Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Paul on 01/03/14 at 01:50 PM ET
By Tom Murray,
It’s a Friday night a few weeks ago and my oldest son Tommy and I are on our way up to Flint, MI to watch a hockey game.
Well, not just any game. The Wenatchee Wild, from Wenatchee, WA, are in town to play the first of two that weekend against the Michigan Warriors. The two teams are part of the 24-team North American Hockey League, one of the top junior hockey leagues in the United States, and we’re looking forward to watching a particular player on the Wild.
His name is Nicky Rivera and he and Tommy, both on the verge of turning 18, have known each other since they first met a dozen or so years ago at a rink in El Segundo, CA. It was the first day of a hockey program sponsored by the LA Kings, and what a hoot it was on that day to watch two dozen five and six-year-olds charge out on the ice, slipping and sliding as they chased the puck around. Barriers were put up across the red line and nets placed along each of the side boards and for the next hour the kids reveled in what was essentially an indoor version of pond hockey.
But one of them stood out. Even back then. Even as a five-year-old. He seemed more relentless, more business-like, more determined to get the puck. And once he did, he intuitively went to the net and fired shots that were harder, more accurate than any of the other kids on the ice that day.
Who was that kid, I asked Tommy when it was all over, the little guy who was all over the place?
Nicky, Tommy said. His name is Nicky.
They quickly became best friends and for the next eight years moved up the ranks of the LA Junior Kings travel teams, usually playing on the same line with their buddy Jack Kelly. That’s Tommy and Nicky in the attached shot from a game very early in their careers (you can tell by the blue puck).
But then the inevitable happened. Right around 6th Grade. Nicky was moving on, to a more competitive travel team, the boys’ hockey careers took separate paths and here we are six years beyond that, settling into our seats right behind the visitors bench in an arena that holds 4,000, but there can’t be any more than a few hundred in attendance tonight.
The teams file onto the ice and there’s Nicky, heading right for us. As an underage player (still 17) he’s wearing a full cage and, I quickly note, no mouth guard. He knows we’re here; he and Tommy have been trading texts all day. But there’s no eye contact. All business. Not unusual for Nicky, Tommy reminds me.
The game starts and the quality of the hockey is stunning. All these kids can skate and shoot and the pace is frenetic. Nicky is all over the ice, following the puck, heading for the net, fearlessly throwing his body into every hit, no matter the size of the opponent. It’s been over 10 years and nothing has really changed. The program lists him at 5-9, 187, generously adding at least a dozen pounds to his weight. But size never mattered to this kid when he was a toddler and it sure doesn’t now. He takes a regular shift on the second line, gets plenty of time on the power play, and he hits anyone in his path. Nicky leads his team in penalty minutes. The closest teammate to him in that category is five inches taller and outweighs him by 20 pounds. By night’s end he’s scored two goals in a decisive win for the Wild.
We make our way downstairs after it’s over and there’s Nicky outside the locker room, sweaty and still in his gear, listening intently to what seems to be a sales pitch of some sort. He spots us, grins and walks over--a handshake for me, a hug for his old buddy as he explains the guy was from a college, talking about an education and a scholarship.
And then it’s just like old times for Nicky and Tommy: The barbs fly back and forth and so do the laughs. Nicky says he has to take his bag down the hall, to a secure room where his gear will dry out overnight. The next game is tomorrow. Tommy chortles. It’s the first time he’s ever seen Nicky empty his bag. Does your bag still smell like a small animal died there, Tommy wonders?
So what are you going to do, I ask. Nicky doesn’t know. College hockey is just one option. Right now, he says, he’s just loving the life, pursuing a dream he’s had since he was a little boy, skating around at the rink in El Segundo.
But now he has to go. Vans are waiting. The team’s economy motel is a few miles down the road. The boys say goodbye. Friends forever, they’ll stay in touch. Wear your damn mouth guard, I tell Nicky. He promises he will. Don’t forget me when you get to the show, Tommy says. You know I won’t, Nicky replies with a smile and a final wave.
We head to the car and the ride home. For Nicky it’s a shower, a pizza and another step on the road to a dream.
It’s really pretty cool, Tommy and I agree: We were there when it all began. And we can’t wait to see how it all turns out.
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