Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Farm Boys

It's an unseasonably warm October afternoon and a bunch of kids, off school while their teachers have an in-service, gravitate to the local hockey rink. Though the weather is distinctly un-hockey-like, the unmistakable feeling of the game in its nascent autumnal incarnation vibrates in the air here. The smell of yesterday's arena fries mingles with the frosty scent of the freshly-resurfaced rink and the always-present funk of musty hockey gear. The gunshots of a couple of dozen pucks bang the boards in the mostly-empty building. The kids hang out in groups near the glass, starry-eyed attention riveted on the exhibition just a pane away.

The Hamilton Bulldogs drift through warm-up drills, their half-speed faster than the watching dreamers can muster on their best day. They look, to these kids, as impressive as the NHL's Canadiens must have looked to them in Montreal a week ago. Only a few days separate the crowded adulation of the Bell Centre from the echoing rural rink the 'Dogs hopefuls now overwhelm with the sheer size of their presence.

After a bit, the pace of practice picks up and the watchers outside the glass notice the players who begin to pull away from the crowd: the ones who are a little bit faster, a little crisper on the pass, a little smarter. In a red practice sweater with the bulldog on the front, the Swedish kid with the number 32 on his white helmet skates with a powerful grace. The kids whisper and point him out. Magnus Nygren tried Hamilton last year, but retreated back to Sweden, disillusioned with the city and the hockey after just 16 games. Today, dancing over the ice surface, forward and back, back to front, crossing over effortlessly, he moves with a surety he says is the biggest difference in his game between last season and this one.

"Mostly, I think, my confidence is better. I played for Sweden in the world championships. That was a good experience," he reflects. "I played against a bunch of NHL players during that tournament and it gave me good confidence back here now. It was a lot of fun."

Nygren isn't at the 'Dogs camp for fun. He's here to work, and when his Hamilton stay ends this time, he wants to move on to Montreal, not back to Sweden.

"Of course I want to be the name that the coaches tell the Montreal leaders was great out there. I want to be the first guy called up. I don't want to wait too long. Things can happen fast, and if you get a chance you have to take it," he explains, Nordic blue gaze snapping with an intensity of feeling. "I'm fighting for a spot there, and trying to work as hard as I can every day and get better. I want to help the Hamilton team to win. Even...That's a lot of D up there in Montreal. A lot of good ones. I'll just keep fighting here and see what happens."

He's already eyeing the Habs roster, imagining where he'll fit in when that chance comes.

"I'm an offensive D-man. I have to play well down here. Things can't go so well for people up there if I'm to have a chance, I know. Still, there are so many good D-men on one-way contracts, it's tough for us with two-ways to have a chance," he admits. "I'm going to show up on every shift and make sure I'm good enough on 5-on-5. PP is important to me and I'm going to use my shot and my offensive skill, but 5-on-5 is just as important."

The kids at the rink drift away as the players make way for the Zamboni after practice. The Bulldogs' bus idles in front of the building and the quick-showering guys pace as they wait for their more leisurely teammates. They ooze vitality in their dress shirts and open jackets, still-wet hair slicked back, with fluffy bits of beard betraying their youth. If Magnus Nygren is all business, some of his camp mates are actively living the dream.

Hours after practice ended, night has fallen and it feels like autumn has only been dressing up like summer all day. The small rink has just released a sell-out crowd, thrilled to have been treated to one-step-below-the-NHL hockey. The Bulldogs are a loose-limbed bunch of relaxed jokers. They're still competing for jobs, but the build-up to their first exhibition game has culminated in victory and the knowledge that they can do no more for today.

Mac Bennett, sporting two-days' growth of stubble and one button too many open at the neck, spent the last four years at the University of Michigan. He toiled on the college blueline while prospects like Nygren were sweating it out in the pro leagues, trying to climb. Bennett emits a kind of glowing energy, eyes snapping as he tries to summarize the feelings after his first pro game.

"It was a good first experience. Good to get that first game of pro under my belt. I think there were some little pre-game jitters, but after the first five minutes they go away," he says.

The words are banal enough, but the vibrating posture and chattering speech betray a deeper emotion. All the same, even in his excitement, the 23-year-old knows he's got to make up some pro development time on his younger rivals.

"Faster. The game is a lot faster," he says. "The decisions with the puck are a lot faster. The players are a lot more skilled. I have to just keep it simple and wait to adjust. You just play. Eventually those decisions come quicker, just because you're forced to make them quicker. Everything for me is just simple at this point. I'm still kind of adjusting. When I get the puck, just move it. Be strong on my stick and in the corners. When I get the puck, make sure I'm skating. The players out here are a lot more skilled, so when you make a mistake, sometimes your teammates can make up for you, which is really nice."

Nygren, at this point, is accustomed to pro hockey and the idea of working toward a job in Montreal. For Bennett, it's all still a bit magical.

"What the Habs are to Montreal, the Yankees are to New York. There are Habs fans everywhere. It's pretty special. It's a huge honour to wear that crest. It's an organization with a ton of history, so I'm proud to carry on that tradition," he enthuses. He knows all about history, aiming to become a third-generation NHLer. "It's kind of crazy to think about. My grandfather was a goalie and my uncle played in the NHL. It's kind of cool to help carry on that tradition."

The Bulldogs filter out of the tiny rural Newfoundland arena in twos and threes, into the visible cloud of the bus exhaust. They stow their bags and find places that will, before the year is out, become "theirs." The fans have vanished to home and bar in the darkness between the orange-haloed street lights. On the bus, some of the young men who have split their very atoms to make it as pro hockey players, are only a day or two away from having their dreams cut short. Others...the Mac Bennetts of the group...are floating, their first pro points just around the bend. Some, like Magnus Nygren, can almost touch the NHL and will go to sleep with the scent of it.

The bus coughs and sighs into motion, easing out of the abandoned parking lot. The sidewalks roll up early here when the game is over. The kids of the morning are long asleep and the day for the dreamers is done.


Ian said...

Another great post! Loved to read the comments from a few of the Bulldogs. A bonus for you that they were on the Rock where you live and work.

Again, because you are a media professional, your writing is unlike most every other blog we starry eyed Habs' fans read. Obviously studying journalism has paid off for you. You appear to be in a career that you were born for.

LOVE reading your posts!!!!!

dwgs said...

Nicely done.

moeman said...

By far the best Habs sports writer. Great read J.T.

UK3X said...

Nice one JT - it will be interesting to see who gets the call up first...lets hope it's not too soon however!

Steve said...

wonderful glimpse at the future

Unknown said...

What a well written post! Like a throwback to the days when journalists knew how to write. I'm really impressed.

J.T. said...

Thanks all, for your lovely comments. Sometimes, it's just a pleasure to write, but it's nicer when people like what you've written!

Harry said...

Hi JT,I've been waiting all summer for your return.Your words flow over the screen like water over rocks in a creek.It felt like we were there with the boys and just as excited as they are about the season ahead.
Thank you so much for deciding to keep the blog..its much appreciated.