In times like these, kids' hockey game is reminder of what matters

Whole world not unraveling

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2003

Six months ago, I didn't know a blue line from two-line pass and "Face/Off" was just some 1997 Hollywood drivel.

Few times in my life had the game of hockey generated any interest.

OK, in 1980, I cheered the American Olympic Team when it beat the Soviets in a semifinal game that history still insists on calling "The Miracle on Ice." I went once to a New York Islanders' game with my brother where the fans seemed bored until a fight broke out in the second period. And I did notice when the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup a couple of years ago because that Alaska kid Scott Gomez was on the team.

Other than that, this old baseball fan barely took notice.

Then last fall, though she'd never so much as held a hockey stick, my 10-year-old daughter, Kate, announced proudly she wanted to play on the Homer Glacier Kings Squirt D team, encouraged by a girlfriend who knows how to play -- having skated since she was 2 trying to keep pace with her older brother.

Suddenly, the game took on a whole new dimension.

My neighbor's boys play hockey. I'd often see them packed into the back of the family car pulling out of the driveway early Saturday mornings for the drive north to Kenai or Soldotna, and sometimes Anchorage, not always for games, but sometimes just because there was no ice in Homer. "Why would anyone want to do that?" I'd ask. Now I know.

Almost every weekend throughout this non-winter, we, too, have driven the 90 miles to Kenai, or occasionally to Anchorage, for hockey practices and games.

Winter virtually wasn't in Homer. Less than a third of the Squirt's practices were held on ice. Most have been conducted in gymnasiums, and of late, on the high school track -- a lot of wind sprints and even a bit of soccer before last week's snow covered the football field. Then the kids got their exercise dragging long lengths of outdoor carpeting up the steep slopes of the Homer High School football-track amphitheater and sliding back down on the makeshift toboggans.

I'm supporting the long-held dream of a real hockey rink in Homer. The sport would be nearly as big as Little League if the city had one.

Despite their lack of ice time, the Squirts have held there own this season, winning some games while losing others, a few of those against more advanced teams in contests scheduled just to give them experience.

They took second in the 2003 Forest Oil Ice Classic in late January, and won the 2003 Presidents' Day Invitational in Anchorage in mid-February.

Kate could barely skate when the season began, but she's gotten faster and more aggressive. She still has to learn to stop, however. It's a critical skill. Hockey skaters need to turn on a dime. Kate needs space equivalent to the main floor of the Denver mint.

There is much that is endearing about these youngsters -- especially at this age -- playing this game. Checking isn't allowed, which is a good thing since some are very good skaters and others are not. But the contests are great fun and tend to surface the players' inexhaustible supplies of spirit and guts. Exiting the ice for respites on the bench, steam rises off their sweating faces.

However, parents, passionate as any Little League fans, must stand freezing along the periphery of the rink, fighting the elements to stay warm by cheering and screaming unheard advice to passing players. Homer's rink is

completely outdoors and on a hill exposed to the winds off Kachemak Bay. In Kenai, which has a great facility the likes of which Homer hopes to build one day, things are better. If only slightly warmer, at least the rink is covered.

Nevertheless, parents there are either wiping condensation from the hard-plastic protective walls or, seeking a clearer view, balancing on shaky metal bleachers against the stiff breezes blowing in from the parking lot.

They stand because the metal seats are too cold to accommodate anyone's rear end.

More than once, I've turned to my wife as we encountered poor road conditions and nasty weather on our way north and questioned our sanity. Once, during the fall floods, we arrived in Anchor Point on our way back home and were met by road crews who said the Old Sterling Highway was about to be closed. The Sterling Highway had been closed already, and that morning as we crossed the small bridge over the river on our detour, we looked at the water level and wondered if it might be more prudent to turn back. After all, we were going north for a practice session, not a game.

We didn't -- and an hour or so later learned we were the only fools to have made the trip. Now we faced the possibility of being stuck in Anchor Point for a day or more. The Anchor River Inn was booking up fast. We decided to drive down to the bridge -- which was not yet officially closed -- for a closer look.

The river was over the road south of the bridge. State transportation workers were wading through. We were second in a growing line of cars -- most with higher clearances than our Subaru -- waiting to see if they'd be able to risk driving through the rising waters.

We were told the Alaska State Troopers would be closing the road momentarily and that driving through would be at our own risk. We went for it, the Subaru plowing through with little problem.

But it occurred to us we had become hockey parents, willing to risk an asset as valuable as a car to put our daughter on the ice. Are we crazy?

Short of the fact it was too warm for ice in Homer much of the winter, which compelled more drives north than we might have liked, it's been a great experience. Kate's talking about playing again next year, though she's not sure she's ready for checking.

By the time you read this, we'll be in Anchorage for the state hockey tourney, possibly gearing up for the championship game this evening.

Considering that halfway around the globe, the world is coming apart at the seams, there is something reaffirming about having such opportunities to focus on our children.


Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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