Ice Time: A Tale of Fathers, Sons, and Hometown Heroes

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Three Rivers Press, 2002 - Biography & Autobiography - 336 pages
As kids, we all had passions -- something we loved doing, experienced with our friends, dreamed about every spare moment. For Jay Atkinson, who grew up in a small Massachusetts town, it was hockey. When Bobby Orr scored the winning goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup Finals against the St. Louis Blues, Atkinson became a fan for life. In 1975, he played on the first Methuen Rangers varsity hockey team. Once and always a rink rat, Atkinson still plays hockey whenever and wherever he can.

Twenty-five years after he played for the Rangers, Atkinson returns to his high school team as a volunteer assistant. Ice Time tells the team's story as he follows the temperamental star, the fiery but troubled winger, the lovesick goalie, the rookie whose father is battling cancer, and the "old school" coach as the Rangers make a desperate charge into the state tournament. In emotionally vivid detail, Ice Time travels into the rinks, schools, and living rooms of small-town America, where friendships are forged, the rewards of loyalty and perseverance are earned, and boys and girls are transformed into young men and women. Along the way, we also meet his five-year-old son, Liam, who is just now learning the game his father loves.

Whether describing kids playing a moonlit game on a frozen swamp or the crucible of team tryouts and predawn bus rides that he endured himself, Atkinson carves out the drama of adolescence with precision and affection. He takes us onto the ice and into the heart of a town and a team as he explores the profound connection between fathers and sons, and what it means to go home again.

From the Hardcover edition.

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ICE TIME: A Tale of Hockey and Hometown Heroes

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Writing part memoir, part chronicle of a high-school hockey season, journalist and novelist Atkinson (Caveman Politics, 1997) takes readers along on his emotional ride as assistant coach of the 1999 ... Read full review

Ice time: a tale of fathers, sons, and hometown heroes

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Widely published three-time Pushcart Prize nominee Atkinson tells the story of the Methuen High Rangers and their quest for the Massachusetts state championship in the 2001-2000 season. Although now a ... Read full review


Foreword 1968
See You in September
Skate in Lebanese
Old School
The Sins of Ryan Fontaine
Something Hits the Fan
Fleeting Memories
The Team Shrink
Snow Glass
The Halt and the Lame
Worlds End
Central Catholic
Forget Cagliuso
The Hatfields and the McCoys

Two Good Sons
Time and Time Again
Angry Joe
Hangers Hackers and Danglers
The Man from LincolnSudbury
Educational TV
Indian Fighters
Louie the Lock Monster
The Christians and the Lions
The Age of Disco
A Vigil
The Pep Rally
the State
Afterword Crazy Train
Epilogue The Peter Puck League

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About the author (2002)



I had two upbringings. Coming of age in Methuen, Massachusetts, a small, bowtie-shaped community on the New Hampshire border, my buddies and I went to public school, attended Mass on Sundays, and joined a benign paramilitary organization known as the Cub Scouts. For fun, sometimes we threw rocks at cars or rode around on our Stingray bicycles, singing "Hey, hey, we''re the Monkees!" Among the densely packed three deckers, in a neighborhood bounded by asphalt, we played football and baseball on the street, sewer cap to sewer cap. As far as we knew, this was life.

In the summer of 1968 just after I turned 11, my father got a new job and we moved across town to Central Street: larger, more well-appointed homes, vast lawns that doubled as playing fields, and within a half-mile radius, two small ponds and a tree-lined swamp. When the leaves fell off the trees and November passed into December, the swamp froze over, and I was introduced to a different world from the one I had known. Here the sport of choice was ice hockey (and when the ponds melted, street hockey). Dad bought me a pair of skates and a straight-bladed Victoriaville stick. I was in business.

But what sets hockey apart from sports like football and baseball is that you can''t simply go out there and play. Of course you''re welcome to try, in the sense that, theoretically, you can climb into the family jalopy and enter the Indy 500. It''s just that your chances of being competitive are pretty slim. To excel at hockey--to sail over the ice throwing body checks, dodging your opponents, and blasting the puck into the net--you have to first master the rudiments of skating. An odd and esoteric skill, perhaps, but one that''s completely necessary.

Most of the kids in my new neighborhood had been skating for two or three years, and some had been lacing up the blades even longer than that. They swooped across Lynch''s swamp in graceful arcs, like they had a special dispensation to reduce gravity. Eventually I gained the courage to join them, wobbling around in a little half-circle as players from both teams whizzed past on either side. But there was something strangely invigorating about all that cold clear air, and the echo of sticks and pucks against the snow-padded hillside.

One night a certain kid failed to show up, and they asked me to play goalie. At the end of the swamp closest to the streetlight, there was a "net" that someone had knocked together from two-by-fours and rusty chicken wire. I was handed a pair of battered sofa cushions for leg pads and an old catcher''s mask and first baseman''s mitt, and directed into the crease. The game began and one of the players on the other team streaked toward me. He rifled a shot on goal, and I came sliding out and knocked it aside. My teammates cheered, as the loose puck was gathered up and they all went zooming the other way. Using the blade of my stick, I cleared ice shavings from in front of the net, like an old pro. In that instant, I discovered my passion for the sport.

