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Day 80: Life’s Greatest Coin Toss

October 27, 2010

“What do you think it’s gonna be?”

It’s a question expectant mothers love and impending fathers loathe.

For many mothers, it’s a solid conversation starter.  It sparks brainstorming for clothing purchases, future hobbies, matronly traditions and heirlooms, etc.

The dad’s take is usually “I have no idea what it’s gonna be.  Can’t do anything about it.  We’ll find out soon enough.”

A child’s gender is a true coin toss.  It’s about 50/50, there’s almost no way outside of blatant and skilled manipulation to influence the result, and you shouldn’t make any big decisions until you know the outcome.

Heck, the coin toss doesn’t even meet its intended purpose unless it’s executed properly…

Melissa and I will find out on Saturday when we get our first ultrasound.  I’d be lying if I didn’t envision passing down some of my incredible sports and childhood experiences to my son.  My wife, as well, has her own experiences from running track and cross-country in high school.  Alternately, I’ve become more and more intrigued about doing the same with my daughter.

I’m profusely opposed to foisting the limiting gender role of little girls.  Don’t like the “Disney Princess” stereotypes, don’t approve of “dumbing it down for the boys,” can’t stand the idea that “a bride’s wedding day is the biggest day of her life.”

The team I give the most credit to for my initial development as a broadcaster is the hockey team at Northeastern…to clarify, that’s the women’s hockey team.  Before taking the reins for men’s hockey broadcasts on WRBB, I refined my skills during off-the-air tape recorder practice calls of the wome’s hockey teams at Matthews Arena.  The games were sparsely attended, the sport’s structure at the collegiate level is scattershot (only 34 D-I teams compete at the level) and my level often carried off the wooden roof through the remaining specators.

The sport of women’s hockey often gets overlooked by casual sports fans as a once every four years Olympic distraction and by hardcore hockey fans as a softer version of the game due to its restrictions against hitting.

Let it be known that women’s hockey players are some of the most intense, driven, and intimidating athletes to ply their trade.

Story #1: The Bloodiest Knuckles

I’ve only recoiled at one hockey fight in my life.  I’ve seen plenty of them, including Keni Gibson’s goalie stick slash to the back of bu’s* Brad Zancanaro and a handful in the ECHL which included a wrestling-style fireman’s carry performed by Nello Ferrara, Zack Fitzgerald storming out of the PENALTY BOX to engage Kevin Kotyluk, who subsequently suffered a broken leg when the referee who tried to break it up fell on his femur.

The only time I felt a fight had been taken TOO far was during a non-descript game between Northeastern and Wayne State.  An 8-2 game had gotten out of reach for Wayne State.  Hitting is a two-minute minor in the women’s game.  College players wear full-face cage masks.  NU defenseman Pamela Pachal tied up with her opponent.  They didn’t even bother circling.

They started punching into the cage masks with the gloves on.  I’m not talking puppet nun uppercut jabs; these were full-force roundhouses.  The gloves flew off with momentum, but the roundhouses continued.

Bare fists into metal cages at knockout speed.  Eventually the cages fly off not with a willing free hand but, again, through the recoil of the force of the now bloodied knuckles.  The roundhouses continued with piston-like efficiency.

Each engaged skater’s left hand grabs the collar of their counterparts’ sweater for balance.  With no shield between one’s knuckles and another’s face, the ferocity became even greater and more feral.  Imprints of bloody knuckles on each fighter’s face were visible from the Arena’s third-tier press box.  A concoction of crimson and spittle emerged from the players’ mouths as their eyes grew wider.  Referees stood hesitant to interject out of concern for their own safety.  The roundhouses continued.

From my high perch, my practice hockey commentary transformed from a play-by-play to a live news account like the Hindenburg disaster. If I would have screamed a Jim Ross “WOULD SOMEBODY STOP THE DAMN MATCH!”, it would not have been entirely out of place.

Eventually, exhaustion kicked in, Pachal and her opponent loosened the grip on each other’s sweaters and they exchanged back slaps before being sent off to their locker rooms for the remainder of the game.

It was the most aggressive scene of collaborative assault I’ve ever witnessed, and it ended with a collegial “Nice one.”   It was Fight Club.  Between a pair of 5’1″, Upper Midwest native, female scholarship athletes.

