Winter of discontent -- and no backyard rink

This was the worst winter in a long time. It snowed like Felix
Potvins and Alexei Yashins in December, although that isn't necessarily
evil since I prefer a winter blanket of white instead of wet, gray grass.

January was just friggin' cold. Denmark cold. Bill Wirtz's hockey heart
cold. My normally Gretzky-like immune system, which has allowed me to work
15 years in TV without a sick day, was peppered with shots from the slot for
about six weeks. I felt like Roberto Luongo with newspaper shin guards.

My immune save percentage was good, and I didn't miss any workdays keeping my
Doug Jarvis streak alive. (I've become a prisoner to my streak. Last summer
I had a chance to golf with Lee Trevino following an at-the-last-minute
phone call. I would have had to call in sick to a rather insignificant
shift. I dissed Lee. I'm a moron.)

But a few sick shots got by, and I generally had that "icky" feeling that winter climate people sometimes get for weeks at a time because there is no warmth and sunshine to enliven the
soul. When I get that feeling, all I want to do is stay in bed in the fetal
position, dreaming of massive amounts of UV rays.

Additionally, the NHL All-Star Game was in a cold weather climate, which failed to give me a February
bone defrosting that I had received the previous two years with All-Star games in Southern California and Southern Florida. But what made the
winter really Glen Sather-bad was a consistent feeling of depression brought
on, yes, by the Norway cold, the persistent Ickey Woods feeling, and the
absence of a February sunshine break. But mostly it was brought on by the
absence of what has become my best friend during winter -- the backyard rink.

It got off to such a good start. This was year four of putting the boards
around my 60 X 40 slab of backyard asphalt and it was a breeze. The soil has
pretty much returned to normalcy after the disruption of the asphalt
installation, and the plastic stakes easily penetrated the Connecticut earth.

The board slid in with little challenge and the backyard court was
transformed into a backyard street hockey rink in about two hours. Now all
one can do is wait and hope for the cold. November was a warm month. I had
to work on Thanksgiving Day at ESPN. But, before heading in, I played nine
holes of golf on a spring-like Connecticut Thanksgiving.

Then the winter came. And it came hard. Two seasons ago, there were only six
skating sessions on the backyard rink. Last year, there were 30. So,
you just never know. South Windsor, Conn., is just about the farthest
south you can go to make the investment on a quality backyard rink. This
winter, you could have extended the southern boundary to South Jersey.

The cold came, so it was time to put in the liner. After year one and two, the
heavy-duty liner that is designed to last a few years was pretty shot with
holes, but I still saved it because I haven't figured out how to throw
away a 65-by-45 plastic liner. I got a new liner for last year's season, and
we had a picture-perfect Norman Rockwell winter to remember. The liner
sustained some damage, but nothing too severe.

When the weather forecast shows 20-degree weather is on the way, that's when
the liner goes down. I put it down too early in year one, woke up one
morning and it was filled with wet leaves. This year, just to make sure, I
decided to put BOTH liners down. I figured, that would give some insurance
on the chance the garden-hosed water could find freedom. I began the all
night with Todd Wright water-pouring process. Turn on the hose and drape it
over the side. This went on for one night, two nights, three nights. I
knew something was wrong when the right side was not filling in. A couple
months later I knew something was wrong when I got a home-equity loan
to pay for my water bill. Obviously, my liner had more holes than the
Chicago Blackhawks.

At first I chose to employ a tactic that I have perfected over the years.
Hold out for an act of God. Perhaps, I will wake up one morning and it will
have rained caulking. You know, a two-inch layer of silicone rubber will
have fallen from the sky, securing my rink for years to come. Sadly, that
night never came. Then as I also am sometimes apt to do, I let life drag me
around by the wrist and direct me where to go. I could try to fix the
liner, but there were too many holes. I would have to go get a new liner, and
manual labor is not a problem with me for the most part.

Unless it's six degrees. I mean it got COLD. Perfect backyard skating weather and
decrepit backyard rink reconstruction weather. Especially, since what water
did stay in the rink was frozen solid. I wouldn't have been able to take
the holey liners out. Then it started snowing again. Then I got under the
weather. One excuse after the other until it's late February and the white
flag goes up and the realization sets in that you won't be skating outside
this winter.

