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PUCKER UP

Like a lot of people living up here in Bronco Village, I used to be able to fit everything I knew about hockey on the top of an ice cube. One that had been sitting out in the July sun for a while. Listen, I'd long been trying to understand the new game, just as I'd tried to learn everything about curling and Australian Rules football and monster-truck competitions. But hockey was tougher, a lot tougher. What's a man to think when he first sees a mob of French and Russian nightclub bouncers wearing steak knives on their feet, all trying to slide a lump of coal past the guy from Friday the 13th?

To tell the truth, though, the combatants never seemed very interested in that. That's because the real object of the game, which is always played in front of Klondike, Snow and 16,000 drunks, is to knock your opponent's ass into his hat every chance you get. I'll tell you one thing: A hockey game without eight or nine visits by emergency medical technicians and at least two viewings at the city morgue is like Bosnia without explosives. Or basketball without tall guys. Or Montreal without onion soup. When a hockey player kills another hockey player, they let him sit down on a little chair for five minutes, all by himself, so he can catch his breath. If he maims a fan or strangles the other team's mascot, he gets to rest for two minutes.

By all accounts, hockey coaches are all former members of the Waffen SS. Even the young ones. Look cross-eyed at one of these guys in the bar afterward, and he's likely to hit you in the face with a quart of Moosehead. This is what hockey people call "fore-checking," and the coach doesn't get to sit down at all when he does it. Instead, the team owner increases his salary.

Tell me how I'm doing so far. Am I getting a feel for the game? Maybe some phone calls up to Goose Bay or Saskatoon would help.

In any event, I learned a couple of startling new things last Tuesday night at McNichols Arena. First of all, whenever the home team scores six unanswered goals in the first period of play, adds four more in the second and goes on to a 12-2 win, the locals have had a pretty good night.

Butch Blaisdell, hockey-wise neighbor, sports historian and faithful interpreter up in the $10 nosebleed seats, explained that the Colorado Avalanche's 6-0 first-period outburst against the toothless San Jose Sharks was not akin to Pete Sampras laying a goose egg on, say, Ray Charles, in the first set of a tennis match.

Nor was it like your beloved Broncs kicking a couple of early field goals against the Raiders. It wasn't a pair of three-run homers by Walker and Bichette in the first two innings of a Rockies game, or even Liz Taylor's win-loss record in district court against her discarded husbands.

No. In hockey, I learned, if you run up a score of six-love before the big Italian milk truck they call a Zabaglione even makes its second circuit of the rink, smoothing the ice and washing off the blood, it's like the Visigoths paying a little visit to ancient Rome. Seven-nothing is Hitler overrunning Poland, and ten-zip at the end of two periods is akin to a meteor the size of Jupiter striking the earth at 17,000 miles an hour.

In other words, the Avalanche players didn't bother crushing any San Jose skulls Tuesday night. They didn't have to poison their opponents' feeding trough or french their beds over at the hotel. Because a ten-nothing lead is a blowout. By the end of seven periods, after all, the score could be seventy-nothing. Or more.

Now, as I understand it, the San Jose Sharks are not a very good hockey team. They're big but they're slow, and they give up lots of goals. Hey, no wonder. How can you produce enough ice in San Jose to play hockey when the temperature out there rarely drops below freezing? Bet they have to practice out in the parking lot with roller skates and a rubber ball. Anyway, a check of the league standings confirmed the Sharks' ineptitude: As of last week, San Jose had won four games, lost nineteen and tied four--the worst record in the entire NHL. Next year, Blaisdell says, the Sharks are going to join a water-polo league, where they're bound to be more successful. At least they have a couple of swimming pools in San Jose.

This brings us to the Colorado Avalanche itself. The experts say they are one of the best teams in the league, which will come as no surprise to those who saw the Sharks game last Tuesday. For one thing, they've got players named Leschyshyn, Sakic, Gusarov and Ozolinsh, which is good practice for all the former spelling-bee champions who hold season tickets. For another, they recently moved here from Canada.

That's very good. Because, as everyone knows, the game originated up there. To put it concisely, a group of Canadian businessmen, including pianist Oscar Peterson and future prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, invented hockey back on July 19, 1933, the day an amateur baseball game in Toronto was suddenly interrupted by a violent blizzard. Within an hour the diamond had frozen solid, and the visiting shortstop, who happened to have two dozen pairs of ice skates in his bat bag, promptly handed them out to his teammates and opponents. The players skated out to their positions, but as they tried resuming the ballgame according to the usual rules, one of the businessmen, seeing a light, encouraged them to inject some new fun into an old sport.

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