Monday, December 22, 2008

A Christmas Story

He was a tight-gloved hand at the goalmouth, Theodore! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, sieve-like, old goaltender! Soft and dull as a marshmallow, through whom any puck could squirt; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his newly-painted mask, shriveled his stick, stiffened his pads; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke not at all in his grating voice. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he flubbed shots in the early season; and didn't stop one in the late season.

In Theodore went. But before he sat at his locker, he walked through the tunnels to see that all was right. All as they should be. Nobody under the training table, nobody behind the stick rack; spoon and basin ready; and the little saucepan of gruel (Theodore had a cold in his head) set before him. Nobody under the bench; nobody in the closet; nobody in his equipment, which was hanging up in a suspicious attitude against the wall.

Quite satisfied, he closed the door, and locked himself in; double-locked himself in, which was not his custom. Thus secured against surprise, he took off his pads; put on his sweat pants and slippers, and his toque; and sat down before the locker to take his gruel.

His glance happened to rest upon a bell, a disused bell that hung in the room, and communicated for some purpose now forgotten with a chamber in the highest story of the building. It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this bell begin to swing. It swung so softly in the outset that it scarcely made a sound; but soon it rang out loudly, and so did every bell in the house.

They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine merchant's cellar. Theodore then remembered to have heard that ghosts in haunted houses were described as dragging chains.

Then he heard the noise much louder, in the hallways outside; then coming down the tunnel; then coming straight towards his door.

"It's humbug!" said Theodore. "I won't believe it."

His color changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dimmed lights leaped up, as though they cried, "I know him; Kolzig's Ghost!" and fell again.

The same face: the very same. Kolzig with his “Zilla” mask, usual pads, glove and blocker; The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Theodore observed it closely) of hockey pucks, splintered sticks, and name plates. His body was transparent, so that Theodore, observing him, and looking through his jersey, could see the two numerals on his jersey behind.

"How now!" said Theodore, caustic and cold as ever. "What do you want with me?"

"Much!" -- Kolzig's voice, no doubt about it.

"Who are you?"

"Ask me who I was."

"Who were you then?" said Theodore, raising his voice.

"In life I was your predecessor, Olaf Kolzig."

"Can you -- can you sit down?" asked Theodore, looking doubtfully at him.

"I can."

"Do it then."

"You don't believe in me," observed the Ghost.

"I don't." said Theodore. "You are fettered. Tell me why?"

"I wear the chain of soft goals and frustrating games I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?"

Theodore trembled more and more.

"Or would you know," pursued the Ghost, "the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, a couple of Christmas Eves ago. You have labored on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!"

Theodore glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable: but he could see nothing.

"Olie," he said, imploringly. "Old Olie Kolzig, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Olie!"

"I have none to give," the Ghost replied. "I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Jose."

"You were always a good friend to me," said Theodore. "Thank `ee!"

"You will be haunted," resumed the Ghost, "by Three Spirits."

Theodore's countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost's had done.

"Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Olie?" he demanded, in a faltering voice.

"It is."

"I -- I think I'd rather not," said Theodore.

"Without their visits," said the Ghost, "you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first tomorrow, when the bell tolls one."

"Couldn't I take `em all at once, and have it over, Olie?" hinted Theodore.

"Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!"

Theodore sat at his locker until the chimes had gone three quarters more, when he remembered, on a sudden, that the Ghost had warned him of a visitation when the bell tolled one. He resolved to sit there until the hour was past; and, considering that he could no more leave than go to Heaven, this was perhaps the wisest resolution in his power.

"Ding, dong!"

"A quarter past," said Theodore, counting.

"Ding dong!"

"Half past!" said Theodore.

"Ding dong!"

"A quarter to it," said Theodore.

"Ding dong!"

"The hour itself," said Theodore, triumphantly, "and nothing else!"

Light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and Theodore, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.

It was a strange figure -- like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child's proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. He looked like a Darren Pang with hair. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, an old goalie mask for a cap, which it now held under its arm.

"Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?" asked Theodore.

