Anderson's Angle: A Destination Does Not Wait
For three Mondays in a row I’ve looked at my hockey sticks sitting idly in my car as I count the days until the XHL season opens on April 23rd. Sure…the NHL playoffs have helped. But it is one thing to watch the game; it is another to play. For that reason alone, I was disappointed to lose in the first round of the Winter League playoffs. I knew it would be a long wait, by my standards, until I was able to play again. I still enjoyed the opportunity to ref one of the games which kept me involved in the action. It was a pleasure to watch two highly skilled teams play competitive hockey while keeping their emotions in check. But again, I would rather be one of those players.
It is for those reasons why Monday, April 23rd can’t come quickly enough. Not to mention, have you looked at the schedule for opening night? There are four great match-ups on tap. This week’s poll question is Xtremely (pun intended) difficult to answer because I’m really looking forward to all of them. But mostly, I’m looking forward to the beginning of yet another season of XHL action.
For those who aren’t keeping track, Monday marks the 18th opening night in league history. And while the venue has changed, as have the faces, the excitement still remains…at least for me. I can distinctly remember the opening night of the opening season back in 2001. It was then that Jim Miller and I looked on with pride to see something brand new to our local community: organized roller hockey. I was new to the game, having just picked it up the winter before while killing time on my free days from college. Jim had played before as a goalie in the old 9th Avenue school in Brockway. He had a couple of dusty sticks, an old pair of skates, and a puck or two laying around. And so with the extra time, we headed out to Kyle Lake to give it the old college try. I could barely stay on my feet, let alone pass, skate, or stick handle effectively. But my love of the game was born that winter, and it has only grown since.
Not only did I experience playing and organizing a league that first summer, I also learned that hockey enthusiasts are the best kind of people. I played other sports in school and have always been a fan of professional sports. But there is something to be said about the people that the hockey culture attracts.
It didn’t take me long to forge lasting friendships in that first summer. A few of those guys are still around. One was so passionate about playing that he used to haul his own homemade nets around in his truck. I couldn’t get the ball past him then and still struggle to do so to today, hence the reason I had to sit for a month after winter league. Another one of those guys didn’t play for the Colonials at the time, but he does now, and has for the past 16 seasons. He has never been a big goal scorer, but he’s as steady as they come defensively. Another fellow took the league by storm in his first couple of seasons, razzling and dazzling with his combination of speed, size, and his booming shot. While he has never been one to draw attention to himself, his bushy hair and his play stood out. Today he is one of the top goal scorers to play in the XHL and one of the best people to have played as well. It doesn’t hurt that I had the honor of serving as one of his groomsmen, and he returned the favor as one of mine.
Unfortunately, many of the people who defined the league in its early years no longer play today. They are certainly missed. But life has different demands and challenges for each of us, and none of us are being paid to play. Despite the time and distance, I’m sure I could easily strike up a conversation with any of them, and laugh and smile just the same when I see them again.
It is these types of experiences that have made the XHL what it is today. The league has a history of great people who all enjoy the chance to play and compete in a game that has sucked as all in. Admittedly, winning is nice. But it used to be more important to me than it is now. Perhaps that is age or experience talking. I’m no longer the 18-year-old kid that had free time to simply skate on my own at the park while I practiced going backwards, stopping, or getting off better wrist shots. I’m married now with two kids who demand most of that time. I’m more fulfilled now than ever, but the game and the opportunity to compete has never meant more to me. I still love it as much as I did then. It’s my escape. It’s my release. And it’s my opportunity to continue to converse with the best kind of people: hockey people.
My age has doubled since that first season. I’m not the same player or person I was then. But I do play on the same team. I’m the only player returning to the Colonials from that inaugural season. And the Colonials are the only team remaining from that season. We enter the season having won the past two league championships. Yet once again, I wouldn’t consider us the favorites. There are some great teams once again. Chief among them, in my eyes, is the Xtreme. Nobody can match the trio of Joe Bussard, Dave Jewell, and Kevin Smith. But they won’t win running away as some teams have done in the XHL’s past. No team was more dominant than the aptly named Punishers from 2002. Nobody beat them that season and nobody came all that close, although the young Contenders team led by Brandon Reiter and Kenny Jeffery made it interesting in the playoffs. The Xtreme in some ways resembles the 2016 Colonials who included Bussard and Reiter.
I expect the Yeti to be right there when the dust settles as well. I have a hard time finding a team as balanced as theirs, and they boast a stingy defense and great goaltending. The Yeti roster looks a lot like the Rogue dynasty from 2006-2008. That team didn’t have one stand out player, but had a team full of solid players who were hard to score against.
What about the Knights? Is it their year? They have the talent for sure. They remind me of the 2003 Contenders team that won that year. They are young, skilled, and fast. Could they come out of nowhere, like the Contenders did 15 years ago when Ryan Drayer scored one of the most dramatic goals in league history in overtime to claim the title?
Could the Hooligans resurface after a disappointing 2017 season? Why not? They remind me of the 2009 Maniax in a way. That team had an “us against them” type chip on their shoulders that eventually saw them win their way to three straight titles.
Then there is a wild card team in the Renegades. We don’t know much about them, though we’ve all seen glimpses of what this team could look like if the rest of the roster plays like the Brockway guys did in the past two off-season leagues. Could they emerge like the 2013 Wolfpack team did when new players like Henry Deible, Derik Day, and Bussard began their league domination?
Those teams are the favorites in my eyes. But the Lazers, Mayhem, and Vikings will all be factors. In the end, as I have witnessed in my 18 years in the XHL, the names of the players added to the “Hall of Champions” on the website will matter less than the experience to get to that point. As the old saying goes, “life is a journey, not a destination.” The same is true of hockey. It’s the journey that keeps me coming back. It’s that same journey that has kept many of you coming back; including Jason Iseler who tried to hang it up but couldn’t. The game is in his blood. It’s the same game I fell in love with 18 years ago on a frozen lake in the middle of winter. It’s the same game that has taught me about humility and composure; triumph and disappointment; relationships and friendship.
So as I reflect while anxiously looking forward to the start of a new season while also realizing Father Time is undefeated, I’ve come to realize, I’m in no hurry to reach the destination.