Of course, most of the major hockey moments in my life have happened in front of only a few thousand people, and pretty much all of them have involved the Blaze. However, we’re going to step away from them now-in fact, they will play absolutely no part in this story beyond this point, except perhaps a brief background reference.
A bit of background here: I’d moved to Germany at the beginning of that season, and Cologne were my nearest team. Being alone abroad, and having not really found that many friends at uni, the weekly train-journey from Aachen to Cologne, then the underground from Hauptbahnhof to Deutz, followed by the walk up the steps to purchase a ticket at the ticket window, became something of a ritual…it was bringing something of home with me, even if the colours and language were different. It helped that I made friends with a fair few Haie fans thanks to being able to speak fluent German, and given that I was becoming seriously disillusioned with British hockey at the time, the Haie became more and more important to me.
I started watching games over there as a neutral, but got sucked in as the Haie (or Sharks, if you prefer English) began to band behind the killer instinct of Slovak sniper extraordinaire Ivan Ciernik, the blossoming young goalie Thomas Greiss (who is now in the San Jose Sharks system) and the crafty veterans Dave Mcllwain, Brad Schlegel and Alex Hicks (to the point where, when they came over to Coventry to play the Blaze as part of the Ahearne Cup, I supported the Sharks for that game) and then came my first KEC-DEG game.
DEG are Dusseldorf Metro Stars, and anyone who’s been anywhere near Germany knows that the rivalry between the two great Rheinland cities of Cologne and Dusseldorf, standing half-an-hour’s journey from each other on the banks of the Rhein, is possibly one of the fiercest city-to-city battles in Europe. Think Manchester and Liverpool, only tripled…Dusseldorf is the capital of the state of Rheinland-Westfalen, while Cologne is the economic powerhouse and one of the culture capitals of Germany-it’s the beautiful classical maiden to Dusseldorf’s rugby-playing powerhouse of a modern businessman.
Now imagine that in playoff time (German playoff series are “best-of-five”), with the Haie 2-1 down and having to win to keep their season alive, and 17,000 people, including a thousand or so from just up the Rhein, holding their breath as the puck drops and hoping for the result to go their way.
What followed was 70 minutes of the greatest hockey I’ve ever seen.
Cologne scored first through Alex Hicks, who had already announced his retirement at the end of the season.-every shift could now be his last, and boy, could you tell by the way he leapt high into the air in celebration as the puck hit the net. The first period ended 1-0 Cologne, before the momentum went back the other way as DEG pressure told, Chris Ferraro scored and the game was once again balanced on a knife edge. A blast from Stephane Julien moments later restored the home advantage, before the script went badly, badly wrong.
First, Hicks earned himself a game misconduct for a viciously hard hit on DEG’s Alex Sulzer, which was not noticeably harder than any of the others flying in (every collision was a board-rattler that night), but was judged to be from behind-and so from now on, the continuation of his career rested on his team-mates. And they seemed to wilt under the pressure-Klaus Kathan and Andy Schneider, both German internationals, scoring in quick succesion with a bullet wrister and a rebound respectively to leave the Haie 20 minutes from elimination.
The third period was horrifically tense. First, elation as Eduard Lewandowski tipped in a Mcllwain pass to equalise. Then, despair as DEG were awarded a penalty shot thanks to a Metrostar being hauled down on a breakaway-the silence when Craig Johnson scored was bottomless-the celebrating DEG fans one tier above my place in the terracing behind the goal sounded like ghosts laughing in a deserted mansion.
The clock ticked, with the roaring of the Haie crowd ceaseless, like the thundering of a hurricane-tossed sea, but becoming tinted with more and more desperation. The clock ticked past 59 minutes, and people were praying in the stands.
Then, the puck went into the DEG zone yet again as the waves of red charged forward one last time, bounced, found the stick of Brad Schlegel, and was propelled like a rocket into Andrei Trefilov’s pads-it came out and the hopes of a city sat on the stick of Bill Lindsay as he found himself with an inch of space and got to the puck just as the goalie dived…and poked it home.
Bedlam. Utter, total, complete bedlam. The ghosts across the river in the cathedral must have stirred in their sleep at the roar of complete, mindless joy which nearly lifted the roof off the Koelnarena. We were going to overtime…
A season resting on every pass, every shot, every check. You don’t know the tension until you’ve lived it, and I did that night…when Lewandowski broke away, the air seemed to be sucked out of the rink as the crowd held their breath, only to be expelled in a primal roar of anger as he, too was pulled down from behind.
Oh. My. God. Penalty shot. In overtime. For Cologne.
Jan Alinc was the man chosen to take it. And, unbelievably, he fanned on the shot.
Back and forth the game went, before it ended in a single, glorious second right in front of me, when this happened. I was stood at ice-level, right behind where Mike Pellegrins loses the puck, and as Lindsay scored I thought the roof had come off the Koelnarena, as I joined in with and was lost without trace in a hurricane of noise which the tape simply doesn’t do justice to. Sometimes, in quiet moments, I can replay the whole scene in my mind as it unfolded in front of me.
I’m certain that, this time, the ghosts in the cathedral woke up and roared with us.
Unfortunately, time has dulled my ability to summon back anything close to the emotion of how I felt at that precise moment, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that (and I remember the words I used even if I can’t remember the feeling itself) I felt like I was lifted up on the shoulders of the hockey gods. Nothing before or since has come close to the extremes of emotion I felt in that game. I don’t think anything in hockey ever will.
And, in some ways, that’s sad. But I look at it this way as I travel to every Blaze game with part of me in a ceaseless hoping to get a feeling close to it, and this time, to provide my own soundtrack.
This moment was the one that made me decide I wanted to become a hockey PBP guy rather than just watch it as a fan. And six seasons later-here I am.
Sure, I’d dreamed of doing it in the NHL. I went for a KHL job this past summer, but was told I wasn’t quite experienced enough yet (This will be my third PBP season). But I’m very lucky to be doing what I do, and it proves even now that even if you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll land among the stars.
In a week or so, pre-season games start in Britain. Hockey is back. And once again fans will stream through the doors all over the UK, hoping that someone gives them their own, personal piggyback on the shoulders of the gods.
And the best thing about the start of a new season is…it could come from anywhere.
On Tuesday, it’s Blaze media day. I’ll be along and will of course be writing about what it’s like to be part of a hockey media day. Then come the preseason previews for the British league on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Each team will be rated, unsung heroes found, players to watch highlighted, the lot (for example, look out for Belfast forward Andrew Fournier).
I’ve been doing it all offseason cause that’s what PBP guys do.
Now, the countdown’s officially on. 6 days to go until the puck drops on another season, and maybe, another fairytale is made.
This is gonna be fun.