On February 2nd, 2015, I started a podcast. It’s called I Better Start Writing This Down. The show’s subtitle/catchphrase is “I leave a lot out when I tell the truth,” which is a line from an Amy Hempel story. IBSWTD emphasizes stories and sound design. The second aspect, the sound design, well, you’ve got to listen to the show to experience it. But the stories — I put a lot of work into them. It bummed me out to think that these fairly intricate scripts that I put days of work into would just sort of sit there unread in my iA Writer folder. So I decided to put the scripts up on Medium in hopes that maybe, after seeing them, a few people might come and check out the show.
I’m Joe Stracci, and I better start writing this down.
Episode 3: I Can Do It
I’ve got an index card in my wallet, but I’m not going to tell you about it until the end.
First, you need to understand how I came to be in possession of it.
1. I started playing hockey so long ago that my first goalie mask was one of those old-school Friday the 13th Jason masks. My father, an amateur artist, painted team logos on the mask for me, logos that we’d agreed, after flipping through hockey magazines, looked cool: The Quebec Nordiques (no longer a team), the Minnesota North Stars (no longer in Minnesota), the Pittsburgh Penguins (his influence; he was a Pittsburgh fan, although, in the interest of continuity, it was the old Penguins logo). The last logo, I can’t remember.
Our hockey net was actually a turned-around “pitch back” (look it up — it was the perfect accessory for the young and alienated), our goalie glove was a 1st baseman’s mitt, and our rink was the stone patio in my grandmother’s backyard. Sometimes I wore my rollerblades (this was the Bronx, after all), but most times, we just played in sneakers.
On the wall of my bedroom, I had a Trevor Linden poster. It was the size of a poster that you think of when you hear the word “poster.” Linden was the captain of the Vancouver Canucks, back when they wore their old black, yellow, and red uniforms, a center, and around his picture were instructions, complete with hockey player silhouettes, on how to take the different types of hockey shots — wrist, snap, slap.
I started playing hockey so long ago that my first roller hockey games were played in a park — Waterbury Park — that had no boards — just the appropriate lines painted on the asphalt. There was a lamppost that was in play. There were benches behind one of the goalie nets; handball courts behind the other. My middle school crushes used to come to our practices and watch. One side of the rink was bordered by the two team benches, which were just painted park benches. The other side had nothing — it just extended out into the rest of the park, beyond the painted lines, to basketball nets and open space. Clearing or icing the puck in hockey often means wrapping the puck around the boards — that didn’t happen at Waterbury. If the puck got on edge and began to roll, usually after a deflected shot, the referees often had to blow the whistle to stop play, as the puck rolled out into the basketball courts, and if it had enough momentum, the swings.
And I should also point out here that back then, we didn’t even have pucks, just rolls of electrical tape, that for some reason, we called, “88’s.”
Fast forward to high school. I joined the ice hockey team, part of the Catholic High School Hockey League. I learned how to ice skate, how to navigate a group of teenage boys in a locker room. We weren’t any good; the team hadn’t won a game in three years when I joined it as a freshman. But by my senior year, with a new coach (Coach Pat) who ran the team with a sense of purpose, both on and off the ice, we finally had all of the pieces in place to maybe, actually, have a decent season.
In plain language, we worked our asses off, most of us for the first time in our young lives.
Coach Pat told us that we wouldn’t always be the most skilled team on the ice, but that we would always be in the best shape.
2. My wife and I made the decision to limit our daughter’s access to screens until she turned two. That meant iPhones, iPads, and most especially, TV’s. We’re not crazy about it; if the TV’s on when we’re at a friends’ house, or a relative’s house, it’s on. It’s not a big deal. But in our house, the TV is rarely on if she’s awake.
Seeing as we’ve never been big TV-watchers, where this change has really reflected the most is in my following of professional sports. There have been some big changes in the past couple of years. Afternoon Yankees games, afternoon Rangers games, Sundays spent watching the Jets, or even just the NFL in general, have all become a relic from the past. And because of the time during the day that Luna takes up (that is to say, all of it) I’ve had to push the reading and writing that I do to the hours once she’s asleep: even more time taken away from watching whatever sports might be on.
3. I don’t remember exactly now — I know that it was November of 2001. I think it was the third game of my senior season. The first two games had been against teams that we were expected to beat, and we did. But Holy Cross was the first real test of our new developed hockey acumen, workouts, and practice. Holy Cross was the team to beat in the division. They’d been in the B division the season prior, and were dropped down because they’d come in last place.
This still meant that they were better than everyone in the C division.
Except maybe us.
We were losing 3–2 late in the third period. The fact that it was this close was a victory in of itself. I was playing right wing. We were in our defensive zone. During the preseason, we’d worked on this very situation — if the other team controlled the puck in our defensive zone, the two wingers’ responsibilities were the other team’s point men, their defensemen. No eyes on the net, no following around the man with the puck. Just focus on your side’s defenseman. And that’s what I did. A ballet back and forth with him as he followed the play.
