Being a 12-year-old is like being on top of the world. You don’t realize it at the time, but it is just about the greatest thing that can ever happen to a boy — being 12, that is. Sure, there are other great moments in your life; moments that are more important as singular actions. You get married, have a kid, land your dream job, buy a house and all those things mean more.
But there is never quite a time like being 12 for its consistent greatness. There’s a thing about it — you know — the combination of growing like a weed and youthful jabbering and yet still that palpable sense of innocence. The belief or hope, anyway, that miracles can still happen.
When I was 12, we didn’t get out of school and play video games or go to the Y and shoot hoops. We took the $30 plastic goalie nets we bought down to the abandoned tennis courts behind the elementary school, strapped on the pads as quickly as we could, and spent the next two or three hours playing a weird combination of street and roller hockey.
It basically went like this: If you brought blades, you could use them. But if you were too good, we’d make you take them off, because most of us didn’t bring roller blades, and it was basically impossible to do the type of stuff on your feet you could on your blades.
We used anything we could find, really. I had a pair of outdoor goalie pads I got for my birthday. The opposing goalie used a set of his dad’s old college pads that made him look like the Michelin man. He had a catcher, but I didn’t, so I used a baseball glove. The balls were sometimes foam or rubber “NHL” street balls, sometimes they were tennis or racquetballs.
The game was only an approximation of actual hockey. But it was one of the greatest day-in, day-out recreational activities of my life. It is a memory I’ll cherish forever.
When we were older, we got together again a few times to try to slap it around the old abandoned tennis court, but it was never quite the same. There’s something about certain scenarios that make them perfect and when you try to recreate them, you lose something. We were too big for the court then, the pads and some of our crew had gone. Most of us still played rec. sports at other places, but it was more competitive and adult-like. We were never going to be 12 again. So it goes…
The Sabres might be reaching that point where they’re never going to be 12 again with all of these familiar faces. I don’t quite know if it’s an exact comparison, professional hockey as business, and all. But invariably, over the last few seasons, something has been missing when I’ve watched them. Maybe it was because of the malcontent, cheap and unappreciative former owner, or the lack of star power, or the routine results. Maybe it was me, too, and my unreasonably lofty expectations. I think the fairest answer is that it was some combination of everything.
This year has been different in some ways. An influx of injuries has allowed us to see a cast of new characters, including the oft-talked-about Zack Kassian. And win or lose lately, I’ve got to say, I’ve enjoyed the spunk, the freshness, and yes, the naivety.
When I look back at what I’ve seen as a hockey fan, the most enjoyable times I had were the ones in which there was an unexpected and untethered sense of joy in the game. It happened in 1999, when the Sabres back-doored into the Stanley Cup Final on the hall-of-fame performance of their netminder.
It happened again in 2005 when the team came out of virtually no where to win a whole bunch of hockey games.
These times haven’t always been filled with young teams or young moments, but rather players who were more-or-less young at heart; who still were foolish enough to believe in the possibility of things.
The Sabres have had a tough go of it lately. They’ve dropped more games than they’ve won and their home record is abysmal. It seems to me, though, that every night when they step onto the ice, there are two teams playing in the same uniform.
One team has all the cynicism, skepticism and regret of a seen-it-all college Sophomore. They’ve lost the fire a little bit. They don’t believe in Santa Claus. And it seems that they don’t quite think that big things can happen on their stick in that building. But then, there’s another team, a team of some youngsters and a few veterans who go out every game and just want to play like they’re 12 again.
That’s the team I’m rooting for. And win or lose, those are the guys I want to stick around.