Get the puck outta here, vato
When I was a kid, I thought I was going to become a professional hockey player. The moment of clarity, or naïveté, occurred when I scored a goal – and I was the goalie. OK, so it was a shortened, outdoor basketball court at the Peoria Boy’s Club (back in the day before they let girls in).
We converted the basketball court into a hockey rink, if you could call it that, and had our own league. When you “checked” someone, they didn’t crash into a wall, they landed on the street, and we would all yell, “Car!”
I was ready for the big time at just 11 years old. I worshipped Bobby Orr, the Boston Bruin great. I wanted to be known as Little Bobby Oro.
So, I had to hurry up and learn how to ice skate. But growing up in Peoria, Arizona, meant there was one key ingredient of the sport missing: ice. The only places you could find ice were Tastee Freez and the 7-Eleven. That meant I had to save money and trek to Metrocenter – back when it had an ice skating rink and was considered the “it” mall.
Once I got to the rink, as I laced up my ice skates, I quickly sensed something was wrong. Standing on blades was not as easy as Orr made it look. I stood up, wobbled and waited for an opening onto the rink as everyone whizzed by me. Most of the skaters were girls! How the heck did they stand, let alone whiz by?
Finally, I hit the ice – with my face, my butt, my chest and every other part of my cold, little body. I must have fallen 10 times in as many minutes. I was scared and defeated. The laughter seemed to echo throughout the mall.
Fast-forward to the NHL finals this past June. I was rooting for the Boston Bruins, but felt a huge rush of pride watching Raffi Torres (who is now a Phoenix Coyote) score the only goal in the Vancouver Canucks’ victory in game 1. He almost led the Canadians to their first Stanley Cup.
Years earlier, I rooted for Anchorage native Scott Gomez, the only other Mexican American besides Torres playing in the NHL. During the 1999-2000 season, Gomez was voted the top rookie in the league while leading the New Jersey Devils to victory in the Stanley Cup final. Ironically, as a kid, Gomez couldn’t skate either.
My fate might have been different if my dad had found work on the Alaska Pipeline in the ‘70s like Gomez’s father had, or if my dad would have kept driving our Chevy station wagon past Arizona and on to Canada, where ice is plenty and hockey is their baseball.
Interestingly, both Gomez and Torres faced discrimination on the ice. An opposing player called Gomez a “spic,” and a fan once shouted that Torres should be selling tacos instead of playing hockey. When his father heard this, the fan was checked – hard.
Things are different today. More and more Latino kids are playing the sport, even though a lack of access to ice is still a barrier. Today, they have Polar Ice; back then we had concrete.
Who knows if Scott Gomez and Raffi Torres would have made it to the NHL if they hadn’t grown up surrounded by ice where hockey rules. If not, I’m sure they would have been great at something, like baseball. Or even floor hockey.