering toward his car without saying goodbye.

Driving home through scattered showers on the Palmetto, my windshield wipers swing a steady beat. Salsa plays on the radio. I'm exhausted and sweaty and very much alone as I ponder why I can be such a jerk.

I met my wife at college. Ours was a small, snowy institution in the Midwest, a school where everyone knew everyone else whether they wanted to or not. She enrolled a year after I, and through some mutual friends, we met soon after she arrived on campus. Although I didn't really pay attention to her at first, I had plenty of opportunity for further observation. By my senior year I realized she possessed the most wonderful laugh I'd ever heard. Looking at her more carefully than ever before, I noticed the unbelievable clarity of her blue eyes.

We basically moved in together on campus. In the morning we'd slide across icy sidewalks to grab breakfast at the commons. After studying in the library at night, we'd fall asleep on her bed, my arm draped over her waist.

She stuck with me as I found my path. I dropped out of graduate school in Chicago and took a series of jobs digging ditches in the summer and shoveling snow when the weather turned cold. Another job found me chauffeuring handicapped people in a rusty white van. After my shift ended, she and I often shared a spaghetti dinner at my apartment followed by a muffin at a neighborhood coffee shop.

When I enrolled at a second grad school in Chicago, she took the train down to meet me on weekends. We continued to talk on the phone every night after I accepted a job in Utah, and then jobs in Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Our friends began marrying: Chris and M.J., Patty and Kurt, Mike and Karen. When her younger sister found a husband, our fate appeared pretty much sealed. It seemed like our turn.

I compiled a list in my mind: She's the funniest person I know; she's attractive; she'll probably make a great mother. And now all our friends are getting married. So we did too.

A typical night. I arrive five minutes before our late game to see that the early game is not even half over; we won't be able to take the ice for at least 30 minutes. Norm begins stretching out, executing jumping jacks that amuse us all. Tom leans up against the boards, nearly dressed already. Geoff, Bruce, Dan, and Dave arrive, Dave wearing a suit and tie, Dan in a grungy black T-shirt and shorts. Steve walks in with a bit too much energy, as is his nature. "Man, there are a lot of gray hairs here!" he bellows. More than half the team is over age 40, though Steve is no whippersnapper himself.

Bruce tightens his skate laces while sitting on a small collapsible stool he owns. I join Tom along the boards, near the bench. Javy is back from a vacation in Las Vegas with Mo, a former Wildcat who gave up the team when he got married. "I'm telling you, the women in Vegas have the biggest tits in the world," Javy reports. Several with Vegas experience verify his observation. Mo is doing fine, though he appears to have gained weight since he left us.

Geoff announces there are no new women in his life. He used to have a steady girlfriend who sat on our bench during games, studying a legal textbook. When I asked about her once, he peppered me with questions about marriage and whether I was happy with mine. Eventually his girlfriend just stopped showing up.

In the distance we watch a black cloud move in from the north. Will it hit? If it does hit, will it hit before we finish our game? Tom optimistically pulls on his elbow pads, tightening Velcro straps over his forearms. Suddenly the temperature plummets. Ignoring the bracing plunge, Steve decides to pull on his padded girdle, a big commitment because the stench from the equipment will now contaminate his shorts and cling to his skin. The wind picks up, raising billows of fine orange dust from the adjacent softball fields. With one minute left in the first game, with only one minute until we play, the drops start to fall. "It's a drizzle," Steve declares, still holding out hope. "It'll pass." A crack of thunder erupts, followed by a deluge of fat wet drops. We scatter to our cars like kids playing hide-and-seek. We'll try to make up the game Sunday night, provided family obligations don't get in the way.

Looking back on the first years of our marriage, I always think of my older sister, with whom I lived for a summer after college. She married at the same age I did. The day after she returned from her honeymoon, she took me out to the state fairgrounds, just the two of us. As we walked among the blue-ribboned livestock and the washed-up musical acts, and as we nibbled on the fair's famous cream puffs, she told me she'd made the biggest mistake of her life. She wished she'd never married. And she didn't know what to do.

Two years later I stopped by the house where she and her husband now live. They'd recently bought the place, a wonderful old Victorian made affordable only because it was in disrepair. She spent her nights painting the walls while he polished the wood floors. Their first child was on the way. Taking a seat beside her in the living room, I reminded her of the conversation we'd had at the fairgrounds. She strained to recall the evening. "Marriage is the best thing that ever happened to me," she said flatly, looking perplexed. "It's absolutely, amazingly wonderful. I wouldn't trade it for anything." Two years. I kept that in mind.

Our first two years were spent in Miami Beach, in a cute apartment close to the water. On Saturdays we'd often walk across the boardwalk with our towels, ready to broil away an afternoon. Some nights we'd walk down to the Art Deco District to marvel at the buildings and the people and the implausibility of our presence here in South Florida.

