I walked into the high school gym this past Saturday to join the rest of my community in celebrating the opening weekend of floor hockey season. For those unaccustomed to the sport, it is hockey played in tennis shoes on a gym floor with hard plastic sticks, bright orange pucks, and hundreds of screaming fans. The arena is made up of homemade plywood boards, lovingly assembled every Friday night by coaches with power drills and disassembled and stored away every Saturday afternoon after the games. In our town, floor hockey has achieved cult status and throngs of adoring spectators and decades of former players flock to the stands every Saturday in January and February to cheer on this year’s new crop of players. If you grew up in Buchanan, chances are you played floor hockey every winter from 1st through 8th grade. It’s likely that you can still remember your coach, still recite all of the players on your team’s roster, and still recall a few prized match ups from the good old days. It’s not uncommon to reminisce about championship floor hockey games during high school reunions, reliving each pass off of the boards and each ‘flicked’ puck in the net.
Buchanan is a working class town. It’s not the kind of town where residents use their expendable income to purchase expensive ice time at a rink or buy $200 Bauer skates. And there is a certain sense of pride that we’re not like the “rich kids” up the road—we cherish our role as small town country kids. But it is a town in love with the idea of hockey. So, back in the 70s, some of its residents organized a floor hockey league for the kids in the community. My dad was among the first group of players in that inaugural season, along with his friend Kimi Klug. They were both on the first all-star team that traveled to Battle Creek, a huge deal back then, to play against teams from Canada and other Michigan towns in an international tournament that continues today. Since then they’ve both coached their daughters, son, and now grandchildren in countless winning seasons. They hold “Godfather” status in the hockey family—along with others like Wayne Writer and Grandpa Jack Hemminger.
My first memories of floor hockey involve tagging along with my Dad to practice and playing with the older boys. As a young punk coach for his even younger brothers Randy and Dan, he had a chip on his shoulder and a penchant for winning. He devised plays—affectionately known as “Three Across” and “Three Up and Down”—and used phrases such as “No Man’s Land” to describe the area in front of the goalie. I’ll never forget watching the last game of my Uncle Dan’s 8th grade season from high in the stands of the high school competition gym (in the days before we switched to the auxiliary gym). He played with guys like Robert Hickok, Ian Hall and Jimmy Mosier, boys who would grow up to coach their own kids and run the hockey program themselves. The boys of Team Moose #449 (local businesses sponsored the teams back then) in their aqua blue t-shirts won a hard fought battle against their best friends on the other team and secured an undefeated season in the last floor hockey game of their life—and then we all went to Pizza Hut to celebrate. It was epic as only a small town sports event can be.
Fast forward a few years and it was my turn to take the court. Almost from the beginning, my dad decided to make me a goalie. But not just any goalie—he decided I was going to be a “stand-up” goalie, something rarely seen in floor hockey. The vast majority of floor hockey goalies play on their knees in the net and only use their stick to block incoming pucks. But stand-up goalies, well they act just like ice hockey goalies and have the ability to run out into the court and use their stick to hit the puck to the other side of the court. I even scored a few goals of my own using this technique. Every night during hockey season, my dad, sister, and I would make our way down into our basement for shooting practice. I would tuck my long french braid under my custom painted goalie mask and my kid sister would take 100 shots on me from various positions, and I would have to block them all. As you can imagine, by the time it was her turn to play, she was already an Ace with a wicked backhand. These basement practices were not unique to our household. Throughout our town, cement floors on the lower level were turned into hockey courts complete with nets and taped lines on the floor. Lanny Fisher, all-star player and now a long-time coach, hosted countless basement hockey games in his childhood home where neighborhood kids would gather on cold January nights to defend their honor and practice their moves. Did I mention we are a town obsessed?
When I played in the 90s, the biggest event of the year was the All-Star trip to Canada. Every year, a team of 12 girls and a team of 12 boys were picked from the house leagues to represent Buchanan in an international floor hockey tournament in Windsor, Canada. We would practice for weeks and leave school early on a Friday to ride for hours in a yellow school bus to our tournament destination with our parents following behind us in a long caravan. To say it was a huge deal would be an understatement. To the kids on that team it was everything and countless tales of bravery played out on those hardwood floors. We played with friends we would later win high school championships with in high school sports. Coached by my Dad, Mr. Aalfs, Mr. Bagwell and Mr. Sunday, the teams of my middle school days were filled with athletes such as Jamie Johnson, Jenny Wesner, Kelly Enright, Courtney Heubner, Niki Heller, Jenny Mosier, Dawn Brown, Krystal Carpenter, Sarah Wiggins, Sarah Taylor, Sarah Bagwell, Sarah Durren, Megan Leinonen, Carrie Aalfs, Jessica Walkden, Stacy Kubal, Katie Martin, Mary Glossinger, sisters Kary and Kacy Couchman, Tori and Kimi Aalfs and Julie and Lisa Sunday. The boys team of the mid-90s was made up of guys like J.R. Rauch, Troy Paskiet, Nick Powers, Teh’Ron Guidry, Ricky Pickens, Jeff Miller, Derek Dreitzler, Jacob Labounty, Jeff Berry, Bryan Lloyd, all of the Baker Boys and many, many others.
