I spent a good ten years of my hockey career, or “career”, if you will, in Finnish minor leagues – a galaxy far, far away from the NHL – where games are played late at night, and the practices held even later at night, where it’s sometimes easier to get to an away game than a home game.
In the minors, the coach sometimes decides to make big league moves, such as shorten the bench in the third period, but most often he doesn’t because he can’t even if he wanted because he only has two lines to work with.
If the team has a coach, that is.
For most of my decade – the golden years – my team always had a playing coach. For years, it was the team’s leading goal scorer, and for a couple of years it was me, and for one season, it was our goalie.
Let’s call him “Taneli”, because that was his name. Or, let’s call him “Tana”, because that’s what we called him, and fittingly because often that was what you heard when he let in a soft goal, as the entire bench – anything between three and 15 players – sighed [-tana], swallowing the first syllable of “saatana”, the Finnish swear word meaning “satan”.
But, a minor league team doesn’t need a lot of coaching anyway, especially during the games, so mostly “Tana” made sure that the practices ran smoothly, and that everybody knew which line they played on. Occasionally he’d shuffle the lines between periods. And of course he handed out the practice sweaters.
Then again, with three minutes to go, when your team is down by a goal – maybe a soft goal that you let in – you have to make that final push. You have to get the message to the guys, you have to get them to take a timeout, you have to call a few plays. Besides, as a goalie, you’re sitting – literally, and too often if you’re Taneli – way back behind the play, seeing everything unfold. You can see everything so clearly from there, if only you’d be able to control the players from there.
It was time to make a move.
“Tana” made the gesture for timeout but it’s not that easy to do with a glove and a blocker so the referee didn’t understand him at first. “Tana” didn’t let that stop him from rushing to the bench, while still making a “T” with his glove and blocker.
Back in the early 1990s, the old Tretyak mask, the helmet-cage combination was still a popular one, especially among goalies in “Tana’s” generation. Goalies, who grew up idolizing the 1978 recipient of the Order of Lenin, that is.
So, “Tana” raced towards the bench, and started to give us instructions with about 10 meters to go. He yelled:
“MMMMHHGRRRRHMMMSH! MRRGGHHHHHHAMAMMA! SSSSHHHHHUSHSSHAAAGRH!”
We looked at each other on the bench. Nobody understood anything. We shrugged our shoulders, while “Tana” came closer and closer.
“MMMMHH-AHA! SHHAGAGAGA-GAGA!” he screamed with his helmet shaking.
Nobody said anything. Frustrated, “Tana” unbuckled the strap and took his helmet off.
“Guys! Guys! Traffic in front of the net now. A LOT of traffic!”
Then he put his helmet back on, and skated towards the net, yelling some more instructions to the guys on the ice.
“RRRRAGAGAAA!” he seemed to say.
We never got enough traffic in front of the net. We lost the game.