Too many other nights we'd trudge around the darkness of our neighborhood, asking each other why we were so unsatisfied by the marriage. Why, after all the years we'd been a couple, were we not happy together?

I spent hours trying to write down what was wrong. I'd type into my laptop computer at home, or into my office computer after hours. In my car on the way to assignments I'd scribble thoughts in a notebook. Still I couldn't produce a coherent explanation. Just listing the facts didn't do justice to the complexity, or to the weighty emotions involved.

The jolt of moving down from the Midwest hurt our union in ways we'd never anticipated and from which we never recovered. My job can be all-consuming. Her current job pales in comparison to the great position she gave up to move here. But it's not any of that at all, yet it is all that at once, and much, much more.

I constantly discussed the relationship with friends, co-workers, and anyone else who would listen, a population that dwindled as I continued to talk and talk and talk. One person encouraged me to leave. Another reprimanded me for not trying hard enough. One friend discussed her divorce as casually as someone else might talk about Sunday's Dolphins game. "I never loved him," she said. "He was a friend who supported me through a rocky time, so we married." After ten years, the last two of which they didn't sleep together, she ended it. Quickly. The divorce was finalized within a month.

I mentally noted the reasons to stay together: We shared friends and experiences and jokes only we knew. I also listed my dissatisfactions, acknowledging that problems are inevitable, yet feeling a crushing frustration at our inability to resolve almost any of them. She worked terribly hard at our marriage, but no matter how hard she worked, I still wasn't happy. Nor was she.

We continued to try. Following my sister's example, we bought a small house in Miami, a fixer-upper whose restoration became our joint project. I hoped it would become a common bond. I also hoped, as we worked on it, that the fissures in our union would somehow heal themselves

We scraped layers of paint from the doors and walls, patched cracks in the ceiling, and bathed the iron windows in rust inhibitor. An overgrown Brazilian pepper tree in the back yard became a banana tree and some young palms. Fresh paint appeared on the roof, fresh stain on the floors. On Friday nights after work we'd change into our grunge clothes, then spend the evening sanding and scraping until our fingers sometimes bled. Later we'd collapse in front of the television, sawdust caked in the corners of our eyes, flecks of paint clinging to our skin like Latex glitter.

Two years, my sister said. By the time we finished the house, we'd been married more than twice that long. On the night we finally hung the last refinished door on the last refurbished frame, I looked around. Now we needed furniture. The bare walls cried out for paintings. The empty shelves awaited pictures and candles and other knickknacks. I'd hoped that fixing up the house would solve our problems. Instead it served more as a distraction.

I moved out within the month. We called it a trial separation.

We're still trying to settle on a nickname for Dan, our newest forward. Most popular and quickest off the tongue is Dan the Man, an ubiquitous sports moniker. We strive to be a bit more original, so we're test-driving Steely Dan, a nickname that showcases his poise. Every season we pick up a player or two like Dan, a good upgrade to counteract the inevitable attrition. Dan came over in the summer with Dave, his boss at a design firm, in the wreckage of our former rivals the Beavers. Instantly Dan assumed our starring role. He skates with effortless ease. He dazzles opponents with his stick handling. He never seems to feel pressure. "And he speaks with a Canadian accent, too," boasts Norm, "which is always a nice touch."

The very first Wildcat team featured Mico, a tiny and explosive Finnish guy who never passed the puck. Presley showed some flash for a few seasons, until he quit in a huff over playing time. "It's all politics," he grumbled at Norm as he stuffed his pads into his bag for the last time. The Tuna is a legend, a hulking prison guard who could barely skate but whose slap shot traveled so fast and hard he reigned for one brief season as our top scoring threat.

The Tuna relocated to Massachusetts, where he now lives near our most memorable alum, the great Mark Smith. Our best-ever defenseman used to manage the former CenTrust Tower, downtown's signature skyscraper. Norm, always on the lookout for recruits, found him while executing some legal work for the building. That was more than two years ago, and we still talk about him in reverential tones. When he was on the ice, he controlled play for both teams, shutting down any offensive rushes by the Beavers or the Sharpshooters. Switching quickly to offense, he'd fire outlet passes to a wing, then position himself along the boards for a dangerous slap shot. He led the league in scoring. He led the team in everything. Then he moved on to a skyscraper in Denver, then to another building back in Boston, his hometown. We've never seen him since, but his presence is still felt. Once last season, after Dan covered his opposing man with tenacity, Javy paid him the ultimate compliment. "That," said Javy, lowering his voice an octave, "was almost Mark Smith defense tonight."

Dan is the youngest member of the team. He reps the whole Gen X thing superbly with a soul patch, unkempt hair, and black T-shirts advertising punk bands he used to tour with in Canada. During one grueling game last season I asked him what he does to stay in such great shape. "What, me?" he said with a slow laugh. "It's pretty much limited to smoking pot and drinking beer."

