PORTLAND – I hear the news as I arrive at the rink. Mark Mancari, the menacing sniper for the Portland Pirates with a 100-mph slap shot, has been called up to Buffalo. I will not be facing him when I step in as practice goalie for the American Hockey League team.
I’m not sure if I’m disappointed or relieved. But my outlook changes considerably: I’m less scared.
I’ve been thinking about Mancari a lot — pretty much 24/7 — since Pirates coach Kevin Dineen signed off on allowing a journalist to join the team for a game-day skate. Mancari shoots the puck harder than many guys at the NHL level, and his call-up confirms his status as a legitimate NHL talent.
I want to face him, just to see what it’s like.
When equipment manager Ben Laing tells me that Mancari won’t be skating, the butterflies vanish. I know I’ll still face harder, crisper shots than I’ve seen before, delivered by shooters with the ability to snipe corners and score at will. But the guy who haunts me isn’t going to be on the ice.
I arrive at the Cumberland County Civic Center at 8:30 on a Tuesday morning in advance of that night’s 6:30 start against Worcester.
Mark Jeanneret, the team’s PR guy, meets me at the players’ entrance and tells me to leave my gear in the lobby so he can introduce me around. There are papers to sign, he says. I assume it’s a waiver, releasing the team of liability in the event of injury, maiming or worse.
This is an American Hockey League Amateur Try-Out Agreement. I have to sign a contract, and Jeanneret has to file paperwork with the league. With the stroke of a pen, a long-held fantasy comes true. I often joke that I’m never too old to give up my dream of playing professional hockey. Now I have a contract to prove it.
The players are due at 9, and a few have already arrived. Laing takes my gear as Jeanneret whisks me through the locker room and weight room and into Dineen’s office. Assistant coach Eric Weinrich is writing at a table, and Dineen has his head in his computer. Both are focused, and appear to be working seriously.
We shake hands. I thank them for letting me skate with the team. They welcome me, tell me to ask for help if I need anything, and say they will see me with the other guys for video review in about half an hour.
“Go get dressed,” Dineen says. I am dismissed.
WHO’S THE NEW GUY?
The locker room is coming to life with loud music and quiet morning greetings. Some players work out lightly in the weight room. Several sprawl on a sofa watching video highlights of NHL games on TV.
Fitness equipment and weights fill a large open room off Dineen’s office, and there’s a scale in the walkway that leads to the locker room. The team requires every player to weigh in at the beginning and end of each session.
There are mounds of bananas, piles of oranges, stacks of yogurts, energy bars, energy drinks and water, and a spread of bagels, juice and coffee.
Laing takes me to my locker. The Pirates made a name tag for me — KEYES, it says in big bold letters, with a Pirates logo on one side and a Buffalo Sabres logo on the other.
My equipment bag is nowhere in sight. Instead, my gear is arranged neatly with my red helmet on top of the stall, my skates hanging from hooks, my blocker and catcher on a shelf and the rest of my stuff hanging or resting at the bottom.
One of the first guys I notice is defenseman Dennis Persson, soon followed by Dennis McCauley. I actually hear McCauley before I see him. He’s a chirper, on ice and off. He’s always yapping, and it didn’t take him long to tell me that he was looking forward to drilling me when we got out on the ice.
Matt Ellis, the captain, sets aside sticks he is taping to shake my hand. I introduce myself to Alex Biega, a Harvard alum with whom I share an acquaintance. I make easy conversation with Jacob Lagace, whose stall is next to mine.
All the guys are nice, but it is apparent that most of the players aren’t aware I am joining them. Maybe the goalies know — I presume that Jhonas Enroth and David Leggio were told that some old graybeard would be showing up this morning and stealing their ice time. But few of the other guys have a clue.
One walks in, looks at me, looks at my name tag and turns wide-eyed to Persson and asks, “Jhonas hurt?”
No, Enroth is not hurt, and I am not here to steal his job. I just want to know how it feels.
PASS, SHOT, GOAL
Dineen calls the players together. He shows several videos that illustrate the breakout tendencies of the Worcester team the Pirates are facing that night, and then a few videos of the Pirates’ offensive attack from the previous game, highlighting their odd-man rushes. He tells the guys he wants them to pounce on scoring chances when they get them.
“With your skills, I want you to shoot there,” he tells forward Paul Byron, pausing the video and urging him to shoot first, pass second when the chance presents itself.
We’re on the ice a few minutes later, and the first thing I notice is how bright the rink is; it seems blinding at first. I skate a few laps, stretch and then queue up with the rest of the guys for a quick meeting along the boards to review the drills.
Enroth is that night’s starting goalie, and he takes one net to himself. Leggio and I share the other. I am sensitive about his ice time. Because Leggio is the backup, this morning’s practice will be his only ice time of the day. I tell him to take as many pucks as he wants. I will pick up his scraps.
But he is generous, and waves me into the net for the first half-moon drill. Skaters receive a pass in the neutral zone, come barreling in on the wing and rip a shot from above the faceoff dot. This drill goes well. The shots are hard, and the guys seem to be trying to score, but I am able to make some saves. I sense my confidence starting to perk up.
The next drill uses the full sheet of ice, and it appears to focus on the breakout on an odd-man rush. Leggio and I defend the net of the offensive unit. I stop a few dump-ins behind the net and set up the puck for the D to retrieve, but there’s not much action.
Then come the two-on-ones. Forget about it. I have no prayer. I face only a few rushes, but I quickly realize the difference between old guys who play for fun and young guys who do it for a living.
Their speed into the zone is blazing, their passes crisp and fluid. The shooter softly receives the pass, and pumps the puck into the net.
It’s their effortless movements and deft handling of the puck, and their ability to snap off shots with precision.
It’s pure grace, and it’s a delight to watch.
Unless you’re the goalie.
The drills that Dineen scripted are complete. Enroth departs to begin his mental preparation for that night’s start. That leaves one net for me alone, the other for Leggio.
I face shots the rest of the way. The onslaught begins with a basic shooting drill. Shooters align themselves in a half circle above the dot. They receive a pass from the corner and shoot. At first, I’m OK. But as the shots pile up, the goals mount. I struggle to keep up with the pace of the shots — the passes come quickly, the shots come hard. I am slow to recover after each shot and move into position for the next. My save-recovery skills are seriously lacking.
Byron, one of the team’s skill players, exploits my weakness on his first attempt. There’s a cavern below my blocker and above my leg pad where pucks go to taunt me. He buries his first attempt, then one after another.
Pass, shot, goal. Pass, shot, goal. Pass, shot, goal.
I think I see him smile.
Everything rolls downhill. I am fatigued. Compared to Enroth or Leggio, I have barely seen any action at all, but I probably have faced more pucks in this session than I do in a week’s worth of rec-league skates. My legs feel leaden, and my form crumbles. I drop my catching glove too low. I hold my stick too close to my skates. I give up the angle too easily. I open up my five-hole, and commit to shots too soon.
The session-ending one-on-ones are an exercise in humiliation. I make a few saves, including one on Dineen that delights his players. “Way to stuff Dino there at the end,” one tells me in the locker room afterward. But these guys toy with me.
Still, I leave the ice feeling triumphant.
I made it through a game-day practice with an AHL team, no worse for wear. The only thing bruised is my ego.
Lesson learned. Only a select few are endowed with the skills, athleticism and commitment necessary to play professional sports, at any level. All my life, I’ve wondered what it must be like. Now I know.
I leave the rink and will my aching body back to work, and admit something I probably knew in my gut from the outset: It’s a good thing Mancari wasn’t there.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: