Friendly rivalries are often the best kind.
Competition is a favorite pastime of mine. Every video game played in our college dorm was a tête-à-tête, from series after series on the NHL PS3 games to endless go-arounds in Mario Kart’s Baby Park track, where friendships are tested by the launching of a blue shell. This quarantine has been spent hunkered down with my family playing Uno and Strat-o-Matic Baseball, which is essentially Dungeons and Dragons but for sports (yes, there is a hockey version. You’re welcome, fellow nerds).
Winning, losing, the thrill of investing yourself emotionally in the smallest of crusades… It’s hard to turn down a challenge.
So when a rivalry buds within a rivalry, it’s twice as exciting. Or twice as silly.
“The winner takes it all.” – Abba
I took my girlfriend Skyler, her parents and my buddy Rob to the Riveters-Whale Isobel Cup Semi-Final game in New Jersey in 2018. The Riveters cruised to a 13-3 record that season, topping the Founding Four standings. Rob and I usually sought out home games against the Whale; the first game we attended was the infamous 6-5 overtime comeback the Rivs pulled over Connecticut in 2017. Riveters-Whale games always had a certain unpredictable energy.
Towards the end of the first period, Rob, Skyler and I were approached to participate in a second-intermission game. It unfortunately is one of the pitfalls of attending a sporting event as a 20-something: you’re in the perfect age range to participate in the ritual humiliations of between-action tomfoolery.
I quickly surveyed the facial reactions of my cohorts. Skyler is not a huge fan of spontaneity, especially when it comes to public spectacle. So when the gameday staffer explained we’d be participating in an on-ice footrace in giant puck costumes, she shot me a kind of wide-eyed look that registered somewhere between “there’s a pop quiz today?” and “I have spontaneously burst into flames” on the Panic Scale.
Rob, meanwhile, had the childish smirk on his face that said, “let chaos reign.”
“I knew it would be funny at a later point,” Skyler reminisced with me recently. “In the moment I was not pleased.”
“Why not,” asked Rob rhetorically, ever the sportsman.
Midway through the second period we were lured to the ice-level tunnel where we were fitted with our puck, padding and paraphernalia. The race would be half a rink long: make a turn behind the net, pick a puck off the ground and cross the blue line.
This will be fun, I thought at the time. If nothing else, it’s a funny story. We’ll go nice and easy, try not to get hurt or embarrassed and-
“And the winner will get a prize!” the staffer said.
These losers are going DOWN.
When you’re a 20-something strapped for cash, you do just about anything for free stuff. It hardly matters what that stuff is. I could fill a book with the many wagers Rob and I had made with each other over the years wherein the loser buys the victor a sub from the campus Quiznos.
Subtly, I practiced bending over to pick up the puck. Note to future Puck Racers: the trick is to hoist the puck costume under your arm like the skirt of a Victorian-era ballgown. I was ready.
“We’re off…like a herd of turtles.” – Michael Scott
We lined up at the blue line. I was surprised at how well the rubber soles they strapped to our shoes gripped the ice. Long strides, Case. You’re a tiger. No mercy. I took the middle lane, Skyler to my left, Rob to my right. Brilliant, if things get tight in the corner I’ll have the angle to check him into the boards. Sweep the leg!
“It was mortifying,” Skyler explained. “Rob has no shame and Casey is competitive, and then there was me.”
Rob and I were neck-and-neck headed into the first turn. I glanced back. Skyler had not gotten off to the same ambitious starts as her two idiotic male counterparts. She was awkwardly waddling some 10 yards behind. I sighed, relieved I would not have to consider the moral conundrum of playing bumper-cars with my girlfriend should things get tight behind the net. She was furious enough at me as it was for agreeing to do this in the first place. Best to minimize the damage.
“Uh oh, the red puck is falling behind!” we heard the PA announcer cry, being kind to the poor distressed woman bug-eyed and tight-lipped at the rear of the pack.
“I had one goal: not to fall,” Skyler said after. “I succeeded.”
The backwards glance cost me a precious few steps and Rob took the lead headed down the home stretch. All that was left was to obtain the stationary puck.
This was Rob’s downfall. My time is NIGH.
See, my genius intuition to practice the scooping motion paid enormous dividends. I seamlessly glided to the blue line, stooped down to grab the puck, and blew past Rob to the finish line as he struggled to get back to his feet.
“The puck costume was too round,” Rob laughed. “I couldn’t push my body back up. It felt like I was down for an eternity.”
“And it’s sweeeeet, sweeeeet, sweet victory.” – Spongebob Squarepants, also David Glen Eisley
After the race, we stripped out of our elbow pads and headed back to our seats. I was awarded the grand prize: a signed Courtney Burke puck. It was absolutely worth the shame.
We barely had time to sit back down in our seats before Skyler’s mother whipped out her phone and took us through the instant replay of the ordeal, complete with commentary. I cackled, clutching my new prize with pride, envisioning its spot on my desk at work the following Monday.
It was then that it dawned on me that I very well could have purchased a Riveters puck for $5 in the lobby and had Courtney Burke sign it at no charge in the post-game autograph line and saved all of us the embarrassment. I sold my dignity down the river and risked damaging my relationship for $5.
But isn’t the ecstasy of victory is priceless?
A special thanks to Rob and Skyler, who are tremendous sports and gave their blessings for this piece. Better luck next race.