Reflections on Hockey Heaven Part II: Sunday

This is the second part of Chasing Dragon’s look back at the Firework Weekend Frenzy between the Coventry Blaze and Belfast Giants last weekend. For part I, featuring Saturday’s game, click here.

And yet as angels in some brighter dreams
   Call to the soul, when man doth sleep:
So some strange thoughtsranscend our wonted themes
   And into glory peep.”
Henry Vaughan

It’s three days since the greatest hockey game the Skydome has ever seen. The earth is spinning on through space, and has moved roughly 6 million miles away from where it was on Sunday. On this wonderful little spinning lump of water and rock in the black vastness of space, roughly a million people have been born and 500,000 have died. The US has chosen a man to lead it for the next four years.

The world has changed immeasurably.

And yet in the Skydome the ice-pad sits, eternal, white, glowing and unchanged. The only thing that’s missing are the players.

But in the dark, after the lights have gone out, an invisible crowd roars again as a spectral Benn Olson takes on Adam Keefe, as a wraith taking Dustin Cameron’s shape puts a supernatural puck past Stephen Murphy, and a demon composed of pure anger takes Brad Leeb’s shape and re-enacts his all-consuming madness and rage at an impassive Andy Carson.

Great games never end. They just replay themselves night after night in darkened arenas, as the pure elemental force of 2000 souls and 22 players giving their all emerges  where it’s burned a memory into the unfeeling brick, stone and metal of the building it’s played in-a thousand spectral players jostling for space as they all fight and re-fight their battles night after night, unseeing of the others.

On Sunday night, this year’s Blaze and Giants team left their mark on the Skydome forever.

This blog, we’ll conjure the spirits up and let them dance across the screen as we look back on three hours that will live in the minds of everyone who was there forever, minute by minute. 

Let’s let the ghosts play.

 PART I: Rumours Of War (1st period, 0:00 to 10:30)

After Saturday’s game, the pre-game talk had been simple-could the two teams do it again? Would they have anything left?

The atmosphere in Sunday’s pre-game is different. While Saturday had been all about anticipation, Sunday is a heady mix of hope and fear. It can be boiled down to three statements:

Hope we can come out and do the same again tonight (Blaze fans, staff and players)

Hope we come out hard and get revenge for last night’s loss (Giants fans, staff and players)

Dear god, I hope this game isn’t a letdown after last night (everyone).

Giants captain Adam Keefe has a point to prove. His team had thrown away a two-goal lead the night before and he knows he has to lead them with pride, panache and most importantly show them the way. In his mind he knows what he is going to do. You can see it in his furtive glances across the red-line in the warmup, in the way he stares unflinchingly at one opposition player during the anthems, and in the set of his shoulders as he lines up opposite that same target in the opening faceoff.

Adam Keefe has a fight to win. By any means possible

He and Benn Olson stare at each other over the opening faceoff. Olson asks the strangely polite question that’s a prelude to war:

Wanna go?”

Keefe doesn’t respond. He’s already decided the answer, and as the puck drops, so do his gloves. Olson is surprised but responds, and the savagely beautiful ballet of the hockey fight begins. Keefe feels his helmet being ripped off by the bigger man, but is unfazed-the punches are coming in but they’re not landing as the two men embrace like lovers, snarling into each others faces and both wrestling for position. The rest of the rink is forgotten as Blaze and Giant continue dancing to the soundtrack of two thousand voices screaming for blood, and then, just like that, they tumble.

Challenge given.

1:22 in, Sam Roberts holds a Blaze player up as he goes past, and Andy Carson makes his first appearance by calling an interference penalty. Blaze have a faceoff to Stephen Murphy’s right, one that’s won by Greg Leeb back to Shea Guthrie. Guthrie drifts across the zone and throws a wrist-shot on net which gets the lightest, deftest of touches from Matt Beleskey to direct it by Murphy. Beleskey has his first home goal, and the Blaze are 1-0 up.

 Challenge accepted.

Four minutes later, Shea Guthrie accepts a pass from Mike Schutte on the left boards and takes three strides towards the net along the goal line. Schutte has crossed his path and yells for a pass, which Guthrie deftly caresses to him from a foot or two away. Schutte waits, and then his stick blade flicks like the head of a striking cobra to direct the puck high up over Murphy’s shoulder.

Two-nothing Blaze. All the traffic is going one way and the Giants are reeling.

Something major needs to happen, and it does. Ross Venus swings his stick and is called for slashing on seven minutes, and the Giants PP has its first chance to go to work.

