I had two upbringings. Coming of age in Methuen, Massachusetts, a small, bowtie-shaped community on the New Hampshire border, my buddies and I went to public school, attended Mass on Sundays, and joined a benign paramilitary organization known as the Cub Scouts. For fun, sometimes we threw rocks at cars or rode around on our Stingray bicycles, singing “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees!” Among the densely packed three deckers, in a neighborhood bounded by asphalt, we played football and baseball on the street, sewer cap to sewer cap. As far as we knew, this was life.
In the summer of 1968 just after I turned 11, my father got a new job and we moved across town to Central Street: larger, more well-appointed homes, vast lawns that doubled as playing fields, and within a half-mile radius, two small ponds and a tree-lined swamp. When the leaves fell off the trees and November passed into December, the swamp froze over, and I was introduced to a different world from the one I had known. Here the sport of choice was ice hockey (and when the ponds melted, street hockey). Dad bought me a pair of skates and a straight-bladed Victoriaville stick. I was in business.
But what sets hockey apart from sports like football and baseball is that you can’t simply go out there and play. Of course you’re welcome to try, in the sense that, theoretically, you can climb into the family jalopy and enter the Indy 500. It’s just that your chances of being competitive are pretty slim. To excel at hockey—to sail over the ice throwing body checks, dodging your opponents, and blasting the puck into the net—you have to first master the rudiments of skating. An odd and esoteric skill, perhaps, but one that’s completely necessary.
Most of the kids in my new neighborhood had been skating for two or three years, and some had been lacing up the blades even longer than that. They swooped across Lynch’s swamp in graceful arcs, like they had a special dispensation to reduce gravity. Eventually I gained the courage to join them, wobbling around in a little half-circle as players from both teams whizzed past on either side. But there was something strangely invigorating about all that cold clear air, and the echo of sticks and pucks against the snow-padded hillside.
One night a certain kid failed to show up, and they asked me to play goalie. At the end of the swamp closest to the streetlight, there was a “net” that someone had knocked together from two-by-fours and rusty chicken wire. I was handed a pair of battered sofa cushions for leg pads and an old catcher’s mask and first baseman’s mitt, and directed into the crease. The game began and one of the players on the other team streaked toward me. He rifled a shot on goal, and I came sliding out and knocked it aside. My teammates cheered, as the loose puck was gathered up and they all went zooming the other way. Using the blade of my stick, I cleared ice shavings from in front of the net, like an old pro. In that instant, I discovered my passion for the sport.
As I worked on my skating and played hockey for hours at a time, I found my knack for the game increasing. We played every day after school and I would clomp home from the swamp wearing rubber guards over my blades, and my mother would spread newspapers under the kitchen table so I could have dinner without untying my skates. Then afterwards, I would go back out and play another game in the moonlight. Once you get the hang of it, hockey is a fantastic, leg-burning workout, the puck zinging up and down like a giant game of pinball. You receive a special kind of thrill from making a velvety pass, or blasting an accurate shot on the fly. And there’s nothing like the quick geometry of a carom that goes from the blade of your stick into the back of the net.
From Lynch’s swamp we moved on to the dank, cavernous rinks of the North Shore, huge, corrugated-metal sheds that resembled airplane hangars. By the age of 13, I was one of the goalies for a team called the Methuen Flyers, in a men’s league where most of the players drove cars spray-painted “Colt-45” and drank beer and smoked cigarettes in the locker room. There were bloody fights on the ice, in the stands, and outside in the parking lot. The games were usually played after midnight and I was scared to death, but my pals and I were hockey fanatics. Several nights a week, we’d gather in someone’s living room to watch the Boston Bruins slug it out with other NHL teams on Channel 38. Urged along by the Bruins popularity, we became the first generation of Methuen rink rats.
Unlikely as it may sound, the explosion of hockey in towns like Methuen can be traced to a particular moment. In what has been called the most famous hockey photograph ever taken, 22-year-old Bruins’ sensation Bobby Orr is depicted scoring the winning goal against St. Louis in the 1970 Stanley Cup Finals. Half a second after being tripped by St. Louis Blues defenseman Noel Picard, Orr was captured flying through the air, his stick raised, mouth curved into an exultant ovoid. Many New Englanders remember that image the way they recall where they were the day Jack Kennedy was assassinated. More than any other single moment in the history of sport, Bobby Orr’s goal led the way into hockey for a massive army of players and fans. If Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships, Orr’s feat gave birth to half a million shin pads and twice as many bumps and bruises.
In November 1974, I was a senior when Methuen High School announced the formation of its very first varsity hockey squad. Coach Bruce Parker’s tryouts, which were grueling and lasted a week, attracted twice the number of players who would make the team. (There were ten goalies vying for what turned out to be four spots—including my childhood rival, Mike Lebel, an agile six-footer with blazing red hair.) During the initial practice, I finished last in a long, lung-searing drill and while I leaned against the boards, gasping and sputtering, Coach Parker, a noted disciplinarian, boomed out, “Welcome to high school hockey, Mr. Atkinson.” Being singled out was embarrassing, but it also gave me hope: the coach knew my name and was charting my progress, however meager.
