Just when it looked like this NHL hockey season was melting into oblivion, the lockout ended last night. So if you need a dose of pucks to get you through the tedium till opening day or you just like a funny story, let's lace 'em up and skate back to 1975-1977.
"THE INTERBORO ICELESS HOCKEY LEAGUE"(IIHL), was a street hockey association that existed through the mid-70's, into the early 80's. The "I" as we affectionately called it, was a group of (on-foot) hockey teams from all over New York City. Our lone playing venue was in the alcove of an H-shaped elementary school, (East 22nd Street, off Brooklyn's Kings Highway). The "I" had enough prominence that our league president was interviewed several times, by Marv Albert, (on radio) between periods of New York Ranger games.
The majority of the players were in the 17-25 range. However there was a handful of younger kids, even a fourteen-year old, as well as larger amount of older men, into their 50's. I got into the league towards the end of the 1975 season, played the full year in 1976 and missed a lot of time in '77 due to work obligations.
The teams were mostly from Brooklyn but true to the "interboro" allure of the league, there was, at one time or another, a club from Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. My team the MP's, were a conglomeration of friends as well as friends of friends, from Brooklyn College. Before I joined, the MP's, they were the perennial second place finishers to the white-shirted, Raccoons. During my years, those tendencies never changed.
The MP's, donned in dark blue hockey sweaters had the biggest core of skilled athletes. But because of personal responsibilities, we infrequently suited-up our A-Team. Even worse, several times, we barely scraped up enough players to cover the eight-man minimum, (as specified in the I's bylaws).
HK was one of our casual players. He was only encouraged to come and fill-out the roster when the captain (player/coach) feared a forfeit because of a small turnout. HK was a beer-bellied nice guy with zero athleticism. He probably followed sports his whole life but never participated. Other teams thought this tough-looking, six-foot-four behemoth was an ax murderer but amongst his "friends," HK's on-ice, non-combative nature earned him the nickname, Sonja.
SONJA HENIE (1912-1969) WAS A NORWEGIAN, THREE-TIME OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL FIGURE SKATER, (1928, 1932 AND 1936). THAT RECORD AND HER TEN WORLD TITLES REMAIN UNEQUALLED. LATER, SHE USED HER EXPERTISE ON ICE, TO BECOME A FILM ACTRESS.
Once during pre-game warm-ups, a gold charm fell off Sonja's necklace. He told me that his girlfriend got it for him so I offered to help find it. He shrugged off the idea of a search, called it a "trinket" and continued practicing.
HK was an insignificant person in my life but because I had no girlfriend at the time and no girl had ever bought me such an impressive bauble, I voluntarily got face-down on the pavement and scanned the area with my eye almost touching the ground...until I found it.
Our opponent that day was a powder blue shirted team from the Bronx, called the Francos. Their captain and team originator was a six-foot-five, street-tough who not only looked like the Pittsburgh Steeler's Franco Harris but wore #32, too.
FRANCO HARRIS (1950-PRESENT) IS A HALL-OF-FAMER AND SUPER BOWL CHAMPION BEST KNOW FOR HIS "IMMACULATE RECEPTION," IN 1972.
The Francos infrequently won. Their best player (Franco) actually had little hockey talent and he seemed to justify his team's existence by beating-up enemy players who got in his way, (even the six-dollar a game referees were afraid of him). One of my teammates once joked, "You're better off letting Franco kick the shit out of you because if you made him look bad in a fight, you'd probably get knifed after the game."
In the opening moments of that game, Franco had a confrontation with HK. HK who was more apt to kick-back in his car and smoke pot between periods shockingly did not back down. My instincts compelled me to step between them before the fisticuffs resulted in the gentle-giant hippie getting hospitalized.
In the process of saving HK, Franco grabbed me under my elbows, lifted me up as if my 200 pounds were nothing and flung me to the ground. Oddly, Franco and Sonja were only given roughing penalizes but I was given a five-minute fighting penalty, a ten-minute misconduct penalty and was ejected from the game for being the "third-man-in" (to a fight...that never happened because of me).
It pissed me off that my teammates teased me about acting as a peacemaker and being tossed aside like a rag doll. I was doubly angry because I had given up a day's pay from my bimmie job...only to be banished to the sidelines by the moronic ref who I incidentally saved from getting scuffed up.
The next time we played the Francos, our captain again feared that we wouldn't have enough players. He phoned HK but he was in full-blown "Sonja" mode and chose to announce his retirement, rather than tempt fate by facing Franco's wrath again.
In that game, because of our small turnout, I was forced to play on our top line. My regular position was defenseman, so it was rare that I played forward except as a penalty-killer. I was happy to get this opportunity. I had scored a mere handful of goals in my IIHL career so being on the talent-rich first line, against the worst team, gave me a big chance to pad my stats.
We won that game 10-0. I was "on-ice" for seven of our goals and incredibly, I neither scored a goal or had an assist.
