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Hooked on hockey again


Every Tuesday I take my daughter for skating lessons and feel a chill that cannot entirely be explained by the refrigerated air of our suburban rink. When I join her on the ice, I feel six inches taller, which is four inches more than the CCMs on my feet can account for. Putting on hockey skates for the first time in years, I'm learning a few skating lessons of my own, which I wouldn't have thought possible after a decade as a hockey exile.

On the list of things I once enjoyed but thought I was done with -- pickup basketball, Lucky Charms, Sudoku -- the NHL was prominent if not pre-eminent. But that changed the moment I walked back into the rink eight weeks ago, and saw the Bruins and Blackhawks logos in the Skate Shop window, and the skate sharpener throwing up its arc of sparks, and the welcoming carpet of black rubber that has got to be the official flooring of heaven.

At the NHL's annual awards extravaganza in Las Vegas, the players walk a red carpet, but they really ought to totter into the casino ballroom on a black rubber carpet -- on skates or stocking-footed, sticks at their sides, like Charlton Heston holding the staff of Moses in The Ten Commandments.

What I love most about hockey -- its timeless rituals -- came back with greater clarity last week when HBO aired its hypnotic documentary series on the Penguins and Capitals. In it, a player taping his stick, or a goalie kneeling into his leg pads, or a trainer stitching a player's forehead together with a kind of casual care -- like a grandma darning socks -- makes for riveting TV.

In that series, when the Pens visit the Buffalo Sabres -- and reassemble a rookie's hotel room in exacting detail in the hallway outside his door -- the lasting thought is of the Sabres' glorious uniforms, and how they'd been discarded for the Buffaslug logo these last several years, and what an inexplicable crime that was.

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My exile from the NHL coincides with that era, now happily closing, in which the league largely disowned its heritage, which explains why the two pieces of NHL apparel I've been given as gifts this millennium are a Minnesota North Stars jersey and a Hartford Whalers T-shirt, two teams that haven't existed for more than a decade.

Brand-new Whaler T-shirts are everywhere near my home outside Hartford -- in airport gift shops, in the entryway to Dick's Sporting Goods, by Santa's workshop at the mall -- and reflect either an unrequited hunger for hockey or a pining for a major league past. Probably both. Whatever the reason, people here still speak reverently of Whaler defenseman Ulf Samuelsson and wait, in vain, for future Ulfs -- or is it Ulves? -- to wear a be-Whaled NHL sweater in this market again.

Ulf. What really drew me back into hockey are the names. I cannot flip past the NHL Network or Versus or a Bruins game on NESN without hearing a name so bewitching that I have to stop and match the name with a face, or at least a face shield. This site recently listed its 30 favorite NHL names of alltime, but the beauty of hockey is this: It is a bottomless pit of evocative names. And speaking of pits: Where have you gone, Lance Pitlick?

After watching the Penguins on HBO, I can say "Pascal Dupuis" all day. And I'm afraid I have. The balletic first name and palindromic surname of Ducks' left wing Joffrey Lupul gets me coming and going. Even referees -- Swede Knox, Andy Van Hellemond, Don Koharski -- resonate beyond retirement. And yet, by ancient hockey custom, even the most exotic names are reduced to beautiful banalities. And so Evegeny Malkin becomes Geno, by the longstanding code that requires all hockey nicknames to end in "o" (if they're shortened) or "y" (if they're lengthened). Had they played hockey, Oil Can Boyd would be Boydy, and Edson Arantes do Nascimento would be known, the world over, as Eddo.

None of this adequately explains why I feel an electric charge every time I walk into our local rink, one that has little to do with the klieg-lit soda machine thrumming at rinkside. I only know that every Tuesday, when I take a break from writing this column to lace up my daughter's skates, I hear in my head a choir of angels, though that might in fact be the electronic bleating of arcade games in the lobby.

It doesn't matter. When my 4-year-old minces across the ice to the penalty box and sits down, beaming through the cage of her hockey helmet, the only thing missing -- or not missing, rather -- is teeth. She has a mouthful of teeth, for the moment, but they'll fall out soon enough, one by one, and that broken-comb smile will complete the tableau: A kid, in the penalty box, serving two minutes for hooking.

I, of course, am the one who got hooked.