On Friday afternoon, the roster was posted on the door to the Athletic Department office. Running up to examine it, some kids whooped and cheered, and others turned away with drooping faces or kicked at the wall in disgust. When I finally approached and saw my name next to the number 28 that I had been assigned to wear, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. (Almost a third of the varsity came from our little neighborhood; Mike Lebel and some of the rest came from the west end of town, and Hank Marrone and Ronnie DiCenso and the other Italian kids lived in the east end.) Twenty hockey players would wear Ranger jerseys for the first time—and I was one of them.
My memories of that season are indelible. Methuen’s new high school and rink were still under construction, and that first year—my only year, since I was a senior—training was held before school in the morning. In darkness we rode a silent, chilly bus from our locker room beside the football stadium to the rink at Brooks School in North Andover. By 5 a.m., we were on the ice for practices that turned some kids’ stomachs inside out. (The basketball and wrestling teams practiced at 2:30 p.m. in the high school gym, a comparatively luxurious arrangement.) But these sacrifices made the hockey team an elite group, and the envy of many of our classmates.
We only won five games out of twenty-one in 1974–75 and my ice time was limited, since I wouldn’t be returning the next year. But I can’t think of that season without thinking of my father, Jim Atkinson. Over the course of my career, he spent as much time in rinks as I did, although he never played hockey and didn’t have an athletic bone in his body. My dad was a big, bearded man with a funny, toe-stabbing way of walking, flat-footed as a duck, the kind of guy who wore linen suits and drank vodka-cranberry year-round. A little too short for his weight, too loud on the telephone; nearsighted, flatulent in the evenings, but calm, principled, punctual, and true. Rushing in the dark to various rinks and back home again, we used to talk about hockey, about how I was doing in school, my girlfriend, a little bit of everything. In fact, when I started to get into trouble as a teenager and my father nearly kicked me out of the house, riding to hockey games together was about the only time we did talk. I understand now that Jim Atkinson came to love those crummy old rinks because they allowed him to stay close to me. He was a pretty smart guy that way.
I picture my dad in the bleachers, wearing the blue-plaid Nova Scotia tam he always brought to my games. It’s the very early hours of the morning—there’s nobody in the rink except the players and a few parents—and he’s sitting there blowing on the hot edge of his tea and watching us limber up. The referee floats out from the timekeeper’s box, the game starts, and the players go charging back and forth. Suddenly the other team races into our zone and somebody cranks up a shot. I jab at the air, the puck goes thwack into my catching glove and from the shadowy region beyond the glass, I hear, “Way to go, Jay.” It was always good to have him there: my witness.
My old man died in the summer of 1983. He was buried on the Fourth of July, a bright, temperate, almost iridescent day, the kind of day when we were young my father would pile us all into the car for a drive to the beach. I got home just as the afternoon began to lose its hard currency and the stubbled lawns were diffused into particles with the passing of daylight into dusk. The bigger houses along the street, set back and framed with hedges, were still. On either side, giant shade trees doubled in the shadows and left the substance of everything in doubt except the single white line that ran down the center of the road. Somewhere over the housetops a band was playing, drumbeats rattling over the shingles and dormers. Less than a mile away, at Nicholson Stadium, the fireworks began as small, shivering lines of red, whistling up into the night sky.
The windowpanes shook all along the porchfront. Then there was a long sputtering trail of sparks and boom—See ya, Dad. See you after midnight, loading up our old station wagon with my goalie stick and pads. See you outside the locker room, winking at me as the players clack over the rubber mats and dart onto the ice. See you in the lobby of all those seedy rinks, jangling your car keys and stamping your feet, no good reason to be freezing your ass off at 2:30 in the morning. No reason at all, except for me.
Today, I have a 5-year-old son named Liam who’s been playing hockey since before he could walk, with an upturned laundry basket as the net and a spatula for a stick. Liam is a little over three feet tall, with hair a dirty gold color and earnest brown eyes, a snub nose, and full lips. His closet is already packed with various hockey jerseys, and he sleeps beneath a framed photograph of Bobby Orr, in the home whites of the Boston Bruins, his hair a-flutter as he soars up ice. Around here, Orr is the alpha and the omega as far as hockey players go. And although he hasn’t played in more than twenty years, the former Bruins’ defenseman is my son’s hero. An apparition on grainy old videotape, Bobby Orr is just the sort of mythic figure a boy should look up to. He was a superior presence on the ice, no scandal ever tainted his career, and my mother loved him—in that maternal way that icons should be loved.
Once or twice a week, Liam and I turn up for public skating at Methuen High School, cruising in a giant circle while kids of all ages go waltzing past. Three years ago Liam started out on double-runners, pushing a milk crate around the ice, and soon could glide around the rink unassisted. But his skating prowess aside, it’s in the breezeway at home where my son’s immersion in the sport has really taken place. After supper most evenings, we carry out the net and plastic sticks and Liam dons an array of miniature equipment. Each game begins with the lights turned down and the singing of the national anthem. I’m the goalie, the referee, and the play-by-play announcer, but Liam’s the star.