Our big rivals were the ever-repeating champs, the Raccoons.
THE MP's DETESTED EVERYTHING ABOUT THE RACCOONS...BUT I SECRETLY APPRECIATED THE CLEVERNESS OF THEIR TEAM NAME. IT WAS A HOMAGE TO CLASSIC TV's "THE HONEYMOONERS" AND THEIR FICTITIOUS FRATERNAL LODGE, THE RACCOONS.
When we had all our players, the games against the Raccoons were competitive and we won more than we lost. But we usually had between eight and twelve players and didn't always field our best squad so we were relegated to second bananas.
The Raccoons had four things that we lacked. An impartial coach (he didn't play), a legion of Spartan warriors at every game, an intimidating fifty-year old enforcer (Scotty) and a seemingly mentally challenged goalie whose entire existence centered on stopping pucks, (the "I" used hockey balls).
One of our part-timers was a goon named Pete. Nobody was more vocal in their hatred of the Raccoons and Scotty than him. Pete's father owned a diner on the other side of Brooklyn and several of the MP's were taken there for free meals after our games. I couldn't stand Pete. He was so clueless about hockey that it was entertaining to watch him try...to play. I guess you could call him our enforcer because he looked at his hockey stick as a weapon. Pete's infamous history included spitting in a referee's face, being accused of slashing one of Scotty's tires and getting kicked out of most games he showed up to. He especially liked to cheap-shot skilled players and then fight (dirty fight) whoever came to his prey's aid.
With the newly retired HK (Sonja) looking on in street clothes, we were under-manned while playing the Raccoons. After HK balked at the chance to play, our captain made an emergency phone call to Pete. Fresh from working at the diner, he showed up wearing oxford shoes, black slacks and a white dress shirt under his team jersey. Our captain whispered to him that we were losing 3-0 and that Scotty (in a league without body checking) had crushed our golden boy (highest scorer) against the brick wall by shoving his stick (cross-check) into the poor bastard's lower back.
During a timeout, Pete's eyes glowed an evil crimson as he gathered all the MP's and put a "hit" out on Scotty. Most of us didn't respond. When Pete noticed his pep-talk wasn't met with the enthusiasm he was looking for, he upped the ante by putting a bounty out on Scotty, (a team dinner at his restaurant if we knocked the target out of the game). Everyone went into a rah-rah delirium...except me.
Pete, between threats and a barrage of cursing, called me selfish and not a team player. I knew he was a schmuck so I was neither bothered nor swayed to join the mob. What did irk me was that weasel Sonja, in our bench, sneering at me and cheering the Messiah-like instigator on. I guess his misty memory of me recovering his gold charm and saving him from getting brutalized by Franco couldn't compare to free, upper crust munchies, like a Romanian steak dinner...especially if double cottage fries and cheesecake were at on the line.
Pete started screaming, "We're ALL coming after you Scotty. Get ready to get the shit kicked out of you." This taunting (bench-jockeying) was common. Scotty laughed it off, removed his glove and nonchalantly gave Pete the finger.
I was on the bench as play resumed. The plan was an all-out Donnybrook aimed at Scotty. When the whistle blew to start the action, all the MP's on ice remained in their normal positions and followed the puck, except Pete. I remember how comical it was to see him run in those black shoes and white socks until he cocked his stick in the air, in the style of a Samurai swordsman. Pete wasn't halfway to Scotty when the referee yelled out the (ignored) ejection notice.
Pete with a Ruthian swat, slashed at Scotty's head and missed. Then nobody interfered as the two pugilistic Titans tore at each other. When they were mutually too exhausted to continue, bloodied Scotty and Pete were kicked out of the game. But Pete's criminality got him permanently banned from the "I."
The final score was 5-0. In the waning seconds of the game, the Raccoon's impenetrable, thirty-year old, oddball goalie, Mike Brock started his traditional annoying chant of, "Shutout, shutout, shutout." When the game was over, rather than rejoice with his teammates, he went outside the fence to hug Hildy (his weirdo girlfriend). Then to our dismay, she, with her devilish, toothless laugh and cackling voice joined Brock in taunting us, by glorifying another one of his coveted shutouts, (against us), the highest scoring team in the league.
Mentally, Brock was not all there. While it was true he drove, worked at the post office and had Hildy, he was also extremely dopey, had misshapen facial features and was developmentally childish. Most people tried to get under his skin by calling him an idiot savant, (French for a learned idiot). Which meant that this ugly duckling had exceptional brilliance as an agile, acrobatic goalie but an exceeding narrow ability to shine at anything else, (he even walked awkwardly). As messed-up as Mike Brock seemed, nobody (except Pete) ever called him retarded.
The MP's thought it was an insult when someone nicknamed him, "Mee-Shell 'Bunny' La Brock," after NHL goalie Michel "Bunny" Larocque. But it backfired because Brock liked it so well that Hildy sewed "BUNNY" on the back of his #1, Raccoon jersey.
