Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Watch night for the Caps

Twenty-four hours ago I had no idea that Bruce Boudreau, Washington Capitals head coach, had been fired. It had been an unusual morning for me; I hadn't checked email or twitter or even listened to the radio.

I arrived at Kettler Capitals Iceplex just before 11:00 for the public skate. I hadn't been on the ice for a week and was really looking forward to a good workout, in spite of a sore foot. To my dismay the parking lot at the top of the garage was very crowded. The Caps' cars were there, of course - they would start a homestand Tuesday after a couple of humiliating losses over the weekend - but their assorted sports cars and SUVs don't fill the lot. As I circulated looking for a spot I imagined that the rink would be, as it was last week, full of children on school holiday, streaking around recklessly and impulsively, adding a dash of je ne sais quoi to my morning.

Anyhow, I had to drive partway back down into the garage to get a spot, which is pretty unusual. When I walked into the building there was a definite buzz, but I averted my eyes from the Caps' rink. All I wanted was to skate; after a long holiday weekend of distractions (albeit pleasant ones), I wouldn't be deterred.

I exchanged pleasantries with the skate guard, but my regular rink buddies weren't there, so I didn't talk with anyone else. I just got onto the ice as quickly as I could. About 15 or so minutes in, a large group of very nice looking young men in suit jackets came in through the mall entrance and circled around to the locker room area. Turns out they were the St. Louis Blues, in town early for their game tomorrow against the Caps, and scheduled to practice in the public rink at 1:00. Maybe they were the cause of that extra buzz?  

The rink became more crowded and my sore foot got tired. I decided to pack it in, but since I'd only been on the ice for about 35 minutes I thought I'd go across the lobby and check on my boys. Immediately I realized that something was up. The bleachers and the balcony and the standing room all around the Caps' rink were totally jammed with people. (The Post this morning said that there were "more than 100" - yup, way more than 100, I would say.) Normally there are quite a few folks at Caps practices, but never this many, except when the schools are closed  - and then it's a majority-kid crowd. Today was different. The spectators were adults, intense and expectant. They sat in pairs or small groups, greeting friends as they came in, talking about how they found out, or what plans they had changed in order to attend this impromptu gathering. There was a real community feeling, almost like a town meeting, and a feeling of expectation. A camera man was making his way up the bleachers, filming interviews with some of the fans. Overhearing one of these interviews - of which the main topic was Dale Hunter - I finally realized what had happened.

The oddest thing was that, even though it should have been the middle of their practice session, there were no players on the ice, only piles of pucks.  Clearly the thing to do was to join the wait, and so I did.

Finally Alex Ovechkin led his team onto the ice, and the crowd broke into cheers. Even louder, more sustained cheering and applause, though, were reserved for the entrance of Dale Hunter, a very popular player and captain of the Capitals in the late '80s and '90s, named to the be new head coach. 

Practice commenced. It actually looked fun. I saw a tweet by a Baltimore news outlet saying that it was intense, that guys were trying to impress the new coach, and I'd be worried if that wasn't true. But I saw some smiles on the ice, and that gave me heart.

As a fan, you want to see your team work hard, but you want them to have some fun with it. Otherwise, how can you have fun? All of these guys worked to get where they are today, and they know they have to work now, to pull themselves out of this latest round of misery. Under these circumstances, it should feel good to get to work; they should be smiling. That is the hockey credo so oft repeated: work hard and you'll be rewarded. And if somehow a renewed joy in work - brought in by a former player who was known for his hard work - can bring some lightheartedness to what was once a thrilling team full of swagger, but has lately been a lost, dazed-looking group, there should be a snowball effect.  Let's hope.

When I left the building I stopped to take off my jacket - even on a late November day it was much warmer outside than in. As I dropped my skate bag on a concrete planter and fished around for my car keys, I became aware of a man standing to my right, speaking loudly into a cellphone. Joe Beninati! Caps commentator extraordinaire! I didn't want to eavesdrop, but I couldn't help but overhear. He said something to this effect: (and I apologize for quasi-quoting without permission this verbal gem from a man who is known for them) ...When I came here this morning, part of me felt like I was going to a funeral, and part of me felt like I was going to a birthday.  For Dale Hunter, it's a birthday...  

