Monday, March 03, 2008

Number One

By Pil Kang

A chance to understand my father by re-living his younger days.

I remember from my childhood seeing a faded, black and white picture of my father on the ice. The ice underneath him is dirty black, as those Korean hockey rinks were notorious for bad ice in those days. His face is not shown, turned away from the camera. His body is leaning into the air as he is turning, and the blur at his skates is the ice being scraped from the rink and flying into the air. He holds his stick across his body in front of him, the letters KOHO clearly visible, and the blade is straight. No friction tape, not curved like the sticks being used today. On the back of the jersey is the lone number “1,” white against the neutral gray background. Who knows what the real color of the Kyounghee University was? His head, helmet-less, sports the longish black locks of the days.

From the stories that I’ve heard a thousand times, college ice hockey games in Korea in the early 1970’s were gladiatorial contests. My father’s team, the Kyounghee University Hockey Team, was notorious for being physical and thuggish. They didn’t care who it was, no one messed with them.

One story goes like this. When an opposing team player checked my father into the boards to gain possession of the puck, he actually stopped playing the puck and helped him up and apologized, for the fear of getting beaten up, either on or off the ice. When they lost the collegiate championship in another year, they came out of the locker room after the game and destroyed the place, shattering the trophy with their sticks.

My father was, I assume, angry toward a lot of things at the time. He was poor. My grandfather, at the time when my father was about to go to college, was a retired government employee who lost a lot of money on foolish business ventures. His father remarried a younger woman not so long after his mother’s death and paid little attention to him. The ice hockey scholarship and what little money he got by playing the guitar and singing at nightclubs in Seoul were the only way for him to go to college.

On the ice, he was king. He must have been. He played right wing. He was one of the best players, and simply, no one fucked with him on the ice. Even my mother admits to that. That’s why he wore number “1” he says, because he was the best. And he played that way with old equipment, worn out and broken. He made due with skill and physical play. My father loves Steve Yzerman. I sometimes wonder whenever I’m home in Michigan watching a Red Wings game with him, if he played like him, with quiet finesse, speaking with his skill and a little elbowing when necessary.

For me, playing hockey is in part my chance to be like my father. To be him, really. I want to feel what he felt, to feel what it feels like to carry the puck with one’s stick, to drive through the defense, to put it past the goalie, and to forget the difficulties that lie beyond the rink. My father is a loving man, but he is sometimes angry and unreasonable. I play in part, in efforts to understand him just a little bit.

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