They do, crafting a goal so beautiful that, were it a woman, even Aphrodite herself would be jealous. Greg Stewart forces the puck out of the corner to Rob Sandrock at the blueline, who instinctively knows Jeff Mason is to his left and passes across to the American. Mason looks up at the kaleidoscope of blue, white, teal and red in front of him and picks out Noah Clarke waiting unmarked at the back post. His pass is played with the precision of a bullet being loaded into a rifle, and all Clarke has to do is pull the trigger at the right moment. He does. Crash, bang, wallop. And the lead is down to one at 7:34.

Moments later, Daryl Lloyd decides to escalate hostilities a little, first getting involved in a scuffle with Mike Schutte and then shoulder-barging Beleskey on the way off the ice. This ratchets up the tension just a little. The air is heavy with promise of a cataclysm in the Skydome, forewarning of the thunderstorm about to break.

At 10:18, Daymen Rycroft spins away from a Steven Chalmers check behind the goal, picks up a poke-check from Andrew Fournier, and heads behind the goal before making his feet dance across the icy belly of the Skydome, pirouetting and flicking a shot into the net at Hirsch’s near post. At 10:22, just like that, the game is level.

Ten seconds later, Brad Leeb is slashed by Greg Stewart. He goes down, and the following conversation takes place between him and referee Andy Carson.

“Are you OK, blue?”

“Are you not calling that slash?! The guy fuckin’ two-handed me! (pause as play continues): That’s FUCKING EMBARRASSING!”

Carson decides that Leeb must pay for this, and gives a ten-minute misconduct which sends the Blaze forward into a paroxysm of rage-he has to be held back by a linesman and is thrown out after continuing his tirade.

And the first link in the coming chain of mayhem is forged.

Part II: “On My Signal, Unleash Hell” (1st period, 10:39-20:00)

Twelve minutes in, Sam Roberts and Benn Olson have a difference of opinion which leads to an exchange of cross-checks in the face and Davey Phillips making a prat of himself as he decides the best way of getting involved is to come barrelling in and fall like a ninepin being hit by a truck as he tries to hit the Blaze enforcer. It’s only a minor hint of what is to come minutes later.

14 minutes in, and Andrew Fournier has scored for the Giants to give them the lead moments earlier. As the Blaze try to respond, the threatened storm hanging over the Skydome breaks. It starts fairly innocuously with Rob Sandrock and Benn Olson exchanging words over by the penalty boxes after Sandrock leads with a high stick into a hit. Olson is ready to fight but Sandrock wants no part of him-although he continues to engage in the war of words. As the Skydome watches this argument, the real war is elsewhere.

Steven Chalmers and Greg Stewart are exchanging punches over by the Blaze goal. Well, to say “exchanging” is a misnomer because that implies a transaction involving two people. What is actually happening is Stewart is unloading punches like shotgun blasts on the back of the head of the young Scot, who is down on the ice trying to protect himself.

Blaze netminder Peter Hirsch is now faced with a split-second decision. On the one hand, if he leaves the net to be involved then there’s a chance of him being thrown from the game. If he doesn’t, and watches a team-mate get savaged, then he will stay in the game but may not be able to live with either his guilt or the disgust of his team-mates. He waits what seems to him like an eternity for the nearby linesman to step in as players scream anger from the bench. Mike Egener is already heading for the scene, but Hirsch decides that he’s had enough and goes to Chalmers’ aid.

Meanwhile, Brock Matheson and Gerome Giudice are wrestling almost un-noticed over on the other side of the ice. Their scrap is a sideshow to the main bout, which now includes the 6’4 210lb ball of rage that is Mike Egener, who has arrived and extracts a heavy price for Chalmers’ suffering, paid in Greg Stewart’s blood.

As the dust begins to settle, the officials debate for what seems like forever. Blaze are incandescent with rage-they want Stewart gone. The Giants, meanwhile, argue that under the rules, there must be several Blaze players thrown out. Egener has already followed Brad Leeb into the gaping maw of emptiness that is the Blaze tunnel. Eventually, Hirsch is told he must leave too-news which he does not take well as he tries to chop iron with wood and smashes his goalie stick.

The dust settles, and the period is played out with all attention being focused on 17-year old Adam Goss, who is makin his first appearance now Hirsch has gone. The Giants fire shots at him as they search for a weakness, but whether through the arrogance of youth or carried on a wave of adrenaline, the teenager makes the saves that are required, and the crowd begin to rally round him. The period ends an hour after it started, and those watching can’t quite believe the mayhem they’ve just seen.

 Part III: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (2nd period: 20:00-40:00)

The second period begins with the Blaze facing a mountain to climb. They’ve lost their starting goalie, two of their key players and are a goal down. They manage to last three minutes of concerted Giants pressure, but then Steven Chalmers has an attempted clearance blocked by Rycroft, who taps a pass to an onrushing Daryl Lloyd. Moments later, the puck is in the net and the Giants lead by two once again.

