Celebrating my first goal: 40 years ago tonight
I was a late comer to the great sport of hockey because hockey fever and the Saginaw Gears did not arrive in Saginaw Michigan until 1972. Indeed there was amateur hockey there prior to that, but for me skating was normally done on the rink that my Dad made in our backyard each winter. Then came the new Saginaw Civic Center, Wendler Arena and professional hockey. I was hooked immediately and I had one great advantage in my development in the fact that my Dad became the Zamboni driver for the Gears. Being a son of a Zamboni driver has one important advantage- all the free ice time you can want. Thus, I began playing hockey as a very good skater. Therein resided one drawback; I found myself permanently stuck as a defenseman.
Very often I tried to convince the coaches that I could play forward, that I could score goals, that I could put the puck in the net… and I always got the same answer, “Yer the best backward skater we’ve got, I need you on D.”
Considering that I also had the world’s suckiest slapshot I never got a goal from the blue line. Sure I got some assists and I had a wrist shot that would thread a needle but I was always stuck in the blue line with my sucky slapshot. Once when I did eventually become a forward I reflexively tried a slapshot that was so bad when I returned to the bench my coach just snarled, “If I ever see you do that again, yer’ never getting’ off the bench.” Yep- my slapshot sucked- so scoring from the point never happened for me.
Another one that I heard all the time when I’d complain that I wanted to go off of defense and score goals was, “You could be an offense of defenseman… Like Bobby Orr.” To which I always answered, “I ain’t Bobby Orr, and this team ain’t the Boston Bruins. If I leave the point none of these guys are savvy enough to drop back and cover it.” And there the discussion always ended.
Coach after coach, team after team, season after season, winter league, spring league I went through the same drill. Finally in February 1976 toward the end of the season I was playing in Midland. Michigan at the old outdoor rink. As luck would have it that night, my team was stocked with one extra defenseman. Again I went to the coach and nagged to play up front. “Okay,” he groaned with resignation, “you can be right wing on the third line.”
On my first shift that night I picked up a bouncer in the slot stretched around behind the net to the right side and back- handed it into the lower corner on the wrap-around. My very first shift as a forward and I scored a goal. I picked up the puck, skated back to the bench, handed it to the coach and said, “Here, save this for me.” He just shook his head and said, “From now on yer’ a forward.” I picked up two assists that night and we won the game 4 to 3.
Following season I was playing in the juniors and as we started training camp the coach was one that I had previously argued bitterly about letting me play forward. In fact that dispute became so inflamed that led to my departure from the high school hockey league. Of course, I got a call the next day asking me to come and play in the midget leagues- where they promptly stuck me on D. Now as I went to start my first practice with the Saginaw junior B team I walked up to my old coach and he asked how I was “feeling.” I knew what he meant so I just told him that I had a new outlook because I was a forward now. He simply shrugged and said, “Okay, I’ve got lots of D this season.” He and I got along VERY well that season as I got my share of goals and even ended up starting.
For some crazy reason after all these years I kept that stupid puck. The same one that I scored my first goal with and then gleefully carved into it the date and the words, “first goal.” It’s funny how years later, okay… Decades later, you can clearly remember little events such as the one represented by that puck. I close my eyes I can still see it going right through that corner as the goaltender stretched in vain to try and stop it. I guess the wrinkle in my brain where that memory resides takes up the space where something like algebra should be stored, but couldn’t get in.