A true ‘bucket-list’ Christmas memory
In a melee in front of my net, surrounded by ex-Leafs Mark Osborne and Gary Leeman, a wrister from the left circle is headed for the top left corner of the net, except — I stuck out my trapper hand, and picked that Dmitri Mironov wrist shot out of the air! Not a figment of a winter reverie, this actually happened!
Let’s start at the beginning.
Even at age 63, former Leaf star Darryl Sittler cuts a fine figure in blue and white, and the opposing goalie will assure you he’s a threat on the ice
Back last April, the gang at Vic Johnston Arena invited me to both drop the opening puck at the Ontario Midget-A championships, held in Streetsville, and also to come out with my equipment, and take some warm-up shots prior to the opening game. The host team was the Lorne Park Ojibway, where I met Lorne Park Hockey Association President Mike Doyle. I met ‘my team,’ after I had changed in the referees’ room, and gave them a locker room pep talk.
Following the singing of the national anthem, MP Brad Butt, Ward 11 Councillor George Carlson and I brought our respective greetings, I in full equipment. I shook hands with the players on both teams. Then they rolled back the red carpets, and warm-ups began. I took two rounds of warmup shots shots with each of the two teams in the tournament’s opening game.
Warm-up meant that taking shots from 17-year-olds was little more than an artillery barrage from the blue line. If you’re standing in the right place, legs together, knees bent, and stick on the ice, you’ll stop the puck with scarcely a move. And having a lifelong fondness for throwing a baseball, anybody who’s ever shot on me will tell you that there is no doubt I have a left hand that will get to anything, anywhere near it.
Psst… here are the goalie’s secrets
Young goaltenders can depend on having the reflexes of a striking viper. With age, goaltenders mature well: we are less prone to injury, and as technique augments our reflexes, there’s a ‘sweet spot’ between the mid-20s and mid-30s where, if you stay in condition, you play with the best of both worlds — reflexes to get to the play or the puck, and the wisdom of having learned the patterns in front of you so that you often know what the shooter is going to do before he’s made up his own mind, or thought he has anyway. Challenge the shooter, use your body well, and you’ll maneuver him into a low-percentage chance on net.
After the mid-30s, a mature goaltender learns the ‘piece-of-plywood’ style, which means you play the pattern, and try and be in the right place so that the puck can simply hit you. And if you stay in condition, you ‘degrade’ gently. I have been such a mature goaltender for a generation now.
Mike and I hit it off during the Ontario Midget-A championships in spring 2013, and he said he’d get back to me about being a special guest goalie later in the year. True to his word, he called my office in November, and my Executive Assistant told him he was nearly certain that an invitation to play goal in a charity game was one I’d be all over.
So back to the Toys-for-Tots game
Iceland, Rink #1, Friday December 13 just before 6:00 p.m. — I found Mike, who’d busted up his legs in a household accidental fall down the stairs. I said hello, he introduced me to a few of the organizers and players, and told me where our dressing rooms were. The two sides: the Lorne Park Hockey Association old-timers and invitees versus the Toronto Maple Leaf Old-Timers. Which ones, you ask? How about Darryl Sittler, Mark Osborne, Gary Leeman, Tom Fergus, Dmitri Mironov, Kevin Maguire, Dan Daoust, Rick Nattress and Dave McLwain. The special guest referee was former Leaf Jack Valiquette. Former Oiler Wayne Cowley and former Leaf Peter Ing played goal.
Spectators wanting to see the ex-Leafs whose jerseys they may have worn in the 70s, 80s and 90s could either bring a new unwrapped toy or donate at least $10 to the cause.
I went to the car, grabbed my sticks and hoisted my pads and bag over my shoulder, and trudged into the room. I realized how much effort had gone into this annual fund-raiser when I saw a tub of iced soft drinks and some sandwiches on the table for the players, and luxury-of-luxuries, rolls of black, white and clear hockey tape. They sure don’t do this for your normal weekend pick-up game.
Fortunately, there were two goalies for us (i.e. Lorne Park): me and a sponsor named Brent Wettlaufer. As I have discovered playing for the Queen’s Park team, the Ontario Legiskaters, being able to play a ten-minute shift in goal in an up-tempo game is a godsend for us ‘mature’ goalies. Both of us would certainly need the bench time on that Friday evening. They had brought me a lovely deep-green jersey for the game, but God in heaven, it was a size triple-XL! Even with all my equipment on, you could fit at least two of me in that tent! So, soccer-style, I wore my red Legiskaters jersey for the game. Our side was in dark green, and the ex-Leafs wore their road whites, so the contrast was maintained. Besides, under arena light, any red-green colour-blind male (like me for instance) would struggle to tell the difference anyway.
Now for the past month, I had been struggling with the tough-to-get-rid-of cold bug that had been infesting the Legislature, and a lot of other places. It’s the one with the cough that won’t go away. So it had been about six weeks since I’d been on the ice, an unusually long time for this goalie, in whom the love of the game remains constant. This would come back to bite me in the first few minutes of action. After Darryl Sittler (age 63), I was the oldest guy on the ice.
