It was another Manny-centric moment that turned hockey into one of the great loves of my life. He refused to let me watch wrestling one Saturday in the Spring of ’68, and Mom told me I could have the TV after his ball game ended. Crestfallen and spiteful, I switched on Channel 9 regardless and sat sulking as the New York Rangers game commenced. As time elapsed, I found myself mesmerized by the quick skating, the intricate plays, the hard hitting and the booming puck that dominated the game. I began asking Manny so many questions that he bought me a book on ice hockey which I kept all the way until Lea and her daughter Tasha threw out or sold all my books on Butler Street in 2009.
I idolized the New York Rangers from the very beginning. They got kicked out of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens in four straight games but it didn’t stop me from doing my homework over the next three months of summer before next season. I went up to Madison Square Garden and bought a Rangers puck and a yearbook which became lifelong treasures that were also lost during the Hyatts’ spring cleaning of 2009. After that I began going to Gramercy Park, which was closer, and became a regular customer all the way until my last days of street hockey in NYC around 1976, nearly seven years later.
Even though I was a diehard Ranger fan, I could not help but admire the Boston Bruins after a time. The Big Bad Bruins were the terror of the league, a reputation they would carry until the Broad Street Bullies, the Philadelphia Flyers, began taking it to them a few years later. The problem with the Rangers was that they couldn’t back themselves up. They had a couple of tough guys who didn’t take shit, but not enough of them. Not only that, but top-scoring center Jean Ratelle and All-Star defenseman Brad Park just weren’t in the same league as Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito.
The one fellow that no one had a match for was Derek “Turk” Sanderson. He was a bad-ass street punk from Canada whose reputation as a fighter overshadowed his skill as a center, one of the best face-off men in the game. He was the fashion plate of the NHL and hung out with my football hero, Broadway Joe Namath. I was like every other fan in NYC wishing him a slow death in the late 60’s, but in time both he and Namath became the role models that gave birth to Broadway Turk Superstar.
It didn’t take me long to start my own hockey team, the Butler Street Blues. I spray-painted a rink between manhole covers and even fashioned a St. Louis Blues-like logo at mid-field. Harold and Paul Yodels were the mainstays, and we also had puny Johnny De Losa on defense, who would play a role in the formation of the Spoiler almost seven years later. We played street hockey until the dog days of Summer ’68, then took a break until that fall to resume operations. During that time, Harold became a much better player and actually beat me for the scoring championship and team record in ‘69, exceeding my spring total by one goal! I recounted my stat book dozens of times to reach the same sorry conclusion.
When it got too hot to play, we sat around on the steps of homes in the neighborhood sipping sodas and ribbing one another. Paulie was one of my main stooges, and he, in turn lorded it over Danny O’Connor, the dreaded O’Connors’ younger brother, and Richie Aceto, who would become one of Osama Bin Laden’s victims in the World Trade Center over thirty years later. The age difference was too great between us, and I began spending less and less time with the stooges as the summer crept along.
Paulie was the last of the Yodels that I had a good friendship with. He was about Lea’s age and loved playing my homemade board games. He was always the brunt of my ribs and took it out on the kids his age, as I mentioned. I never fully realized that he had probably the most explosive temper of all the Yodels, and my ribbing really took a toll on him. Nevertheless, he became the goalie for the Blues and did a pretty good job in net for us. After the Yodels moved away, he came to visit one last time but apparently he had outgrown his tolerance for my ribbing, and I never saw him again. I heard he went on to a good job as a sky marshal and grew into a two-fisted, pistol-packing son of a gun.
One claim to fame that Harold and Paul would have was during Harry’s brief stint as a club owner in Queens. They bought a club on the Gambino Mob’s turf during the reign of John Gotti, who had a couple of the boys stop in to shake down the Yodels. Paulie took exception to that and got a bit of a hiding from the Gottis. I’m sure Paul has put it behind him by now, but I must admit I’m proud to know that one of my old friends stood up to the bastards.
(To be continued...)