I jumped from foot to foot, Mineral Ice nipped at my nuts. During earlier games I had strained a groin and incurred collateral damage applying the fix. Next to me, Mrs. A smirked. Between dance steps, I said: “I hope our game doesn’t come down to the wire like this. The pressure’s insane.” On the rink, Pittsburgh was peppering Graffix’s goalie Anthony Fuscaldo. Pittsburgh scored to cut Graffix’s lead to one. With under a minute to play Graffix led four to three. As I continued to dance the good guys hung on and captured Echo Valley’s first national title – the North American Dekhockey Association’s Silver championship.
It was our chance to face another Pittsburgh team for the Bronze title. I stepped onto the rink amazingly calm. Entering the biggest game of my life, I had the mindset that there was nothing to lose and everything to gain. In warm-ups I was impatient – I just wanted the game to start.
From the opening faceoff I moved without thinking, my conscious mind shut down. I was on auto pilot. From the first shot onward, I was atop the crease challenging the shooter. From just inside the clearing line a slapshot rocketed towards my stick side. I followed the ball into my blocker which deflected the rebound to the corner. It was the first of five saves that I remember. Though it felt like we outshot The Green Goblin, when watching the tape I was astonished to learn we were outshot. Being in the zone does funny things to perception.
Three or so minutes into the first period, we had an offensive zone faceoff. Ed Perry won the draw. From the trigger, Rick Friedemann uncorked a monster shot past the goalie. I yelled, gave a fist pump and felt possessed.
The game grew older and the tension built. Back and forth, shots flew this way and that. I don’t remember any shit talking, no nonsense, just incredibly fast hockey. When the ball was in our zone, my eyes followed it like a hypnotist’s watch. Only when we were in the offensive zone did I feel nerves. Get me a cushion, I silently pleaded with my teammates. There’s no way we’re going to win one – nothing.
Deep into the second period, I made the second save of memory. The stickhandler moved up the boards from the goal line. I cheated away from the post. He turned and unleashed a wrist shot low to the short side. Both my legs few towards the post ala a Victorian woman sitting at a picnic. Paul Kakos yelled: “Oh Jesus Christ Zunski!” Before the ball died in my pads l smirked at our coach’s reaction. I knew I had it. Reviewing the tape, I understood his outburst; from his angle it looked like I was handcuffed. For a second it looked like a tie game.
“C’mon boys, get me one more and it’s over,” I said between periods. Though my teammates tried, nothing more was getting past the brick wall wearing the green jersey at the far end of the rink. With every stoppage, I peered over my shoulder at the scoreboard. The clock moved agonizingly slow. Each minute seemed like a period.
Though I don’t know a lick of higher math, goaltenders are subconsciously masters of geometry. The third save of memory is case in point. As Pittsburgh gained the zone, I spotted the left winger breaking behind the defense. If the stickhandler threaded a pass, the winger would be alone for a backdoor opportunity. Instinctually I challenged the shooter, coming half way out to the circle. The angle of his blade changed. I felt my body push hard right. I had to move from my position to far corner of the crease. The leftwing cut towards the net, the ball a laser towards his blade. As he one-timed a wristshot, my leg kicked along the dek. My eyes followed the pink blur into my leg pad.
The clock finally reached one minute. The Green Goblin pulled their goalie for an extra attacker. We couldn’t clear the zone, Pittsburgh was swarming. Finally with seven seconds remaining we iced the ball. The teams lined up for the face-off. I went up on my toes. My legs wiggled much like my Mineral Ice dance. If Pittsburgh scored I feared we would lose the game. They had too much momentum, and in Overtime it would be miraculous if we survived the onslaught. If determination is fire, my brain was an inferno. Choke, I told myself, and be haunted for the remainder of my years.
Pittsburgh won the faceoff. The triggerman uncorked a snapshot. I split right, my blocker intercepting the shot. The rebound dropped before me. A winger muscled through the defense and took and shot. My left pad got in the way. I was on the ground, a half-dozen bodies pushing and shoving. The ball was loose. Sticks poked, speared, and whacked. I flailed. The ball rested under my back. The scoreboard’s siren blared. It never sounded so sweet. I laughed uncontrollably as bodies piled on top of me.
Whatever spirit possessed me that October night, thank you. The game wouldn’t be one for the forget column, conversely, it rests atop a mountain of memories.