Skate! Skate! Move your feet! Young and middle-aged observers are compelling a defender to move the puck up ice. With his eyes, he surveys the position of his opponents. He has lots of room in his fore-ground to explore. A single stride is all he takes before dipping his shoulder. While keeping his head focused up-ice, he uses the toe of his stick to cradle the puck into into firing position. A labored release that starts from the hips and ends in the wrists sends the puck airborne. I hear a high pitched clap as the puck makes contact with the glass. The sound interrupts the familiar hiss and crunch of steel blades cutting into the surface of fresh ice.
The over-head view from the elevated walkway behind either net at Buff State athletic arena, which doubles as part of an indoor track course, is my favorite spot in Western New York to view hockey as it’s being made. In this arena, spectators may either stand on the track and lean up against a railing or sit on the wooden benches below. Descending the first few stairs from the track to the wooden benches gives the feeling of stepping down into some kind of performance theater. Apart from one team’s atrocious twelve-piece band that honks unidentifiable tunes during the occasional stoppage of play, this game sounds and feels like hockey ought to sound and feel.
I’m watching two rival college teams compete for a sought after mid-season victory and a defender with room to skate in front of him has just carelessly ‘iced’ the puck by dumping it off the glass with too much power. ‘A’ is confused.
“Okay, so — the hockey demigods didn’t want teams to be able to simply shoot the puck up the ice without first carrying or passing the puck half-way. It takes coaching and effort and some skill with a hockey stick to carry or pass the puck up the ice. If a team could just shoot the puck up the ice from their defensive zone, and then chase after it, hockey would have never become anything more than a sport for unathletic strong guys.” She nods. “Hockey is a mix of skill and strength. ‘Icing’ helps to preserve this balance.”
I explain ‘icing’. I explain the conditions in which a linemen will cancel a pending ‘icing’ call. I chose my words carefully. “Does any of this make sense?”
She tells me it does.
* * *
We walk through the doors of Coles at about 9:30. It takes us both a second to adjust to the warmer air. Our cheeks are cold. On this Thursday in February, there is snow on the sidewalks of the Elmwood village. I see that there is about eight seconds remaining in the third period of the Sabres game and remark, “Oh, the Sabres are still playing. Actually, never-mind it’s over. I guess they lost.” Moments later, there’s a commotion in front of the Montreal net. The bar celebrates. Vanek emerges from the pile of bodies with his hands in the air. Tie game.
‘A’ is relatively unresponsive though she lights up briefly at witnessing the delight this goal has caused the people around her. She has just finished watching three periods of hockey played a few feet in front of her face. This version of hockey is being broadcast on liquid crystal display screens and she hasn’t a clue of the events that had taken place in the first 59 minutes and 52 seconds of this game.
We order our drinks and stand alongside the “Wall of Coles” that separates the seating booths from the standings area surrounding the bar. During a stoppage of play in the overtime period, the patron’s watching the broadcast groan almost at once. ‘A’ and I glance up at the television screen to see Vanek grimacing on the player bench. The audio to the broadcast is muted. Music is playing at a modest volume over the bar’s speakers. Most heads are fixed on the nearest television screen with fragile looking smiles on their faces. Others prefer to look away and adjust their posture.
In this moment my instinct is to try and explain to ‘A’ just how remarkable Vanek has been playing. I’m anxious. “In my lifetime I’ve never seen a Sabres forward dominate games like this. He has scored more goals and more points than anyone else in the league and by a pretty wide margin too. It’s honestly been incredible to watch.”
Vanek doesn’t miss a shift. In the shootout, he scores on a rising wrist shot above the goaltender’s glove. The execution of his attempt displays a level of patience and composure that’s only seen from experienced goal scorers. Vanek has helped to restore hope once more.
It will be some time before ‘A’ is able to make complete sense of the extremes fans are capable of oscillating between on the spectrum of hopefulness.