Story #2: The Olympian

For a junior year project in my TV Field Production course, I decided to direct, produce and host a behind-the-scenes tour of Matthews Arena.  For the oldest indoor ice rink in the world, there’s been stunningly little documentation of the guts and legend of the building.  I wanted to create a video that would highlight the arena’s features for the athetic program and perhaps tell some stories that few fans would know about.  I filmed the locker rooms, the catacomb-like corridors, the elegant lobby, and the incredible balcony view.

I made the decision to end the video on a pretty corny note: wishing farewell from the home bench during a free skate while I hopped the boards, wearing my trusty Northeastern hockey sweater, and blended in for a few laps behind the rolling credits.  The camera was set up at the entryway to the bench and I leaned against the boards with my back to the ice to deliver my final lines.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”  I noticed the stern tone directed my way as I made final color balance adjustments.  I looked over my shoulder and found myself face to face with Chanda Gunn.  Gunn, a California native who overcame epilepsy to play goal at the University of Wisconsin, then transferred to Northeastern and was named a finalist for the naitonal player of the year in 2004 (an award she SHOULD have won in my professional opinion) before earning the starting role for the bronze-medal winning Team USA at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Torino.  She holds nearly every goaltending record in school history and continues to work with Northeastern as an assistant coach.  That day, in full gear before a morning skate, the 5’7″, 140-pounder wanted to know why I was filming the ice.

“Oh, yeah, I’m just uh…doing a project…”

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING ON MY ICE!?!”

“Aaaah!  It’s a project!  I’m just filming an arena tour for a video class!”  I’m wondering why I’m responding so defensively while still wearing her team’s uniform, but her fiery, distrustful, protective gaze hadn’t broken from the moment she initiated her questioning.

She held the staredown for about 10 more seconds…then pushed off the boards, skated backwards the ENTIRE LENGTH OF THE ICE without breaking eye contact, and took her place between the goalposts.

That was badass enough for me…until she took on the arena’s entire stick-and-puck skate population of 30 shooters… at the same time.  Once at her net, she called out to the arena’s momentary ice tenants with an unspecified Hulk Hogan-style “YOU!!!”

30 people responded “…Me?”

“YEAH, ALL OF YOU!  OVER HERE!”  She arranged all the skaters in a 30-foot radius semicircle around the net and directed the group to start shooting.  Not in order…simultaneously.  She dumped out two buckets of pucks, pushed them to the edge of the circle, and ordered with a firm “Go.”

Two buckets…30 shooters…20 seconds…not a single puck crossed the threshold.  Not one.

My jaw hit the floor.  I was marveled at the uncanny goaltending display AND livid that I wasn’t rolling the camera on the scene.  I’d later learn that this was a common practice for Gunn.  Former broadcast partner Chris Stango was involved in one of these impromptu rounds of “Goaltender Gatling” and managed to sneak a low shot behind Gunn while her attention was elsewhere.  Stango still holds the distinction of being the only man from Staten Island to ever score a goal against a US Olympic goaltender.

Gunn looked back at my bewildered gaze at the home bench and aimed her goal stick at my camera…then skated back off the rink.  She was right…that WAS her ice.

Melissa and I flew back to Boston in January to enjoy the scene at Fenway Park, where the NHL and the Red Sox transformed the fabled ballpark into the latest outdoor hockey venue for the Winter Classic.  Fenway management decided to maximize the rink’s use with a college hockey doubleheader: a contest between the women’s teams from Northeastern and the University of New Hampshire followed by a chapter of the great Boston College/boston university** rivalry.  Plenty of NU fans were upset with the placement of the women’s team over the men’s squad.  I was thrilled.  I couldn’t think of a group that would better epitomize the joy of the experience.

As the snow fell and the puck dropped, the scene of proud parents and good friends revelling in the moment unfolded.  My hesitations about being a little girl’s father vanished in a brisk gust of New England winter.  The reason I bristle when I get asked “Do you think it’s a boy or a girl?” is not because there’s nothing I can do to change what’s already developed.  It’s because I’ll be able to share the joys of my childhood with our baby girl, or boy, support their interest and be as proud of them as those families at Fenway were.

Still…can’t wait ’til Saturday.

DR

* In line with Northeastern University fan guidelines, neither the full term “boston university” nor the abbreviation “bu” are to be capitalized.

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