To the extent hockey gets much national attention, it begins this week with the opening of the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs. The NHL, though, is simply the tip of a huge iceberg. The men's NCAA Division I hockey championships concluded last weekend. Most other minor and junior leagues likewise are in the midst of or wrapping up their playoffs. The vast majority of the players in those leagues are there for love of the game, not a paycheck. And how long that love affair lasts is demonstrated by 64-year-old Bruce Valley's hockey memoir, Seahawk: Confessions of an Old Goalie.
The book is a mix of a historical look at hockey in Valley's home town of Rye, New Hampshire, and a paean to the sport. It is stronger as the latter.
Valley's memoir takes its name from that of the town's amateur hockey team, the Seahawks. Formed following World War II, the team began as largely a collection of World War II vets. Despite the town's small size — about 1,500 people — the team not only made it to the semifinals of the New Hampshire Class B championship in 1950, it made it to the semifinals and the championship game of the New England Senior "B" championship in 1950 and 1951, respectively. Although it did not win the title, the team lost in the 1950 semifinals only after six overtimes. Valley was recruited as the Seahawks goalie in 1959 at age 14 and played in the team's last two years of existence.
This was an era of hockey much different than today. Valley, for example, not only wore no face mask, he wore a baseball catcher's chest protector and fashioned his catching glove out of a first baseman's mitt. But it wasn't just the players' equipment. The outdoor rinks didn't have a maintenance crew – except for the players themselves. In the pre-Zamboni days, the team would go to the rink in the morning, shovel off the snow and then flood the rink with a thin layer of water. After a day at their jobs, they would return to the rink for practice or a game. At the end, they would scrape the ice with shovels and hand plows and again flood the surface. Game schedules were equally as demanding. During one stretch in 1951, the Seahawks played 21 games in 19 days – all outdoors.
Valley would continue playing goalie while attending the U.S. Naval Academy. Of course, back then the Academy had no rink or organized team. And the times dictated there was little hope of NHL glory for all but a minuscule number of players. From 1942 until 1967, the NHL had a grand total of six teams, made up largely of Canadians. Yet it was injury, not lack of opportunity, that would force Valley to ultimately hang up his pads. Some of the best portions of his story are recounting how watching part of an alumni game during a visit to the Naval Academy in the late 1990s led him to overcome those problems and go back to playing goalie, something he does to this day – all for love of the game.
When Valley uses the Seahawks to portray Rye as a typical New England hockey town of its era, the book seems to struggle. It tends to be reminiscent of the locally-written histories found in virtually every village and town in the country. Such works recount names and events and reprint pictures that, generally, don't mean a heck of a lot to anyone not familiar with the people or the places. Seahawk falls into some of the worst traps of those histories, with a roster of all those who played for the Seahawks, a list of all its opponents and more than 40 pages of reprinted newspaper articles about the team's games. Additionally, Valley tends to be a bit repetitive, something you wouldn't normally expect in a work with only about 90 pages of text.
While Seahawk leaves no doubt that ice hockey was part and parcel of New England life, it is most effective in showing the lengths that men will go for such a demanding sport simply because they love the game.