BY TIM TALEVICH
Christmas brings fond childhood memories of hanging ornaments on trees, watching the Charlie Brown special on TV and going out to a once-a-year family dinner at Tai Tung, courtesy of money from my great uncle.
The most important part of the season, we were reminded time and time again, was the miraculous birth of the baby Jesus, in a manger under a shining star. But let’s face it: For me and any kid I knew, the true reason for the season was what would be under the tree.
Growing up in a family of 10, we each received one big gift from Santa. (This accompanied the pair of pajamas from Gram and Gramps every year, which arrived just in time to replace the threadbare and outgrown pair from the previous year). For me, the gifts usually focused on sports. Maybe it was a soccer ball or a new baseball mitt. One Christmas brought an electric football set.
But the best gift of them all was my hockey set.
This mini rink featured players that you controlled by levers — in fact, “Steel Dyna Drive,” according to larger lettering on the box. The team setup was the traditional hockey positioning: a goalie, two defenders, a center and two wings. The two teams that came with my set were the Montreal Canadians and the Toronto Maple Leafs, in their authentic colors. But you could get more teams and build your own league through a special-order catalog that came with the set.
My set, made in Canada, had little red lights on each goal that would light up whenever the puck ended up in the back of the net. And for pucks, there were two: a traditional black, wooden one, plus a yellow plastic option with a roller ball in the middle that we called the roly-poly. Small tabs at each end of this miniature rink enabled players to keep score, and an overhead scoreboard displayed the game’s period, all entered by hand, of course. The logo at mid-ice, in a large ring, was a maple leaf and the bold words: “NATIONAL HOCKEY.”
I was probably 12 when Santa brought my hockey set. I became efficient at the game, practicing stickhandling and passing the puck around and shooting it on my own when I couldn’t recruit one of my brothers or other neighborhood kids to play. I found myself with fewer and fewer opposing players because I would beat them soundly, even after offering to play with one of my players in the penalty box — even with a game misconduct! Make that two players. It didn’t hurt that none of my opponents owned a hockey set.
I had special plays that I made up. In one, my forward would pass the puck behind the net, and if I hit it just right, it would glide all the way back to my defenseman, who was ready for a slap shot, like a little metal Bobby Orr. On defense, I would tempt my opponent to give up the puck and shoot by moving my goalie aside, exposing a wide-open goal. None of my competitors was fast enough with their wrists to take advantage of this offer. By the time they could muster a shot, my goalie was back in position to make the save, and my defenseman would snatch up the rebound and fire a long shot the other way. He shoots, he scores!
I was like a hockey set Harlem Globetrotters. I was undefeated on my home ice.
After each game or practice session, I would carefully disassemble my rink, pulling the little players off their pegs, folding up the set’s legs, dismantling the scoreboard, and carefully sliding it all back into the box, then into the back of my closet. I never wanted to tempt fate by leaving the set out, where somebody, by accident (or worse), might step on it.
My worship of hockey came from our local team, the Seattle Totems. Before professional basketball or football in Seattle, before the Kingdome and CenturyLink and Qwest fields, there was the Seattle Center Coliseum and the Totems. Whenever we could, a group of us kids from Capitol Hill would get one of our parents or a big brother to drop us off at the Totems game during the winter season. I can admit now that we didn’t always pay for admission. The door the players used was often left unlocked. Nobody seemed to care, and it seemed natural for kids from our neighborhood to find a free way into something if one existed.
We loved the Totems and went to games whether they were winning or losing. The big ones, of course, were against rival Portland Buckaroos. We always hoped somebody would throw a fish out on the ice. It was something I mulled incorporating into my own games on my set. We’d stand in line under the stands at the end of the game where the players left the ice and would hope to get a broken hockey stick.
If I wasn’t at the game, I would be listening to it on the radio, following the action in my mind as Bill Schonely called the game. “Marc Boileau slides the puck up to Guyle Fielder … he moves up the ice … he shoots, he scoooooooores!” In the morning, I’d check the Western Hockey League standings in the P-I, then again in the afternoon in The Seattle Times, just to make sure I knew where the Totems stood in the league. It didn’t really matter, as long as it was ahead of Portland.
Over the years, my hockey set stayed in the closet more and more. As a teenager, I would take it out at Christmas when some buddies came over, and I’d plead with them to play, like old times. They’d give it a go, but not for very long. They had become more interested in foos ball, which I had no proficiency in, and girls (same dilemma).
In the early 1980s I headed off to grad school in Oregon, and, at the request of my parents took all my earthly belongings with me in the back seat of my Karmann Ghia, including my hockey set. I couldn’t leave it behind, could I? Being away from home, in my first apartment with limited funds, brought a reinvigorated interest in the old set. I had hoped that my roommate could be a new competitor – and that both of us, serious post-graduate students – could use some playful diversion after long nights of studying.
The roommate was intrigued initially and gave it a good shot. But my skill level, competitive nature and desire to keep my home-ice unbeaten streak intact prevailed. After a few shellackings, this latest victim uttered an expletive and threw the puck across the room into the kitchen sink. Later, I would beg him to try again, making promises like, “I’ll do the dishes for a full week” if he even scored a goal. He considered the offer momentarily, then swore again and left the room.
The years passed, and with the coming of my own three sons, the hockey set came out on Christmas or maybe on a rainy, gray Northwest winter day. I recruited each of them as soon as they came of age. Each seemed momentarily amused and entertained by this old contraption, but they’d soon wander off to a video game.
A few times I’ve thought I should try to get rid of my old hockey set. I wonder what it’s worth. I bet somebody would buy it on eBay. On the other hand, maybe a grandkid someday will be a hockey fan, and his or her favorite team will be a Seattle NHL team. Until then, I’m still undefeated on home ice.
Tim Talevich is a writer who lives in North Bend.
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