We came dressed in our old sweat pants and our maroon t-shirts to play against teams wearing matching warm-ups and shiny black helmets. We faced off against Forest Glade and Scarborough, Recognition and Lansing. Our parents hated their parents and, true to hockey tradition, more than a few skirmishes started by sons on the court were later finished by fathers in the parking lot. Our moms and grandmas yelled from the stands and lived up to the true meaning of “hockey moms.” It was tough, it was gritty, it involved a whole lot of trash talk, and we loved it. And after the games ended for the day, the Buchanan teams retreated back to the hotel for an evening spent at the pool. For many of our families, the expense of a hotel room for two nights was a luxury and required a sacrificial cut in the grocery bill for the next week. I can still picture all of our parents hanging out by the pool, relaxing with coolers of beverages and take-out pizza, and talking about the time that they faced off against teams from Freemont and Battle Creek.
Our travel teams were fierce and scrappy and desperately wanted the championship trophy and one year we finally managed to bring it home—escorted into town by the local fire department and police force (sirens blaring) and interviewed by the local news channel.
Years later, somebody came up with the ingenious idea to host our very own hockey tournament in our own gym. To this day, teams from around the state travel to little ole Buchanan and live out their glory days just like their mothers and fathers before them. My sister, with a quick shot and an even quicker temper, took her turn playing in the family tradition in the 2000s alongside the little brothers and sisters of the kids I played with—players like Jackie Mosier, Val Klug, Libby Glossinger, Ashley Warda, Nicole Tucker, Ashley Carpenter, Michelle Johnson, and all three of the Bender girls (Lauren, Shelly, and Ali). Guys like Matt Warda, Nick Gowan, Brad Huebner, Jason Stroud, Chris Mondschein, Stephen Mitchell, and Tim Weber carried on the torch for the guys before them. Many of these former players now coach or watch their little ones play. My sister Caryn watches her daughter Grace run around on the same court she used to play on, blonde ponytail bopping around just like her mama’s used to do.
To say it is a family affair for most of Buchanan would be an understatement. If you played, so did your cousins and you were probably coached by your aunt or your uncle. I can't even count all of my cousins who played through the years. Players like Chrissy, Keriann and T.J. Sears (coached by Uncle Randy Sears), Josh, Jake, and Jordan Wahlstrom (coached by Uncle Scott Wahlstrom), Jacklynn and Alex Leiter, and Perry and Makinzy Wahlstrom (coached by Uncle Perry Wahlstrom), Jenna and Tanner Phillips (coached by Uncle Ted Phillips), and Andrea and Grant Hemminger (coached by Uncle Chris Hemminger) were just a few of the kin who suited up every Saturday.
Just last year my little brother Brendan finished his last floor hockey game and ended the season with another undefeated record and a citywide championship. My brother was basically born with a hockey stick in his hand and doubled up with floor hockey and ice hockey games every weekend for years. My dad retired as a coach after my brother’s last game, ending a 30+ year coaching career and happy to now sit in the stands and watch as his own kids coach. Well, to be honest, he doesn’t actually sit in the stands. Every Saturday morning in the winter you can find him standing alongside the boards, yelling at his grandkids to “J it up!” or “Swing!” or “Board It!"—old habits die hard.
When my kids stayed the night at my parents last night and discovered, for the first time, the bin of hockey trophies and medals in the basement, they demanded to get them out and display them on the shelves. They can’t wait to win their own trophies and score their own winning goals. They look forward to playing in city tournaments and swimming in hotel pools. Just yesterday my son Cy scored his first goal in his very first floor hockey game. This wasn’t his first goal ever…he’s been playing ice hockey for two years now and has his fair share of hat tricks. But it was his first floor hockey goal and, in Buchanan, that’s a right of passage. And there are more of them coming through. In two short years my fierce little red-haired beauty will get her chance to take the floor. She’s already playing ice hockey but she lives for the day she will get to play in our hometown gym. She will be followed by her little cousin Tinley and her baby sister Kaliana; each one feistier than the next with decades of hockey blood coursing through their veins. They will play alongside the kids of my former teammates and a tradition will continue for another generation.
So, do you see why we get upset when out-of-towners try to tell us its not “real” hockey? Because to us it isn’t just a game. It is a tradition, a multi-generational story, a tie that binds us to our fathers and our brothers, our sisters and our kids. It is a language that only we speak and a history that only we understand. And I dare anyone to ever try to take it away from us. They would have to pry our yellow and red hockey sticks ringed with black electrical tape from our cold, dead hands. Too much? Sorry, we hockey families tend to get a little carried away. I’ll take a two-minute penalty for roughing and see you back on the court next Saturday.