When Mario Lemieux, Dino Ciccarelli, and company hit the ice for the 2011 “Legends Game”, I could barely muster enough energy to shrug my shoulders in apathy.
As a hockey fan, it was nice to see some of the game’s great players — including a couple of former Flyers — gather from different generations to play together but my interest did not extend much further than that. I had no connection to the game. These were players who battled against the Flyers and their most notable accomplishments generally held some correlation to Philadelphia’s shortcomings.
The game felt contrived, a bunch of old-timers skating around a rink like I did as a kid with my friends. Yet, it is for this same reason that I am more excited for the upcoming Alumni Game than any of the other Winter Classic events taking place at Citizens Bank Park.
“It was here in the backyard that we learned hockey,” wrote Ken Dryden in his critically acclaimed book, The Game. “It was here we got close to it, we got inside it, and it got inside us. It was here that our inextricable bond with the game was made. Many years have now passed, the game has grown up and been complicated by things outside it, yet still the backyard remains untouched, unchanged, my unseverable link to that time, and that game.”
Dryden goes on to discuss how he and his friends assumed the personas of their heroes and idols during these childhood backyard games.
Like Dryden and countless other hockey fans, my love of the game developed during the games my neighbors and I played in the alleyways between our twin South Philadelphia homes.
I was the youngest of the lot by a good three or four years and was much smaller than everyone else at the time. What I lacked in physical stature though, I made up for with a mean streak that would embarras Zac Rinaldo at his most unhinged moments. As a young grade schooler, with nothing but a borrowed plastic Mylec hockey stick bent backwards to accomodate my left-handedness, I rammed people into the red-brick walls of the homes that served as our boards, and cursed up such a storm that my mother would invariably whack me in the backside with a giant wooden pasta fork when I came in for dinner. It was not only the sole way I knew how to compete with the older and bigger kids but it was the way I thought you were supposed to play hockey, the way a Broad Street Bully played hockey. (It’s worth noting that we didn’t wimp out on any level. Even as kids, we played with hard rubber ice hockey pucks and had the welts to prove it.)
A few years later, I had the most memorable Christmas of my youth; I got the hockey Christmas. My family showered me with the gear I so badly needed to play street hockey. I got a PVC Franklin net, brown Mylec goalie pads, Easton hockey gloves, a blocker, a mask with the Flyers logo emblazoned upon it, a plastic goalie stick, and the best gift of all: my very own left-handed, wooden Koho stick.
I don’t know how much my parents spent on me that year but one thing was for certain; no Christmas could ever top that one.
With enough equipment between the lot of us, we could dress two goalies and play a full-court game. It was too much for the alleyway to hold, though. So, we moved our game out into the middle of 21st Street, rushing with the nets to the sidewalk every time a car came down the street.
Around the same time, I also came into possession of a Mark Recchi jersey. Whenever I put it on, I felt like I gained his hockey sense and skill. Rushing down the wing and sneaking past bigger defenders, I was nearly indistinguishable from the Recchin’ Ball in my mind. In truth, I believed I was a hybrid of Recchi and Brian Propp, my two all-time favorite Flyers — despite the fact that my friends called me Cam Neely, a name which I hated purely because he was the enemy (little did I know then that Neely was nearly traded to Philadelphia for Propp).
No matter which player I was, each goal ended the same way, with Propp’s memorable Guffaw.
I wore the same Recchi jersey for every street hockey game that I played through the end of high school, whether it was in the alleyway, on 21st Street, in the parking lot behind Pep Boys on 24th Street, at Rizzo Rink, Barry Playground, or the frozen-over lakes at FDR Park. The jersey was ripped, covered in blood and dirt stains, and the stitching around the numbers was ripping apart.
It didn’t matter to me. That jersey made me who I was and allowed me to somehow pay tribute to the two players that I loved most, despite being from different generations. Now, that dream gets one day to exist in reality, when some of Philly’s all-time greats hit the ice Saturday afternoon. It will be a truly unique and memorable moment where fans of all generations get to watch Recchi, Propp, Bernie Parent, Bobby Clarke, Eric Lindros, Mark Howe, Eric Desjardins, and all of the others playing a game of shinny, not unlike the ones we played as children.
This is a dream team capable of evoking overwhelming nostalgia and, perhaps, even moving some to tears.
Saturday afternoon will be a special moment for Flyers and Rangers fans alike, albeit one that may be of little interest to those who did not pretend to be Big E, Rico, etc. as kids. As such, it will be a fleeting opportunity for all of us to bond over those common childhood memories buried deep within the recesses of our minds.
Getting the chance to witness this event fills me with unfathomable excitement and will likely leave me with the rare hockey-related memory that can rival that Christmas from so many years ago.