Lately I notice that my son’s technique is improving, and it won’t be long until I have to make an effort to compete with him—first a small one, then more and more, until soon enough, no amount of whirling and scrambling on my part will be sufficient. Because, of course, as Liam discovers his game, I’ll lose mine. I still play hockey a few times a week during the winter and stay in pretty good shape year-round, but I’m 42 years old and feel my love of hockey being threatened by life’s responsibilities as much as the creaking in my knees. Liam’s growing interest in the sport makes me realize that it’s time to give something back: to my hometown, my old team, and to the local kids. So a quarter century after I took off my varsity jersey for the last time, I’m returning this year as a volunteer assistant with the Methuen Rangers and enrolling Liam in the youth hockey program.
As a community, Methuen is split between old habits and loyalties, and the dubious promise of something better. Pull off the highway into Mamma Mary’s restaurant and you’ll find Charlie Bonanno at the grill, serving up his famous omelet-on-a-toasted heel. The place looks like a Sicilian funeral home with its blood-red wallpaper and carpets, faux Tiffany lamps, and a smattering of bad oil paintings. Ranged along the counter, slack-bellied tradesmen discuss the upcoming mayoral race and which of two Italian-American candidates they will vote for. One of the regulars seated there announces that his son will play for the varsity hockey team this season, the others murmur and nod, and Charlie throws another heel onto the grill.
With a population of 40,000, this is small-town America, where everyone not only knows your name but they knew your father’s and your grandfather’s name and what they did for a living and who they chummed around with. Hockey is part of Methuen’s culture, where fathers and mothers work extra shifts to afford their kid’s ice time and frayed hockey pants and tattered gloves get passed down from sister to brother. And though hardly anyone learns the game outdoors these days, the districts that produce the best players remain intact: the Italian east end, the west side with its town forest and lake, and the area around Central Street.
But like a lot of New England towns with open space, Methuen is growing and gentrifying; three-hundred-thousand-dollar homes are popping up like mushrooms, and the character of its blue-collar neighborhoods is disappearing. While Charlie Bonanno serves up homemade sausage to his clientele of plumbers and roofers and stonemasons, a fleet of Volvos and BMWs sail past on Merrimack Street, their occupants scarfing down bagels and yakking on their cell phones. At the local grocery store, these young Rockefellers stalk around like whippets with their bony jaws and high-haired, slender wives. All they care about is money and golf.
Methuen still draws most of its hockey players from among the sons and daughters of the firefighters, electricians, postal workers, and schoolteachers who live in modest one- and two-family homes and have traditionally made up the largest segment of the town’s population. Oddly enough, a significant number of Methuen’s best athletes don’t even play sports in high school. Instead they get after-school jobs, not because their families are poor, but simply because they have grown up with the habit of work. Like their parents, they see regular employment (certainly not basketball or football, and sometimes not even college) as the way to get ahead.
Underneath all this, hockey is ingrained into Methuen’s collective identity. Alone among the major sports, it often requires the commitment of an entire family for an individual player to excel. The equipment and ice time are expensive, the hours at the rink are long and late, and it takes many years for a kid to master the elements of skating and team play.
Because of the requisite dedication, it tends to be a sport that people stick with. In my heart, I believe my son will become a hockey player and that he probably already is one. After all, I learned the benefits of teamwork and hustle and persistence and made most of my deepest friendships at the rink. If Liam does decide to play, I’ll be there to lug his equipment, offer a few tips, and provide him with encouragement, just as my father did for me.
The pinnacle for most local kids is to finish his or her career playing for Methuen High. Over the years, the Rangers have produced a handful of prospects who’ve gone on to play for colleges like Plymouth State and Babson and St. Michael’s. But mostly they graduate to the industrial leagues around Boston, or to Sunday night pickup games with their old buddies, where the goalies are suspect and the players end up reminiscing and drinking beer in the high school parking lot. However, the current Ranger hockey team is loaded with experience at just about every position: an all-star goalie, tons of speed, and a handful of dangerous goal scorers. After twelve years of playing together and the rising expectation that this will be a benchmark season, these kids have something to prove.
I have often fantasized about going back to high school, to take one more shot at that defining period in my life. This book details my return to Methuen High after twenty-five years, in order to discover what it was about my experiences there and on the ice that shaped me and my future. At the same time, I examine a group of teenagers and their parents and coaches, revealing in their quest the struggles that kids and parents everywhere must contend with. My intention is to usher readers back to a galvanizing experience, when dreams were born and life was a vague corridor that waited mostly up ahead.
So as the Methuen Rangers set out on their quest, I’m poised on the brink of middle age, my hometown is filling up with strangers, and my young son is just catching on to the sport that will help determine his identity. As an assistant coach, I’ll be there to see the most talented Ranger team in over a decade go through the crucible of tryouts and cuts, the big games, the bus rides, and to relive that one year that helped make me who I am today.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Ice Time by Jay Atkinson Copyright © 2001 by Jay Atkinson. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.