I'm sure that Bruce Boudreau tried his best, and no one can deny that the Caps had a lot of success during his tenure, but it's time to bring in the new. As the fans at Kettler demonstrated yesterday, holding a sort of vigil for their team at what was effectively a "watch night" - a time of great vulnerability but also of promise and renewal - the Team is bigger than any one person. Though owned by Ted Leonsis, it is really a collective property, fed by the endless stream of words and ideas, blogs and tweets, agony and ecstasy and (we can't forget) cash of its fans. In the heart of each one of them there shines a vision of the Stanley Cup held aloft by a player in a Caps jersey. Time to get back to work!

Let's hope for not just a birthday, but a re-birth day for the Caps. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Excerpt from "The Bear-Wife"

Ragnar came upon Fardan near his hut, where the priest had just concluded the mid-afternoon prayer. Ragnar clapped his shoulder joyously, and the priest nearly buckled with the force of the blow. "Fardan, you must congratulate me. My grandson is born. He is strong like his father and already his eyes are bright and clear as he looks upon the world."

"Ah, Ragnar, that is wonderful news. Accept my sincere best wishes for you and for your grandson."

"I thank you, Fardan." replied Ragnar.

"And might I add, my friend, how pleased I am to see a smile upon your face." said the priest. "I can tell you something that will cause it to broaden even more."

"What could that be, Fardan?" asked Ragnar.

"Well, Ragnar, it is with great gratitude to the Lord God and the blessed Saint Bede that I am able to report to you that, like yourself, the child's mother has received the sign of the cross and, in so doing, has taken the first step along the path that leads to salvation."

"The child's mother?"

"Yes, your grandchild's mother. She who dwelt among the beasts of the dark forest. She who some called the Bear-wife. Under my humble guidance she has accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.

"And there is further cause for rejoicing, Ragnar, because your grandson shall be baptized and his soul, although stained with sin, shall be granted salvation, and when the Day of Doom comes, he shall sit with you at the right hand of the Lord God, in Eternal Bliss.

"And so it remains only to bestow this blessing upon your son and upon the others of your family, and the task shall be complete. Your household shall assume its place in Christendom and you shall see what glory awaits."

It seemed to Ragnar that his mind was spinning, that all the world around him was spinning. How had it come to this? Must he endure now, at this moment of joy, the gloating of this wearisome priest, Sven's cast-off, who, he suddenly realized, had convinced him of nothing aside from his own fears? How easy it must have been for Fardan to accomplish this in the heart of the poor orphan girl. Yet even she had shown courage and deserved better.

"The beasts of the dark forest indeed," sputtered Ragnar. "You are the beast. Yes, you, priest! Stalking – terrorizing – here, on my own land - preying upon the fears and the uncertainty of your victims. You are a blight upon us! You are a pestilence! Be gone and let us be!" Ragnar waved him aside and strode off, out of the infield and up the path to the open pasture. 

That high land was empty now of men and beasts, for Ragnar's rams had long since rejoined the rest of the herd for the breeding season. Ragnar came to the stones of the grave-field by the Mirror Tarn and he stood among them, staking his claim, as they did, to all of the windy plateau and the rolling land below.

There lies the valley. There the flat lands stretch toward the sea. There lie the meadows, there runs the river, there stand rock and oak. There lie the stones of Thorbjorn's ship and there the sturdy timbers of Svanhild's altar are planted. There, beside the Old Road, scratched along the ridge-top, dwell Gunnar and his kin. And beyond lies the lake – see it sparkle against the green velvet forest.

This is it. This, to me, is everything there is.

