The Perfect Stick

“You should get a one-piece.”

“I don’t need a one-piece.”

“It’d be lighter. You wouldn’t get tired so fast.”

“I don’t get that tired anyway.”

***

I have always played with wooden sticks.

The first I got in Montreal. It was 2008, late winter, and I pulled on my heavy boots and shuffled up St. Laurent to a Canadian Tire. The rack of sticks was small, couldn’t have been more than ten choices, but stood in front of it, bewildered and petrified as though it were a wall of space shuttle components. Sticks are complicated things, differentiated from each other by hundred fine details: the weight and the composition, the flex and the lie. Hell, the curve alone has a whole lexicon of jargon to describe its properties; even rec league players drop lines like, “Oh, I prefer a thicker blade, slight heel curve, closed, square toe.” Facing that row of choices, I knew enough about them to recognize that there were many important differences between these sticks, but that knowledge meant nothing.  I didn’t know enough about myself. I didn’t even know if I was a right or a left shot.

I grabbed one that seemed like the right length. It was a cheap and wooden. It was black and white and said “Crosby” on it. It was painfully generic. It was the least interesting stick in the world.

When I got it home, it took me half an hour to figure out how to hold it right.

I practiced with it a few times, stick handling balls around my apartment, taking it to outdoor rinks in the dead of night. Never where anyone might see me, as I whiffed shots and lost the puck in my feet and overskated my hands again and again and again. Everything I ever did with that stick felt stupid and ugly and wrong. To say I was bad at hockey would be an understatement. I was an abomination against hockey. This is how I know the hockey gods aren’t real- because if they were, they would have struck me down for the sins against the game I committed those dark nights on the playground rinks. They would have destroyed me, and they would have been right to do so.

But the hockey gods aren’t real. I wasn’t frozen on the spot by a blast of freakish cold, I didn’t concuss myself with a misdirected follow-through, and I lived to try other sticks. I experimented with a left shot in Kaohsiung, a plasticky inline contraption so awkward I couldn’t even pass without making an insane quasi-slapshot. In Taipei, a defenseman friend passed along a massive blue thing nearly two inches taller than me. Hacked down to my size, it was an utterly rigid piece of lumber with a thick shaft and a nearly flat blade. Once, in practice, I managed to deke a goalie with it, but the goalie was six years old and still didn’t know how to move laterally. Mostly I tripped over it, and when I left the country, I gladly left it behind. Back in Toronto, I went back to Canadian Tire and this time purchased the second least interesting stick in the world. It was black and white and yellow. It said “Ovechkin” on it.

***

“You should get a composite.”

“I don’t need a composite.”

“You’ll be able to get it up easier.”

“I’m never going to be able get it up easily.”

Julian is forever telling me I should get a composite. I don’t see the point. Composite sticks are more expensive and more fragile and made to make moves I cannot make. I’m a shitty player. I’m always going to be a shitty player. I’ve tried different sticks and none of them has ever made me any different. Better sticks are for people who can do better things. Better sticks are for players. I’m not a player. I’m just a person who plays.

We go to the big hockey stores, the ones out in the suburban mall wasteland that take up more space than our whole apartment building and include walls upon walls of sticks. He grabs various composites and shoves them into my unwilling hands- doesn’t that feel better? No. What about this one? Nope. They’re all the same. Sure, the weight, I guess, they’re lighter, but in the end every stick he foists on me feels as dead as the one before. I try to tell him: baby, the problem isn’t the stick, the problem is my hands. My hands are leaden, honey. My hands are an abomination.

***

Chicago.

It’s a little hockey store. Chicago doesn’t have big hockey stores the size of warehouses- this is America, man, those big stores are mostly full of basketballs and golf clubs and guns. The hockey store here is just two storefronts squished together. Julian, two years after getting his upper lip split open by a high stick, has finally condescended to try playing with a cage. He and the clerk are commiserating about the boundless tragedy of having to wear facial protection. I’m hanging out by the sticks.

As much as I hate having to try new sticks, I do enjoy looking at the fashions in player-names. When I was a young fan, all the stores were full of Sakics and Yzermans and Iginlas. The Iginlas are still there, but the Sakics and Yzermans seem to be fading, replaced by a new crop of more fashionable names, Halls and Stamkoses (Stamki?). There’s even a Nugent-Hopkins, which for some reason strikes me as funny- barely a year into the League and already an aspirational object worthy of selling sticks on. Laughing to myself at some half-thought joke about the abruptness and transience of celebrity, I pull it off the rack.

It feels wonderful.

