Rainy Lake near Busy Island – October 13, 2013
I stared across the rink and knew I was in trouble. Floridians shouldn’t play hockey against Canadians, even air hockey. I grabbed the red mallet in my hand and felt the air rising from the table, cold like the north wind.
I never thought I’d end up playing air hockey in Canada. It was supposed to be an invitation to Thanksgiving. I’d met Jim and Penny a year ago and they told me to come to their house on Rainy Lake.
“If you get in by Sunday you can come to Thanksgiving,” they said.
From the moment I landed, I felt like part of the family. We talked and laughed. We told stories. Glasses clinked over the dinner table. Food filled plates. Deserts followed. I was one of the gang. I was in. Then one of the kids announced the annual thanksgiving air hockey tournament.
“Who wants to play,” he shouted.
The answer didn’t matter. No one could bow out. Everyone had to play. I hesitated. I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to intrude.
“Even me?” I said.
Even me. I was part of the family now. I was in. The brackets were already set, ready to go, and who would I play? Who? None other than the Mayor of Fort Francis.
There’s a long history of rivalry between Fort Francis and International Falls. They have a tug-of-war contest between the two towns every July 2nd. One side tries to pull the other into the Rainy River to celebrate peace.
The hockey game between the two high schools a huge event. It’s bragging rights, not for a city or town, not for a county or region, but for a country. It is so intense that the game has been suspended because fans were too rowdy.
Team Fort Frances. Team International Falls. Muskies vs. Broncos. You have to pick a side.
I love Fort Francis and I love Canada, but I’m team International Falls. Don’t get me wrong, I love Fort Francis and I love Canada. 1500 miles of ehs and poutine can’t change the fact that International Falls is where Emma Pavleck and her family took me in. Her dad was a captain on the hockey team. I cooked them Cuban food in her mom’s kitchen. We drove through town with nothing but my body weight holding the kayak in the bed of her grandpa’s pickup truck.
I’m trying to be polite. I’m trying to be a good guest, but I’m the only American at the Canadian Thanksgiving and I have to represent. Mayor, gracious hosts, family holiday, doesn’t matter. This is for pride.
My hand squeezed around the red mallet. My eyes narrowed. The puck hovered on a thin bed of air.
“I’m a long way from Florida,” I thought.
I flashed back to a summer camp in high school. I’d played a few years of roller hockey as a kid so my dad decided I should go to a week long ice hockey camp in northern Michigan. He’s Cuban, so I forgive him for thinking it was a good idea to buy a Florida kid a pair of skates and drop him off at a rink with fifty kids who’d learned to skate as soon as they could walk.
Kids are vicious and mean. They feed on the weak. Bullies. Running for my life. It could have been bad. Terrible bad. Instead, the kids called me Florida and adopted me like a lost puppy. They even gave me a standing ovation at the end of the week when I finally managed a hockey stop without falling down and crashing into a wall. I even scored a goal in the final game and no one said much about it being on my own team. I loved those guys.
But, I learned a valuable lesson in life: Don’t try and play hockey with people who think of ice as a means of transport instead of something to crush into margaritas.
Yet there I was, squaring off against the Mayor of Fort Francis, representing America in the annual Canadian Thanksgiving Air Hockey Tournament.
I won 11-1.
The second run theater in Tallahassee has a table. I played it for hours with my friends waiting for shows. Take that, Canada.
I could hear Al Michael’s getting ready, practicing his lines, waiting to unleash a second, “Do you believe in Miracles?”
Then the Mayor’s 11-year-old grandson beat me 8-7.
Look out, International Falls, the kid has a vicious bank shot.