Two minutes later, Adam Keefe and Benn Olson decide that it’s time to renew hostilities. Their battle has been bubbling along all game and this time it boils over as the two drop the gloves in the Belfast zone. In contrast to their earlier bout, which saw them attack each other and cling with the desperation of star-crossed lovers sharing their last embrace, this one sees them circle warily for nearly half a minute before coming together in a vicious and brutally short whirling of fists and limbs that ends with Olson on top of his opponent and raining punches down as the linesmen break them up.

Olson is tossed from the game, but his example seems to inspire his team-mates. Shea Guthrie and Dustin Cameron in particular seem to find a new level of play, and are rewarded moments later as a hard Guthrie pass across the crease is smashed home by Cameron-who then hits the boards almost as hard with his fists as he did the puck with his stick.

Like tyrants of old, though, the Giants react immediately and smash this rebellion from the Blaze with a show of overwhelming force. First Matt Towe drives home a rebound and then Davey Phillips sends a message to his old team with a circling of the net and a finish into the top corner, although his celebration suggests a goal far better than one we’d actually saw.

Cameron and Guthrie come forward again, though, as the Blaze charge forward like a pack of marauding zombies-by all rights they should be dead and buried but are surviving on pure naked hate and anger. Guthrie lays off a beautiful one-handed pass and Cameron finds the smallest of gaps from the tightest of angles to bring his team back within two-it’s 6-4.

Then comes Noah Clarke. The big American has been a little quiet since his goal way back in the mists of time at the start of the game, but he doesn’t much weave a little magic as go full Gandalf on the Blaze’s ass when the puck is played across to him in space towards the end of the period, his stick flicking back and forth in a hypnotising dance before depositing the puck in Adam Goss’ net. It’s 7-4 at the end of the second.

Part IV: The Fifth Stage Of Grief (3rd period, 40:00-59:00)

The third period is a little subdued compared to the other two. The Giants are in full “see the game out” mode and the Blaze…well, the Blaze are truly dead on their feet. There’s a brief spark of life when Greg Leeb forces home a rebound two minutes into the period, but the game is fizzling out, fading away like the last gasping breath of an athlete whose race is run. The Blaze fight on, but the Giants absorb their attacks as a gentle mood of acceptance begins to creep through the stands, if not the home bench. The team have fought well, against Fate and a very good Giants team, but some battles aren’t just meant to be won, and this is one of them. Davey Phillip’s last goal on 57 minutes is greeted with an almost embarrassed cheer by the Giants faithful, and an acceptance of the inevitable.

But there is still, one more sublime moment in this game to come

Part VI: Salute To The Heroes

As the clock tickes over to the last minute, a solitary voice rises from somewhere in the Blaze crowd. It’s an order, a statement of defiance. But it’s also a plaintive call-to-arms.

 “Stand up….if you love the Blaze…”

Slowly, the word spreads, and the clapping accompanying the chant grows louder. One by one, the people in the Skydome take up the call, and the men, women and children in the stands seem to rise as one.

Behind Adam Goss’s goal, the knotted group of Giants fans, too, are singing, only they replace the chant with a simple yell of “Gi-ANTS!”

The insistent thump-thump-thump of hands meeting each other gets louder and louder as the exhausted Blaze and Giants players go through the final minute of 123 they’ve played this weekend. It’s a sound of acclamation for two great teams who have given their all, from Blaze and Giant alike, as every single person in the arena salutes the gladiators who have fought, bled and risked life and limb for their entertainment.

But more than that, it’s a salute to hockey. To the players who’ve made this weekend so incredible. To Benn Olson and Adam Keefe’s fighting, to Brad Leeb’s fury, to Noah Clarke’s artistry and Adam Goss’s youthful lack of fear.

As the final hooter goes, the roar of the crowd rises, saluting whichever squad they support and at the same time sending a prayer of thanks to the hockey gods seated high in their heavenly rink (a rink I imagine to be a combination of the Montreal Forum, Maple Leaf Gardens, the old Boston Garden and Detroit’s Olympia). It is a thank you for a wonderful weekend, for the sport that unites us, and for the fact that for the past two days the Skydome has been allowed to glimpse a world that sports fans rarely get to see-that one where sport goes far beyond merely a passion or a hobby and becomes an art, a living, breathing memory that will live in the minds of all who met it forever.

 Life will go on, and there will be other hockey games. Some may even surpass the incredible drama of this weekend. But the 3rd/4th November 2012 will always have special relevance for those who were there. In those long nights where the neutral-zone trap is dominating and a goal seems far away, or teams are struggling and imports looking uninterested, the memory of this weekend will remain, and remind us that sometimes, hockey can take us far away from the bounds of earth and into some higher place.

“So God bless you for all the songs you sang”

The Deftones: Minerva

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