The outdoor game in Edmonton showed what outdoor skating does to people.
That's how backyard rink owners feel every session of every year. The
feeling is like no other, and this year I didn't have it. I had a subtle
depression-like state for most of the winter, and I know it was waking up
every morning, looking at the back yard, and getting a nauseous feeling in
the pit of my stomach. That Melrose-after-one-too-many-fajita feeling.
Next year, I won't make the same mistake. Backyard rink owners are
constantly learning, and this year I learned that for my setup and most
others, a new liner is needed every winter.

As you are reading this, I am heading back from seven days in Florida -- four on
the golf course and three on the beach. When I get back, I'll take off
the defective liners and take down the unused boards. I will be sad and
angry with myself for losing out on a winter that certainly would have
garnered a record number of skates. I'll be tan, warm, refreshed and
already thinking about late December and all the warm memories the cold can

I've said it enough times before that Jack Falla's "Home Ice" is my all-time favorite hockey book -- Jack's gospel on life with a backyard rink. I can't comprehend why Jack Johnson songs aren't on the radio, and I can't comprehend why Jack Falla doesn't have a new book every two years. The world would be better with both.

No. 1: When, where and why did you first construct a backyard rink?
Exactly 20 years ago in my yard in Natick, Mass. I did it not as a springboard to launch my son Brian or daughter Tracey into the upper reaches of hockey but more as a way of providing them with what I had in the '50s and '60s -- unstructured, unsupervised TIME. Hard
for kids to find in the '80s and even harder today. But the IRREDUCIBLE reason for, and value of, the
rink is this -- it connects me with the people I love.

No. 2: Is the rink up this year and what are your long-term plans for it?
The rink is in its 20th season. I've been saying "this is the last season" since 1997. But I suspect I'll be building it again next year. It would leave too big a hole in my life -- and Barbara's life -- not to have it. And what would fill that hole? If I shut it down here in Natick, I may well rebuild it -- or something like it -- for my grandchildren in the back yard of their home in Cumberland, Maine.

No. 3: What more do I need to learn to prevent another lost winter without a rink?
The plastic liner is an ANNUAL expense. I'll slice this year's liner into long thin strips, roll them and pop them into a trash bag ... then shell out another $140 or whatever next year. Also, don't put liner in until the day you're going to flood. Too many ways plastic can get pierced, dogs being high on list.

No. 4: Did you ever go a winter without a rink?
Not since 1983. And yet every year has presented a new problem. A couple of years ago the liner pulled away from its staples just as the rink was almost full and I had to jump into a pair of shorts and flip-flops and go wading thru partially-frozen water (shades of "Titanic", cue Celine Dion) to staple liner back in place.

No. 5: What stands out as your all-time backyard rink memory?
Carrying my then 6-month-old grandson Demetre around in my arms -- slowly while his mother (my daughter Tracey) watched from the kitchen window; faster, to his great delight, when she turned away. Last week I carried 8-month-old granddaughter Ella around the rink.

No. 6: Your book "Home Ice" is my all-time favorite hockey book. What's yours?
Merci. Merci beaucoup. But I think there's Ken Dryden's "The Game" (read it five times, most recently two weeks ago) and after that it's a race for second place.

No. 7: What hockey project are you currently working on?
None, alas. I had the permission of the Montreal Canadiens to spend season with them working on a book about hockey in the culture of French Canada (see also "Cherry, Donald"). I also had a book contract and an advance in hand. But when I crunched the numbers it was obvious I wouldn't make money on the deal -- and would likely lose considerable money via the cost of seven months in Quebec -- unless I wrote the equivalent of "Gone With The Wind." So I returned the advance (a first in the annals of writer-publisher relations?) and stayed here. The most painful decision of my professional life. But the correct decision.

My mother's family is French-Canadian and my daughter married into a Franco-American family with roots in Quebec City (her husband's name is Maurice Henri -- how's that for the all-time hockey name?) and that's the source of my interest in the subject. But writing is a business as well as a calling; one doesn't go into business to lose money.

No. 8: What is your opinion on the state of the game, the low scoring, the marketing of the NHL and the sports future?
I'd say I've never seen pro hockey in such sad -- and bad -- shape and I've been a fan since the mid-50s. I haven't been to an NHL game in more than a year (and let's face it, I can go for free), and I watch very few games all the way through. As Barb says; "You don't watch games anymore; you just monitor scores."

The four things I like least:

1. The trappists and left-wing locksmiths. Allow the two-line pass or listen to Scotty Bowman's idea of putting a line across the top of the faceoff circles. And once the defending team crosses that line, they're free to make a pass up to the opponent's blueline. A pass like that is a stake through the heart of the trappists and locksmiths.

