Gloves Off by Bryn Chamberlain

I’ve never understood the subtleties of soccer. Football, as it’s called in Britain, looks to me like kick the ball, kick the ball, kick the ball and “Ooooh yes! It’s in the net”. I was legitimately trying to grasp the finer points of the game while in London last year when I came across a pub full of Ipswich fans. Or was it Twickenham supporters? Twaddlesdale groupies? Some such thing. We watched a massive big-screen TV above the bar; every man, woman, child and dog were quietly enthralled by the game, which was odd for a pub, but then the home team was down a goal. There seemed a flutter of excitement when a fellow doodled up the field, un-harassed until he punted the ball to another fellow who then used his head to put it in the goal, past the goalkeeper who leapt in the opposite direction. Consequently, the entire pub lost its mind. Simultaneous mayhem ensued. Strangers were hugging and kissing. Beer was dripping from the ceiling. Dogs were howling. The rafters in the ancient pub would surely break under the thunderous load.

“What happened? What happened?” I innocently asked the man standing next to me.

“We’ll get ‘em now in overtime!” he exclaimed with eyes ablaze. The score after 90 minutes was 1-1. To my eye, it wasn’t very nuanced nor very exciting.

It is the world’s most popular game but also the most boring. Kick the ball, lie down on the field and pretend you’ve been shot. Get up, kick the ball some more. Scoreless games are common. The histrionics are epic. The salaries of the players are stratospheric. All for kicking a ball into a net the size of a barn. When I pointed this out to the said same football supporter, Ian was his name, he became, perhaps understandably, defensive. “Where you from?” he asked with a sneer.

“I’m Canadian”.

“Oh, aye! Wot’s your sport then?”

“I play hockey!” I said with unabashed pride.

“Ah! Hockey!” he said, “Bloody Nancy sport, that is, innit?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, it’s silly, innit? All that bloody paddin’.”

We glanced up to the screen where there was a replay of a fellow lying on the field, writhing around in such dramatic agony that he must have been experiencing his final moments on Earth.

“Bunch o’ ponces, skatin’ round, crackin’ into each other,” said Ian.

Medics took the player off the field in a stretcher for his last rites and burial. Cut to: he’s back on the field as if nothing had happened.

“And you think hockey is an inferior game to soccer” I said, nodding toward the pantomime on the screen.

“FOOOOOOTBALL. And YES, it’s the GREATEST game. It’s the BEST, Lad! The best! Hockey? HA! No skill in that! Foooooootball! Now there’s a proper man’s game.”

Gloves off.

I’m not sure, but I think the phrase “Gloves Off” may have originated in hockey. In a demonstration of perverse chivalry, the first step in the all-too-common hockey brawl is that the opposing players will throw down their gloves prior to trying to cold-cock one another. This may have been due to the fact that early hockey gloves had stiff little edges that could possibly poke an eye out and clearly, beating the shit out of someone does not include poking out an eye.

Ian, or maybe it was Iain or something equally Celtic, Gaelic or Scots, then went on to state that the hockey he played in school was a “poncy bloody sport for women.” He was talking about field hockey.

“Different game entirely,” I said. “Real hockey is played on ice.”

“Ice hockey! Ice hockey’s even worse!” he continued. “Stupid, innit? ‘specially on the tele. You can’t even see the wod-it-called. The thingamee.”

“The puck?” I offered.

“Can’t see wot you lot go so mad about it.”

“Ever been on skates?” I enquired.

“Nah. Nothing to it. Take ya stick. Hit the puck in a net and its goal. Bloody joke, innit?”

“A joke.” I huffed, “Huh! Is that so.”

It so happened that around that time, I knew a Canadian Coach in the London Area Ice Hockey Association and, having played hockey since I was eight, I had been invited to join a practice on one of London’s very few full-sized rinks. There was, I felt, an opportunity here and I made an offer. “Tell you what,” I said to my newfound friend “I’ll bet you £100 that you will not score one single goal on me to my scoring 10 on you. One on one. 20-minute game. You and me. My ten goals to your one. I’ll even get you lessons.”

He looked at me with considerable suspicion. “£100?”

“£100.”

“And all I need is one goal? And you… 10.”

I nodded. “I’ll get 10 goals before you’ll get one.”

“100 quid?”

“My 10 to your one and you win,” I repeated.

He thought hard about the offer. It sounded like an easy £100. “You ‘ear that?” he said to his pal standing over his shoulder and looking on hungrily. “Aye” he nodded, sensing a kill. But Ian hedged; “Nah, canna do it. I got none o’ that gear.”

“We won’t use equipment, okay? Gloves only. Skates, stick and gloves. And maybe a jock. You do have a dick, don’t you? A wee little one?”

“Ah, yah wanker! Yer on then!”

“And a helmet,” I added. “You’re going to need a helmet.”

I met my hockey coach pal later that night and explained the wager and the terms I had proposed. “Not really fair though, is it?” he said. “Any contact allowed?” I grinned in response. He was unsure. “Better get him to sign a waiver.”

