Puck Stop

A hockey fan learns about crunch time the hard way.

It all started innocently enough-- just another tale of youth, hockey and a pretty girl. Even now, it's hard to know if the whole episode was just a series of coincidences, a piece of bad luck, or the simple unspooling of fate.

Ryan Netzer had been living in Hawaii, whiling away his days with what might be the world's least-demanding job: photographing guests on a cruise liner. "But I got island fever," he says. "Eighty-three degrees, cloudless, perfect weather day after day. I got tired of it. And I thought, 'If I could take pictures on the ocean, then I could take them in the mountains, too.'"

Just then, he heard a voice. As far as revelations go, it wasn't much: The radio happened to be on. And yet the sign was hard to ignore, an advertisement that seemed personally designed to rescue him from his depressingly idyllic Hawaiian rut: Do you want to work in beautiful Colorado, live in the Rockies and ski for free?

Mark Poutenis

Yes, Ryan thought to himself. Yes, I do. He made the call, secured an interview and received an offer. Which is how, in December 1997, Ryan found himself working at Vail Resorts.

It was a nice fit, Ryan and the Rockies, and by the time three years had passed, he had settled comfortably in Avon, by now working in telecommunications. He'd even begun pitching in to the community, coaching a local kids' hockey club. In fact, it was on a winter day, during a skating clinic, that the young lady from the Colorado Avalanche promotions department showed up. She was friendly, and pretty, and when she learned that Ryan was going to be attending an upcoming hockey game at the Pepsi Center, she asked him where she might find him. He told her (nosebleeds, natch -- he was no millionaire), and Ryan thought to himself, well, this could be good.

It wasn't. Indeed, it was when events already were speeding out of control -- specifically, he remembers, as he was hurtling past the blue line, somehow still seemingly picking up speed, the ice flying beneath him, his legs tucked up into cannonball position, with nothing between him and the far boards but a pyramid of inflatable bowling pins, fans screaming at the top of their lungs -- that Ryan realized things had gone horribly wrong.

What could be more innocuous?

"They asked if I wanted to be a human hockey puck," Ryan says. "They said, 'You're gonna be put in a saucer on a giant bungee slingshot. Whoever knocks down the most pins wins.' It sounded pretty intriguing to me."

It was a natural that Ryan was at the Pepsi Center that night, in the first place. A native of Delaware, he had always made it a practice to catch the close-to-hometown Philadelphia Flyers whenever possible, wherever he happened to be. On December 13, 2000, the team was in town.

The game was going swell. Ryan and a friend had settled into their seats, when, just as promised, the promotions lady he'd met in Vail found him. Actually, it was an usher who, at her direction, had tracked him down late in the second period and asked if he wanted to participate in the evening's between-period entertainment. He'd reacted just like any 27-year-old, fun-loving, six-foot-two-inch, athletic (college soccer, tennis and archery, recreational running) guy would.

"Sure," he'd said without giving it a second thought. "Why not?"

It was thrilling! He was led down toward the ice, along with another beefy athletic guy who'd also agreed to the promotion. Ryan was wearing his Avalanche jersey, No. 23. He was given a helmet, shin pads and elbow pads to strap on. In a small room off the rink, the two contestants were prepped.

But when you sign on as a human hockey puck, where, really, is the mystery? It is a phrase as precisely descriptive as they come, a noun with a modifier, not much left to the imagination. A waiver was thrust in front of them -- general language, Ryan recalls, nothing really specific about being propelled out of giant rubber bands toward inflatable bowling pins -- and they signed without regret.

In retrospect, of course, there were clues. It's easy to piece it all together backward with the conclusion already in front of you, and anyone can follow a maze back from end to beginning. Consider, for example, the strange warning: "We won't be using the big pads we usually use to cushion your slide into the boards," the handlers had mentioned breezily three or four minutes before he was to go on the ice. "So if you feel like you're traveling too fast, just lie down and spread out on the ice."

Okay, Ryan remembers thinking vaguely...yes, of course, lie down. And yet a voice wondered: If I am sitting on a metal sled curled up like a squatting chimp, skimming across professionally manicured ice toward a wall, how, exactly, do I lie down and spread out? The intoxicating noise of the crowd and the thrill of the moment drowned out the thought, however, and he was led out onto the rink.

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