Ragnar sat down upon the damp earth. He leaned on one of the rough, lichen-covered boulders that rested there, one of a ring of stones. Golden grass-strands with their heads of perfect seeds, thick bunches of dark green heather clothed in purple, blueberry shrubs tinged with scarlet, all blended and bowed before his eyes. When was the last time he had looked at these small things, each gleaming like the rarest jewel? They had been here, always, through seasons of plenty and seasons of want, growing from the bones of the earth, and from the bones of his parents and grandparents, their parents and theirs. He delighted in them now, in this still, silent moment. For though he knew in his heart that the turning point of his world had already come and gone, here, in this landscape of cairns and mounds and standing stones; here, at the threshold between this world and the next, was an opening to taste the sweetness of that late-summer blossoming of life, that moment of knowing that the long days are irretrievably gone. It was as if, having climbed for a lifetime, he had at last come up over the crest of the hill and just as he was taking in the panoramic view, he found himself beginning to roll down the other side, wheel upon wheel, faster and faster – and what waits at the bottom?

Around him now Ragnar sensed many voices, many gestures: gentle, harsh, demanding, judgmental - sympathetic. They were gathering behind him now, his forebears: Aelfrid the hero, his great brass-studded shield shattered; Old Ragnar, who had built the hall in which the household still lived, and also Red Thorbjorn, Ragnar's grandfather, drinking and toasting at his return from the lands of the Franks. Although their lives, like Ragnar’s own, had doubtless hurtled from birth to death with barely a pause to reflect, to him they had always seemed as fixed and eternal as the mountain of which they were now a part. But during their lives they, too, must have faced choices. Had they wavered? Had they been afraid? Had they chosen well? Or poorly? He lived with the consequences of their choices, as his grandson would live with his. They had left him here, at their lives' end, but he must go on, with or without their understanding or their approval. It would be for later generations to look back upon him and judge.

As he sat there, resting among the stones, nearly hidden by the tall meadow grasses, two young girls came up the path, walking together towards the Mirror Tarn. They seemed to float across the meadow, golden hair blowing and long, white arms. He couldn’t see what they had in their hands but whatever it was they deposited it there, at the spring, in a manner at once solemn and conspiratorial.

Ragnar waited for them to be done with their small offering, and to turn back toward the settlement. How lightly they tread upon the earth. How simple their desires. A handsome young groom? A new set of ribbons for their hair? He smiled to himself, and felt his heart lighten. Then he rose, gathered himself up, and returned to his hall.

- - - 
Above is an excerpt from The Bear-Wife, my novel set in 10th century Sweden.  I'll be posting updates as the book moves toward publication.  If you like you can also check out this post I wrote about the book a while back.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What Is Left?

The Caps don't need to win. But it hurts to see them skate through the final period of a pretty-much-must-win playoff game looking like they don't care.

What draws me to hockey is this:  you FIGHT! And no matter what happens, no matter what the odds, no matter if you're bruised or broken or twisted or bleeding, you struggle to make the right choices and you fight until the end.

It's a beautiful metaphor for life. You may not win. Hey - let's face it - most of us don't. You're often up against forces that are larger and stronger than yourself. But you keep fighting. You don't stop skating, or thinking, a quarter of the way through the third period. You keep thinking, you keep talking with your teammates, you keep playing hard, you keep fighting.

And if you do that, then even if you loose - hey, this year 29 out of 30 NHL teams will NOT win the Stanley Cup! - you deserve to be proud.

I just want to feel proud of my team.

What is left at the bitter end, in the dusty display case of life: Some old hockey pants and a stick, a jersey or two - and, if you've earned it, PRIDE!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Unleash the sprinklers!

One of my favorite movies is Bull Durham. I just love the thick, ungainly rookie pitcher "Nuke" Laloosh. He's the Natural Man: unfiltered, unabridged, uncensored, unexamined, unzipped. Hilarious! And somehow he ended up with the million-dollar arm. (I guess in today's dollars it would be 100 million.)

One of my favorite scenes in Bull Durham is when the Durham Bulls - a minor league baseball team - turn the sprinkler system on at the field they're scheduled to play on the next day, and slip-n-slide into the wee hours in the resulting mud, causing an artificial "rain out." For some reason that scene popped into my head last spring while the Caps were in the process of blowing it in the playoffs. It's recently returned.

I came across a reader's comment on a website a couple of days ago. Something to this effect: the Caps should have stuck to their old (pre-losing streak) style of play because they don't have the personnel to be good enough on defense, and the new system is too difficult for the offensively-minded stars to master. Play to your strengths! the reader admonished.

