For more than two years now, my little brother and his friends have been begging me to coach their roller-hockey team. At first I was honoured they would ask me to do this, but it quickly became clear to me that it wasn’t my hockey-smarts they were after. It was the pure novelty of it all. “You don’t actually have to do anything,” they said. “Really you just open the gate for line-changes and that’s it. But if you wore suits and shouted at the referees, man, that’d be fucking hilarious.”
Mildly intrigued, I passed on the opportunity last year in favour of…well, nothing, I guess. I’m trying to think of one thing I would have been busy with that I couldn’t have coached last year and am drawing a blank. Kind of sad. Oh well. This year, I wasn’t about to make that same mistake. The promise of wearing a fedora behind the bench while shouting hockey platitudes at a bunch of twelfth-graders was just too good to pass up.
The team already had a coach by the time I got involved — my neighbour Brian, who has two kids on the team. I recently spent a week filling in across the street while the parents were away, but my week as a single father of four is another story for another day. The key here is that when they came home, I asked Brian about being an assistant and he said he’d be more than happy to have me working the bench. After filling out a sheet of information to verify that I am in fact not a paedophile, I was made an official member of the Team 11 coaching staff. There is another assistant coach — another father of one of the kids on the team. That’s our staff: two dads…and me.
Fast-forward to this past weekend. Four games into the season and Team 11 has a 1-2-1 record. We opened the season with a 5-5 draw — there are no OTs in our league, as the rink has already been promised to the next round of teams by a specific time. I missed both losses while attending some business in Kelowna during Easter weekend, but I assume they were of the soul-crushing variety. Our only win of the year had come shortly after Henrik Sedin had wrapped up his Art Ross trophy two Sundays ago, where we decimated a team made up mostly of young girls. Is there honour in beating up the girls team? Maybe not. Is it fun? Absolutely.
With Brian away on business for the week, I was trusted with bringing the pucks for warm-up and given a leather coach’s binder, with game sheets, our schedule, and other such things inside it. The other assistant, whose name escapes me, informed me that his son wasn’t playing today and he had family in town, so he would likely be taking off and leaving me on my own before too long. Which he did. Me? I wasn’t going home ’til I took care of business, bro. And so it was that a blue-haired punk became the head coach of a team of troubled kids. And I didn’t even blow .08!
Before I continue, a primer on league rules is in order. Teams play 4-on-4, but there are certain measures taken to avoid absolute blowouts. Players are capped at three goals each, so if there’s one guy who looks like a man against boys, he has to channel his inner Gretzky and start looking for the pass. Once a team goes up by four goals, the losing club is given an additional skater, getting what basically amounts to a prolonged 5-on-4 powerplay until the game gets closer. Even the NHL doesn’t go this far to manufacture parity. And speaking of powerplays, we don’t have those. If a penalty is called, the offending player sits in the box for 3 minutes, and the other team is awarded a penalty shot. We play two 24 minute halves, with no clock stoppage save for a two minute break between periods.
We ran into penalty trouble early in this game. Seems to be the story every week, but the refs were especially unkind this time out. We change lines on the fly, and it sometimes happens that a player will fly out of the bench and into the play as the guy he’s subbing for is still stepping off. That’s roller-hockey. There’s only one gate, and to do it any other way would either leave us temporarily short-handed or lead to terrible collisions as guys crash into each other coming on and off. These refs weren’t gonna let that fly. Twice we were called for Too Many Men (a call that seems to be in-season at the moment. Too Many Men, so hot right now). And every time, Jonathan, our goalie, came up huge with a sprawling breakaway save.
By intermission the score was 3-0 in our favour, with penalties sitting at 4-0 against us. “Communicate out there,” I told them. “We’re having bunching issues, where all four guys are on one side of the rink. It’s giving them a free pass to the other side. Look around you, know where each other are. If you see a guy out of position, shout at him to let him know.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Our passing game had never looked better, we were getting clutch goaltending and the D was shutting down passing lanes and giving them nothing. It was really quite something. The first game I’d been a part of that actually looked like a real hockey game.
As time ticked down in the second half, it looked like we might actually close out the game with a shutout. This is practically unheard of in roller-hockey, where teams usually combine to score at least 15 goals a game. I wandered up and down the bench, patting guys on the back and congratulating them on good shifts. “Keep working hard out there boys. Secure that shutout. Johnny’s been good to us, lets be good to him.”
“Uh oh,” said a ref as he skated by. “You said the S-word. Now it won’t happen.” Not if you keep calling bullshit penalties, I thought, but kept it in my head. I have a hard enough time keeping the boys from beaking off without joining in myself. We went up 4-0 and they got their extra attacker. It didn’t change a thing. Before I knew it it was 5-0. I looked up at the clock. Seven and a half minutes. We could really do this! Our best skater, a kid named Ryen, took another penalty. As a guy who plays ice hockey, he has a tough time eliminating the physical element of his game that is commonplace on the ice, but frowned up in roller leagues. His first two penalties were a bit chintzy — this one was deserved. He skated over to the penalty box and had a brief word with the refs before coming back to the bench.
“Did you get ejected?” I asked him. He didn’t answer. Tears welling up in his eyes, he took off his helmet, threw it at the bench behind me and left for the dressing room without saying a word. It was our sixth penalty of the game, and having stopped the previous five, Johnny finally let one in. It was crushing, but inevitable. We went on to score another one, and were called for another penalty as the game winded down. With the clock already expired, the other team took their seventh penalty shot, and Johnny stoned them once more. The final score was 6-1. Penalty shots were 7-1 against us. Miraculous.
The referee let me know afterwards that Ryen would be suspended from our next game. A third penalty in the last ten minutes of a game is an automatic ejection and one-game suspension. With nothing I could say to appeal the decision, I respectfully thanked him for passing that info along and headed back to the room. Ryen was changed and leaving as I got to the door. “I won’t be here on Tuesday,” he said. “I’ve been suspended.” Emotional (and rightfully so), there was barely time for me to get a word in before he was gone.
I went into the room and told the boys I was proud of them. I choked back fake tears while saying so, spoiling the authenticity, but avoiding a moment of vulnerability in a room full of obnoxious teenagers. I really was proud though, and I still am. If I’m being honest with myself, I had nothing to do with the way they played. I opened the gate, called for line-changes and offered a few pointers here and there, but they would have played largely the same had no one been behind the bench at all. But I got to feel like I was a part of it. And it was so bloody exciting, that feeling. To look up at the clock and have victory so tightly secured that all I cared about was a shutout. To know that the other team couldn’t score save for a penalty shot, when they had an extra skater for more than half of the final frame. That’s something to take pride in. Something no Canuck game has ever given me. And in a few short days, I’d get to do it all over again.
Coming Up: Without their best player, can Team 11 pull their record to above .500? Can they rally together and win one as a team? Can their unlikely head coach come up with something more original to say than “keep the shifts short and the legs fresh”? Can I write an entry that’s less than 1600 words? All that and more in the thrilling conclusion to View From The Bench: My Life as Gordon Bombay! (Really, I promise, it will be better than this one. Honest.)