Surprise! Guess who’s bringing Ontario’s greetings?
Not too often that the MPP bringing the Premier’s greeting before a hockey game is one of the goaltenders. I have to admit that this was one of the neatest experiences I have had in 50+ years of hockey. Great job, Lorne Park Hockey Association.
There is quite a protocol if you want to play the Maple Leaf Old-Timers! There has to be a warm-up time followed by a flood. Then three running-time 15-minute periods (stop-time in the last minute), each followed by a flood. Makes sense when you figure there aren’t many of the ex-Leafs, and they need to sit down for a few minutes between periods. Both our goalies, being north of age 50, felt likewise.
Following the warm-up and the flood, they rolled out the red carpet for the (mercifully-brief) VIP greetings. I’d walked up earlier to say hi to Peel Regional Police Chief Jennifer Evans. Mississauga South MP Stella Ambrose was there with the federal Minister of Labour bringing the Prime Minister’s greetings. Her jaw dropped when I strode up in my goalie gear. Both teams were introduced onto the ice, and I skated up from the blue line to bring the Premier’s greetings and my short pep talk to the crowd.
And then the puck dropped to start the game. Who won? C’mon, who do you think? The ex-Leafs never had to turn up their game past cruising speed with the usual tape-to-tape passing. Referee ‘Black-Jack’ Valiquette had to award some dubious penalty shots to Lorne Park, and add some unseen goals to our total to even things up, but we calculated the final score was about 12-6.
When I started playing, I loved to watch Jacques Plante be the NHL’s rushing goaltender. Through Sawchuk, Dryden and Tretiak into today’s butterfly style, I’d be curious to hear what coaches would call how I play the position today. This was a save, by the way.
As the starting goalie, I had some rust to shake off my game. The first goal bounced in off my defenseman, and the next two were stoppable shots over my blocker. I had let in three during my half of the first period. Brent fared equally, and it was 6-1 after one period. I began to get into my ‘groove,’ did the second half of the second period, and finished the game with the last half of the third. Three times, I had a successful poke-check of either a centring pass or a shooter (can’t remember whom) in front of the net. My second period total was one against. I was chatting with Gary Leeman after the second, and I mentioned to him that my goal that night was to have a save percentage above .500. He said, “Oh really, I’ll tell the rest of the guys.” I wasn’t sure whether that meant they were just going to shoot straight at me, or whether I’d have to earn each save. I recall they got one on me in my half of the third, and though I wasn’t keeping a mental shot count, I was well north of the .500 mark in the game’s save percentage.
Then came the scramble in front of the net with two white jerseys screening me, and Mironov’s shot coming through traffic. I stuck out my hand somewhere close to the zone where decades of playing that very pattern said a shot would come through. I felt something in the glove and squeezed. The whistle blew, and I had an honest-to-goodness, bucket-list, grade-A glove save off a solid ex-Leaf defensemen with two other former Leaf stars looking for anything resembling a rebound in my crease. Sorry guys, no such luck! Of such stuff, the memories of a lifetime are made.
And as time wound down, three of the ex-Leafs bore down on me, two right in front of the net all alone, expecting the centring pass perfectly telegraphed by the body language of the left winger curling around my defenseman. I saw his wrists cock, and looked to the centring zone just above the crease with the two expecting Leaf forwards positioned to my left, ready to one-time the pass into what I was going to leave as the proverbial ‘yawning cage.’ I didn’t think I was going to catch up to a one-timer roofed into the upper reaches of the net, so I focused on the pass. Guess right, and you’re a hero; guess wrong and you’re a bum. I got to the puck, coming right-to-left in front of me, with my outstretched stick, and poked it forward, right past the two Leaf attackers, and onto the stick of one of my frantically retreating defense. Now that was my favourite save of the night.
And for the kids…
The game raised both plenty of toys and generous donations for the Peel Regional Police Toys-for-Tots program. It’s just one of the very many ways the Peel Police have, through the decades, stayed connected to the community on a grass roots level the way few other law enforcement agencies ever have. Part of the reason Mississauga has stayed Canada’s (and therefore the world’s) safest city for more than a decade is because people perceive the Peel Police as people we both know and trust. Officers are seen outside their duty hours, doing things that help the most vulnerable in society. Chief Evans is my third Chief in the years I have been elected. This commitment to community has always come from the top.
MGA International was this year’s title sponsor, and Bert’s Sports provided the uniforms. Everything consumed during the game was fully sponsored, which meant every dollar collected went straight to the Toys-for-Tots program. If they invite me back next year, I will promote the game up here in Mississauga’s northwest corner, in Lisgar, Meadowvale and Streetsville, and get some of our local folks to go to Iceland and see the game themselves.
Merry Christmas to everyone, and all the best for 2014.