2. Obstruction and holding. Call the game in April the way you call it in October and November.

3. What is euphemistically called "game presentation." While I mind the constant high-decibel
music, I dislike even more the forced chants and cheering-on-cue. Applause and approval are a fan's to
bestow, not management's to command.

4. Dilution of the talent. OK, I'm an Original Six guy. But I liked the original 21 also. The original 30
seems a bit much. If a season-long lockout leads to the folding of five or six franchises, I think we'll be
left with a better league and game.

But let's not end on a negative note. There are some good things about the game and you can start with
the players. I divide the entire population of the world into three groups: people who will help me shovel my
rink without my asking; people who will help if ask; people who will hide during the shoveling but
show up to play. My sense of it is that most NHL players fall into the first group.

And I loved the outdoor game in Edmonton. As did the players. This should be an annual event. I don't
see players in other pro sports finding so much joy in simply playing.

"Why I love the Dubber"
Do you know why I refer to the Toronto Maple Leafs as "The Fighting Pudubbnys"? Scott Van Pelt is one of my favorites here at ESPN. He has made it big here at the worldwide leader, yet he remains humble and friendly to everyone he meets. He's taken his success like a hockey player. Scott is probably the most entertaining ESPN anchor off camera, and he has given me six-second ab workouts many times by making me laugh. His Jose Maria Olazabal imitation might be the funniest routine I've ever heard. Part of his past contains hockey, and it stars Walt Podubbny. When you watch Scott on SportsCenter, and he's doing a hockey highlight, he'll probably mention Podubbny.

Here is Scott's hockey tale:

Do you care? Of course you do.

Back in the day -- 1984 to be precise -- I began my lengthy and undistinguished college career at the University of Maryland. I lived in a dump called Ellicott Hall. It was there that I met a bloke called Todd Grey, a member of the swim team who hailed from Brantford, Ontario, home of Wayne Gretzky, Keith Jones and Chris Gratton. He loved the Toronto Maple Leafs who were, at that time, a truly wretched and God-forsaken lot. Perhaps the worst team in all of hockey.

Hard as it may be to grasp for today's kids, our dorm didn't have cable ...as a result, no ESPN. We got our sports from some wing nut on CNN headline sports named Van Earl Wright, who I am proud to now call a friend, and who shares a birthday with Bucci. Every night that the Leafs were in action, Todd and I would gather 'round the tube to see how bad they got thumped. The following morning -- like giddy, little school girls -- we'd pore over the USA Today boxscore to see who "lit the lamp" for Toronto. This was the first I'd ever heard of any "lamp lighting." There were other things lit on a daily basis in Ellicott Hall, but they weren't, you know, "lamps."

Back to the boxscores. It was here there that we read of the exploits of the true Maple Leaf greats ... Borje Salming, Miroslav Frycer, Danny Daoust, Rick Vaive (which we pronounced Vah-eeve, for no real good reason) ... and, of course, Walter Podubbny, aka "The Dubber."

The Dubber was the best of a wretched lot. He was kind of pasty and squishy looking. He scored goals from time to time, but best of all, his name was Walter Podubbny. We contacted the Leafs and requested posters and trading cards. They must not have had too many requests because we got a bulk of the stuff, which we plastered all over our walls. I had a Dubber poster on my wall throughout my lengthy and -- did I already mention -- undistinguished stay in College Park.

The Dubber ended up becoming an All-Star one year, played for the Rangers for a time, but in my heart he was, and will always be, the heart and soul of the Maple Leafs.

Buccigross might be able to fill you in on his stats or something. Those are just numbers. The Dubber can't be summed up with mere numbers. He's far bigger than that.

Also, he had a porn moustache.

That's why I love Walter Podubbny. And so should you.
-- Scott Van Pelt

Hey Bucci.
If Eric Lindros, for the sake of argument, doesn't come back from his latest concussion, is he a Hall of Famer? Personally, I don't think so, but I know that you are a huge Neely-for-the-Hall advocate, and as such, should appreciate the following:
Games played: Neely - 726, Lindros - 678
Goals: Neely - 395, Lindros - 356
Assists: Neely - 299, Lindros - 461
Points: Neely - 694, Lindros - 817
PIMS: Neely - 1,241, Lindros - 1,285
Take care,
JP in DC

Eric Lindros will come to your house and make you a pastrami sandwich on rye.

