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Warm Remembrances in the Coldest of Times

March 24, 2020, 9:15 AM ET [1 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
Blogger •NHL Hall of Fame writer • RSSArchiveCONTACT
We need a lift. Another few days and we’ll have been in the penalty box even longer than Dave Schultz. Every shift a health care worker shows up, it’s like one against Hilliard Graves, knowing eventually he will go for their knees. The world is trying to get the puck up over Dominik Hasek and there doesn’t seem to be any top of the net, at least not yet.

To my generation, born after World War II, the Corona virus has become the time of greatest anxiety and sacrifice of our lives, able to cause a pandemic that science by now was supposed to have made unlikely. And bad as things seem, they are going to get worse over the next few weeks before they can start to get better. In the face of so much we don’t yet know, and economic hardship already upon so many, optimism is going to come with greater and greater difficulty.

So we need more to get through this than just old games on the MSG network that the Rangers miraculously always win. Required is not just a good laugh but a good cry, the kind that will get us blubbering like Mess when they showed his Ranger highlights on the screen as he came back to the Garden with the Canucks. Not the kind of tears the suits at Comcast shed every two weeks when they send Ilya Bryzgalov his buyout checks, for sure, but the sort when people are really inspired by an act of kindness or determination.

People rally. Maybe not this year’s Red Wings down three in the third, but the game has given us given us model after model of resiliency practically every night. Shane Doan kept crawling through the desert season after season in pursuit of that one big year by the Coyotes, so you can’t quit: It’s a league rule. If even Raffi Torres’s suspension eventually ran out, so will this one.

In the meantime, in these meanest of times against the most conscienceless of foes, our ongoing mission at HockeyBuzz is to provide a distraction, not unlike putting Big Buff in front of the net on the power play. And now we’re going to try to pass along a little stimulus package, too.

Here are some things in the game that over the years moved me, a lot more than Curt Giles ever could move Tim Kerr. In my 45th year of watching hockey from press boxes without a single cheer, I gladly will confess to some tears, and not just when they ran out of popcorn. Seen some pretty cool things done by-and for-people during tough times. Such as . . .

Bryan Bickell, diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and all the uncertainty and discomfort that condition inevitably will bring, was playing his final game, for the Hurricanes when, in the coolest of gestures by a coach, he was called on by Bill Peters to participate in a Game 82 shootout in Philadelphia. Bickell, who averaged seven goals per season in his career, scored, Carolina won and that’s the way he went out. I couldn’t ask him a question about it afterwards without getting as choked up as he was. Neither team was making the playoffs. Still, one of the neatest things I ever have witnessed.

Nothing ever done in my life was harder than the massive workload as the beat guy in the immediate aftermath of Pelle Lindbergh’s death in 1985. I just wanted to grieve, not write. So few things ever have ever moved me like the way the Flyers performed in their next game four days later, against the Oilers who had beaten them in the Stanley Cup final six months earlier.

After having stood through a wrenching ceremony that the fans needed to say goodbye, too, to their Vezina Trophy winning goalie, the Flyers were ready to compete against one of the greatest teams ever and, in front of a courageous young callup goalie named Darren Jensen, ran a winning streak to 11. The only other time the Spectrum was so emotionally charged was for the game against the Soviet Red Army team in 1976 and, as we look back, that was for the wrong reason. This time there was no hate in the place, only love.

“Winning and losing didn’t matter,” said Coach Mike Keenan. “I’m just so proud of the way they played.”

Only death is final. Every game is an opportunity to overcome something, including our capacity to hold onto things for too long. Forgiveness, symbolized by the handshakes at the end of a playoff series, can go much deeper that just an obligation too easy to take for granted.

Jean-Guy Talbot’s high stick that fractured Scotty Bowman’s skull, ending his career before it could start, was not an accident, we just learned in Ken Dryden’s book Scotty. But Bowman accepted the letter of apology, and eventually, when he ran the Blues, signed Talbot and extended his NHL career by four years and now takes his call every year at Christmas. Two old warriors at peace with themselves and each other. Beautiful.

In the history of vilification, nobody ever got it worse than Dave Brown in New York after he tried to take the pesty Tomas Sandstrom’s head off with a crosscheck in 1987. Brown, the best of guys, who retaliated for his team in the worst of ways, later scouted for the Rangers, of all teams.

“You finally got us Raymond,” said Larry Robinson to Ray Bourque in the handshake line after his Bruins beat the Canadiens in a series for the first time in five tries during Bourque’s career. We move on. There are bigger things than the wins and losses, of course, exactly why we now have to wait. But we do so with the understanding that the games eventually will produce big-as-life moments that can make everybody a winner, not just the team that scores more goals.

Philadelphia fans, some of whom wear their lack of civility like a badge of honor, once gave Mario Lemieux a standing ovation when he came onto the ice after completing his chemotherapy treatments that very morning.

The kind of response we all need to make for each other right now is the one that players make in frantically waving to the opposition’s trainer at the first realization that his player is down and in trouble. We saw this in the ashen faces of the Ducks as paramedics went to work to save Jay Bouwmeester’s life, this happening seconds after one of the objects of the game stopped being putting him on his butt.

We see it whenever players from both teams, not just the home one, pound the boards with their sticks as military heroes or persons with special needs get their due on big arena screens. Sports can help build character, but much more that that they reveal it. We’ve always known that the games come second, such awareness helping us through this wait for them to return. In extraordinary times, what makes us heroes is behaving extraordinarily towards each other.

Part of the frustration of this is that we’re not allowed near each other to help. Carry no casseroles, please, or sandwiches made by Knuckles Nilan, or another pink slip for Claude Julien, not until the all clear to mingle again is sounded. But don’t buy a gun or needlessly hoard, instead call somebody who might be waiting this out alone. The very best thing that team sports teach us is how to be all in this together.
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