MICHEL "BUNNY" LAROCQUE (1952-1992) WAS THE LONG TIME BACK-UP GOALIE FOR THE MONTREAL CANADIANS. HE WAS A FOUR-TIME STANLEY CUP CHAMP (76-79) AND SHARED IN FOUR VEZINA TROPHIES AS THE BEST TEAM GOALIES. IN HIS ELEVEN NHL SEASONS, HE ALSO PLAYED IN TORONTO AND BRIEFLY FOR PHILADELPHIA AND ST. LOUIS.
"Bunny La Brock" took a lot of verbal abuse because he wore, even in hot weather, a tattered, good-luck-charm Raccoon's scarf that Hildy, his 50+ year old, cougar girlfriend had knitted. Nearly all the rest of our hostilities were aimed at their relationship because few spectators came to our games. She was easy to spot because she wore her own #1 Raccoons jersey, as she watched every game from the street, outside the chain link fence that was behind the net, at the open end of the schoolyard.
Hildy was in charge of caring for (and carrying) her man's equipment bags. She held his coat on the coldest days and kept an extra-large, McDonald plaid thermos of hot chocolate that she pumped in the air when her Bunny started to chant, "Shutout, shutout, shutout..." Hildy also conferred with her hero between periods. Maybe it was superstition, his own strangeness or the fact that he was a loner, but Brock never joined with his mates...instead, (over hot chocolate) he used his photographic memory to rehash (with Hildy) his big saves that day and discuss upcoming strategy.
In my last year (1977), we finished second again. Despite not having all of our top guns, we swept the third seed in the playoffs and the Raccoons swept the fourth seed. As was the apparent IIHL standard operating procedure, we were to face-off with the hated Raccoons in the finals...again.
Unfortunately for us, we were under-manned for the first two games and lost both in closely contested contests, (4-3 and 3-2).
Our captain got out the word for game three and our entire roster showed up. Even Pete was there to cheer us on. But the league president who attended all the finals, delayed the start of the game. He reminded both coaches and the referee that Pete's lifetime ban prohibited him from attending any IIHL function, even as a spectator. When Pete refused to leave, the president said, "I already filed a restraining order on you." Our captain complained after Pete left but the president shrugged, "Sometimes life is like a cheap detective novel, if your 'friend' ever returns to the scene of the crime, I will have him arrested."
When the game finally started, Michel "Bunny" La Brock put up a brick wall and shut us out 7-0. We walked off with our heads hung low, to the vexing, two-person chorus of, "Shutout, shutout, shutout."
Down three games to none, we were facing elimination in game four. The festivities attracted more spectators than the meager nine players the MP's could muster. Like men on a mission, the few of us who showed up were so inspired to keep our season alive that we threw everything we had at Brock. But like an octopus, he dove, kicked or caught every great shot we took. And when it looked like our frustration was finally over, our rockets clanked off the post and harmlessly ricocheted to the corner.
Midway through the third period, we still had hope, trailing 1-0. Then our hearts were broken when Scotty scored his first goal of the entire season when his soft, cupcake shot caromed off one of our guy's heel and teasingly rolled into our net. The Raccoons soon added two more tallies.
As the final seconds ticked away, Mike Brock whipped his scarf around his neck and turned around to Hildy during each stoppage. Together they chanted, "Shutout, shutout, shutout." She was pumping that stupid thermos and chanting on her own when there was a face off to Bunny's right with twenty-two seconds to go. I crept up from my defense position hoping for a last chance to ruin the idiot savant's greedy shutout pleasure. But, we lost the face off and I instinctively retreated to my defensive zone.
Scotty had the puck safely in front of Brock. He advanced a couple of steps and with the boundless rush of victorious adrenalin coursing through his veins, he wound up and took a wicked slap shot. I was twenty feet in front of my goalie as his Herculean missile came towards me. Half-heartedly, I stuck out my stick. The puck solidly hit my stick and died. In defeat with no ulterior motive, I hoisted the puck as high in the air as I could. At the far end of the rink, with the clock dwindling down to single digit seconds, Brock had his mask off and his back turned to the action as he prematurely celebrated with Hildy. There was a tiny space over his left shoulder and my lofted volley miraculously found it with seven seconds left.
While the Raccoons exalted their 4-1 victory and another championship at center ice, all that could be found of their sulking MVP was his scarf, in front of his abandoned net. I crossed paths with the tortured soul as he quickly exited and skulked back towards his car. He looked like he might have been in shock, so I resisted the temptation to go into my own mock chant of; shutout, shutout, shutout. Instead, I went with a (what can I say) grin and he ignored me. I then watched him plop into his passenger seat with all his pads still on as Hildy angrily slammed his equipment bag into his trunk.
Once this year's NHL season officially gets underway, most fans will forget about losing the first three months of season. Similarly, I'm certain everyone forgot how the IIHL's final playoff game ended in 1977...except three people.