I'm on record, and I'm one of the few, who believe Lindros's numbers, Hart Trophy, Stanley Cup Final appearance, better than a point per game in both 678 regular-season games and 50 playoff games, earns him a Hall of Fame bid. This despite dealing with two of the world's bigger ills: aggressive lawyers and controlling parents. I don't doubt Lindros's parents didn't love him wholly and unconditionally, but they should have let him go and let him grow up. I believe he would have been better off for it.

Dear John,
I am a goaltender and I am having a mask painted by David Gunarsson (Who painted Hedberg's mask) and I was wondering if you could help. My friends have dubbed me "The Otter," and while I know there can only be one "The Otter" (Ken, of course), I've decided to go ahead and use this theme for the helmet. I was wondering if Ken was available for some type of photo shoot, so that David could have some kind of inspiration for the mask. Everything would be done in good taste.
All the best
Justin Cerenzia

Ken will model nude, but it MUST be tastefully done. He can be reached at 1-Ken-ThO-TTER.

It's a sad day for me -- even if the Leetch trade turns out to be a good idea, this one hurts. What I don't get (and there's lots to wonder about) is why everybody is writing that NYR fans are finally ready to rebuild.
I think most of us were ready for it four years ago. Besides, if the point of a rebuild is to stink for a few years, it's not like the last few years have been special. At least if they had tried with Malhotra, Brendl, Kim Johnsson, etc. we might have seen something better than this. It might not have been the '85 Oilers, but they'd have gotten a shot, and maybe turned out better than they have.

I'm going to stay True Blue, but now I remember what life was like when I became a fan in 1986 -- what it really means to be a Ranger fan. I keep expecting to see Walt Podubbny on the score sheet.
Keep ridin' the Zamboni,
Daniel Sokolow
Long Island, NY

Scott Van Pelt has Walt Poddubny's phone number.

Flyers vs. Predators, March 3 in Philly. Lauren Hart, national anthem ... chills. Then my 19,943 counterparts and I noticed J.R. on the big scoreboard screen over the ice. He was watching the second period standing by the glass in the tunnel area where the Zamboni come out. Dazed and Confused, and Jaw Wide Shut (sorry), he relentlessly signed autographs for the whole second intermission. Everything from jerseys to ticket stubs, etc. He even high-fived a little kid. Talk about a major class act.
Scott Friedman
Ocean City, NJ

Later, Jeremy detailed Ween guitarist and Flyer season ticket holder Mickey Melchiondo's BMW in the parking lot.

Ever since I was 10 years old, I've dreamed about coming out of that tunnel at Wings Stadium with the boys and warming up -- JUST WARMING UP! -- with my friends, family, and gorgeous girlfriend watching from section 12. Petty's song would be money, but I think I might have to go with Korn's "Got the Life," mainly because it jams, but also because that would, indeed, be the life.
Keep it real brotha!
Rick Shanley

I teach a class about the Middle Ages, and we came across a reference to
Medieval mullets in our readings (Robert Bartlett, "The Making of Europe:
Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change," 950-1350, p. 198). The
quote from the book is:
"In Ireland, the English government legislated against the adoption of
Irish hairstyles by loyal subjects: 'the degenerate English of modern
times [13th c] who wear Irish cloths, have their heads half-shaved and
grow their hair long in the back . . . making themselves like the Irish
in clothing and appearance.' "
An ancestor of Barry's?
Louisville, KY

Calling someone of Scottish ancestry (Barry) Irish, is like calling Don Cherry French-Canadian. But Ted, your e-mail tells us that the mullet will NEVER go out of style. It's a style for the ages.

This week we received some terrible news -- our local ice rink has closed due to equipment problems and a lack of profitability. About 340 youth and adult hockey players and 100 figure skaters have lost their home rink midseason.
The closest rink in Houston is about an hour away (when the traffic is good), and while many of us are willing to make the trek, a lot of the kids won't be able to. On top of all that, the learn-to-skate and learn-to-play programs that have brought so many area kids (and adults) into the sport will no longer be available.
A group of parents and players has formed to figure out how to save the rink -- either to purchase it or operate it as a non-profit organization. Do you have any words of encouragement for us?
Jim Meehan
NASA -- Johnson Space Center
Houston (Clear Lake), Texas

Not really, Jim. That is sad. It's why hockey will always struggle to snug itself into the mainstream. Once built, you only have to mow a football field, baseball field and soccer field and you might refinish the floor once a year in basketball. It's also why the act of skating is one that is filled with gratefulness. Lots of conditions must take place whether one wants to skate indoors or outdoors. I know, I'll never take it for granted again.

John Buccigross is the host of NHL 2Night, which airs on ESPN2. His e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.