I will always remember it as one of the greatest moments in my personal hockey history.
It was not a Stanley Cup and I didn’t score the championship-winning goal with one second left on the clock.
No, it was nothing quite so glorious.
It was a minor thing that I would guess no one else even noticed happened.
It was the day I got to cross the room.
I was 16 years old and had been playing the greatest game ever created by God for about four years.
I was always a first- or second-line player, and being a defenseman I was always on special teams. I would like to say it was because of my amazing skill, but it was more likely attributed to a lack of defensemen in the league.
I was never one of the elite, until that fateful day.
In the hierarchy of the dressing room, the really good players sat on one side of the room, the middle-of-the-road players (that’s me) sat in another area while the bottom feeders sat in a sort of dressing room purgatory where they could quietly chat among themselves.
They were usually kept separate from the better players so their suckiness didn’t rub off and cause a super-jock to become an on-ice weenie.
It was not a planned separation, but one that occurs naturally in the wild.
Have you ever watched a nature special and seen that one lone lion sitting a few feet from the others? Well, that is the third-string lion. That is the lion that is called upon when all the other lions are too tired to play another shift and chase down a gazelle, or a tourist or whatever.
The lion was not told to go there, but knew that was where it belonged. It’s the same thing in the dressing room.
Anyway, it was about half-way through the season and I was heading to my designated spot on the mediocre side of the room when the best player on the team summoned me.
I mean this guy was it. He was the top scorer on the team, in the top five of the league, team captain, and all around swell guy.
“Hey, Darren, why don’t you sit over here?”
He said this from the super-jock side of the room and motioned to an empty space on the long, wood bench. I had fantasized about sitting on that bench and sometimes, if I was the first one on the change room, I would actually sit there for a second before scampering to the so-so player section.
But here I was, me, a lowly D-man who averaged only a handful of goals a year being called to sit with the best our team had to offer.
Needless to say I accepted the invite. I grabbed my gear and headed to the ‘good’ side while the rest of the players watched.
The mediocre players swelled with pride as they watched one of their own take the next step in the hierarchy of hockey.
The bottom feeders did what they always did – found a shiny object to keep themselves amused.
“Hah, so long losers. I’ll be seeing you from the top of the mountain.”
I didn’t actually say that of course. Instead I sat down, looked around and the world seemed a much better place.
I also remember that game because it was in the second period when my hockey days nearly came to an end.
This was before they had automatic icing whistles and I was racing a guy to the puck when a little tug by his stick 20 feet from the boards threw me off balance and I went into the boards knees first.
I remember hitting the boards and then watching as the play headed the other way. I tried to get up but for some reason my legs just wouldn’t work.
I remember laying on the ice thinking, “That’s odd. They were working when I got here.”
The coach came running out and some of the players gathered around and helped me to my feet.
As is tradition, everyone started to cheer when I got up.
It doesn’t matter what shape the player is in, the fans will cheer when he is taken off the ice. If he is in a stretcher they cheer as he is wheeled away.
The player could be hauled off in two separate bags and people would still cheer.
Fans would be yelling, “Way to get decapitated. Good effort.”
Meanwhile the coach is screaming, “Walk it off, walk it off. OK, Johnson you’re in.”
And that is exactly what my coach told me to do - walk it off. Being young and not too bright, I was never one to buy into the whole ‘give your self time to heal’ thing.
I finished the game and then went dirt biking that afternoon.
C’mon, I was 16 and indestructible. My knees were a little stiff the next day, but not sore enough to cause any concerns.
Of course, now at middle age, if a stiff wind hits my knees I hobble like Quasimodo for the rest of the day.
Walk it off? How about I sit it off in front of the TV or something, that is more my pace.