it was a sunday night in 1984 and i was playing ice hockey for the streatham redskins in south london, and i was one game away from backstopping our team to their first ever appearance in the playoff finals at wembley arena with a capacity of fifteen thousand people watching, and the only small obstacle in our way were the current league champions, durham wasps.
i parked outside the ice rink in streatham and listened to bruce springsteen singing “rosalita’, on a bootleg cassette tape, and as the tempo increased with pace, so my heart joined him, i was pumped and ready for my challenge this sunday evening, bruce inspired me, and my singalong was a superstition i enjoyed.
all we needed was a draw from this fixture, and the atmosphere as i entered the arena was full of anticipation, durham had brought hundreds of fans, and the 52 seater coaches were lined up along streatham high road in quite an intimidating way.
however as i walked past them, i knew and they knew, i was the thorn in their side in the previous fixture the week before, and the verbal abuse they aimed at me was shouted with a degree of nervousness, a really strange thing, but i felt like they were scared.
“you won’t be as lucky tonight smithy.”
“jamie crapper’s gonna destroy you tonight smithy.”
i smiled and eyeballed them as i walked past them, saying nothing, less is more i always find, and i could almost smell their fear, which was very interesting, the cockiness wasn’t there, their bravado seemed to lack belief, and we all knew i was becoming their nemesis.
the rink staff smiled as they opened the doors to the ice rink, which to paraphrase the great mountain climber anatoli boukreev, was not just a stadium where i sought to satisfy my ambition to achieve, on this cold sunday evening it was my cathedral where i practiced my religion.
i walked down the steps and past our dressing room, past the durham dressing room, and continued down the dimly lit corridor to the other end of the rink, and up the steps to the seats above, overlooking the polished ice surface.
i placed my bag down, and slowly sat viewing where the congregation were starting to come in.
my mind had a million thoughts running around in it.
could i do this?
what would the consequences be?
what would our fate look like in a few hours time?
this was undoubtedly the biggest game of my life, and the whole of british ice hockey was watching.
this was an opportunity to show what i could do, all i had to do was stay calm, and play the game i knew i was capable of, and like my canadian goaltending hero billy smith, become a ‘playoff’ goalie.
could i do this, did i really believe i could do this, or would i crumble, mentally beaten, physically beaten, and the league champions calibre would shine through?
champions become champions because of their tenaciousness when put into tough situations, and they had already proved they had the team to win under pressure, did i have the same kind of gumption, could i overturn this sporting machine, time would tell, but for now i actually felt quite calm and in control as i took a very deep breath, stood up tall, and spoke out loud to myself “let’s do this, let’s go and have some fun!”
the dressing room tonight was less noisy, and i could sense the boys knew the magnitude of the challenge ahead, and nobody’s voices challenged john cougar mellencamp as he sang a little ditty ‘bout jack and diane.
sport is so intriguing for me, i can tell when a player is ready, when they are going to excel, and perform well, and looking into my teammates eyes, i felt they knew we had a chance, an outside chance at that, but definitely a chance to cause an upset, and their nerves were noticeable, and the atmosphere palpable.
the energy levels started to build, and the noise started to increase, with chatter of how we could do this, we could actually get to wembley, this was our sandbox, these guys were nothing, and by the time we left to go to the ice for our warm up, we were pumped full of adrenaline, but strangely, personally i felt very calm, almost like this was my show, my game, and i was very much in control of the outcome.
i skated past jamie crapper, his size no longer intimidating me, and he knew i stood between him and carrying on his great season, and i knew he wasn’t ready.
he was unsteady, and i had rocked him less than seven days ago, and i knew the chatter he would have heard in his own head, playing over that sixty minutes, where his super powers had been suppressed by my kryptonite, and here i was again, like a mosquito buzzing around him.
he looked straight at me and i beamed a smile at him, at which his eyes averted my look.
and at that moment i knew i had beaten him.
the league’s top scorer was neutered, ineffective, and was to play no consequential part in this game.
the draw that we needed was 60 minutes away, and as a game it was no spectacle, resembling a fight between two drunks after closing time rather than a championship bout with stallion like boxers.
we swapped single goals in the first period, and entered the dressing room between periods tied.
we clung on and scrapped valiantly, with the score 5-5 with ten minutes to play.
the volume in the streatham high road ice rink was at max, and a fever pitched capacity crowd screamed themselves hoarse with every chance that was attempted, and i loved it!
the adrenaline was coursing through my veins, and i was doing what i loved most in the world, billy would have been proud of me.
the last face off of the game, with the wasps of durham with their goalie off the ice to allow them the last roll of the dice with an additional player attacking my goal.
i glared at their forwards through my iron cage.
i knew, and they knew.
they had to beat me.
but that wasn't going to happen, not tonight, this was going to be my night, and as the puck was dropped stef fought with all his might to win the puck and he scrambled it towards the boards, and i glanced up at the electronic scoreboard as the red numbers counted down the seconds, 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1 - 0, the klaxon sounded and our team bench poured onto the ice as my team mates headed towards our goal, and smothered me in a human pyramid, as we all screamed and shouted along with the home crowd, man it was noisy!
this playoff series led to me walking through the doors of wembley arena on may 4th '85, to play in my first semi final playoff game in front of the biggest crowd of my life, which was a massive moment in my career, but the biggest game changer of this experience was meeting someone, who thirty four years later has given me two awesome children, and shared the highs and lows of my life, so gary stefan thanks for winning that faceoff, and thanks bruce for the inspiration
it is 2019 and last night i went with that same gal and watched bruce springsteen at the cinema, performing his latest album western stars, and at the age of seventy he has just written a book, performed a sell out series of gigs on broadway, recorded his album, which he shot a documentary for, and is also going on tour in 2020.
just recently aged 56 myself, somebody suggested i should be slowing down, but, dear reader, my admiration for bruce inspires me daily, and i implore you to be more bruce, however young or old you are.
i haven’t written a blog for two years, and there are many reasons, but now the time feels right, and i will endeavour to continue where i left off.
bigmoose has moved on lots in that time, and i am very proud of how it continues to help people, and always acts as my constant reminder of my best friend, who was my defenceman back in that game in ‘85, gary moose cloonan, and whose picture hangs proudly in our coffee shop, always there to guide us, and as for you bruce springsteen, thanks for the inspiration to start writing again.
i’ll be seeing ya,