I suddenly snapped back to reality.
I had been standing on the goal line, mouth agape, staring up at the familiar beige wedges radiating from the giant scoreboard of Madison Square Garden and had completely forgotten about the task at hand. It felt strange. For once, I was there to do a job. I had been to the Garden plenty of times. I had been disappointed by my bumbling Rangers more times than I’d like to admit. I’ve also had the pleasure of overpaying for concert tickets at MSG. In both instances, I was most likely heavily under the influence so spacing out at the World’s Most Famous Arena was second nature to me.
But that Monday afternoon, smack in the middle of the first round of the 2016-17 NHL playoffs, I stood on the ice, slackjawed and making a terrible first impression with Evan, my first real client. Despite the assignment, I hadn’t considered myself a full-fledged photographer. (I sort of still don’t.) It had just been a hobby- something that I did as an excuse to explore my own city and maybe garner a few virtual pats on the back on social media. Every so often I’d do some headshots or engagement shoots for friends but I insisted on only accepting gummy candy as compensation. Over the course of a year or so my skills steadily improved and I got more comfortable behind the viewfinder. I started getting more attention for a few photos that I posted on Instagram and began placing in contests that I entered. Before I knew it, thanks to some connections through my beer league teammates, I found myself involved in a project that combined two of my most favorite things: hockey and photography.
It was my contact. I had spaced out again.
I hurried towards the open zamboni doors, taking small, staggered steps on the smooth ice to prevent further embarrassment. My contact then sped me through a list of shots he wanted of Paul Curtis- one of the Zamboni drivers that we were spotlighting for the project. Immediately, awe and excitement was displaced by intense anxiety. I did my best to retain what instructions I could gather and rushed to set up my camera. The arena’s PR rep then began introducing us to Paul- a barrel chested Brit with an earnest smile. Juggling two camera bodies in my left hand and bracing them against my chest, I precariously reached out my right to shake his beefy paw. I sputtered out my name and tried to smile, all while frantically switching lenses. It was at that moment that I realized I wasn’t quite as prepared as I thought I’d be. Paul waited patiently in front of the hulking resurfacer while I fussed with the knobs and buttons on my camera trying to get the right settings. With my gear finally setup, I rattled off a handful of shaky shots. I took a breath to collect myself and eventually got ones I was happy with.
I nodded to Paul and my contact and they retreated to the rink-side seats for the actual interview. My body instantly relaxed and I let out a sigh of relief. With my anxiety abating, I was now free to do what I did best: wander and explore. My first impulse was to get to high ground. I jogged up the arena stairs to get a better vantage point of the action on the ice. The Rangers, who were running a light practice trying to sort out what was wrong with their stagnant powerplay, had just suffered a grueling loss against the Montreal Canadiens the night before in the first-round of the NHL playoffs. With Game 4 the very next day, practices for both teams were low intensity and players tried their best to stay relaxed. It was strange seeing the players in a near silent space as large as Madison Square Garden. I was used to only seeing these players skate with incredible intensity with 18,000 angry New Yorkers reacting to every mistake or hesitation. Seeing them in a much more laid back environment further humanized the players I looked up to. Once I was done creepily staring at the Rangers, I slinked around the surrounding tunnels to where the visiting Canadiens were biding their time and warming up for their practice.
I found most of them formed in a circle with a soccer ball, a pregame routine popular with other NHL teams. Their faces were beaming with the energy of a team suddenly with momentum. I surreptitiously snapped shots while they kicked the ball to each other but I realized that one of their biggest stars was missing from the circle. Conspicuously absent was their captain, Max Pacioretty. I scanned the rest of the tunnel and finally found him rinkside, pressed up against the plexiglass. He had been intently watching his opponents run drills, ostensibly trying to pick up on any perceptible weaknesses that the Canadiens could exploit the next day.
The Rangers, probably oblivious to the mysterious scout, were just wrapping up their practice. As players started coasting off the ice, one of my favorite players – Jesper Fast- had stuck around to squeeze in more shooting drills. As one of the fourth line energy guys that was known for his hustle and grit, it wasn’t a surprise to see Fast there alone with one of the coaches long after everyone had left.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the interview beginning to wind down. I started to pack my gear when Paul sprung the question I was secretly hoping he was going to ask.
“Do you want to go for a ride?”
Struggling to keep my cool, I quickly looked over at Evan. In my mind, I already resigned the seat to him. He was the reason I was there after all. But after he mulled it over for a couple of seconds, he nudged me toward the growling vehicle.
“Andre, go up there. Take some shots.”
Had I not just met Paul, I would have let out a squeal so shrill that it would have easily shattered the plexiglass on the boards. But somehow I kept my composure and forced out a blatantly-not-laid-back “Oooooook, sure.” I was still clutching both camera bodies with one hand but with Paul’s help, hoisted myself up onto the side seat. At this point I was really regretting not using any camera straps (a habit from shooting mostly street). I sat on the back-facing chair normally used by little children between periods at Rangers games and nervously balanced my main camera on my lap. With my backup camera already setup with my wide lens, I held on to it for dear life while the sputtering machine lurched forward. I was grateful I didn’t leave my 14mm lens at home. I had thought about not taking it to keep my backpack lighter but when I found myself sitting so close to Paul I was glad I brought it along. While the resurfacer did laps I did my best to lean as far away as possible on the seat without sliding off onto the ice.
Unfortunately, unlike the guys that resurface the ice in my beer league, Paul was a supremely efficient operator. While we whizzed around in circles, my right hand hammered away on the shutter of my mirrorless camera. My other hand held on for dear life to the outside edge of my seat. Just as I was getting the hang of my balancing act, Paul began his final approach into the tunnel entrance and the ride was over. He dismounted, ran to my side of the Zamboni, and helped me down from the rear-facing passenger seat. After he handed us some game pucks, he shook our hands and drove off further into the tunnel. The PR rep invited us to head to the press room for refreshments and sandwiches but I politely declined. As hungry as I was, food was the last thing on my mind. My brain was trying to keep up with everything that had happened in the two hours that we were there and I wanted to rush home to see what I had captured. I hopped on the N train, made a beeline for the corner seat, and, grinning ear to ear, I spaced out one last time.