It's easy enough to dispute the first part of this; it seems the lads can play defense; the team's GAA is down, the PK has been very effective, and even an non-expert like myself can see that they've got a new, more aggressively defensive style going. Even when they don't have the puck, they are, by and large, skating purposefully and working hard. Those things are good.

But - too true! - they haven't been scoring goals. Monday night they scored only one goal - and that was on "a depleted Rangers squad" (check out my awesome sportscaster lingo!) - and they can't even blame it on a "hot goalie," because ours was way hotter than theirs. On Saturday they scored 4 against the Maple Leafs, but that was first time they've scored more than 3 in a game since who knows when.

Obviously I'm not alone in worrying that the new system has irrevocably sucked the life out of this team - and sucked the life out of, specifically, Alex Ovechkin, Captain.

Let's talk about Ovie for a moment, shall we? (I love to talk about Ovie!)

Of course, I don't actually know him, I only admire him from afar.  And it's not only for his hockey skills, either, or his good looks (thank you, Gillette), his ability to pick up the tab, or even the fact that he wears his mother's number (bless his heart). No, what finally bumped me over the edge and caused me to plunk down my $24 to purchase that Winter Classic t-shirt with the "C" and the "8" and OVECHKIN on the back was my feeling for the guy himself. It's clear that he's been having a tough time this year, and I wanted to show my support. I won't go into all the gory details, because we all know them.  But I do want to point out that before, during and (probably) after his current tribulations, expectations are heaped upon him by the dozen, by friend and foe alike, while at the same time he's all too often put down, vilified, or pointedly ignored by the North American hockey powers-that-be.  

At the risk of sounding too maternal, let me remind you how young he was when he first came to this country (20 years), and how young he still is even now. And while some may envy the acclaim that has come his way, the celebrity, and the salary (heck, with that kind of money I could have bought the damn jersey instead of the lousy t-shirt!), those things don't necessarily make it easier to adjust to a new country, a new language, a different style of play, and a different hockey culture. (How well would Crosby have done in Krasnojarsk? Or Novosibirsk? I can't be sure, but, it's safe to say, it would have been a challenge.)

So maybe Ovie's hit a rough spot. Development - physical, mental, emotional - is not a constant upward slope. There are plateaus, and there are setbacks. But what I think we see now is someone who is growing up. Willing to risk change. Taking on new responsibility. Playing a new role on this hockey team. The role of captain. He is, as they say, buying in - not only to the new more defense-oriented system of play, but to the system writ large. Both are adjustments.

And, generally, I think, that's what the whole team is doing, or trying to do. It has to be tough, it has to be scary to make changes in mid-stream. To change the way you think of yourself. It takes intelligence, work, confidence, and a leap of faith. It takes mental toughness to stare down the naysayers.  

So what does this have to do with sprinklers? "Crash" Davis - the veteran catcher assigned to grow Nuke up - sort of a Jeeves to Nuke's Wooster - switched on the sprinklers to punctuate an interminable, losing road trip that was just oozing demoralization and misery. Why? It wasn't to avoid losing the next game; rather, he manufactured the rain-out in an attempt to take control of an out-of-control situation.  

But of course, it's only in the movies that "taking control" is as easy as flicking a switch and sliding around in the mud, or breathing through your eyelids, or wearing a woman's garter belt, or pulling the head off of a live chicken. Or a goat. But the Caps are doing it in real life, they're taking control again, little by little, with every battle won, every pass completed, every shot blocked, and every goal scored, even if they are few and far between at this point.

The other part of the sprinkler scene, though, is the mud-sliding part. That's the fun part, the letting loose. That's key, and I hope Ovechkin and the Caps are still having fun - on the ice as well as off. They're young guys, playing a game, and they need to find a way to relax and - in the words of my favorite color commentator - enjoy the journey.  

To hell with the playoffs, to hell with the Cup (I know, I know - blasphemy), and to hell with critics and cynics and, yes, to hell with fans who want it all right now. Don't be afraid! You're still you, the Washington Capitals! Work hard! Take control! Play your game! And don't forget to unleash the sprinklers!