Don’t give up a goal. Don’t give up a goal.
It’s all I could think about Monday night, wearing the modern day equivalent of knight’s armor in a small middle school gym in Concord, NH. Drenched in sweat and body-worn by nearly two hours in full hockey pads, we were tied 4-4 in an intense roller hockey battle and all I wanted to do was win.
But losing wasn’t an option, not defending this net and especially not on this night.
Luckily, a pass found a stick in the right spot, knocking the orange ball into Sean Sullivan’s net and we won 5-4. An emotional night was over and as I got ready to walk away, I looked back and tapped the white helmet that was placed on top of the goal, an acknowledgment of a guy that taught me everything I needed to know about playing net from a distance.
That was the helmet of “Perk”, a hockey friend of mine — and a great friend to others — who passed away last week, suddenly and surprisingly.
I first got to know the man several years ago as I was asked to play in a Tuesday night roller hockey league with some co-workers. The only issue was that I had never played before and didn’t have any equipment. I was told ‘No problem!’ and that there would be equipment there I could use. They just needed a body in net, aka fresh meat to pelt with slap shots.
I played, I stopped some shots, I let in a lot. The glove/blocker set I was using was actually for a right-handed player, completely opposite of my left-handed upbringing, but even that wasn’t going to help. I got worked, but I kept going back for more, even buying some correctly fitting equipment so I could have some semblance of order in my own head.
But no matter how good I got, the guy on the other end of the court was always better, always stopping more and always making me frustrated to the point of boiling over. That guy was Perk, nearly a foot shorter than yours truly and with pads that were older than some of our teammates’ kids. But man, could he play.
He was quick, closing up daylight in what seemed like milliseconds and always landing in the right spot to block an incoming shot. He drove me to be better by his play and was such a nice guy off the court that I respected the hell out of him. He always was encouraging, even after a 5-0 shutout where I apparently was made of vapor. It’s a goalie thing, I guess.
I can’t tell you the first game in which I beat Perk, but I will never forget the feeling of doing so. It felt like an accomplishment, like I had done something. With time, the wins came more and more often but it still felt special every time I got a ‘W’ over Perk and part of me hoped that he eventually felt the same way about playing against me.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, I got out of playing due to moving twice and other interests. Our mini-league got more and more infrequent with occasional rumbles of starting up that never came to pass. About a month ago, we were set to play and I decided to literally dust off my pads and make the drive up 93 to play netminder once again and to battle my old friend.
Unfortunately, the gym was booked and only five of us showed up. Perk was one of them. Looking back, I really wished we had played that night.
That’s why Monday night was so important. The decision was made to revive our roller hockey game for one more night in honor of the guy who so honorably minded his net nearly every single week. For me, that drive up was reflective. I thought about the many times I had made that same drive up to Concord before, psyching myself up to play a great set of games, to beat Perk, to make it matter. I got very sad, but then, the switch flipped and I couldn’t wait to get there.
It was a record turnout with three goalies and roughly 10 skaters. We warmed up and Perk’s pads were set up at the opposing net. We took warm-ups on the other net, but I kept looking down there, knowing that someone would have to take his spot there eventually. I dreaded it. That’s Perk’s net. Deep in my heart, I knew he would have said to just play the damn thing and I knew it was inevitable.
We eventually started and as the three goalies rotated, I ended up down in his old end of the court for the last 45 minutes of the night. I stopped some shots that I shouldn’t have (how did that happen, eh?) and when it came down to that last game, I just wanted to win. My rival was watching somewhere and I wanted to prove one last time that I was worthy enough to defend his cage. I’ll never know if I was, but I got the win and felt a bit of inspiration of doing so.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that in all that time, I never learned Perk’s first name. It’s weird, but you almost didn’t have to. To me, he was a single name star, a character, a goal to achieve when it came to Tuesday night hockey. Beat Perk.
But that didn’t stop the sadness and wishing he was still there across from me in net, giving me something to strive to beat and someone to give me encouragement when I wasn’t my best.
So here’s a final tap of the goalie stick to Perk, the man who taught me everything I needed to know on Tuesday nights in a dinky little gym on Canterbury Road. You were a great competitor and a greater person.
You’ll be missed, my friend.