Slip Shot

10 p.m., Thursday, July 23, 1998, Center Ice, Lynch Arena, Pawtucket, Rhode Island - There is not an ounce of fear in my bones, mainly because there is not an ounce of brains in my head. Why on earth am I on this frozen battlefield? I can't shoot a good slapshot, I can't block the puck, I can't even play hockey - heck, I can barely skate!

So what did I do? I signed up to play hockey in one of the many pick-up leagues throughout Rhode Island and the northern states. I borrow equipment that I've never worn, to play one of the fastest and most dangerous sports on earth. This is a real no-brainer.

Death is not my greatest fear right now. Death is quiet and painless. My fear is focused on the slow, painful road to that death, or worse, back to life. I cringe at the thought of orthopedic traction, internal trauma, large scars and dental carnage.

I should keep a positive attitude here. I mean, this is just a pick-up game - they don't even keep score. But these guys must be pretty serious about hockey, coming out here at ten at night each week and paying $120 per hour just to rent the rink. I notice there's no referee; nobody to call fouls, nobody to stop fights, nobody to protect the frail life of a roving reporter on a deadly assignment.

Jim Omara tears up the ice on a Thursday night.

The game starts and things move pretty fast. I am playing power forward on the right wing, a position I chose simply by moving as far away from the action as possible, and far away from the man I call "bulldozer."

I am truly in the crossfire - the guys on the opposing team, by nature of competition, want to crush me. The guys on my team see me as a handicap and, by nature of competition, want to crush me. My only ally is my friend Doug Cameron, who's career is in insurance and who is not only playing left wing, far away from me, but has neglected to offer me a policy.

These are men who are good at hockey, but not pros. These are men who use this game as a release, as a way of venting their anger, a way to avenge the rudeness of their daily lives. They come here each week to blow off steam and forget the fact that, at some point in their lives, they had hoped to play professional hockey, and that hope vanished with middle age, or probably with a coach who cut them, a coach who likely had a face that looked just like mine.

Bulldozer (just "Bull" will do) is on the other team. He is easily twice my size and plays with a certain snarl that could keep him alive in any prison. Since we are in a real hockey game in a northern state, I guess he can legally just go ahead and commit his choice of felonies against me.

First period takes me by surprise. Here on the ice, I feel the power of this game like never before. The mass of people steaming across the rink and back. The puck flying past me time and again. Skates cutting into the ice, and players heaving themselves against each other and against the boards. The energy is building and I move on adrenalin. I find myself right in the center of a sixty-minute train wreck.

Keith Quinton, of the Rhode Island Housing Authority, works up to another goal.

I appreciate my helmet for protecting my head, I like my huge gloves - I couldn't sprain a finger if I wanted to - I bless my shoulder pads and my pants, which even have some armor for my lower spine. I am thankful for my kneepads, but let me tell you something, I love my cup. Boy, I can't tell you how much I love my cup.

"C'mon Mark. Let's see you skate!" Jim Omara shouts. I glide over to him and take a swing at this caster salesman from Massachusetts, somehow ending up with my face in the boards.

Bull is actually a six-foot-four, three-hundred pound, owner of an auto body shop, named Greg Dizuglio, and somehow I do manage to stay clear of him. My strategy is simple; do not get between him and the puck, do not get between him and the boards, and - for Chrissake - do not get between this guy and any food.

Some time in the second period, the puck flies toward me and I lunge for it. My stick suddenly feels like lead, and I somehow miss the puck. This happens again and again, and I start to regret my barging into the locker room before this game and calling everybody "little-league sissies."

The guys are teasing me now, hitting the puck near me, just to watch me tumble toward it. I work on a new strategy called "blocking" where I ignore the puck and simply get in the way of my opponents. With skaters moving at speeds up to twenty miles an hour out here, this can be pretty dangerous, and I even develop the "body bag" defense, where I gracefully throw myself either on top of the puck or in front of a skater.

Yes, this is dangerous. Yes, this is stupid. But I find that my little game of suicide-dodgeball is actually rendered useless - the guys just skate around me. How dare they! Salesman Henri Lanciaux skates right for me and I brace myself, leaning forward for the crash. He veers past me with a shrug and I fall flat on my stupid face.

Bonding experience at the net.

I notice that the action is near the net, where the game is more of a skirmish, with players jostling and nearly jousting as they try to gain hold of the puck and get it past goalie Mike Polak. Shedding any remaining common sense, I plunge into the caldron.

It's like the Running of the Bulls in here. I'm tangled in a pile of legs, arms and sticks and I am a little confused as to which ones are mine. I actually get near the puck (ready... for a... GOAL!) and it disappears. In a second it's clear on the other side of the stupid rink, by John Suchwalke's net. I'm pretty beat by now, and rather than skate way the heck over there, I hang out in our face-off circle, because the darn thing will be right back here anyway.

It is back, and so are Mike Watkinson and Brad Sudal, a couple of bankers. I appeal to their white-collar sensibility and I lunge into the fray again. Someone has to have the puck, I figure, and it may as well be me. I chop at the ice like a poorly, trained prep-chef, trying to get past a tangle of sticks to the puck. Somebody with a brown stick (liquor store owner, Joe Tuesch, I believe) steals the puck from me and takes it to the far blue line. I follow him right up until his slap shot.

Let me tell you, there is no good reason to be behind a hockey player as he winds up for a slap shot. The blade of that stick comes right up to tooth-level and the guy doesn't even know you're there. In fact, if his stick happens to smash your lower jaw, chances are, you'll mess up his shot and annoy him. And if you don't lose a tooth, he'll find some opportunity later to finish the job.

Doug Cameron as seen through the glass.

By the third period Doug is amused enough to actually pass me the puck. I am wide open, about thirty yards away, and he makes a good, clean pass. Why on earth I can't seem to stop that stupid puck is beyond me. "Thanks Mark," he says. "I've never seen a player miss with such great form."

It isn't until late in the third that I score a goal. Looking back - I am beside myself with pride. Here is how it happened, honest: I'm on the boards by the benches, um, catching my breath, when someone slaps the puck behind the goal and wraps it around the boards to center ice, where it lodges between my skate blade and the board, startling me.

Follow me, here. Now, I finally have the puck! All I have to do is figure out a way to get it from my right foot to the goal. I get my stick to the ground just as nine guys charge me. Somehow the puck meets my stick and I give it a great slap - about a yard or so - when Paul picks it up and backhands it to Keith Quinton, who passes it to Joe Tuesch, who I think actually gets it in the net! This could be called an indirect assist of the third part for me, and in my book, that's a goal!

Well, that's the report. I gotta run – Bull's coming.

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