I know I said I wanted to keep the hockey stuff over at the other blog, but I just have to share this one here.
Game 7 is over, and the San Jose Sharks have just finished off the Calgary Flames.
The camera is on the hand-shake lineup, and the focus keeps switching back to Owen Nolan’s face. He’s disappointed, obviously, having joined a Calgary team that seemed to have a shot at going deep in the playoffs even though they drew the hottest team in the NHL going down the stretch.
Owen Nolan. Who was a superstar in San Jose for years. Who still keeps a home here. Who famously called his shot in an All-Star game played on home ice in 1997. When he was a Shark.
He’s in San Jose tonight, looking tired. A nasty red mark graces his left cheek. He was in San Jose in 1996 when I moved here for the first time, and he was new himself, having been traded from the soon-to-be Stanley Cup Champion Avalanche. I watched his Sharks play in the Shark Tank, and I cheered for him. I could care less about the Sharks.
I cheered because every time he touched the ice I was transported back to my childhood, when I could watch Owen Nolan play for the OHL team in my small, smelly town. He was the star of the Cornwall Royals before being drafted first overall. He was the rookie of the year in the OHL in 1989. And just as he would someday be an All-Star in the NHL, one night he was the star of the 1990 All-Star game between the OHL and the QMJHL, played that year in my smelly little town.
After that game the goalie coach conspired to deliver a stick to me: the OHL goaltender’s stick, signed by the winning goalie, Fife, I believe his name to be. That was nice. It was a game-used stick. It was signed just for me, a 12-year old kid who was finally getting excited about hockey.
After the game my mother took me to Cornwall BBQ for a very late dinner. I carried my stick in with me and sat it down at the table. And just as we started eating a family walked in to the restaurant; jovial, starving, and beaming. And the big kid, all of 18 years old, who walked in with them was Owen Nolan.
I saw him, and stammered “That’s Owen Nolan.” My mother, because she is my mother, said “You should go talk to him.”
“What? I can’t talk to him. He’s with his family, and they’re just here to eat.”
And because when my mother looked at him she saw an 18-year old kid and a family flushed with pride instead of a hockey god on earth, as I did, she pushed it: “I think his family would be really happy for him to see you come up to him here. Just tell him you are a big fan.”
Reluctantly, but excitedly, I gave in. I picked up my bulky goalie stick, and walked into the other dining room, where Owen Nolan, my hockey hero, was sitting with his family.
“Hi, um, Owen?”
“Yes. Hello there.”
“Um, I uh, just wanted to tell you that you played a great game.”
“Thanks very much.”
“And, uh, I was um hoping that you might sign this stick. It’sthegoaliestickPaulDesjardinsgaveittome.” This last in a rush of hopeful name-dropping. Paul was the goalie coach for the Royals, and was a family friend.
“Sure. I’d love to.”
“Thanks Owen. I’ll see you around.” And then, elated, I returned to my table with my now sacred trophy in tow.
For 18 years I’ve carried that memory around with me, close; closer than the stick with his autograph, which was lost in a frantic move about a year later. He’s probably had hundreds of encounters like that; I’ve only had the one. I think I’ve mentioned it so many times to my wife that it grates on her nerves a little. Whenever his name is mentioned on television she says “Hey look! It’s your buddy.”
But. For that night he was my buddy.
And tonight he’s disappointed that his team won’t be going on to the next round of the Playoffs.
But tonight I’d like to say, as I did 18 years ago: “You played a great game.”