It’s mid-November, and that means one thing and one thing only: Minnesota high school hockey has started. Okay, it means two things: Minnesota high school hockey has started, and Thanksgiving is a week away. Believe it or not, those two occurrences are inextricably linked for the select few of us who have played for the Duluth East Greyhounds.
For me, that was 2005-2008. We had (and still have it should be said) a coach who might be described as tyrannical at worst and disciplinary at best. He’d yell at players for simple mistakes, whether it was a pass a foot too short or a missed assignment in our complex neutral zone defense.
He banned girlfriends come playoff time saying simply, “Put ‘em on the shelf.”
Our assistant coach, the affably wise Larry Tracshel, would explain, “If she’s worth it, she’ll understand and come back in a few weeks.”
One memorable practice, a young player committed several mistakes during a single drill. Our coach blew the whistle, and in that booming voice of his that could be heard from the nose bleeds of the Xcel Energy Center over 18,000 others (so his son attests) shouted, “Nelly,” the bewildered player in question, “Do you have a girlfriend?”
Nelly replied in a sheepish whisper, “No.”
“Bulls***,” said our coach, and practice went on.
His name is Mike Randolph. In addition to his theories on girls and their detrimental effect on hockey players, he remains one of the most decorated coaches in Minnesota history. He’s surpassed 500 wins over his career and during a five-year stretch in the 1990s won two state championships, finished runner-up once and third twice at the helm of the Hounds.
Rand demanded a lot from his players and wouldn’t accept anything less than full effort. Punishment came in the form of puckless practices, which, to be fair, we had very few. But one memorable trip across the lake in Superior, Wisconsin, we found ourselves behind after two periods to an inferior rival.
After several quiet minutes of us stewing in our lackluster effort, Rand burst into the locker room.
“Well,” he said in an ironically cheery tone, “you can forget about pucks tomorrow.”
Those tough practices, some born out of ire, some meant to condition us for the difficult tests ahead, brought out Rand’s spirit. He enjoyed the work aspect of hockey so much so that when someone inevitably threw up, he’d make a point of singling him out.
“Who spilled their cookies?” he’d ask, to which a sickly skater would raise his stick with tremendous effort.
“Atta boy!” Rand bellowed in response, as if the puker had scored the equivalent of the game-winning goal.
But out of all the tough practices, the Thanksgiving Day extravaganzas stick out. Rand apparently used the term “holiday” lightly. He scheduled the practices for as early as possible. We had off from school, and yet we woke up earlier to take to the ice than we would have to take to the classroom.
He’d stand in the middle of the ice grinning knowingly, his foreboding eyes lurking behind his glasses, and command us to, “Earn your turkey.” It was a phrase that meant nothing and came to mean everything.
Although hockey tryouts began the first week of November, the first regular-season games weren’t played until nearly a month later. In the meantime, coaches did their best to skate the legs into their players.
For us, that meant Thanksgiving was filled with drills heavy on movement and contact and light on rest. It was physical tryptophan. We’d slunk off the ice too tired to even think about eating even as Rand’s cries of “Earn your turkey!” were still fresh in our ears.
I took solace in enjoying my reward and staged a silent protest as I watched my coach’s Dallas Cowboys attempt to win.
In the years since I graduated, my Thanksgivings are more halcyon than hellacious, I’ve taken that “Earn your turkey” to heart. While its literal meaning was lost on the ice in the form of spewed breakfast awhile back, the metaphor rings true. In sports everything is earned, from single shifts to championships. The same is true in life.
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