Saturday, June 07, 2008

Funny how real life intrudes...

I should be fairly delighted right now with hockey.

My latest Strat-O-Matic season in the Jack Adams Memorial Hockey League has faced off, which is always a thrill - you want proof I love it, I'll e-mail you the first annual East Coast Earthquakes media guide, all 3MB of it.

And this is my year - I've mortgaged two seasons' worth of the future in draft picks with a vow to make the playoffs this year (after two years out of the money) or bust.

The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, my two favorite hockey teams, made the conference finals, with the Pens going to the Stanley Cup finals (where they lost, but still...). You'd think that would psyche me up big-time.

But somehow, there's a shadow over my season.

For one thing, my buddy Philbert had to resign his post as coach of my division rivals, due to a new job and stuff.

That's bad enough, but we'll still keep in touch. In fact, the Earthquakes have already made him a job offer as associate head coach.

The weird thing is, what's really thrown me, is something that happened far away, to someone I don't know, who doesn't even play for my team.

A couple of weeks ago, Vancouver Canucks rookie Luc Bourdon, the team's first-round draft pick in 2005, got himself killed riding his motorcycle.

He was 21.

Why has this affected me so? Besides the obvious tragedy, of course; the odds are pretty good that a professional athlete dies every year. Very few have really bothered me, in the way this has. Maybe when Stacey Toran, the Los Angeles Raiders safety, died - he was the first player on my favorite team to die so young and tragically, that I was aware of. Since then, of course, I've been aware of many more.

But I guess here's what gets to the bottom of it: In my old league, the Federal Hockey League, I was the Vancouver Canucks team.

I resigned at the end of last year because, quite honestly, I couldn't keep up with two leagues, so I stayed with the Jack, where I'd been a member longer.

But for two years, I ran the tie-in Canucks team, and one of the fun parts was that you get a "territorial" pick, to choose the best rookie from your team before the draft.

Needless to say, I did a lot of scouting, particularly since in the Fed, you could draft "uncarded" players, anyone who'd played even a single NHL game. (In the Jack, you have to draft "carded" players, who have received a full card in the game.)

And, of course, one of those prospects for this season - remember, it's a simulation game, we're always a year behind reality - was, of course, Luc Bourdon, who made his debut in 2006-07, before playing his first full pro season in 2007-08.

In fact, in the draft I never got to run in the Fed, I was - as the coach of a distinctly lousy team; I never said I was good at this game, just that I love it - debating how to wind up with a trio of Canucks rookies of '06-07: Alex Edler, Patrick Coloumbe and Bourdon. If I territorialed the best of the three (Edler), I'd have to take the best prospect (Bourdon) with a "regular" pick and take a chance he'd still be there.

It was a tactic that worked well the last season, when I'd territorialed the guy who was the most immediate help (Alex Burrows) and drafted the guy I really wanted (Kevin Bieksa).

Meanwhile, in the Jack, where my team has a distinctly Vancouver flavor - I was on something of a quest to have similar teams, full of players I liked, in both leagues - I was figuring on Bourdon as a mid-round pick next year, because he didn't have much of a rookie season.

Remember when I said I'd traded away most of my future to make the playoffs this year? Well, that meant the mental debate whether or not Bourdon would be around when I got to pick in the third or fourth round, having traded my top two picks.

In essence, I'd been scouting this kid for two years, strategizing around how to draft him in two different leagues. Thinking of all the potential he had as a player.

It wasn't so much that he was by all accounts a leader and a great guy, it was that he seemed like such a great prospect all around, but one who was struggling to break into the NHL and therefore, someone to draft and follow, "groom" as it were, for a bigger role.

I love hockey. I love playing Strat because in its own way, it gives me my own team to obsess over. And I love the draft, and all the scouting and intrigue that comes with it.

I love following young players and watching them bloom.

But that's not really what's got me down. What's got me down is that this kid, so full of life, won't get the chance to bloom. At hockey, at anything.

I'm 33 years old, two months from getting married. I've got a lot on my mind.

But somehow, this kid, this great, beloved kid who I never knew, he's on my mind, too. It's hard to explain why, and it's hard to explain why without sounding selfish or silly ("waah, my fake team won't get to draft him"). But I guess it's a combination of three things: a) A fan's love of sport always gives him a kinship with the players he watches; b) He was just a kid, and had everything ahead of him...

And c) I guess, like anyone else in my position, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future, trying to imagine the joys ahead, and trying not to think of what disaster's around the corner.

Whatever it is, this tragedy has thrown me for a loop this season. My heart goes out to his friends, family and teammates.

Rest in peace, Luc. I just keep thinking I might draft you anyway. Like, if I do, I'll wake up and it was all a dream, and you'll still be that top prospect, taking the ice next fall, and none of this ever happened.

I wish I knew why I feel this way. But not as much as I wish you'd made that curve OK.

Luc Bourdon,