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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins


Sunday, February 13, 2005

Beer Never Tasted So Sweet

"'The USC ice hockey team is full of arrogant cheap-shot whiners who need some humility beaten into them. You are very capable of doing the job. Beat them with extreme prejudice!'

"'Goaltenders, challenge and play tough. Forwards shoot high, Goaltenders hate that... Most important...Kick some sorry S.C. Ass.'

"'A game likes this does not come very often and is the reason you play. So have the heart and spirit of a warrior, because when the crowd is gone and the cheers stop, you won’t remember the pain, but your glory will echo for ages. Beat SC.'

"'Congrats on the great season boys. Keep truckin. F--- SC.'

"'Best of luck, kick their ass, and as always, aim for Wilbur's head. I wish I could be there.'"

The e-mail with the subject line "FW: Words of Encouragement" came on Thursday, the night before the fifth and deciding game of the Crosstown Cup, UCLA hockey's annual series with USC. Those lines are just a sampling of what our alumni wrote in order to inspire us to win the Cup for the first time since 1999 and the second time in the Cup's 10-year history.

We appreciated the support - but we were plenty fired up for the game already. Coming into this season, we had a 17-game losing streak to the Trojans, and the team's loathing for USC rubbed off quickly onto rookies like myself. From their head coach, Mark Wilbur (at whose head one alum suggested we shoot), to their leader in points and penalty minutes, Remy Bickoff, to their obnoxious fans, there isn't a single positive thing about their program that anyone on the Bruins would say. Hell, even my mom, who's a Buddhist and loves all sentient creatures, dislikes USC's fans.

During pregame warmups, it became clear that HealthSouth Training Center, our home rink, was going to be loud all night. USC's band showed up (and Wilbur forked over around $380 in admission for it) and launched into loud drumrolls and renditions of various USC fight songs. And in the larger UCLA section, Nick Hertz was leading cheers. Nick is on the team, but he missed the first half of the season with an injury. During that time, he became something of a one-man pep squad. When he returned to the dressing roster, he found himself on the fourth line with me, and knowing how much playing time a fourth liner would get against USC, he opted to help the team out by firing up the crowd. He's the guy in front in this picture, facing the crowd, clapping over his head.

Despite all the energy, we seemed to come out timid, while USC physically pounded us early on. The Trojans always seem to take extra shots at our goalie and our leading scorer, Martin Galstyan. Early on, in a scrum in front of our net, one USC player, Shon Smith, took an extra swing at the head of one of our guys. When someone from our bench kindly informed him that such a move was "chickens---," he sneered back and arrogantly invited us to come get him, even telling us that he wore number 16. Somehow Marty ended up getting whistled for a pair of penalties in the first period, though.

With their physical play and our taking penalties in the first, they held the momentum early and went up 2-0 after one period. They got the bounces, too - one of their goals came on a breakaway created by a blocked point shot in their defensive zone, while on the other hand, a puck that slid into their net during a scramble was pulled out by their goalie before the ref noticed it.

In the second period, though, the momentum began to shift, and the whole team sensed it. Early in the period, on a power play, Niki Kollar, one of our defensemen, carried the puck into the USC zone and got plowed into the boards right past our bench - but not before he set up Scott Freschet for the first of his two goals in the period. USC also dropped another goal on us in between Scott's goals, so we went into the second intermission down 3-2.

The fans started feeling the momentum change, too. When the USC fans started whatever cheer it they do where they wave two fingers in the air, the UCLA fans returned the gesture by waving one well-chosen finger back at them. And the USC fans' chants of "scoreboard" were directing our attention only to a Trojan lead that was dangerously small and getting smaller. We'd won the period, and I got the feeling in the locker room that despite the deficit, we were confident that we had the game won.

(Short "hockey logic" moment: During the intermission one of our coaches urged one of our defensemen to hold his stick under number 16's neck and threaten to "stab him in the throat." Then he told us to stay out of the penalty box.)

Every now and then, I tell Marty to "do that thing I like," and sure enough, early in the third period, Marty showed why he's the conference's best player. He did that thing I like, tying the game and sending our fans into a frenzy. At this point, we'd come back from a two-goal deficit, we were in our home rink, and, simply, I believe we wanted it more.

Then Niki found himself open on the left point with the puck. He ripped a shot and beat their goalie. (I love that picture. And by the way, I wish we consistently had pictures this good when I was Assistant Sports Editor at the Daily Sun. Thanks, David Hasson.)

We were up 4-3, our first lead of the game, and when Marty buried an insurance goal to put us ahead by two, the building became electric. Our coaches had to repeatedly tell us to calm down on the bench because we were in danger of losing our focus.

With about five minutes left, I called Brian Schuster, our third-string goalie, over to me and asked him to go to the locker room to get my video camera. I didn't want to bring it out while we were trailing, and even with a two-goal lead, I told Schuster to wait until there were three minutes left, just because I was wary of angering the woofing gods. As the time ticked down to four minutes left, our fans began chanting, "We want the Cup!" and then, with a minute and a half remaining, "Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye!"

Finally the clock counted off its last second, and we'd won, 5-3. We threw off our gloves and helmets and swarmed our goalie, Matt Miller, who played a terrific third period and really sealed the game for us. He's a fifth-year senior, so winning the cup means even more to him, having gone through four years of being pounded by USC. Seeing the seniors enjoy the win even made me feel a little guilty for not having suffered through the dark ages of Crosstown Cup history before having the opportunity to lift the Cup.

The USC captains had to bring the Cup to center ice, where Paul Medina, our captain and another senior, got the satisfaction of taking it from them. Then the celebration began. We skated the Cup around the rink, holding it up for our fans to admire. When we got in front of USC's band, a few of us held up two fingers, mocking their cheer. Even though I didn't play a shift, I loved being able to hoist the Cup.

After the team picture, the party then proceeded to the locker room, where many of our alumni joined us. Some of them even were getting misty-eyed, which really drove home just how big a deal what we just accomplished was. We passed the Cup around the room, and the coaches, the seniors, the captains, and everyone else got their turn with it. We also passed around "the boot" - an old skate that (I hope) has some sort of coating inside it and has been converted to the least sanitary vessel ever. And we chugged beer from the boot as well as the Cup. We also dunked our faces into the beer-filled Cup, which is when I found out that beer in the nose is not comfortable, but that seeing your teammates stick their faces in a Crosstown Cup full of beer distracts you from the beer in your nose.

The next step now? Practice on Monday and Tuesday, where we'll get ready for our trip to Berkeley for the Pac-8 championship. We'll face tough tests in a surging Washington team and Oregon and Cal, with both of whom we split our regular-season meetings. The Crosstown Cup is great, but to complete the season, we have one more piece of hardware to claim, and one more team picture to take.

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