WASHINGTON -- He celebrated over my sprawled body as if he'd won the Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire primary and the Powerball lottery combined.Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Democratic presidential front-runner and first-line ice hockey forward, stood all smiles at the side of the net, lording over me, his arms and hockey stick raised as teammates gathered to rub his helmeted head.
Despite my best efforts as a goalie to get a skate, a stick, a glove or any other piece of gear on the puck, Kerry scored on me in late 2002 -- the first of several times -- to cement his reputation as the Senate's premier hockey player and the only presidential candidate who takes his sticks and equipment on the road.
"I am so addicted to ice hockey that I still fantasize about starting a professional over-50 senior league," Kerry wrote in his book, "A Call to Service: My Vision for a Better America."
President Bush loves to run. President Clinton's passion was golf. For Kerry, bliss is lacing up the skates, grabbing a stick and playing a game of pick-up hockey. In an effort to show youthful vigor and energy, Kerry has incorporated hockey into his campaign. He played in a Boston Bruins alumni game last month in New Hampshire -- a hockey-crazed state -- and attempts were made during the recent Michigan Democratic caucus to get him to skate with the Red Wings old-timers' team.
Kerry was exposed to hockey as a kid attending private school in New England. I gravitated to the game while growing up in the West Mount Airy section of Philadelphia and watching the Flyers teams of the 1970s fight their way to two Stanley Cup championships. I was the proverbial rink rat, hanging out at the University of Pennsylvania Class of 1923 Ice Rink and the Wissahickon Skating Club.
I never imagined hockey and politics could be merged. Then came Kerry.
Before his high-profile exploits on the campaign trial, I squared off against Kerry on the ice on several occasions over the years. He and I played with a coed group of die-hard hockey players who assembled weekdays at the crack of dawn at a Washington rink. As a goalie who has faced Kerry's shot, I can offer a scouting report.
First off, he doesn't look like a hockey player. At a lean 6-feet-3, Kerry looks like he'd be more comfortable on a basketball court. As he put on his skates and equipment, I envisioned a stumbling, gawky skater who would have trouble keeping up with the other players and keeping the puck on his stick.
I was wrong. Kerry's long legs produce a fluid, graceful stride that, in turn, makes him a deceptively nimble skater. He's not Mercury on skates, but he's no lead foot, either.
For someone used to rubbing elbows in politics, Kerry isn't a physical force on the ice. He doesn't initiate contact, but he doesn't shy away from it. He doesn't try to muscle opposing players; he prefers to use his stick to try to poke check the puck away from his opponents.
Most players in our morning hockey group treated him like any other player on the ice. But I must confess there was one time when Kerry's job and political future crossed my mind. He came in on me in a breakaway. I started my usual move of skating aggressively out of the net to take away the shooting angle.
As I prepared to drop and roll onto the ice -- a move that normally forces the approaching offensive player to either try to sweep around me or risk injury by bowling into me -- a headline flashed into my head: Journalist-Goalie Maims Potential Presidential Nominee.
I aborted my move, which prompted Kerry to break out some moves of his own. Before I could recover and think about what I wanted to do next, the senator worked the puck to his left, then to his right, prompting me to open my legs wide enough for him to slide the puck through. Goal.
Kerry knows what to do with the puck.
Kerry is an unselfish player and sneaky with the puck. He can comfortably skate through traffic, drawing the full attention of the opposing team's defenseman before dishing the puck off to an open teammate.
But for a candidate campaigning on his military credentials, playing defense on ice isn't his forte. Kerry often plays forward. When play turns to his defensive zone, he sometimes lopes in circles waiting for his defensemen to feed him the puck rather than joining the fray.
Joe Watson, a defenseman for the Flyers on their two Stanley Cup championship teams in the 1970s, played against Kerry when the senator suited up with Boston Bruins alumni players in 1994 and came away impressed.
"I didn't know who he was," Watson recalled. "Someone told me who he was, and I said, 'Hey, he's not a bad player.' "