NY Times – March 09, 2018
by NY Times
Last Friday afternoon in Oyster Bay, on Long Island, the New York Police Department hockey team was on the ice practicing hard for the annual charity game against its archrival, the New York Fire Department. The big game at Madison Square Garden, already sold out, was just over three weeks away.
Team members, broken into a white jersey/blue jersey scrimmage, slammed one another mercilessly into the boards. Curse words flew — particularly one that rhymes with puck. Loogies were hocked. Hips were checked, sending one fallen player sliding across the rink.
Nick Neve, an officer from the 78th Precinct on the white team, scored on a slapshot, his teammates furiously banging their hockey sticks against
And this was just practice.
Three days later, the Fire Department team was running power play drills at Abe Stark skating rink in Coney Island, where the stakes were just as high.
“To us, the cop game is the only game that matters,” said coach Tom Reno, who tours with the Fire Department team for eight months, playing in New York, Boston and Toronto. “We could be 50-1, and if we lose to the cops that one day, it’s a losing season. It’s like Game Seven of the Stanley Cup.”
As the game got closer, tensions grew for both the Finest and the Bravest. The Fire Department won last year and holds the most wins, 23-18 (plus two ties) since the first big police-fire game in 1974. But the police say they’re ready to take back the title.
In the final weeks, an extra practice is thrown in for both teams, so they’re at the rink three or four times a week. Nonskating firefighters and officers are contacting team members and coaches for impossible last-minute tickets. And the roster must be finalized.
The Fire Department, which has 35 members on its team, will be dressing only 21 or 22 players in official white uniforms for the actual game. The Police Department, which has a team of 29, will be dressing 23 or 24 in its blue jerseys. Decisions would be made in the next week.
The top nine players for the F.D.N.Y. were secure in knowing they would be on the final roster. But everyone else was in play, from 45-year-old veterans to 23-year-old rookies. Injuries would be brought into account, as well as past attendance and game performance and, of course, skill level.
“If a new kid comes up and is much better, then he’s got to play,” said the F.D.N.Y. coach Pete “Dizzy” Gillespie. “Guys have to accept that.”
Derek Kern, 39, who works out of a firehouse in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and actually played in the minors, is at the top of the roster, but has been bringing in “young blood” over the last few years, he said. “A couple of new guys are trying to break in. I need a lot of young guys,” he continued. “I’ve played a lot in my day,” he added, laughing.
Coaches will dress a few extra players to skate in the pregame warm-up at the Garden so their family and friends can see them on the ice. But before the game begins, they’ll shower and put on regular clothes to cheer along with the 20,000-strong crowd.
Retired veterans from Florida fly in and make a weekend out of it. Firefighters and police officers from hockey-friendly precincts in Canada and Boston, as well as Chelsea Piers league players, who go up against the New York teams all season long, will come and watch. The commissioners and chiefs of both departments are expected to attend.
“You’re playing in front of 18,000 people — it’s a little nerve-racking,” said Charlie Venticinque, the Police Department team captain who works as a detective in Queens Village. “You’re representing your precinct and the whole department.”
Over the last few years, thanks to social media and word of mouth, the crowd at the big game has grown. Last year, 14,000 seats were filled at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. “It’s like a Ranger game, except the tickets are only $25,” said Mr. Venticinque, who has been playing for nearly 14 years. Proceeds from the game go to maintaining the league and to several charity organizations, including the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.
Many of the players know one another from having played together in youth leagues, in high school, college and juniors. Some future officers grew up playing beside future firefighters on the same teams.
Because there are more than 34,000 police officers in the city, and over 15,000 firefighters and emergency medical technicians, the teams get to choose the cream of the crop from a large population. Each year about 60 guys try out on both sides.
“We’re known as the main event for all the departments in the country,” said Sergeant Chet Wakie, a 13-year veteran of both the Police Department and the team. “The other cities don’t have the numbers we have. It’s real hockey. It’s not a pickup game. We put on a good show.”
To guarantee an exciting game, there are bound to be clashes on the ice, though coaches are hoping nothing will match the Nassau Coliseum brawl from 2014, when all the players left the benches to square off. “In 45 years of playing, that was the only time that ever happened,” said Mr. Venticinque, shaking his head.
Despite the mounting pressure, or maybe because of it, the players at the Oyster Bay rink were out there razzing each other and joking during practice. One player massaged his injured upper arm; his teammate joked he hurt it while lifting a pint at a bar the night before.
Once the game is over, the tension tends to melt away, at least until next year. “It’s a rivalry,” said Mr. Venticinque. “But the next day when the game’s over, you’re on a corner and someone’s calling for help.” He shrugged. “They’re showing up, we’re showing up. And you work together.”