Let’s say your athletic career is likely to peak in high school (boarding school in my case). You don’t know that when you are a 10th grader (we called them IV formers following the English tradition) because you will only encounter athletes with real skill when they beat you out for teams at college.
But, if you do sense your sports career is nearing its apogee, my advice is to use your few remaining goals wisely.
In January 1962, an unusually enthusiastic 26-year-old teacher appeared at St. Paul’s School after a couple of years of teaching in Melbourne. He had a wife and a very small child, and he must have felt quite out of place arriving midway through the school year.
He had played hockey at Harvard and he was assigned to coach one of three club teams at a level just below the varsity and junior varsity. In the early 1960s, Concord, New Hampshire was still pretty remote. The interstate highway program had begun under President Eisenhower in the 1950s but that did not mean that all of the nation’s highways had been completed. It still took too long to send team buses to Boston where there were other schools to play against, so most of us were divided into Isthmians, Delphians and Old Hundreds. We played against each other. There must have been some 19th-century reason why we were not grouped into eagles, lions and bears but I never asked what it was.
Hockey was a very big deal at St. Paul’s and there were many levels of team for each of the three clubs. We played on rinks that were set up on a frozen pond (pre-global warming). Each team would play the others for several rounds during the course of the winter.
This picture is from a much earlier era. No helmets and seven players a side.
As it happens, at about the time my path as a defenseman on the first Isthmian hockey team crossed with that of the slightly insecure coach who had arrived midway through the year, an article appeared in the school newspaper predicting that our team would be the “doormats of the league.”
Freezing cold day, bright sun, early afternoon, red jersey, leather helmet and my first exposure to a clipboard. The coach had the clipboard to which he had attached the article from the school newspaper. He did not greet us. He did not introduce himself. He held up the clipboard and said, “This is what your schoolmates think of you. Are you going to let them think that?”
The whole season took about two months from early January, when we returned from Christmas vacation, to early March when the ice melted. I can’t remember how many rounds of games we played against the other two teams, but there were several.
Part way through January we played the first round and, predictably, lost them both. The school newspaper reporter who had called us doormats (and who happened to play for one of the other teams) looked like an oracle, perhaps even a Delphian oracle. Doormats we were.
In round two, I think we tied one of the teams, so we were not completely hopeless. In round three, we might have beaten a team and, as the rounds continued through February, we sometimes beat both teams in a single week.
We got to the beginning of March, when it was much warmer and the ice was much worse, because maintaining a smooth surface was achieved by towing a massive blade that shaved the top half inch of scraped-up ice off the surface leaving a sheet of glass beneath. A tractor towed the blade and, if it was too warm, the ice would not be thick enough to keep tractor and blade from crashing through the surface and sinking to the bottom of the pond.
The regular season ended when veteran ice thickness experts thought it should, but the doormats and the mighty Old Hundreds were tied for the top spot. The author of the doormat story was on the team that finished third.
A one-game playoff was scheduled far later in the day than usual to allow the sun to sink behind the tall pine trees and the ice to recover. It was to be played on a rink located in a cove that was sheltered from the sun, all in the interest of having the best playing surface the climate would allow. The pictures don’t show the shady rink in the cove. It is to the right of the ones you see from the air. While playing in the cove was a good decision, there was one unfortunate consequence. By the end of the game it would be almost entirely dark.
The Isthmians battled the Old Hundreds to a draw at the end of three periods. Sudden death overtime would determine the first club championship. None of this “sudden victory” or “golden goal” nonsense, the words “sudden death” reminded the 15-year olds of the consequences of a mistake.
I remember nothing of that overtime period except how it ended. Maybe the teams went back and forth. Maybe shots rang off the posts. Maybe there were great plays or great errors. I remember none of that.
All I remember is having the puck on my stick in my own end, being tired from a long game on lousy ice, not wanting to risk an intercepted pass and taking off into the darkness with my stick out in front of me and making no effort at anything subtle.
By now you have figured it out; the lead-in wasn’t that subtle. Yes, I did score the winning goal. We were not the doormats, but that was not the point.
If you happen to be an athlete whose peak is not far in the future, try to pick your goals wisely. As goals, they will never matter to anyone, but they might serve you well in other ways.
That new teacher, who had arrived with wife and baby at a school not known for being very forgiving, made his bones taking that ragtag group of 15-year-olds and turning them into something better than they thought they could be. He would go on to a distinguished career as an educator culminating as headmaster of a different school.
He was far too big a person to have decided to be my friend simply because I scored a rare goal in a long-forgotten game but, in the next two years at St. Paul’s, he would play a huge role in my future.
We will track that lifetime friendship over the next two stories.