You know that part in the first Harry Potter book, when he goes into the wand shop and tries a bunch of different ones with all sorts of crazy shit inside like unicorn hairs and phoenix feathers and what have you, and eventually one of them starts spontaneously shooting fireworks out of the end and the old guy looks at Harry and says portentously, the wand chooses the wizard?

That is what it was like when I picked up this stick. There were fireworks.  It may very well be made of unicorns.

I bought it and took it home and played with it for hours. I whipped it around my body like a ninja turtle with a bo. I balanced the end on my open palm, blade wobbling at the ceiling. I stickhandled balls of paper on the living room carpet and shoes on the kitchen tile. I teased the cats with it until I had them pouncing the blade and biting at the toe. I hooked Julian again and again and again until he got genuinely pissed off and started trying to take it away from me. On TV, the Kings won the Stanley Cup. On the couch, I snuggled with my stick. I was in love.

***

Thursday nights can be pretty boring.

“Want to watch a movie?”

“Not really.”

“Want to play table hockey?”

“Nah.”

“So what do we do?”

“Apartment hockey.”

Apartment hockey is the Calvinball of hockey. We have one small net, an assortment of
pucks and balls, and very limited space, so the game is always improv. Sometimes we play one-on-one against each other. Sometimes we set up obstacles and play collaboratively against our furniture. Sometimes we make up completely different games, like ping pong with sticks. Mostly, though, I take shots on him. I need to practice shooting, he needs to practice goaltending. It works.

We use foam pucks. You know how when you go to major junior games, sometimes they’ll have that intermission game where you buy orange pucks with numbers on them and try to toss them from the stands onto targets on the ice? I buy those pucks and bring them home for apartment hockey. All our foam pucks have numbers on them for gift certificates we will never win. Although they lack the authentic weight of proper pucks, they have the great advantage of not breaking either furniture or shins.

When the first shot hits the back wall at his shoulder height, I assume he’d deflected it up with his feet.  By the fourth time, it’s starting to seem like a lot of deflections.  By the sixth, it dawns on me.

“Am I actually shooting it up there?”

“Yep.”

“Whoa.”

“Try aiming.”

I aim.  I look at the top right corner and shoot.  The the puck hits the back bar with a bright ding and a merry rebound.  I am for the top left corner, and it hops in low and dies in the netting.  I aim five hole, and it just barely slips in between his closing heels.

“DID YOU SEE THAT?”

“Yeah, I saw that.  Keep going.”

“Let’s see how many out of ten I can get in the corner.”

One. Two. Three.  Four goes just wide, but five and six are perfect.  Seven goes in, but low.  Eight, nine, ten.  Eight out of ten, right in the top.  Where momma keeps the cookies and/or peanut butter.

I am literally jumping for joy.  I am dancing barefoot in my living room.  I am 95% sure that this is the greatest thing I have ever done in my life.

“Now try this one.”  He tosses me Crosby.

I try Crosby, and my hands immediately turn back into pumpkins.  I can barely get it to the net, the shots are so weak.  My arms are struggling ten times as hard for one-tenth of the result.  Somewhere up in the ether, the hockey gods are readying their lightning bolts.

“Now the other.”  He tosses me Ovechkin.

A little better.  Ovechkin doesn’t get even the lightest puck up, but at least I can put a little mustard on my shots.  But it’s dead heavy, like carrying the sorrows of the world across my palms.  Three half-decent shots and my biceps are starting to ache.

But then he gives me back the third, my darling, my love, and it is like fucking magic. All I have to do is fucking look at a corner and the puck is fucking there. Like a superpower. Like goddamn telekinesis.  I tell the puck where I want it to go, and it just goes, like an obedient puppy.

Have you ever had a moment of revelation?  When very abruptly, with no warning, you just know something with absolute certainty?  When some truth about the world suddenly opens up to you like divine wisdom come down from on high to show you the light and the way?  Have you ever had a second of perfect clarity?

Standing there, barefoot in my living room, I had a revelation, and this is what I realized:  different sticks really are different.  Or, more accurately, that I know the differences between sticks. I could tell the difference between curves. I could tell the difference between compositions.  My body knows.

For nearly six years now my brain has known tons about hockey and my body has known nothing.  I’ve known how to break down tactics and watch for line matches and interpret advanced stats. I’ve known about coaching strategies and training methods and the provisions of the CBA.  But I’ve never been able to understand how to pivot properly, or how to control a gap, or how to keep people from chipping the puck around me every bloody time.  I’ve never known how to pick a corner.  I’ve never known what kind of stick I liked.

But now, for the first time, my body knows something. My hands know something.

For the first time in my life, I don’t feel like an abomination against hockey.  I feel, just a little bit, like a hockey player.