As I worked on my skating and played hockey for hours at a time, I found my knack for the game increasing. We played every day after school and I would clomp home from the swamp wearing rubber guards over my blades, and my mother would spread newspapers under the kitchen table so I could have dinner without untying my skates. Then afterwards, I would go back out and play another game in the moonlight. Once you get the hang of it, hockey is a fantastic, leg-burning workout, the puck zinging up and down like a giant game of pinball. You receive a special kind of thrill from making a velvety pass, or blasting an accurate shot on the fly. And there''s nothing like the quick geometry of a carom that goes from the blade of your stick into the back of the net.

From Lynch''s swamp we moved on to the dank, cavernous rinks of the North Shore, huge, corrugated-metal sheds that resembled airplane hangars. By the age of 13, I was one of the goalies for a team called the Methuen Flyers, in a men''s league where most of the players drove cars spray-painted "Colt-45" and drank beer and smoked cigarettes in the locker room. There were bloody fights on the ice, in the stands, and outside in the parking lot. The games were usually played after midnight and I was scared to death, but my pals and I were hockey fanatics. Several nights a week, we''d gather in someone''s living room to watch the Boston Bruins slug it out with other NHL teams on Channel 38. Urged along by the Bruins popularity, we became the first generation of Methuen rink rats.

Unlikely as it may sound, the explosion of hockey in towns like Methuen can be traced to a particular moment. In what has been called the most famous hockey photograph ever taken, 22-year-old Bruins'' sensation Bobby Orr is depicted scoring the winning goal against St. Louis in the 1970 Stanley Cup Finals. Half a second after being tripped by St. Louis Blues defenseman Noel Picard, Orr was captured flying through the air, his stick raised, mouth curved into an exultant ovoid. Many New Englanders remember that image the way they recall where they were the day Jack Kennedy was assassinated. More than any other single moment in the history of sport, Bobby Orr''s goal led the way into hockey for a massive army of players and fans. If Helen of Troy''s face launched a thousand ships, Orr''s feat gave birth to half a million shin pads and twice as many bumps and bruises.

In November 1974, I was a senior when Methuen High School announced the formation of its very first varsity hockey squad. Coach Bruce Parker''s tryouts, which were grueling and lasted a week, attracted twice the number of players who would make the team. (There were ten goalies vying for what turned out to be four spots--including my childhood rival, Mike Lebel, an agile six-footer with blazing red hair.) During the initial practice, I finished last in a long, lung-searing drill and while I leaned against the boards, gasping and sputtering, Coach Parker, a noted disciplinarian, boomed out, "Welcome to high school hockey, Mr. Atkinson." Being singled out was embarrassing, but it also gave me hope: the coach knew my name and was charting my progress, however meager.

On Friday afternoon, the roster was posted on the door to the Athletic Department office. Running up to examine it, some kids whooped and cheered, and others turned away with drooping faces or kicked at the wall in disgust. When I finally approached and saw my name next to the number 28 that I had been assigned to wear, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. (Almost a third of the varsity came from our little neighborhood; Mike Lebel and some of the rest came from the west end of town, and Hank Marrone and Ronnie DiCenso and the other Italian kids lived in the east end.) Twenty hockey players would wear Ranger jerseys for the first time--and I was one of them.

My memories of that season are indelible. Methuen''s new high school and rink were still under construction, and that first year--my only year, since I was a senior--training was held before school in the morning. In darkness we rode a silent, chilly bus from our locker room beside the football stadium to the rink at Brooks School in North Andover. By 5 a.m., we were on the ice for practices that turned some kids'' stomachs inside out. (The basketball and wrestling teams practiced at 2:30 p.m. in the high school gym, a comparatively luxurious arrangement.) But these sacrifices made the hockey team an elite group, and the envy of many of our classmates.

We only won five games out of twenty-one in 1974-75 and my ice time was limited, since I wouldn''t be returning the next year. But I can''t think of that season without thinking of my father, Jim Atkinson. Over the course of my career, he spent as much time in rinks as I did, although he never played hockey and didn''t have an athletic bone in his body. My dad was a big, bearded man with a funny, toe-stabbing way of walking, flat-footed as a duck, the kind of guy who wore linen suits and drank vodka-cranberry year-round. A little too short for his weight, too loud on the telephone; nearsighted, flatulent in the evenings, but calm, principled, punctual, and true. Rushing in the dark to various rinks and back home again, we used to talk about hockey, about how I was doing in school, my girlfriend, a little bit of everything. In fact, when I started to get into trouble as a teenager and my father nearly kicked me out of the house, riding to hockey games together was about the only time we did talk. I understand now that Jim Atkinson came to love those crummy old rinks because they allowed him to stay close to me. He was a pretty smart guy that way.

I picture my dad in the bleachers, wearing the blue-plaid Nova Scotia tam he always brought to my games. It''s the very early hours of the morning--there''s nobody in the rink except the players and a few parents--and he''s sitting there blowing on the hot edge of his tea and watching us limber up. The referee floats out from the timekeeper''s box, the game starts, and the players go charging back and forth. Suddenly the other team races into our zone and somebody cranks up a shot. I jab at the air, the puck goes thwack into my catching glove and from the shadowy region beyond the glass, I hear, "Way to go, Jay." It was always good to have him there: my witness.

My old man died in the summer of 1983. He was buried on the Fourth of July, a bright, temperate, almost iridescent day, the kind of day when we were young my father would pile us all into the car for a drive to the beach. I got home just as the afternoon began to lose its hard currency and the stubbled lawns were diffused into particles with the passing of daylight into dusk. The big

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