And then I saw his eyes widen, which was what I had been taught to look for; the puck was coming to him. I saw him stumble and fall. I took off skating as I saw the puck, the pass he should have caught, go past him. I caught it off the boards. The other Holy Cross defenseman skated towards the center of the ice to get into position for what had turned into, because of my correct anticipation, a two-on-one.
The other winger on my line was a kid named Rob Niccoletti. He was a freshman, maybe a sophomore, I don’t remember now, but he was new to the team. He was a nice kid, kind of skittish, and skinny. His helmet never seemed to fit him right. His skating gait wasn’t fluid; he always looked like he was about to fall forward with each stride.
Thirteen years later and I still remember everything about that 2-on-1 with Rob Niccoletti.
I remember thinking that the Holy Cross goalie was expecting a pass, at least one pass, before the shot. I remember thinking that the more moving components in the 2-on-1, the more of a chance there was that something would go wrong. I remember thinking that the closer we got to the goalie, the less of an angle he had on my shot, and that, like my dad faking around in front of me in my grandmother’s backyard, the hardest thing for the Holy Cross goalie to do would be to wait for me to shoot. I remember pulling back and locking into a shooting position for a wrist shot, like that damn Trevor Linden poster had demonstrated. I remember watching the puck fly towards where I’d aimed, high, right under the cross bar, above the goalie’s left shoulder, a spot he would never be able to move his glove in front of fast enough.
I remember the sound of the puck hitting the cross bar.
I remember how it ricocheted high into the air and over the glass. I remember the simultaneous sounds of the referee’s whistle and the collective groan of the parents — a disappointed groan from ours and a Jesus-that-was-close groan from the Holy Cross parents. I remember staring up at the corrugated aluminum ceiling of the rink, the Edward J. Murray Memorial Skating Center — Murray’s, colloquially — a rink that’s semi-outdoors, which only ever bothered the parents, and never the players.
What I didn’t think about at that moment, because I didn’t know it yet, was that that was as close as I would come during my senior season. That in that off-the-crossbar shot, late in the 3rd period, my entire hockey-playing life would ricochet off into the parking lot of the Edward J. Murray Memorial Skating Center. Murray’s, colloquially. I didn’t score a goal that season. I remained the team player I’d been taught to be as a child, but besides a handful of assists, I didn’t contribute once to the scoresheet. Despite this fact, or maybe more accurately, because of this fact, as I record this, the entire sequence of events of that 2-on-1 feels as fresh as if it happened last night. I’ve never shaken the feeling that, had that puck gone in, maybe, just maybe, that senior season would have played out totally differently.
4. Remember the index card that I told you about?
Eventually, in a time and place in the future, I’ll give my daughter that folded index card. It’s in my wallet. It was lined once, but the ink has long since faded.
In Coach Pat’s careful print is written:
“I found that I could find the energy, that I could find the determination to keep on going. I learned that my mind could amaze my body if I keep telling myself, I can do it.”
The final four words are written in all capital letters, twice the size of the other letters, highlighted in red and underlined.
Coach Patgave us that index card at the start of the preseason of my senior year. It was 2001, the year of 9/11. Everything changed. The Catholic High School Hockey League All-Star Game, normally played at Madison Square Garden, was canceled because of “security concerns.”
The index card, the message on it, was meant to be a mantra for the workouts that Coach Pat knew we would have a tough time getting through, (Coach Pat told us that we wouldn’t always be the most skilled team on the ice, but that we would always be in the best shape.) some of us lean and athletic, but most still coddled and unburdened of baby fat that had turned into just regular old fat. I doubt he thought that any of us would hang onto it (the card, I mean) longer than the day he gave it to us, forget about thirteen years.
And now I find myself with a child to prepare for the world. She’ll know nothing of old-school Friday the 13th goalie masks, or rough-and-tumble roller hockey leagues, or my father. She’ll inherit some of my pain, sure, but history has taught us that she’ll discover plenty of her own.
There’s a rink close to where we live in Connecticut. I’m going to start taking her skating soon. When she’s older, when the screens ban has been lifted, we’ll watch games together on TV, practice outside, maybe sometimes on rollerblades, but probably more often in our sneakers. I’ve got grandiose plans of building an outdoor rink on our property. We’ll see.
What I will also teach her is that, thirteen years later, you should not hang onto one missed shot. And I’ll tell her, as I hand her the index card, that in order to realize that, I had to tell myself one final time:
I can do it.
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The Game by Ken Dryden.
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Of course, there’s two new Mementos for this month’s episode.
Memento number 1 is:
Memento number 2 is:
When I saw that pitch backs are still a thing, although I guess they call them “pitch returns” now, I was so happy. Teach a little kid in your life about the joys of playing catch by yourself, and start them off by jotting down an inspirational phrase on an index card, and help support I Better Start Writing This Down all at the same time. Remember, the Memento URL’s will be on ibetterstart.net, as well as in this episode’s show notes if your podcast app supports that feature.
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Hopefully, you wrote it down.