"I am."

The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.

"Who, and what are you?" Theodore demanded.

"I am the Ghost of Goalies Past."

"Long Past?" inquired Theodore: observant of its dwarfish stature.

"No. Your past." It put out its strong hand as it spoke, and clasped him gently by the arm. "Rise. And skate with me."

As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall, and stood upon a fresh ice sheet, with a full house in Bell Centre.

"Good Heaven!" said Theodore, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. "I was bred in this place. I was a Vezina Trophy winner here."

"Your lip is trembling," said the Ghost. "And what is that upon your cheek?"

Theodore muttered, with an unusual catching in his voice, that it was a pimple; and begged the Ghost to lead him where he would.

"You recollect the way?" inquired the Spirit.

"Remember it!" cried Theodore with fervor -- "I could skate it blindfold."

"Strange to have forgotten it for so many years," observed the Ghost. "Let us go on."

They skated out. At sight of a gentleman in combed back hair, standing behind the home bench, Theodore cried in great excitement:

"Why, it's old Therrien! Bless his heart; it's Therrien alive again!"

“He’s not dead, just in Pittsburgh,” said The Spirit.

“Same thing,” said Theodore.

Therrien put one foot up on the bench, and looked up at the clock, which was showing under a minute to play. He stroked his chin; adjusted his suitcoat; sneered all over himself and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice:

"Yo ho, there! Jose!”

Theodore's former self, skated briskly in. "Yo ho, my young goalie!" said Therrien. "Let's shut the door on these guys before a man can say Larry Robinson." And so Theodore did, getting a shutout in a Montreal Canadiens win.

"What is the matter?" asked the Ghost.

"Nothing in particular," said Theodore.

"Something, I think?" the Ghost insisted.

"No," said Theodore, "No. I should like to be able to take back the sucky games I’ve had this year just now! That's all. Spirit!" said Theodore in a broken voice, "remove me from this place."

"I told you these were shadows of the things that have been," said the Ghost. "That they are what they are, do not blame me!"

"Remove me!" Theodore exclaimed, "I cannot bear it!"

He was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being at his own locker and had barely time to reel to bed, before he sank into a heavy sleep.

Now, being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the Bell struck One, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came. He got up softly and shuffled in his Crocs to the training room door.

The moment Theodore’s hand was on the handle, a strange voice called him by his name, and bade him enter. He obeyed.

It was the training room alright. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with such colorful fabrics that it looked like a collection of Don Cherry’s suitcoats from every part of which, bright gleaming lights glistened.

"Come in!" exclaimed the Ghost. "Come in, and know me better, man."

Theodore entered timidly, and hung his head before this Spirit. He was not the dogged Theodore he had been; and though the Spirit's eyes were clear and kind, he did not like to meet them.

"I am the Ghost of Goalies Present," said the Spirit. "Look upon me."

Theodore reverently did so. It was clothed in one simple red jersey, bordered with white piping. On its head it wore no other covering than an Itech mask, set here and there with shining icicles.

"You have never seen the like of me before!" exclaimed the Spirit.

"Never," Theodore made answer to it.

"Touch my jersey."

Theodore did as he was told, and held it fast.

Perhaps it was the pleasure the good Spirit had in showing off this power of his that led him straight to Kettler Capitals Iceplex; for there he went, and took Theodore with him, holding to his jersey; and on the threshold of the door the Spirit smiled, and stopped to bless KCI.

The water bottles having been filled and considered perfect, all the Capitals drew round the bench. Then Bruce Boudreau proposed:

"A happy 2008-2009 season to us all, my boys. God bless us."

Which all the team re-echoed.

"God bless us every one!" said Brent Johnson, the last of all. He sat very close to his coach's side at the end of the bench.

"Spirit," said Theodore, with an interest he had never felt before,"tell me if Brent Johnson will have to play in all the games so that we have a chance?"

"I see a vacant seat," replied the Ghost, "in the locker room, and a right-handed glove without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, then yes, Brent Johnson will have to play all the games for the Caps to have a chance"

"No, no," said Theodore. "Oh, no, kind Spirit. Say he will be spared."

"If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race," returned the Ghost, "will find the number one goalie here. What then? If he be like to suck, he had better do it, and get his sorry self waived."

The bell struck twelve.

Theodore looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Olie Kolzig, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

"I am in the presence of the Ghost of Goalies Yet To Come?" said Theodore.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed downward with its hand.

"You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us," Theodore pursued. "Is that so, Spirit?"

The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.

"Ghost of the Future!" Theodore exclaimed, "I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another goalie from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?"

It gave him no reply. The hand was pointed straight before them.

"Lead on," said Theodore. "Lead on. The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit."

The Spirit stopped beside one little knot of hockey executives. Observing that the hand was pointed to them, Theodore advanced to listen to their talk.

"No," said a great fat man with a monstrous chin," I don't know much about it, either way. I only know he was bought out."

"When did he get the news?" inquired another.

"Last night, I believe."

"Why, what was the matter with him?" asked a third. "I thought he'd never get released."

"God knows," said the first, with a yawn.

"Where is he going to play?" asked a red-faced gentleman.

"I haven't heard," said the man with the large chin, yawning again. "But I hear teams in the ECHL need goalies. That's all I know."

This pleasantry was received with a general laugh.

"Spectre," said Theodore, "something informs me that our parting moment is at hand. I know it, but I know not how. Tell me what player that was who was bought out."

The Spirit stopped; the hand was pointed to a newspaper.

The Spirit stood above the sports section, and pointed down to “Transactions.” Theodore advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.

"Before I draw nearer to that paper to which you point," said Theodore, "answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?"

Still the Ghost pointed downward to the newspaper by which it stood.

"Players’ performances will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead," said Theodore. "But if the courses be departed from, we’ll win some games. Say it is thus with what you show me."

The Spirit was immovable as ever.

Theodore crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the agate type of the transactions in the newspaper, “JOSE THEODORE, waived by Washington Capitals.”

"No, Spirit! Oh no, no!"

The finger still was there.

"Spirit!" he cried, tight clutching at its robe, "hear me. I am not the goalie I was. I will not be the goalie I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?"

For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

"Good Spirit," he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: "Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life."

The kind hand trembled.

"I will honor goaltending in my heart, and try to improve upon it all the year. I will play in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this newsprint!"

In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him. Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate aye reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom's hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into nothing.

Yes! and the locker was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in! "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!" Theodore repeated, as he scrambled off of the bench. "The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Olie Kolzig! Heaven, and the hockey gods be praised for this. I say it on my knees, old Olie, on my knees!"

He was so fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions, that his broken voice would scarcely answer to his call. He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears. “I am here -- the shadows of the things that would have been, may be dispelled. They will be! I know they will."

Theodore was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Brent Johnson, who did not have to play in every game, he was a fine partner. He became as good a friend, as good a goalie, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old NHL. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Stop Every Shot principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to play goalie well, if any man alive possessed the skill. And so, as Brent Johnson observed, God Bless Us, Every One!

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 8

Number 8. The Seamless System

A little over a year ago, Boyd Gordon suffered an injury – a fractured hand. The Capitals needed to turn to someone to fill the role of a defensive-oriented forward. Quintin Laing – almost four years removed from a spot on an NHL roster – was called up from the Hershey Bears and in his first game in a Capitals uniform blocked four shots in a 4-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes (he was not on the ice for any of the four Hurricane goals). The next night he blocked four more in a 2-1 win over the Florida Panthers. Laing would play 39 games for the Caps, and while he did not put up a lot of points (1-5-6), he was that defensive forward the club needed. In 39 games he was a shot-blocking machine – 52 in all, which left him 23rd in the league among forwards in that statistic and one of only two forwards in the top 50 to average more than one per game. He also finished a plus-4 to finish a respectable (given he played less than half the season with the big club) ninth on the team.

