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Despite all that, I’m sure everything would have been cleared up if my conversation with the coach hadn’t been interrupted. I was changing into my hockey gear when he approached me.
“You must be Mark Jones. Welcome.”
“Thank you. You have no idea how big a thrill this is.”
“Yes, I’m sure it is.”
“Could I ask who the other contest players are?”
(Now, I’m positive that I said “contest,” but he obviously heard different.)
“Conference?” he said. “The Southern Conference? Well, actually—”
“Coach!” a voice called from an adjoining room, “The trainer needs to see you, ASAP.”
“Sorry, Jones, gotta go.”
My encounter with the equipment manager was even more perfunctory. He yelled my name, I raised my hand and he tossed me a Leaf sweater — it was number 37 and had my name on it — plus a pair of hockey pants and two Leaf socks.
I made a couple attempts to talk to guys seated near me in the dressing room, but they appeared to be psyching themselves up for the game and weren’t interested in conversation.
Next came the pre-game warmup, which I apparently managed to complete without raising suspicion. I chalk this up to two things. First, I do have a modicum of amateur-level skills thanks to the three games a week I play in a competitive rec league. Second, I don’t think the Leafs expected much in the way of talent from the knuckle-dragger they thought they had summoned from Macon, Georgia.
Mind you, anyone who observed me lumbering around the ice during the warmup would have noticed that I spent most of the time gazing up in awe at the vast expanse of multi-coloured seats or marvelling at the players’ skills, their fluid skating, their accurate and bullet-fast shots.
Anyway, when the puck was finally dropped for the game between the Leafs and the Boston Bruins, I believed I was participating in a charity hockey game and the Leafs believed I was Mark Jones, minor-league scrapper.
Two minutes after the opening face-off, one of the Leafs levelled a Boston player. Sitting on the bench no more than 15 feet away, I cringed at the violence of the open-ice hit.
The reaction from the Leaf players on the bench was predictable:
“Ooo, epic slam!”
“You the man!”
My comment was different. I said, “Excuse me, it was my understanding there would be no bodychecking.”
In unison, every player on the bench leaned forward and turned to face me.
Within seconds the coach was behind me, yelling in my ear. “Hey Jones! We don’t need any comedians on the bench!”
I swivelled round to face him, and as I did, I remembered what the organizers had said about the game.
“Oh right,” I said. “Mock seriousness. Gotcha, coach.” I winked. “Still, did you see that hit? A guy could get hurt out there.”
The coach shook his head. “Too many shots to the noggin,” he muttered before shuffling away.
I got chewed out by the coach again a few minutes later. Apparently the team has a rule against taking selfies during a game. (I had smuggled the phone to the bench in my expansive hockey pants).
Around the eight-minute mark, the coach sent me in, maybe just to get me away from him. “See Number 77?” he said. “That’s your man. Go get ’im.”
“My man?” I said. “Oh, you mean he’s another donor...um...I mean, another guy like me. OK, understood.”
I jumped on the ice and lined up beside Number 77 at the face-off circle in our zone. He was about my height but outweighed me by a good 25 pounds.