To be fair, I asked Coach Canada to give the guy a good lesson. Realistically, he should at least have been able to move forward and, with luck, backwards. He should also have known some of the basic principles of the game. ‘Two hands on the stick and always keep your head up’ are the essential tenets of hockey and I expected Ian to understand these concepts. With the date set for the following Sunday, we agreed on some rudimentary lessons and an equipment fitting. I did not attend the offered practice sessions but I met up with the coach a couple days prior and asked him how it was going. “You’re going to buy me a pint when it’s done,” he said.

The night of nights arrived and Ian showed up with a sizeable entourage. I was already on the ice warming up with some practice shots. I had rigged up a Styrofoam goalie over one of the nets and was taking wrist shots from the blue line. Having played defence for almost all of my hockey career, I had a deadly accurate shot and had riddled the cutout goalie with holes. The final shot took his head off completely. Ian and his entourage looked on. “Come on then, Ian,” I shouted after him as he and his posse turned to leave, “lace up!”

“Yer wot?”

“Lace up your skates!”

After some prodding, he made his way onto the ice and, I must say, I was surprised to see that he could skate. He breezed by, nose up in the air as if there was nothing to it at all. But he still flailed around with one hand on the stick and had to coast around corners. My guess was that reverse was not an option. The Coach called us to centre ice.

“Right, one face-off. If there’s a goal, by you (pointing to me), Ian will bring it out to the centre line and play will begin again. If Ian scores, well then, game over. Agreed?”

“Agreed.” We touched gloves. The puck was dropped.

Ian took a wild swing at it, missed and ended up on his ass. I picked up the puck and glided easily down to the empty net; 1-0 to me. Ian toddled back to retrieve the puck while I retired to my end of the rink. It took him better part of five minutes to get to centre ice, but by that time it was apparent that he had decided on a cunning ploy. Keeping his distance, he whapped the puck as hard as he could toward my net. I easily intercepted it and circled around for a bit before whizzing past him on the far side of the rink for my second goal. Within five minutes it was 4-0. Ian decided he’d have to take a new approach. This time he ventured across the centreline, gingerly pushing the puck six inches ahead of his stick, albeit with his head down to the ice. I wasn’t even moving when he skated into me but he was once again on his backside while I lazed down the ice for the fifth goal. Same again for numbers six and seven.

It was at this point that Coach Canada decided to intervene. They held a confab at the far end of the ice while I ripped a few slapshots around their heads. The sound of the puck ricocheting off the boards clearly unnerved my opponent. “Can you stop bloody doin’ tha’!” Ian shouted.

With a renewed concentration and a puffed-up intent, Ian now understood he had to keep the puck moving and try to get it and himself around me. He managed to build up a respectable head of steam and as we neared, he bounced the puck off the boards behind me. An admirable move! I used to use the same technique myself. The puck was past! And now, all he needed to do now was scoot around me and it was free sailing; nothing but open ice and the empty net. I could see the twinkle in his eye, likely counting out his quids. But it was at that point Ian was introduced to the concept of the hip check. With Big E skating full tilt, I shadowed him while skating backward, pinching ever nearer toward the boards. I placed my hip directly toward his near thigh, dug the blades in and stopped. Ian didn’t. Subsequently, his skates were high over his head with his momentum carrying him through a graceful, airy cartwheel. He landed hard with a resounding thud and skidded to a stop thirty feet away. I skated over and addressed the upside-down Ian. “You okay?” I asked. He rolled over and responded with the funniest noise I ever heard coming out of a man.

“Herrrnnngh heeeeerrnggh heeerrrngh,” he said, sounding much like a distressed goose while his eyes rolled around, presumably looking for his lost breath.

“JEEZUS CHRIST!” came shouts from the peanut gallery.

“…herrrnnngh!” honked Ian.

He stayed down to regain his breath while I went to retrieve the puck for my eighth goal. “Want to give up?” I asked, but he shook his head. Incredibly, he tried the same thing again, resulting in my ninth goal and, again, him on his ass. But I had to give him credit: he got up. I tried to offer a handshake, but no. He went to dig the puck out of the net.

Perhaps it was the sportsman in me, but I thought I’d give him a chance. “Go on then. A free shot from centre ice. See if you can put it in the net.”

“You’re not gonna hit me?” he shouted from a safe distance.

“Nope. I’ll stay right here.” I was twenty feet from the side of the net. It was £100 after all.

He positioned himself at dead centre and lined up the puck as a snooker player might line up a shot. He then squared up as would a golfer and slapped at the puck with all his might. The puck shot forward. It crossed the blue line with enough speed to make it to the goal. It dribbled closer, inching forward with diminishing velocity but still enough to get it to the net. Closer still but “PING”, it hit the post. I looked back to Ian who then dropped to his knees.

Goal number ten was purely ceremonial, as Ian hadn’t moved from the centre of the rink. “Go on! Have yer laugh.”

Following my last goal, I brought the puck up towards Ian. He looked a little alarmed as I wound up for a shot but I stopped short and gave the puck a little flip with the tip of my stick. He caught it in his open glove.

“A souvenir,” I said.

“Alright, ya bastard. You made your bloody point.”

10-0 and hockey is no joke.

About The Author

Bryn Chamberlain is a writer and filmmaker working out of Toronto, Canada. He is currently
working on a compilation of short stories and numerous screenplay projects. Bryn’s future plans
include spending more time on his boat.

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