Home game

Yesterday, as I was at a hockey store, getting some new skates for Daughter, it occurred to me that outside our house, there are two places where I’m fully comfortable and at ease. One of them is a car and the other a hockey rink. Any car and any hockey rink in the world.

One of my earliest memories involves a drive to a hockey rink in Helsinki. My Dad had a game and for some strange reason I got to tag along. In the mental image in my head, it’s the middle of the winter, there’s a lot of snow, we park our car far from the rink, I walk into a wood-paneled dressing room – and smell the stench of hockey gloves for the first time.

And, oddly enough, even the smell is a pleasant memory.

Naturally, I have no way of verifying any of that, except that it probably was the middle of the winter because back then, the hockey season was much shorter and that the gloves probably did stink because they always stank back then.

Since that day, Dad and I – and often Mom – have driven to dozens of rinks around Finland to play and watch hockey. I remember one time when I was about eleven and played on two teams in two different tournaments during one weekend, that as Dad drove across town, I was in the backseat of the car, changing from one uniform to another.

(No safety belts in backseat back then).

Around that same time, Dad’s old-timers’ team scrimmaged on Thursdays and Sundays, right after the Finnish league game in the Helsinki rink. There were two Helsinki teams in the league and the league had only two game days, Thursdays and Sundays.

We’d drive in early to get a good parking spot, and to watch the warmups. Sometimes we had tickets, sometimes Dad’s buddy was at the door and he waved us in, pretending to be tearing tickets that Dad pretended to be handing him. Sometimes we’d sit together and talk about the game, both of trying to learn more about the game, but other times Dad would go watch the game with his buddies and I’d go sit with my buddies and we’d spend the first period trying to find better seats for the rest of the game.

After the second intermission was over, I’d make a stop at a concession stand to buy a nakki, a sausage, and more often than not, the lady would give me a couple of extra onees so she didn’t have to throw them away.

Oldest trick in the book.

After the game, I’d meet up with Dad at the top of the stairs that took us down to the officials’ and players’ cafeteria. Dad went to get put his gear on, and I stayed in the cafeteria, eavesdropping on reporters, and playing pinball.

Later, when I was in my teens and we had moved to Joensuu, Dad and I often drove to the rink just because we were bored and had nothing better to do. There was always something going on at the rink. Maybe a game, a practice for sure, and in the cafeteria, there was Pac-man, a pinball machine, and snacks.

And most importantly, there were always friends, teammates, teammates’ friends, girls from school, girls from another school, old players, old coaches, people we knew.

Even when we didn’t know them. We all had one thing in common. We all loved the game.

Now that Daughter is the athlete in the family, I’m back hanging out at hockey rinks, only this time, I’m driving. We listen to music – we have our special game CDs in the car – and we talk about the games, and the practices and people at the rink, and, well, everything under the sun.

When we get to the rink, and she gets ready for her game, I sit in the cafeteria, maybe pull up my laptop and work for a while. Or I’ll look at pictures on the walls, speak with the Zamboni driving, ice scraping janitors, and get a cup of coffee. (One recent night I had that cup of coffee with a Zambini driver in their break rook.)

Maybe I’ll have a hotdog. Maybe I’ll have two hotdogs.

I exchange a few words with the other spectators, I have a look at the store, if there’s one, and I’ll climb up to the stands to watch whatever practice or game is going on.

And then Daughter’s team skates on the ice, and as I watch their game, I don’t think about anything else. I watch the puck bounce, I listen to the game’s sounds, the whistles, the sound of a puck hitting the boards, and the sound of skates biting into the ice and nothing else matters.

I’m home.

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