This is a story about neighborhood, place, friendship, and hockey.
| Timmy Denkins always wanted the puck. Unfortunately, Timmy Denkins couldn't skate much better than a runaway train. Oh he could get going, but stopping was nearly impossible. "Val," Denkins yelled trying to get my attention. I ignored him, I just wanted to score. It was the first game against our neighborhood arch rivals, the "Seventh Streeters." and I could see the perfect shot lining up.
As I skated towards the puffy looking goalkeeper, I noticed Denkins had parked himself right in front of the net. Denkins wasn't a big kid, but he was big enough to get in the way. "Val," he screamed again. And, I ignored him again. Suddenly, I noticed his moonlit Bauer skates now plainly in my view. Denkins had done a flip and was now skating on his stick. Dogging him, I slipped past.
Now racing up the right side of the rink, I flipped the puck over the stick of Jerry LaHowski. LaHowski was our opponent's best defense-man but somehow I managed to get around him. I had a clear shot, except for Timmy, who had recovered and planted himself like a human shrubbery. This hiding spot next to the goalie was his best game.
Quickly I moved in, dragged the puck a little to the left, darted to the right, and slapped the puck about a foot off the ice. In slow motion, I watched it float through the air like a helium balloon, nick the blade of Timmy's Denkin's stick, and lodge itself in the back of the net.
It was Timmy that scored. The season had begun. There were legends to be created, and Timmy Denkins was well on his way. At least in his own mind.
Dark and crispy Minnesota winters have a way of sculpting unlikely heroes. Ice crystals get tangled in exposed hair and form skating abominable snowmen. A shot here, a check there, and a legend is born. The boys of Stillwater Avenue would pursue neighborhood immortality each winter, and slice the evening air with high sticks and flying hockey pucks. They called themselves "the Stilley's."
As rinks go, the Stillwater rink was not a great piece of architecture. It mocked perfection. It was about half the size of the local park rinks, but was smothered in character. The sides were constructed of 100 per-cent, mostly white, Minnesota snow. The snow defined the pond perfectly, but didn't do much to stop a flying puck. In fact, the adopted neighborhood dog, a swift black Lab named Major, embraced this feature. He chased any flying puck as if it were an overdone charbroiled hamburger.
One by one the bevy of players would gather at the lot. Among the regulars was Don Krosky, better known as the "praying mantis." He was so thin he looked like a skating hockey stick. Other players included "Rough and Ready" Craig Lieber and his brothers Larry and little John. The Liebers were tough and game, and liked to throw an elbow when no one was looking. There was Dave "the sticker" Span, who just looked tough. But it sure seemed to work. Moe Ancini was the smallest guy on the ice but thought he was the biggest. And, most every night, Timmy Denkins would practice his tip-ins in front of the net.
Occasionally, Ronnie Carlson, a goalie from the local high school team, came to show off his gear. Carlson was truly a goalie; stout, padded, and numb. He thought he could stop a train. None of us doubted his ability to stop moving objects...he may have stopped a train.
Night after night, the Stilleys played hockey on St. Paul's frozen East Side. But they weren't alone. Others lurked nearby.
Surrounded by natural boundaries, two large hills and a busy street, Stillwater Avenue was a village unto itself. As cities go however, one block to the south towered the homes of another village, the village of the Seventh Streeters. Ominously perched on a slight grade pointing south, the homes of the "Streeters" stood like medieval fortresses.
Disney like, one luminous yard stood out. Nestled under nuclear powered yard lights, this was the hockey home of the Seventh Streeters. Most of the "Streeters" went to the nearby Catholic high school. Unfortunately, this didn't mean they were docile or meek. The Stillys could watch them skating every night on that towering hill knocking heads into the boards, and sounding like cowboys at a Wyoming rodeo. It was just East St. Paul.... on cool, crisp, winter evening.
But Saturdays had a way of bringing out the "St. Paul" in everyone. And on a bright, blistering, Saturday afternoon a wicked game was heating up on the the "Stilleys" home rink.
Suddenly, Timmy Denkins fell to the ice like a piano from a second story window. Normally, this was not unusual. Denkins was not a great skater. The action stopped.
