Monday, April 2, 2018

SAINT BLAISE CONVERTS MOTHER TUCKER (AT AN ICE RINK OFF I-95)



In the past, Mother’s Day didn’t approach, it loomed.  The air was thick and hung low in the sky, it smelled both of lavender bath beads and the yellowed, sweaty T-shirt underarms of millions of fearful Dads across the globe, especially mine. 
Trepidation was universal:  How to get our wives an appropriate, much less, perfect Mother’s Day gift?  It wasn’t possible.  Only moms can give the gift of life, milk, succor, and the perfect gift for any occasion.  Dads are genetically unqualified for cross-sex gift-giving.   My Dad was so afflicted in the early years before he gave up trying.  I used to be, that is, until my wife’s conversion.  Some might call it her “Come to Gretsky” moment.  In my wife’s case, Gordie Howe did appear to her – as if in a dream or in a cool beer commercial - two days before Christmas 2008 at Joe Louis Arena, very near the Gordie Howe Entrance and just before a Red Wings’ game against the Blues.  Mr. Hockey didn’t actually walk on water, or ice, though when she saw him he was very close to the Detroit River.     
I’m getting ahead of the story.
On my first Mother’s Day as a father, I didn’t understand that I had to get my wife a present.  “But she isn’t my mother!” an unlearned, insensitive spouse in the house was heard to exclaim, something he’d picked up from his childhood, after his Dad stopped trying to get the perfect Mother’s Day gift, or any gift at all. 
We’d been married for ten or eleven years depending on whether you count our wedding at the jail (long story . . .) or the one in church a year later (to the day). Being told that a gift was obligatory didn’t help me know what present to get for my wife, until she started to play hockey. (To protect my wife’s privacy, let’s call her Tucker.  Actually, Tucker is her name, but no one ever believes that. Her name has been mangled as Ticker, Hunter and Tuckle.)
These days I have no fear of Mother’s Day.  I pick perfect gifts.  One year, I bought Tucker a pair of expensive Bauer hockey gloves with Carolina blue trim.  Those gloves made her the envy of our ice rink, located less than ten miles from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill campus.  This year it was getting her name and number stitched on her team jersey to replace the duct taped number held in place by clear hockey socks tape which had to be replaced after every game, having fallen off by the third period.
Hockey equipment for Mother’s Day, you scoff.  What a romantic!  Ask her and she’ll tell you it was the best Mother’s Day gift she ever received or could receive from me.  (No gift that I can buy or make will ever compete with the crayon stick drawings my kids’ made, misspellings and all.  They will always be the best gifts.) 
            Yes, my wife plays hockey.  If you think she’d rather have flowers, you haven’t met her.  How did we meet?  Coincidence, luck and close proximity in a small courtroom with a very tall, praying judge (long story).  In some respects, we are polar opposites.
        I was born in the late ‘50s Michigan in a northern suburb of Detroit (a.k.a Hockeytown) to Polish-American parents whose combined surnames contained seven vowels.   My wife was born almost seven hundred miles south, at UNC Hospital in the early ‘60s to parents with consonant laden last names that to my mother’s WWII-trained ears sounded suspiciously Germanic. 
The city of my birth was home to the Detroit Zoo, and 20 miles south, going down Woodward Ave. toward the Detroit River, was the storied ice of Olympia Arena where the Red Wings used to play in the glory days of Howe, Sawchuck and Delvecchio.  My wife was born, less than a mile from Carmichael gym where back then the Carolina Tar Heel basketball team played under Coach Dean Smith.
My wife didn't care about hockey, started hating it because of me and refused to step on the ice to skate with the kids and me to remain untainted by the “odious and odiferous” sport.  She never imagined that she would marry a Yankee transplant that would become obsessed with hockey as his mid-life crisis and convert their Southern born children to the sport.
More than a decade into our mixed marriage (I: Catholic carnivore, and she: cradle Baptist turned Buddhist vegetarian), Tucker announced that she wanted to play hockey. I thought a couple things about this suspicious transformation:  First, she'd had an affair with one of the hockey coaches, or hockey parents and she thinks this is the only way to buy my forgiveness or mask her infidelity. Second, I figured it might be some mild identity disorder caused by the deterioration of her Southern cultural life.   Third, and most disturbing, I wondered who was going to stay home with the kids on Tuesday nights during adult league hockey games if both of us were playing hockey.           
This was the truly terrifying prospect.  Who would wear the hockey pants in my family?           
How did this metamorphosis happen? Was it real?  What in the world was I going to do about it?  I take pride that so far I’ve never said: "Honey, if grown women of your striking beauty were meant to play the rough and tumble game of hockey, don't you think they Mattel, Inc. would have made a Hockey Barbie by now?
        Both of my children, a 10-year-old girl named WJ, and an 8-year-old boy nicknamed Leelo, play hockey too.  (My daughter, the only girl on the team, ran up more penalty minutes than all the other boys on her Squirt team combined.  My son only took two penalties all season.  What does this say about our parenting?)
            My wife decided to play hockey after resisting the detestable sport her kids and husband so loved, after she watched my son’s then 9-year-old teammate with dwarfism play the game.  Her heart started to soften on a trip to Fredericksburg, Virginia where my son played in an end-of-season tournament with his Mite team (6 to 8-years-old).
When we first discussed whether she was going to the tournament, she balked.  “Why would I drive four hours to a dingy, stinky hockey rink so a six-year-old can play hockey?”  “He’s your son”, I responded, a bit self-righteously. “And he really wants to play,” I added. 
I couldn’t go because on that same weekend, I was set to help coach my daughter’s hockey team for a tournament in Winston-Salem.  “It won’t be any fun for me,” she said.  “You love hockey, and you want to do it.  It’s just work for me.” 
            I gently suggested she might surprise herself and have fun, visit a few Civil War sites, but it was up to her.
            She relented, and her life will never be the same.  Life never is the same anyway.   
            The ice rink in Fredericksburg has a mezzanine area about ten feet above the bench enclosures of both teams.  The parents can hear every cuss word that comes out of the mouths of the coaches, as well as the criticism and praise directed at their own offspring. 
What did Tucker hear?  She heard hockey strategy, and slowly, painfully, like underarm chafing only apparent later, she began to understand the game she had so far resisted.  More importantly, Tucker saw the zeal of Blaise. 
Blaise didn’t have the longest legs, or the longest arms or the longest stick of the boys on the ice, but he had something physical dimensions can’t stop -- hockey reach -- the desire to get to puck no matter what is in the way.  Blaise had a love and knowledge of hockey far beyond his size and age. 
Blaise hustled.  He made body-on-the-ice, puck-blocking saves to stop the puck.  He willed his body to go faster than seemed possible.  And he scored on a diving, shape-shifting, contortionist’s shot.  It was that shot, and the ensuing grin of ecstatic, otherworldly pleasure, that pierced the hockey-hating heart of my wife that day. 
            She had watched Blaise many times before, at practice at the Triangle Sportsplex, and at other games closer to home. Did her Confederate ancestors put a curse on her for marrying a Northerner, and force her to live as one for all time? 
Something surprising and mysterious happened that day as Tucker looked down from her spy-in-the-sky spot over the Hillsborough Sharks’ bench area and saw Blaise’s “I just scored a goal” grin.  She wanted to feel that way.  After her youth spent in Raleigh, N.C., swimming, playing tennis and basketball, she wanted to get out on the ice. 
I thank Saint Blaise of Oxford, N.C. for converting my wife to the sport of hockey in that faraway rink in Virginia, a few miles off of Interstate 95 and a world away from the ghosts of Dixie. 
Of course, I’m not surprised that a boy-saint was responsible for this miracle.  We Roman Catholics have a lot of saints, almost one for every occasion.  St. Wallburga (virgin) is invoked against mild coughs.  St. Phocas (martyr) is invoked against snakebite.  And the official, now long dead, Saint Blaise is invoked for serious, life threatening neck conditions, goiters, and diseases of the throat,  , who according to ourcatechism.com, died in 316, was a physician and Bishop of Sebaste, Armenia, and lived in a cave on Mount Argeus.  St. Blaise was persecuted for his faith and to punish him, he was thrown into a lake.  Blaise did not sink, but instead stood on the water.  No mention is made of ice in this miraculous event.  After he returned to the shore, he was martyred after being beaten, his skin was torn off with wool combs, and finally, he was beheaded. 
I’m pretty sure our young Blaise wears Kevlar neck protection (as all hockey players should) against the potentially fatal though rare, accidental slashes from razor sharp skate blades.  So far, the U.S.A. Hockey organization and the Vatican take no official position on this.  I’m confident that Saint Blaise would favor neck protection.
Our St. Blaise is the patron saint of quick-acting hockey conversions during a tournament road trip.  Within a month of that Fredericksburg tournament, we went to a public skating session and we skated as a family.  Dad, mom, daughter, and son skated together for the first time ever.  I’d been skating with the kids since before they each had turned three-years-old.  The boycott had ended. 
            Skating together as a family led to Tucker taking skating lessons, and later Learn to Play Hockey classes.  Tucker quickly went from hockey classes to playing in our rinks’ developmental hockey league – D League.  She played for the mighty Pylons, with their blaze orange jerseys.  Tucker wore my first league jersey from the days when I played for the Pylons.  Number 5.  Red Wings defenseman Nick Nidstrom’s number.  Leelo’s number as well.  Now Tucker plays in a women’s league.
How were we to know that my wife started playing hockey at the right point in our nation’s history? There were a lot of things that year we couldn’t have known, like how girls’ and women's hockey would save the world . . .