Hockey friends, necessarily, are best friends. I’m losing two of them this week, to retirement and a big move away from D.C., and it hurts. For upwards of the past 10 years my friends Mike and Marleen have been constant companions in my puck pursuits. I’ve shared every Development Camp and Training Camp this decade with them — together we’ve tailgated at Piney Orchard and tipped back a few at Bailey’s in Ballston. My cell phone minutes this decade have been gloriously gobbled up by in- and post- Caps’ game reactions with this couple. And it’s not much different in the offseason. It’s a wonderful thing, you know, to ring buddies on a July Friday night and before you know it lose an hour talking nothing but hockey.
With Mike and Marleen I’ve sipped Saturday and Sunday morning joe and parsed every bit of news large and small that’s been Caps’-related. We’ve road-tripped together in pursuit of pucks. Years back when we presented ourselves at a Cape Breton Screaming Eagles’ box office 20 minutes before puck-drop, outfitted in Caps’ gear, the Caps’ fan working the ticket booth put us against the glass on the blueline. We had our beers that night lodged on the plexiglass ledge in the first period when two teenage skating wonders rammed violently into one other against our pane of plexiglass, sending our beer flying high. Once we drove down together to Richmond, Va., to see the Caps play the Islanders in a September exhibition game. Mike and I still joke about the man-love embrace we shared when Mike Farrell score the game-winning goal that night. If I had a goal for every beer I’ve polished off in their Capitol Hill home during Caps’ game-watches all these years I’d be outscoring Alexander Ovechkin right now.
Our parting this week of course is not a death or anything so dour, but it’s a big-time departure, impacting me in all seasons but especially in the dead of winter, as these two puck souls of the first order separate from me by more than 500 miles. They’re moving to the very hockey friendly environs of Portland, Maine, which is a serious salve for my ache. I know that these retirees are best friends of mine because instead of moving to Florida in their retirement they’re moving to blizzard and puck country. God knows we’ve spent dozens of hours the first half of this summer plotting and scheming for my visits to their new home – Mike this past week for instance sent me an email informing me that Portland was hosting the 2010 AHL All Star Game. I can take a hint.
But still I ache.
This move to Portland is a life-changing one in so many wonderful ways for Mike and Marleen, and I’m doing my best to remind myself of this as their hour of departure nears. Already they’ve taken their final ride aboard Metro — you should see all the stress and duress that’s already vanished from their faces! The Beltway at rush hour will literally be in the rear view mirror of their lives this week. I want to stowaway in their trunk.
Mike and Marleen have a stunning vacation home that sits high on a bluff overlooking Marguerite Bay in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and beginning this summer they’ll shave off a full day of driving to it from their new home. It was at Mike and Marleen’s party palace in Nova Scotia that I took my first ride (and flight!) atop a snowmobile. It was a night I’ll never forget. In front of their home we revved up our sled engines near midnight in a quasi-blizzard and raced through knee-high fresh powder in the black February night. It was the greatest exhilaration of my life.
Mike and Marleen have become so enriching a part of my life that they influence this blog every day: our much-appreciated banner image comes from a photo snapped just down the road a bit from their Nova Scotia home. I was in a rental car with Mike Rucki — we were on a Canadian beer run — when I saw the shinny, and I said to Mike, “Stop the car now.”
It says an awful lot about Mike and Marleen — everything, really — that on the night I met them nearly 10 years ago at a Caps’ game, just five minutes into our very first conversation, Mike said to me, “We have this home in Nova Scotia, and you really ought to come up and vacation with us.” At the very next Caps’ home game he pushed me to make the plane reservations.
At Mike’s retirement a few weeks back his co-workers gave him two season tickets to the Portland Pirates. When I retire I want something like that as a farewell present.
Marleen grew up in New England, and so the air she breathed early in life was saturated with pucks. D.C. native Mike spent the first 45 years of his life a hockey agnostic. For years every winter Marleen would have a Caps’ game on TV in their home and Mike would walk past the room, never glancing its way. One night finally Marleen got Mike to go to a Caps’ game with her. Need I detail more? You know the saying about converts and their passion.
Friends I guess come and go in our lives, but hockey ones, it seems to me, part us with a much heavier sense of loss. It sure seems that way, especially right now. Hockey engenders such passion in its followers, and in the close environs of a practice facility like Piney or Kettler, or the raucous setting of a building like Verizon Center, where diehards and the addicted come to worship, great friendships ignite. I’ve seen it and I’ve lived it.
A lot of you this week will visit Development Camp and reunite with buddies you sit with at Caps’ games in Verizon Center, or grab a beer with afterward at the Irish Channel or Green Turtle, and haven’t seen since the season ended. Hug them hard.