By Carol Stiffler
What is it about hockey that makes a 13-year-old kid skate so hard you’d think his or her heart could burst?
What is it about hockey that would cause a player to fearlessly hurtle himself into a place where he could definitely get hurt? Blades flashing, sticks clashing, bodies slamming into the boards, chasing after a tiny puck that could knock anyone’s teeth out.
What is it about hockey that fills your chest with hope and anxiety as you watch that you think you might not be able to breathe?
What is it about hockey? What is it?
That’s a mystery to me. I can’t identify what it is about the sport that grabs you by the soul. I can just tell you it’s there; it exists. Something about hockey gets in the blood.
I watched the French Trucking Bantams fight their way through the state championship tournament in Kalamazoo last weekend. Those boys live for hockey, and it shows.
The French Trucking team played a Saginaw group, stocked with players in fancy uniforms, and made them look athletically impoverished. Saginaw played a weak game and their skaters were exhausted in the second period. The Truckers, a group made up of players from Newberry, Manistique and Munising, appeared to have five times as much heart. Saginaw lost, 7-0.
There’s a ferocity in those French Trucking hockey players. They’ve learned how to work much harder than you’d expect for kids their age. Determination burns in their eyes, and just when you think they’re skating at full speed, they get faster. When their legs can’t get somewhere in time, they throw the top half of their bodies forward to extend into an impossible location. And they win, win, win.
They were in Kalamazoo last weekend to defend their state championship title, earned last year by defeating the pedigreed Cadillac Vikings. Last year’s championship game was so evenly matched and intense, the Cadillac squad flung their helmets off and threw themselves onto the ice when it ended. Hearts broken, they cried.
This year, the teams met again. French Trucking faced off against Cadillac after making the rest of the tournament teams look unworthy. Nerves were high. Coach Ben Rahilly said his boys passed the waste bin around the room at the start of the day, purging out anxiety. But when they hit the ice, they were home.
The rematch between French Trucking and Cadillac was intense. The ice seemed to have no extra space. The teams scrapped and battled. Only one shot found the goal, and Cadillac sent it in. Refusing to die, French Trucking ended the game on a power play, pulled their goalie to run six men on the ice, and put their hearts on the line.
This year, it was French Trucking who cried. Parents in the stands screamed, whistled, and took away the extra air in the arena. The Yooper squad, which had infuriated teams all tournament, kept their heads up and accepted their silver medals. They know their worth and their skill. They know there’s more glory ahead. They know they’ve found a natural home on the ice. They suspect they’ll return to the championship game next year.
I can’t figure out just what I witnessed on the ice last weekend – the French Trucking team is more than I could ever have expected. I can just say that it was intense. It was hockey. And it was good.