At the other end of the developmental spectrum, Tomas Flesichmann – a man who had to play his way into a contract, despite putting up some impressive numbers for the Bears as a prospect in the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons – netted a career high ten goals in 75 games. If you’ve been watching so far this year, you know that Fleischmann has already eclipsed that mark with 11 goals in 31 games, good for third on the team.

Players have to come from somewhere. Oh sure, you could draft an Alex Ovechkin and have him slide right into the starting lineup and have him producing right away (the year’s hiatus from a lockout notwithstanding). But for mere mortals, there is generally the need for an apprenticeship to be served before securing a roster spot with the parent club. Last year, folks got an inkling of what that means with the play of a Quintin Laing and got a glimpse of what it can mean in a player’s development with the results of a Tomas Fleischmann.

For the Capitals, success is built – quite literally – on the foundation of a solid minor league partnership with the Hershey Bears of the AHL and South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL. In the two-plus seasons of the partnership between the Capitals and Bears, no fewer than 11 players who have dressed for the Caps this year have spent at least half of a full season in Hershey:

Mike Green
Tomas Fleischmann
David Steckel
Eric Fehr
Boyd Gordon
Jeff Schultz
Tyler Sloan
Sami Lepisto
Alexandre Giroux (with a stop with the Chicago Wolves along the way)
Chris Bourque
Graham Mink (with a stop in Worcester thrown in)

To that list one can add this season's call ups: Karl Alzner, Sean Collins, Bryan Helmer, Oskar Osala, Simeon Varlamov, and Keith Aucoin – a group that runs the gamut of NHL experience, but all of whom were in their first full year with the Bears when called up. In all, more than half of the Caps who dressed for games this year have spent substantial time in Hershey.

And, of course, there is the coach – Bruce Boudreau – who coached many of these players to a Calder Cup championship and Calder final in his two full years behind the Hershey bench. His record of 96-30-20 at Hershey, in addition to his playoff success, instilled a winning attitude and experience for those kids (and veterans) who would rise to the parent club or otherwise be called upon as an emergency replacement.

Hershey is not merely close in proximity – only a couple of hours up the road – but a virtual clone of the Capitals in design and philosophy. The Caps have a prolific offense that plays a high-tempo game based on skating and puck movement among all of their players. Hershey leads the entire AHL in scoring and has its best record, despite all of the call ups to Washington, based on the same approach.

The relationship has matured to a point where, if need be, the Capitals need not merely summon a warm body to replace an injured player, but can look to the type of player injured and who among the Bears would be a “best fit” to fill that position. That was on display last year when Laing filled in for a missing Gordon. One could see it this year with the variety of players called upon to fill in for an injured Cap. It might be Sami Lepisto on the blue line on one occasion, Sean Collins on another, depending on the situation.

Philosophy also is on display on the developmental side of the equation. The Hershey-Washington relationship looks like a conveyor belt of talent. It allows a Bourque or a Lepisto or an Alzner to step into a situation that is familiar to them in terms of system and allows them to play to their skills and experiences more so than perhaps might be the case in another organization. While there might be the shock of playing the game at a higher tempo than might be the case in the AHL, these players do not have to face the necessity to acclimatize oneself to the situation with respect to the style and system of hockey played.

One can go back to the development camps held in the summer and early training camp sessions to see the “holistic” approach on display. It is a matter of instilling the “Capitals Way” of playing much in the same fashion the Baltimore Orioles of major league baseball (once upon a time, anyway) had “The Oriole Way” of playing baseball. In those camps, one could see them as teaching moments – a lot of hands on work by the entire coaching staff, those representing the Capitals and those in Washington from Hershey to work the sessions. Part of this might be fortuitous, in that the leader of the group – Bruce Boudreau – is a product of Hershey, but “fortuitous” also means “happening by a fortunate chance” (in this case, the need to move in another direction last year through a change in coaches).

In 2008, one of the top stories for the Capitals is that they have taken advantage of that “chance” to further develop a seamless system between the philosophies of the parent club and the farm club and integrate it into the broader plan for the club as it seeks a Stanley Cup.