The Bruins vs. the Stars. Game Two of the playoffs.
It had been a real barn burner from the get go. The Bruins uncharacteristically scored the first goal of the game, but the Stars responded, and by the end of the first period, the game was knotted up 4-4.
The Stars were the second highest scoring team in the league during the regular season, while the Bruins were dead last in lighting the lamp, but their top two goal scorers led the way on this day, with help from the rank and file.
The see-saw battle raged on into the third period, with both teams just missing glorious scoring opportunities.
With three minutes to left to play in the game, the faceoff was deep in the Bruins end. The B’s netminder had stood tall in the past couple of minutes, keeping his team in the game.
The Bruins lined up for the faceoff, while the linesman patiently waited for the Stars players to meander their way over to the faceoff circle. Just as the zebra went to drop the puck, a loud, forceful voice shot out from the gallery.
Loud enough to be heard above the expectant din of the crowd; accusatory in tone, accusatory in language.
Through the hubbub of the crowd, and owing to the fact my perch for the game was at the other end of the arena, I couldn’t clearly make out what the leather lunged fan was shouting, but it was something to the effect of…
“Hey, that’s not right! Let all the kids play! Don’t keep putting out the same players”.
There was a palpable murmur from the crowd, as they awaited a response from the Stars’ coaching staff.
Who responded very much like little boys who had been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.
They sheepishly withdrew the player who had been ready to partake in the faceoff, and replaced him with another Star.
And the game went on.
And with time rapidly running out, the Bruins found themselves with a two-on-none.
With the crowd yelling, pleading, begging for Number 8 to shoot, the young man calmly made his way unimpeded towards the net, cutting to his right as the Stars’ goaltender came out to greet him, firing a low wrister into the back of the net as he fell to the ice, a half-second before time expired.
Pretty exciting game for a bunch of seven-year-olds. Who said house league was boring?
Sure, the Select players on each team dominated the play, and the scoring, but that’s to be expected. Each of the six teams in the league are graced with players of such skill, so it roughly evens out.
The lesser skilled/experienced players get as much ice time as the Select players, and over the course of the past five months, every one of those boys and girls have upped the level of their skating, and puck handling skills.
And did it with a smile on their face.
This isn’t about preparing little Johnny for the National Hockey League, though no doubt somewhere throughout the City of Toronto on this early March Saturday morning, one of the tykes that hit the ice would one day play in the Big Leagues. Maybe even for the Maple Leafs.
So understanding that the goal of House League is to promote the love and appreciation of hockey for all players who sign up, then why would the coach of one team suddenly shorten his bench?
Sure, the third-place Stars had lost their first round robin game 5-3 to the Flames, and a second loss would seriously jeopardize their chances at being crowned champions on April 7th, but really.
Is winning, at all costs, the primary goal at this level?
There is nothing wrong with fostering a spirit, appreciation, and hunger for winning. There is nothing untoward about teaching the young charges what it means to play together as a team, to never give up, to know what it means to reach deep down inside of yourself, and find that extra kick, that extra spark.
But at this level of hockey, all of the children should be afforded that opportunity equally. Regardless of the score. Regardless of the situation. Regardless of what every fibre of your coaching instincts are telling you.
Shortening the bench, tough love, and the breaking of hearts will come soon enough in organized kids hockey. Just not now.
Not at the age of seven. Not when each and every one of them can still dream that they are Steven Stamkos, or Patrick Kane.
The Hockey Gods, who haven’t been all that busy this season with the Leafs or the Canadiens, turned their formidable focus on a humble two-pad arena in suburban Scarborough, Ontario on this day, and smiled on the team that played all the kids, not just the good kids.
(full disclosure – father of one of the smiling rank and file on the Bruins).