Plug your nose and take a stroll past the change rooms in any arena during hockey season and you’ll hear the strains of hard rock blasting from behind the doors as minor hockey teams prepare for their games. It’s as true now as it was thirty years ago when I played. AC/DC is a given, of course, but pretty much any up-tempo, electric guitar driven classic can be heard. If it gets the heart pumping and the adrenaline flowing, hockey players will embrace it.
This, then, is a tale from the greatest year of hockey in my life, as I risk sounding like Al Bundy here. This historic year of hockey occurred in the winter of 1989. I had just turned 17. It was my first year of midget and in our hockey association this was the first year that minor and major aged players played together. It was also the first year that some of the better players in this age group graduated to play for the local Junior B team. The resulting rep ‘A’ team was a rag tag compilation of a few major Midget vets and mostly minor midget rookies. I was one of the latter.
The year started off well for me as I managed to snag the right wing spot on the first line alongside two of the second year midget players, one of whom happened to be the son of the coach who’d unceremoniously cut me from the top team the previous year in major bantam. In the simple mind of a moody teenage minor hockey player this was a vindication and welcome “eff you” of sorts. Things were looking good.
The season was enjoyable though not terribly exceptional. We were a decent team, winning more games than we lost, though nobody would mistake us as being dominant. When playoff time rolled around our first series was a best 2 out of 3 against a familiar foe in Guelph. We won the first game but laid an absolute turd in the second game and faced elimination in the deciding third game.
Nobody would have suggested we were a team destined for a deep playoff run that year, but defeating the Guelph team was certainly well within our means. Yet as we sat in the dressing room before the deciding game there was an overwhelming sense of resignation to our fate. Some of us were too lose while the rest of us were just gloomy. The previous loss had broken our psyche and it was not looking good at all heading towards puck drop.
Then from the corner of the room, an unexpected voice addressed the entire team. One of the second year players, far from the most skilled on the team, a bonafide third line plugger, began delivering a speech for the ages. For the next five minutes the entire team sat mesmerized as this player read us the riot act and proceeded to not only refocus our collective psyche but by the time he finished we were so pumped we could have beaten an NHL team that night. As his speech concluded, he slipped a cassette into the boombox and pressed play on what would become our theme song for what became a fantastic, deep playoff run for the ages.
We won that night, of course, and with conviction. The giver of the speech even scored the first goal as if Hollywood had written the script. I got an assist on that goal, one I can still picture in my mind. We followed that series victory with several more, all equally exciting and all going the limit of five games. Our Cinderella season quickly became the talk of the town and as more of the local teams lost out the more attention was drawn to our unlikely venture deep into the playoffs. When the local Junior B team was eliminated from their playoffs, we became the de facto headline act in town. By the time we found ourselves in the OMHA finals, we were playing in front of packed home crowds. More than our parents were now showing up to games including, of significant importance to hormonal me, many of the most desirable girls in school. We even had fan buses accompany to our away games.
Once again the finals went to the limit but unfortunately the clock clicked past midnight before the final game and we ended up losing. It was a disappointing finish but that season remains the greatest of my utterly unremarkable minor hockey career. The sting of that final defeat has waned over the years but the pure joy that experience gave me remains strong in my memory. And then there’s that song. The song that united our team and helped forge a small town hockey fairytale.
I’m kicking off your weekend, and possibly the start of a new hockey season, with a song that in my heart is synonymous with the best of minor hockey and childhood memories. This is “United” from the 1980 Judas Priest album British Steel.