" I'm okay," Denkins said trying to catch his breath. He was hunched over from the waist, staring at the ice. Almost immediately, Dave Span spun around and swiped someone with the back of his glove. It was Derek Sundholm. Sundholm was a new guy who just moved into the neighborhood. He was also the one who blind sided Denkins.
Dave Span stood there, leaning on his stick while the leibers stood right behind him. Kroksy and I were near the goal with the leibers and Ancini was nearby checking on Denkins. We all stood there and stared at Sundholm as he skated a slow lap around the other end of the rink. It was silent. He stopped, sized up the situation for just a moment then said,
"Screw you guys". "I'm going up there to play with Seventh Street, they're better anyway."
"Go," said Span, "If you think they're better than us, then bring 'em down."
And, the next week he did.
Down the hill they came that Saturday morning. Sticks slung over one shoulder and skates tied together gleaming in the sun. Their best player, Lahowski was swatting rock- ice with his stick that he kicked off the fenders of parked cars. Sliding close behind, Derick Swundholm was crushing parts of carefully crafted snowmen left behind by crafty neighborhood kids. Their big guy, Cal Holmen, was in a ripped up Minnesota North Stars jersey and had a scowl on his face that would make Batman cringe. Holmen was as wide as the street and nicknamed "the crate." He looked a lot like Dick Butkis, the professional football legend.
Two other players, were as tall as buildings. A kid named Larry Trumpher carried the goalie stick and had more pads then a mattress factory. The scene was ugly.
Snapping on his Bazooka gum, Dave "the stick" Span walked up to Danny Lahowski and asked "Do you know our rules?"
"Nope," said Lahowski, "What are they?"
"We don't have any," said Span and he skated away. Greg Lieber cocked his stick and defiantly crushed a slap-shot that bounced off one side of the packed snow and skidded down the street. Blackie's mouth drooled as he chased the juicy Hamburger puck.
It was a bright sunny morning and almost too hot for hockey, about 20 degrees. Krosky, Ancini, and the Leibers, were all skating around trying to loosen up a little. Denkins just stood still. I guess he was loose already. To warm him up, we shot pucks at our goalie, Ronnie Carlson. Goalies need to be fearless of the puck, or a little crazy. He was both. So we always had hope.
It was only a matter of minutes when Krosky flagged down a passer-by, old Mr. Willow. Mr. Willow was half bent over and should've had a cane. But in his day he chased the puck, and the women, better than most guys. He was a legend on the East Side. And with a limp rubber arm toss from the old legend, the game was on.
The puck skidded over to the Streeters Danny Lahowski then disappeared. Lahowski was stick- handling like a Japanese steak house chef. Blackie sat drooling at the thought of chasing that puck.
On the other side of the rink, the Seventh Streeter's enforcer, Cal Holmen body checked Ancini, Krosky, and Little John Lieber all at the same time. Krosky, "the Praying Mantis" noticing the puck had squirted out somehow, put it on his stick and raced right between the Seventh Streeter's, Cal Holmen and Lahowski.
In a desperate attempt to get rid of the puck before Holmen checked him again, Krosky passed it over to me. Thinking the same thing, I shot quickly at the net. And there was Denkins, planted like a bush.
The shot lifted and sailed through the air and Timmy was about to tip it in. What could be better?"
The sun was shinning and I was playing hockey in nothing but my sweats in the middle of January. It felt like July to me. Dave Span had blind-sided Sundholm at least twice. The second time, Sundholm took himself out of the game. Our goalie, Carlson, made one great game-saving stop with the side of his head. He never saw it coming. The Seventh Streeter's best player Lahowski never scored, and their bully enforcer Cal Holmen didn't injure any Stillwater players.
In the distance, Blackie was chasing a small black object.
And, the legend, Timmy Denkins, got the winning goal.
Up the hill the Seventh Streeters went. Until Krosky noticed that Holmen may have taken the wrong goalie stick.
"Hey" said Krosky 'I think that's Carlson"s stick."
"Really, I don't think so. If you want it, come up and get it," said Holmen.
And the next week we did.