Requiem For A Dream: Reflections On Two Days In Hockey Heaven, Part I

They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling’ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.

Henry Vaughan, 1621-1695

Today is a perfect autumn Monday morning in Coventry. The sun is shining in muted autumn fashion over the city, bathing it in a warm, golden glow. It’s as if the gods themselves are quietly smiling on the place.
In the Skydome, the ice sits pristine and empty, the horseshoe of 2000 seats around it unoccupied by anyone as the darkened arena sleeps. The roars of two crowds roaring their champions on in battle, swishing sounds of metal on frozen water and crack and thump of Kevlar stick on rubber puck have faded away for another week.
If you listen very closely, you can hear the building sigh contentedly as it turns over in its sleep.

Last Saturday and Sunday, for six glorious hours containing two games, twenty-two goals, and a lifetime’s worth of drama, this building played host to one of the greatest weekends of hockey the Elite League has ever seen. A weekend that promised much and had been anticipated for weeks, but delivered a spectacle that will live long in the memory of anyone who saw it or took part in it. A weekend which showed the sport of hockey in all its brutal, passionate, heartstopping glory. A weekend in which the Skydome Arena and everyone in it was torn away from the bounds of earth and held in the hands of the hockey gods.
A weekend for the ages.

Words can barely do justice in relaying the spectacle of the Coventry Blaze v Belfast Giants double-header weekend we’ve just witnessed. But here, as we look back, they will try to capture the reasons why the Firework Weekend Frenzy was arguably the greatest single weekend of the EIHL era.

Chapter I: The Calm Before The Storm (Saturday, 6pm-7:30pm)
Everyone walking into the Dome this cold and crisp Saturday could feel it. With the hard-charging Blaze meeting the run-and-gun masters of Belfast, the two games this weekend had the potential to be barn burners. There were battles all over the ice to titillate the senses. Whether it was the prospect of seeing the blue-line artistry of Mike Schutte and Rob Sandrock go head-to-head on the same ice for the first time, the battle for supremacy up front with the offensive wizardry of Shea Guthrie and the Leeb brothers vs the raw power of Greg Stewart and Noah Clarke, or the prospect of an exhibition of the more bellicose talents of Adam Keefe and Benn Olson, the weekend promised something for every hockey fan.
The atmosphere in the rink was charged. It fizzed and crackled like a Catherine wheel of anticipation. As the teams hit the ice, hockey fans from Ballymena to Birmingham (and, watching via the webcast, Vancouver to Sydney) settled in to enjoy the show.

For the first period of the seven that we’d eventually see, though, there was no hint of the heights this weekend would reach. Sure, it was an intriguing, fast-paced and tight-checking game, but there were few moments that would really stand out. A nice tip from Clarke of a Jeff Mason shot and a few near-misses from the Blaze attack gave enough excitement to keep us happy, but in hindsight, it seems the hockey deities were busy elsewhere-perhaps in Braehead helping Paul Bissonnette score his first goal on UK soil a mere 72 seconds into his debut. As the first ended goalless, there was the promise of more to come. But nobody in the arena could have dreamed how much more.

Chapter II: Sparks of Life(Saturday, 7:45-8:20pm)
This second period saw another ten minutes of tight, hard-checking hockey, but as the anticipation of the first goal rose in the Blaze crowd, the Giants threatened. Finally, an attempted clearance ricocheted off Craig Peacock’s forechecking leg-he pulled the puck down, curled and laid a pass off to Stewart, who made to drag the puck left-to-right before switching a drag into a sublime blind drop pass to his partner in mayhem Noah Clarke. Bang. First blood Giants, 30:52 gone.
The Blaze shook their collective heads from that blow and came back. Dustin Cameron fought his way past Will Colbert onto the edge of Murphy’s crease and tipped a pass from Guthrie into the net to set the Skydome smouldering, but then came Andrew Fournier following up his own speculative effort, accepting a juicy rebound from Peter Hirsch and clinically dispatching it with the efficiency of a surgeon wielding a scalpel.
If Fournier’s first was his alone, his second showed why assists get the same number of points as goals. Daymen Rycroft seized a loose puck on the left and he and Fournier broke in on Hirsch with only one Blaze D between them. With Fournier going to the back door with the eagerness of a hedgehog to a bowl of milk Rycroft didn’t so much pass as think the puck up and over the blocking Blaze stick and onto his linemate’s with a saucer pass that was a thing of rare beauty.
The period ended with the Giants in the ascendancy and the coals of hope burning low for some Blaze fans. There was heat in the building but the glow of the Blaze was a little weak-the game was in danger of tailing off like the dying whine of a falling rocket. Someone needed to pour fuel on the fire to keep this game from burning out.

Chapter III: Catching Fire (Saturday, 8:35-9:10pm
Brad Leeb has dealt with a lot this year. Visa troubles for his family, controversy over sucker punches, and threats of violence from South Yorkshire. He’s kept his own counsel on such things, quietly doing a professional job night after night and coming seemingly from nowhere to score crucial goal after crucial goal-a habit that’s earned him the nickname of The Silent Assassin. With the Blaze 3-1 down, Leeb girded his loins, loaded his Easton Stealth weapon and went to slay the Giants. The deftest of touches on a Mike Schutte shot saw the puck nestle snugly in the bottom corner of Muphy’s net 78 seconds into the third, and the “most dangerous lead in hockey” looked under threat for the Giants. As smoke wafted across the moon from a thousand bonfires outside, the Skydome stopped smouldering and the barn began to burn. Mike Schutte himself then poured petrol on the flames as he drifted in from the point and jammed the puck past Murphy to level.
Moments later, the Skydome held its breath as Greg Leeb wheeled away from a check, had Murphy down and out, shot for the smallest of gaps…and hit iron rather than mesh. On such moments do hockey empires rise and fall.
Five minutes later, Rob Sandrock, who hadn’t put a foot wrong up until now, did. A stick between Benn Olson’s legs, one sharp yank and away he went to the box of shame despite his protest.
The Silent Assassin made him pay. Guthrie won yet another faceoff back to Leeb by the left point, and he took one stride and a gentle unmolested glide to the slot, and fired a pinpoint shot into the top corner.
Moments later it was Schutte’s turn to go to the box. Jeff Mason had been dangerous all night. The umpteenth feed from behind the net saw him swing a shot and the puck skitter away across the ice before hitting Peter Hirsch and going in. Four each.
Eight minutes later the time was winding down and Blaze had their backs to the wall. Peter Hirsch had quietly been strong in net but this was the time he earned his money. With the Giants circling the zone like dogs holding a bear at bay, Rob Sandrock and Jeff Mason coiled and fired again and again, but Hirsch used his torso, his glove and even the tip of his skate to deny them. As time wound down there was one last twist, as Sandrock was slow getting to an icing, leaving one second on the clock-a second that Doug Christiansen insisted on playing. The hooter went, the Skydome took a collective breath, and prepared for the last act in this mesmerising Saturday night slugfest.

Chapter IV: The Skydome Sees Forever (Saturday, 9:15-9:20pm)
Overtime. The most exciting time in hockey-a time of sudden death and sudden life, where heroes are made, villains born and dreams destroyed and realised.
As the Skydome prepares itself for the last act in the night’s drama, the air itself heats up one more time. The hockey gods wait, watching impassively as the players scuttle back and forth for 2 minutes and 33 seconds of play and fans hope desperately that the puck will bounce their way. Then it happens-the moment that ends part one of this enthralling doubleheader. The moment 2000 people see into eternity.
2 minutes and 35 seconds into OT, Greg Leeb twists away from yet another check along the boards, and makes his way through a check to the net.
Two minutes and 36 seconds into OT Stephen Murphy tenses his muscles and drops into the butterfly on his right hand post. Brad Leeb is on his way behind the net.
Two minutes and 37 seconds into OT, Greg Leeb gets the puck on his stick and shoots. It hits Murphy, but the momentum of the shot causes it to keep travelling, finding the narrowest of gaps to slip through his legs. It’s heading for the net, but slowly. Too slowly. It stops, and the hockey gods flip a coin into the air. Heads the game ends, tails it doesn’t.
Two minutes and 38 seconds into OT. The puck sits on the line, half in, half out. Stationary. Stephen Murphy has no idea where the puck is. Greg Leeb is blocked by the goalie’s body and a Giants d man.
The Skydome holds its breath. The Blaze fans behind the net are trying to suck the puck over the line. Brad Leeb is the only person in the rink who knows where the puck is, and is throwing himself around the net to get a stick onto it. The game is a millimetre from ending, but it hasn’t, yet. This moment only lasts a half second, but to everyone watching both on the ice and off, time stops dead as the hockey gods’ coin tumbles in the heavens.
Two minutes and 39 seconds into OT. Brad Leeb’s stick makes contact with the puck and puts it over the line. The Skydome screams with primal joy, as does Leeb himself.

And we are halfway through this epic tale. It couldn’t get better still, could it?

Oh yes it can.

to be continued…

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