“USA! USA! USA!” went the totally un-sarcastic chants on Monday morning at Seven Bridges in Woodridge, Illinois. The chants of the righteous drowned out the “Detroit Sucks!” recital from the stupid.
Ah, it’s late summer, and it must be the first 2010 USA Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team practice. Indeed, it is.
For most in attendance, the morning started out poorly. A long line in front of the suburban ice rink greeted the many early-comers, and the practice scheduled to start at 10:00 am didn’t begin until 10:45 am. For many – including myself – that meant a wait of two hours to begin the day: 15 minutes in line before the doors opened, an hour in the rink waiting for the practice to start at its scheduled time and, finally, another 45 minutes in limbo, wondering when the damn practice would start.
Oh, don’t worry, said Hawks’ radio broadcaster John Weideman, the apparent emcee for the morning skate, telling the wide-eyed children and the out-of-place-if-not-downright-scary adults (not sure which camp I was in) that the “boys” had been stuck in traffic and that they would be out in “a few minutes.”
In fact, it was Patrick Kane’s first public statement since setting the Buffalo public transportation system back thirty years that delayed the festivities. (See? When you beat the hell out of cabbies, it affects everyone.)
Forty-five minutes later, they began introductions.
Sure, it was the first practice I’d ever been to which included introductions, but I guess the situation warranted it. Team USA was modeling its 2010 Olympic jerseys, and each player announced to the crowd wore a white, blue or 1960 throwback uniform. Not bad actually. Not good either.
Blackhawks Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Kane were in the first group to practice – and, thus, the first group to be introduced. Byfuglien was one of the first announced, and he received a pretty warm welcome from the home crowd. About eight skaters later, Kane was announced to the loudest reaction of the morning, which included about 20% boos. (I would have booed myself had I put two-and-two together and realized he was the reason I’d been sitting on an aluminum bench staring at an empty ice surface for nearly two hours.) I’m not sure exactly why many booed, but I can only guess the other 80% feared repercussions from Kane’s cousin.
Finally, Brian Rafalski was introduced last to a loud chorus of boos and even a little “Detroit Sucks!” chant. (Maybe I should have just gone to work.)
Then, following introductions, the players skated around the rink, stretching and talking. As players skated by the side of the ice with bleachers, people screamed things at select players with little interference from rink noise typical in NHL stadiums. “Brian Rafalski, you suck!” said one man, who brought the easily amused crowd to a roar.
“He’s on the Red Wings” I heard one man say to another. (It’s usually not funny if you have to explain it.) Rafalski acknowledged the yelp with a slight smile and a wave. (I like when athletes do that. On opening day at US Cellular in 2006, following a lengthy rain delay, my buddy Jason screamed to Aaron Boone, who was no more than 20 feet away at the time, “Boone, you suck!” Rather than jumping into the stands and beating us all bloody, Boone looked at us like my buddy had just asked him to be his best man and waved. Boone became one of my favorite players then.)
Another delightful moment was when Kane acknowledged a cheer intended for Byfuglien.
Though the practice and the morning’s festivities were fairly enjoyable, my back felt like Eric Daze’s after a playoff game, having sat on a bench at an unnatural incline for about two-and-a-half hours. It was time to go.
I stuck it out for another half-hour, watching practice closely. Here are a few reactions from a fan who’s never attended an NHL-level practice:
-Mercy, these men are huge. Defensemen Tim Gleason (from the Hurricanes) and Ryan Whitney (from the Ducks) are legitimate men. In that same vein, Kane is very slight.
-I saw probably 1,000 passes in twenty minutes. One missed the mark. Every player – minus one – can skate like no one you’ve ever been on the ice with. The practice ice shows these things like sitting in the 300 level during a game never could.
-My friend, who’s seen the inside of a hockey rink seven times in his life, accompanied me. He turned to me at one point during drills and said, “Byfuglien is the worst player out here.” From your lips to God’s ears, buddy. Pretty hard to practice crashing Roberto Luongo in August, though.
-Man, can these guys play. Even in the middle of the summer, these guys are incredible.