Hockey Mania & Good Tunes

Originally posted October 5, 2007

Well, the Minnesota Wild began its NHL season last night, taking a 1-0 victory from the Chicago Blackhawks. And I’m of a mind to write about hockey today, at least to start with.

I’ve written before about the tabletop hockey game I got for Christmas in 1967 and the mania – there might be a kinder word for it, but “mania” will do for now – it inspired in Rick, Rob and me (and still inspires in the three of us plus Schultz). Not only did we play five seasons of tabletop hockey back then and keep stats, but we also found other ways to make hockey a large part of our lives.

A good portion of that interest in hockey came about, no doubt, because in the autumn of 1967, the Minnesota North Stars – one of the first six expansion teams in the National Hockey League – began play. I suppose we’d been aware of the NHL before that, if only dimly. Coverage of the league was pretty sparse in the daily newspapers, I seem to recall: Scores and standings were offered in the scoreboard – in the tiny type called “agate” – in the back of the sports section. Before the NHL came to town, both of the Twin Cities had minor league teams – in the International Hockey League and then in the Central Professional Hockey League, but I don’t recall ever seeing much coverage of the St. Paul Saints, Fighting Saints and Rangers or the Minneapolis Bruins or Millers.

If there was major interest in hockey in the state, it was in the high school game and the one-class state tournament in St. Paul at the end of winter. The college game had its adherents, too, with a major program at the University of Minnesota, but the Gophers had a struggling program in the 1960s.

So when the North Stars came to town in the fall of 1967, our interest was piqued. That, along with my getting the large tabletop game for Christmas, set off an interest in hockey that was a large part of our lives for the next five or so years and still echoes to this day. In order to know which six players whose stats we would track for each of our tabletop teams – I started with Detroit and Montreal, Rick with Chicago and Toronto and Rob with the New York Rangers and Boston – we bought preview magazines each fall and pored over them with the same dedication and concentration that fantasy league players show today. We scanned the newspaper coverage of the league during the off-season for trades and other changes. (I was horribly angry when the real Detroit Red Wings traded Frank Mahovlich to Montreal!)

We also – as we got a little bit older and could drive – went to about one North Stars game a season at the old Met Sports Center in Bloomington. I recall all three of us seeing the Stars play the Canadiens and the Chicago Blackhawks; Rick and I also saw the California Golden Seals (during Charlie Finley’s ownership, when the Seals wore the same green and gold combination as his Oakland A’s baseball team), the Philadelphia Flyers and the 1971-72 NHL All-Star Game (that one from standing room high in the rafters).

Given all that, it’s not surprising that sometime late in 1970, I think, the three of us went down to one of the local sporting good stores and bought hockey sticks. Of the three of us, only Rick could skate very well, but we weren’t planning on taking our game – or lack of it – to any of the outdoor rinks in St. Cloud. (There was no indoor hockey rink in St. Cloud until a winter or two later.) No, we were going to play hockey in the street.

In a normal winter of the time, by late December or early January, there would have been enough snow that the side streets would have a layer of compressed snow on them, waiting for spring to dislodge it. It was the perfect surface to play hockey on, wearing rubber boots. We marked off a goal in the snow bank on one side of Eighth Street in front of Rick and Rob’s house, using the shafts of two broken hockey sticks the guys had found in their garage. For a puck, we used a miniature basketball that had been a souvenir giveaway at a St. Cloud Tech game; it was four to five inches in diameter, and it was orange, which showed nicely against the white (and black, where it was soiled) packed snow.

We devised a game where all three of us could play: One goalie, one defender, and one offensive player. The offensive player got five attempts to score, starting at the opposite side of the street. An attempt ended when one of four things happened: The puck/ball was cleared by the defender either back across the street or over agreed-upon side boundaries; the goalie held the puck/ball after making a save; the puck/ball was shot into or over the snow bank that held the goal but not into the goal; or a goal was scored. After one set of five attempts, the goalie became the offensive player, the offensive player moved to defender, and the defender played goalie. (We didn’t have goalie equipment, so we used a tennis racket and a baseball glove.)

After four rotations, the game was ended. I really don’t recall who won any of the contests. I was a pretty fair goalie and had a pretty good wrist shot. Rick’s shot, while not as hard, was more accurate. Rob was a good defender and goalie. It was good exercise for all of us, and when we finished, we stuck our sticks (and the goalposts) in the snow bank near the back door and went into the house where more often than not, Rick and Rob’s mom would have some refreshments for us. And we’d troop up to the room the guys shared and spend the rest of the afternoon – until the winter shadows came and I headed back across the street for dinner – yapping and listening to music.

One of the records were listened to a lot in the late portions of that 1970-71 hockey season was a new album by the reunited Bee Gees: 2 Years On. After their epic Odessa album, the group had fractured, with Robin Gibb leaving. He released the solo album Robin’s Reign while his brothers Barry and Maurice recorded Cucumber Castle. Neither of those albums reached the Top 40, while the four albums the group had released as a trio before then had done so. So, differences mending, the brother reunited for 2 Years On, still a few years away from becoming one of the great engines of disco.

Our interest in the record began with the single, “Lonely Days,” which hit the charts late in December and rose to No. 3. Rick and I loved its fade-out, which we cataloged as the latest quirky ending to a Bee Gees song in a series of quirky endings, based on our listening closely to Odessa. And when the album was released in early 1971, Rick got a copy and we spent hours at his house and at mine, soaking it in.

I’ve heard the album – which reached only No. 32 on the chart – disparaged over the years, and have read reviews that call it the worst Bee Gees album ever. It has its weak spots, to be sure, but I’m not sure it’s a terrible album. On the other hand, maybe I can hear it only with the ears of a seventeen-year-old fan.

Still, I find I enjoy it, not only “Lonely Days” but also the sweeping “Man For All Seasons,” and the slightly tougher approach to the brief “Back Home” (despite some lyrics that approach silliness) and to the more substantial “Every Second, Every Minute.” I also do like the piano-driven “Alone Again.”

And I find in the chorus of “Portrait of Louise” one of the loveliest expressions of unquestioning love I’ve ever found in pop:

“But I’m not gonna move
“And I won’t make you cry.
“You can shelter in my home
“And I won’t ask you why.”

I remember listening to that in early 1971 and wishing I could someday make a pledge so lovely to some sweet girl. Thirty-six years later, having essentially made that pledge (though not in those exact words) to my sweet Texas Gal, the song still tugs at my heart.

Tracks:
2 Years On
Portrait Of Louise
Man For All Seasons
Sincere Relation
Back Home
The 1st Mistake I Ever Made
Lonely Days
Alone Again
Tell Me Why
Lay It On Me
Every Second, Every Minute
I’m Weeping

Bee Gees – 2 Years On [1971]

Afternote:
After listening more carefully than ever to “Portrait of Louise” and then double-checking with a lyrics site, I have finally learned that she’s sheltering in his home, not in his arm. Well. I always thought the singular sounded odd but passed it off as a Bee Gees quirk. I still like it, anyway, and, even if it’s not quite as romantic, it still fits into my life.

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