“You know,” my roommate said to me over the wind and traffic noise in his CJ7 Jeep as we blasted down the highway, “Nobody ever had to beg me to play hockey.”
We were roommates and teammates on Colorado’s 2nd-ever team in the Major League Roller Hockey comp. The 1st-ever team was the region’s Golden Boys, the top players and shiniest roller hockey heroes in Denver’s surrounds. The Rocky Mountain Wolverines boasted years and years of collegiate and junior ice hockey talent and the leftovers, politically and otherwise, tried out for the “other” team in a bit of a coup (or a fu-coup, as it were).
Our coach/owner was as ragtag as we were and we all loved the idea that nobody expected us to even form a team, let alone win anything. Coach was as full of big talk and big promises as he was empty when the bar tab came around. We exchanged looks at times, but we all believed because we wanted to play so badly.
We started out as the Mile High Moose and we played a couple of interesting games against the Wolverines to kick off MLRH’s sophomore season, even besting them in the second game (while their best player was at a tournament in Vegas). Coach played with the team finances and had plans for our compensation comensurate on selling merchandise and tickets. We were sure we could do it, even if the money was tight. Coach hired out buses to haul us to our “home rink” an hour north of Denver in Greeley for our games and sometimes even practices.
The questions on his suitability in regards to finances began immediately and this didn’t help. A string of canceled home games against neighbouring state’s teams brought even more questions. The Fort Worth and Salt Lake City teams were both hesitant to make any trip to play the newcomers, even the highly-touted Wolverines.
Cinderella Falls Flat
Only a few weeks into the season and the bottom dropped out. Practice was canceled when the rink owner came and told us all to either pay up or get out. Coach was nowhere to be found, nor was he answering his phone, and every entity the team had contact with came forth with bills showing all that we owed. We were a team that hadn’t paid a dime to anyone but had made promises to everyone. We were dropped like hot rocks and had all gone home to cry in our beers while the impressive Wolverines kept playing and kept winning and kept impressing.
We as a team, had all ponied up our hard-earned dough to become a part of something with the promise that we’d get our gear comped, our rink time covered, our travel covered, and a nice check at the end of the season. We’d lost it all.
Then our phone rang. It was one of our captains, a former college player who was our lockerroom leader, if not the one wearing the actual “C” on his jersey. He’d spoken to the head of the league, just for giggles, and wanted to gauge interest in continuing the team for the season under new ownership. Player ownership.
He’d barely made three phone calls before the word spread like bushfire through the entire team. We were back on and all was forgiven at the rink, if not the bus depot. Roommate and I jabbered excitedly to each other in-between phone calls to teammates and sponsors, even members of the Wolverines!
Cinderella Gets Back Up
Our first practice was the only rinktime we could get, 6 PM on a Tuesday. That meant ditching work early for us paid-by-the-hour fellas and a horrific hour+ drive in rush hour to Colorado’s smelliest city. We couldn’t have been happier to do it.
Top-down, sunburnt and running late, we piled out of the Jeep and into the lockerroom excitedly looking forward to seeing all of our teammates. A little over half were there, with apologies from 3 more. That was it. The absence of our former captain, a friend of the coach’s, was notable.
Reeling a bit, we took the Sport Court and practiced anyway, and it was grand. We stopped a bit early so that our “new” captain could address the team with all the specifics. We were now MLRH’s only player-owned, player-managed, team, and we were allowed in the league that season on a highly-probationary status only through the good graces of the league chairman and his belief in us. He reckoned we showed heart and he wanted to see what we could do, even covering the rink fees in the early stages.
We were now the Colorado Mustangs, and we were ready to actually get serious about winning.
Captain wasn’t done with the announcements either. One of the Wolverine’s golden boys, a friend and teammate on their top line, was dissatisfied with how that team was going. He wasn’t happy with the owner and he didn’t like the egos that swelled the second a paycheck was mentioned. His ice time had shrunk, sure, but he reckoned we showed heart too, and he wanted in.
Roommate and I were excited but needed closure, so I used his for-work-only cellphone to ring each of the guys on the team that had missed our first official practice as a Miracle Team.
Responses, as expected, varied.
“Aw yeah, I ah… couldn’t ah… couldn’t get out of work, yeah.”
“Was that today? Oops. I’ll make the next one… I guess.”
“Yeah, I’m cool with the team and all, but driving to Greeley?!”
The former captain was at least up-front and candid with me, telling me that he’d lost his money too and was too damn old to go hanging on to “foolish hopes and dreams”.
Reaching the end of the list I hung up the phone and looked at Roommate, my face showing precisely how I felt about their responses. He just shook his head and pointed the Jeep south, toward our ramshackle place that reeked of hockey equipment and dog.
“You know, nobody ever had to beg me to play hockey. Never in my whole life have I ever had to be begged to play.”
I never have either
I’ve played on blistering blacktop in the height of a Houston summer, sweating so much that my equipment bag gained 13 pounds in one game. I’ve slept 14 to a double-bed room in a dive outside of Austin. I’ve hallucinated about seeing giant hockey skates covering the pre-dawn highway while driving a truckload of sleeping teammates back from an all-night tournament in Dallas. I’ve played 4 straight games in a tennis-court league because nobody’s goalies showed up on a 100-degree day.
When I left Texas A&M for Denver, I spent my unemployed days doing odd jobs, looking for work and parked in the stands of the roller hockey rink, sitting next to my bag and holding my stick aloft in adverstisement of my goaltending availabilities. I’ve played 5 nights a week for 6 teams while working and going to Uni full-time. I’ve played semi-pro roller hockey in the Major League.
The Colorado Mustangs won every game the rest of that season except our last two, losing to the Wolverines in the Regional Semi-final, with the winner promised a trip to Buffalo to take on the East Coast’s best.
I slept in shithole dives in Dallas and in the back of a truck in Salt Lake City. Whereas our first coach had told me unequivocally that I was only there in case his precious starting goalie got injured or shellacked for 20 goals and that I would probably NEVER see playing time, this “new” team saw me splitting time with that precious goalie and posting better numbers during our road trips, despite being 10 years older.
And nobody ever had to beg me to play.
Save the Canberra Knights
The AIHL’s Canberra Knights ownership has folded the team, first claiming monetary issues and then talent issues after informing the players via Facebook earlier this week. News stories abound and the Facebook discussion is as fervent as the supporter’s pledging money on the team’s crowd-sourcing page.
I just listened to Jordie Gavin’s interview on Canberra’s Sports Radio. He and the rest of the boys just want to play.
And I don’t think anybody should stand in the way of that.
Good luck boys, I’m here if you need anybody in net during your Perth trips.
Here’s that DONATE link once again: https://www.mycause.com.au/page/canberraaihlteam