Beautiful Losers

The hockey Hawks hardly ever win, but they're not about to quit. Game on.

After two periods of hockey, the Hawks find themselves in an unusual, though encouraging, situation: They are in a low-scoring game, and they are winning.The last time they met, the Wrecking Crew easily disposed of the Hawks. This night is different. With only 15 minutes left to play, the league's third-place team is trailing the last-place Hawks, 3-2.

Goaltender Jim Rhine is playing well, incredibly well, and as he kneels next to the boards near the bench to take a breather, his teammates tell him so. "You're playing good, man," one of the team's young forwards says. "You're keeping us in this."

That he is. In the first two periods, Rhine stops at least five one-on-one breakaways and makes about 20 other saves. Of course, the Wednesday-night adult recreational hockey league in Fenton is not the National Hockey League, so no such statistics are kept. The most they do is write on a bulletin board who won and who lost, put up new standings with how many goals each team scored or allowed. But the vibe is good on the Hawks bench, and what little communication occurs is upbeat and positive. The Hawks are not big on "win-one-for-the-Gipper" speeches or X's-and-O's chalk talks. There is no coach and no captain -- just players.

The break is about to end when Rhine, holding his helmet in his hand and resting his tired legs, reminds his teammates to watch for "cherry pickers," opposing players who hang around the Hawks' net waiting for a pass or a rebound to score a cheap goal. Though they have a one-goal lead going into the final period, the Hawks are not about to get uppity; they're not delusional.

And as he rises to return to the ice, Rhine says to no one in particular, "I wonder if we can get past our third-period jinx this time." It doesn't take long to get an answer. Eleven seconds into the period, Rhine lunges to block a shot, but because he can't see the puck under his pads, he immediately turns to look in the back of the net, assuming the worst. As Rhine gets up, he sees he had been kneeling on the puck. The Hawks still hold the lead.

On a 3-on-1 breakaway with 12:27 left in the game, the shot pings off the crossbar of the goal. With 11:05 left in the game, Rhine makes a glove save. At 10:06, the puck bounces off his chest; at 9:04, he makes a stick save, pushing the puck off to the side. He's hanging in there.

The main truth about hockey is that the game, at any level, moves with incredible speed. Speed and violence are its two main attractions. But as players and puck move so quickly, the clock seems excruciatingly slow, particularly when you're on a team holding a narrow lead. For Rhine, forced to make save after save, the sand is barely moving through the hourglass. The puck is staying in the Hawks' defensive zone and the pressure on the goalie is relentless.

After yet another save, a face-off deflects the puck out in front of the goal, 15 feet out, where a Wrecking Crew forward sends the puck between Rhine's skates before the goalie can drop to his knees. The game is tied 3-3, with 8:28 to go. There is more to come.

On the next goal, Rhine's prediction about "cherry pickers" proves prophetic when a Wrecking Crew forward begins hanging out by the left goal post, waiting for a rebound or a pass. Less than two minutes after the tying goal, the go-ahead goal for the Wrecking Crew is scored by a player who might as well be sitting in a rocking chair next to the left goalpost. A pass from the point goes to him, and he dumps it in the net before Rhine can turn and sprawl to his left. The Wrecking Crew leads 4-3, with 6:24 to go. The Hawks' third-period fade is in full force.

In the next two minutes, Rhine has two more saves after face-offs before a miscue behind his net makes the score 5-3. One of the Hawks' best young players, who has scored two goals in this game, takes the puck behind the Hawks' net, so Rhine turns away to face forward, assuming his teammate has the situation under control. He doesn't. A Wrecking Crew player steals the puck, comes back from behind the net and dumps the puck in the corner before Rhine can react. The score is 5-3, with only 4:34 to go. The Hawks' offense is missing in action, and the outcome is no longer in doubt.

A slap shot from 20 feet out makes the score 6-3. Then, with only 20.9 seconds to go, a Wrecking Crew forward with his back to the goal deflects a shot from the point, flicking the puck over his right shoulder into the upper-left-hand corner of the net, just out of Rhine's reach. It is a creative, skillful, salt-in-the-wound goal that makes the final 7-3, giving the Hawks their sixth loss in seven games that session. The final score may look worse than the earlier 10-8 loss to the Wrecking Crew, but the Hawks players know that this time they've hung in longer and made the other team work harder.

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