Like much of America, Miami is a rootless society. The Wildcats reflect this nomadism. Norm hails from Detroit. Bob learned to play ice hockey in a converted barn in rural Ontario. I'm an economic migrant, here for a job. I have no real ties to Florida and no plans to build any. Someday I'll move on, and another player will take my place at the left wing.

While I'm here I'm lucky to play with Dan. He scores our second goal and sets up two others. So excited are we to have him back in the lineup that we almost overlook the return of the Rocket, who decided to rejoin us just in time to score the game-winning goal as we down the Dragons 5-4. The fuckers.

Afterward we adhere to our tradition of recognizing momentous victories with ceremony by retiring to the College Park Inn for pizza and frosty mugs of Budweiser. Gotta stay in shape.

It's the first beautiful day of the fall, the first real break from the oppressive heat. In the morning the wind races past the bridal shops of downtown Coral Gables as I wait for my wife to show up for our last counseling session. We had been meeting with a marriage therapist regularly for several months. Today is our last scheduled visit.

Two weeks earlier, at a friend's wedding reception, our trial separation became permanent in a midnight argument on the lawn outside the Coral Gables Woman's Club. Today's meeting is a formality, almost as if we wish to notify the counselor that we won't be needing her assistance any longer. Sitting uncomfortably far apart on a couch, we tell her. The therapist concurs, actually gives her blessing, then escorts us out.

That afternoon we meet at the house. Her eyes are red and moist. My throat is so choked up I can't swallow. We sit at our dining-room table, trying to divide up the money in our bank accounts. We talk about my 401K, about getting the gas bill changed to her name. I brought a fresh notebook and a pen, as if I've done this before.

"I just want to get through this," she says, wiping a tear from near her mouth. I think of a photo of her taken in college, in which she's wearing a red sweatshirt with the cuff of her sleeve dwarfing her tiny hand. I think of her at our engagement party, when we broke away to walk on a carpet of brittle autumn leaves. I think of us dancing in our living room only three weeks before. I try to hold back my tears.

When we finish our audit, I head back to work and try to concentrate on a big, complex project that is due in three days. I sit at my desk in my cubicle, rocking back and forth over a crinkly piece of paper dropped on the floor. No work gets done. I just roll. For hours. Back and forth.

"Who are you guys?" asks Bob as we walked past the opponent's bench at the rink.

"I don't have a clue," replies a fellow in a blue jersey.

"We're the Lighting," answers his teammate.

"No," corrects another teammate, "our name is actually the Thunder."

Tonight should be no problem.

When the temperature drops, the energy level rises at the rink. Our whole team turns out, everyone with a bit more pep. Javy hunts for some cloth tape to build a knob on the end of his new stick. "I heard you guys did all right without me," says Geoff, showing up after a week's absence. "I had to take some classes for work, computer classes, you know, to make my own Website and such." As punishment for his misdirected priorities, we make him the Rocket's skating partner.

Circling the ice during warmups, Tom displays proper Wildcat spirit. "I fell off my bike this weekend," he relays as he glides around the face-off circles, up to the line that divides the rink in half, then back down behind the net. He'd been riding along Red Road when he lost control of his bicycle and crashed onto a coral-rock marker. "I punctured an artery just below my knee," he recounts. "It was pretty cool. The blood was shooting all over." He wrapped up the wound with a T-shirt and limped home. "I had to go about twenty blocks to get home. When I got there I took off the T-shirt and the blood was still shooting out. I was like, Hey, man! I've got a problem!"

Four stitches later, a bandage wrapped tightly around his kneecap, Tom is out on the ice. In recognition of his valor, the game is played in his honor, the first-ever pregame dedication to a guy who actually bothered showing up.

The Rocket is here again, and scores three goals, a feat we'll likely be hearing about for years to come. Bob plays acrobatically in the net, stopping several point-blank shots. Norm, Howard, Dave, Geoff, Steve. Everyone plays solid. The whole team gels in a way we hadn't in our earlier games. The final score is 6-3.

On the bench afterward, Norm declares this to be one of the best games all year, if not in the past two or even three years. Bruce shakes hands with Tom, who congratulates Dan on his defensive contributions. The Thunder bench glowers at us. These young guys, they can't stand to lose to an older team like ours.

Javy notices Steve slipping his bare feet into a pair of clogs, a style of shoe that has no business being worn by a hockey player. We laugh at Steve's fashion sense. "You boys," Steve says defiantly as he turns to clomp away, "wouldn't know from comfortable."

I throw my equipment into my bag, checking twice to make sure all the pads are accounted for. Then I linger for a while, savoring the fellowship, the sense of satisfaction that has come from being part of this team. I don't feel happy, exactly, but I do feel something positive. Maybe it's gratitude. I suppose I could try compiling another mental list. The Wildcats are great because: My teammates are fun and supportive; hockey is a pleasure; exercise is good.

Sometimes, though, it's better not to overanalyze. With this relationship I just accept things as they are. So I sit on the bench a bit longer, breathing in the cool fall air, basking in the vibe.


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