I love hockey. I fell in love with it when I was in 3rd grade. That’s the year I got ice skates and a hockey stick for Christmas. I learned how to skate with a stick in my hand and that’s just how it was.
Now when I say, “learned how to skate”, you have to take that with a grain of salt. I learned how to scramble around a bumpy lake or snow-packed street without falling down very much. The hockey stick was kind of like that big pole that high-wire acts use. But that first time skating, there was no teaching, just “you have skates, here’s your stick, there’s the ice… get out there.”
I never played organized hockey when I was growing up. That seemed way too complicated. But every day in the winter, my brother and I would be out on the street or on a local pond, “skating” around and shooting pucks at each other. Even in the summer, we’d play in the garage. One of us would grab a baseball glove and guard a little spot between 2 pieces of firewood we’d use for a goal. We’d use either a real puck or a baseball. Man, my shins got so banged up sometimes that I could hardly walk.
We learned to skate on figure skates… that just happened to be what we got for that 3rd grade Christmas, so that’s what we used and never thought twice about it. I got a pair of hockey skates once in junior high school and I hated them. They didn’t have toe-picks, so I couldn’t push off. (Remember, I didn’t really know how to skate properly. Left to our own, we used our toe-picks to get started.)
A toe-pick almost killed me once… or rather, killed my ego. I was a teenager, skating at night on our neighbor’s pond, on a beautiful crisp night. I was telling someone about how sometimes when I almost fall, I can throw a quick spin-around and come out of it looking like I did it all on purpose. I told my friend, “sometimes I can be pretty graceful”. The exact moment I said the word “graceful”, my toe-pick hit a crack in the ice and I pitched forward, flat on my face, spinning in lazy circles as I slid another 20 feet. Pride indeed cameth before the fall.
In college I took a semester of figure skating and it was the greatest thing. It was also very hard, because I had to unlearn everything I’d ever “learned.”
The best thing I learned was that it helps to have sharp skates. My instructor had wondered why a big strapping guy like me was having such trouble with the rudimentary drills with which she started us. She said, “Let me see your blades.”
I showed her the blade of my old skates. She said, “Oh my God. Take those off right now.”
My blades were about as sharp as butter knife handles. What the hell did I know? Skates were skates…
She got me in a pair of house skates that were sharp… ones with actual inside and outside edges… and holy hell! I had no idea skating could be like that! I could stop, turn, and accelerate… It was like the first time I put on glasses, not knowing how well the rest of the world could see.
I didn’t learn anything terribly difficult in skating class, but I did re-learn how to skate, forwards and backwards. I could even do those fancy backward crossovers. I could even do a 180-degree jump… in other words, skating backwards, jumping, and coming down going forward on the other foot. The last day of class, right at the end, I tried to do a 360. Almost pulled it off, too. The teacher was not amused. “Do NOT try that again… you’re nowhere near ready for that!”
OK, OK. I had to try though.
After that class, I hardly ever got to skate. Too busy out making a living and trying to find my way in the world. Next thing you know, 13 years down the road I’m married (cold chill runs down back), living in Albany NY in 1996, spotting an ad in the Pennysaver announcing the formation of a new co-ed, non-checking hockey league in Saratoga Springs.
I called and found out that it was started by a group of hockey parents. They’d had a pickup game, grownups against the kids, and found out how much fun it was to get on the ice and play. They decided to do so regularly and thus the “league” was born. I wanted in immediately and even without being a parent, I was welcomed with open arms.
First, I had to get suited up. I’d never owned a single piece of hockey equipment other than skates and a stick. I had no idea what was involved. A trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods was a necessity. Luckily, the guy in their hockey department took good care of me. He gave me everything I’d need for such a league and was careful not to over do it. Like, for a non-checking game, I wouldn’t need the big robo-shoulder pads; a nice light pair would do just fine. It’s a good thing he was there… I didn’t even know how to put all the stuff on.
And yes, I got some nice new hockey skates. No more toe picks for moi.
I had no idea what to expect from the Just For Fun League when I showed up that first night. The rink was pretty primitive, but then so were my skills. I needn’t have worried though, because so were everyone else’s. I’d been worried I’d stand out as a rube, but in fact, I was in about the middle of the pack, skills-wise.
While the name says “Just for Fun League”, it really wasn’t a league as much as a big pickup game. There would be about 20 players and we’d divide up teams. At first we’d just throw all the sticks on the ice and then they’d be separated randomly forming the 2 sides. Later, after we got a good bead on each other, Ellen the “founder” (and one of the goalies) would take people of similar skill by 2’s and divide them, so that no one side could accidentally become stacked.
I scored a goal that first night so I at least felt like I belonged, early on. The early years, we were all pretty raggedy. There were some epic collisions… not because we were looking to hit, but because we weren’t very good at stopping and turning in time before, WHAM.
One of the cool things was that by design, you’d get to play every position. First you’d have your starting five and then as people got tired (usually after 1-2 minutes) they’d come to the bench and holler their position. Whoever was up next would go in and take that position. That way, no one could monopolize any one position.
The first thing I learned was that playing hockey was nothing like playing softball. In softball, you spend most of your time waiting for something to happen. Most of the time, it didn’t involve you. It was mostly standing around, followed by short bursts of furious activity. If you screwed something up, maybe you got a chance to redeem yourself, maybe you didn’t.
In hockey, it’s nothing but furious activity. You can lose the puck, stop the other guy, take it back, take a shot, make a pass… all in about 30 seconds. It’s constant ebb and flow. You really don’t have time to dwell on mistakes because you’re immediately onto the next thing.
I loved the speed, the woosh of the wind in your earholes, your hair blowing in the breeze behind you. Yeah, I was kind of a long-hair back then. (at least in the back) My idol of that era was Jaromir Jagr. Hockey fans and Burghers who were around in the 90’s know who I’m talking about. For everyone else, Jagr joined the Penguins at age 18, directly from Czechoslovakia. He was a mullet-wearing, free spirited bundle of talent back then and I totally wanted to be him. For most of our games, I wore a white Pens jersey with his number 68 on it.
About once a year, I’d have my wife come to a game and shoot some video. I was sure we’d all look fabulous out there flying around at such great speed. Then I watched the tape.
Oh. My. God. We were sooooo slooooooooooooooow. I don’t know how it’s possible to feel like your zooming all over the place and then see the tape of everyone drifting seemingly aimlessly about the ice. It was excruciating.
Don’t believe me? Check this out… Look for big #68 to pounce on a puck and hit the post with a wrist shot. All in super-slo-mo.
Now check out the worlds slowest fast break. I think you can time me going from the red line to the top of the circle with a sun-dial. I must say though, even though you can’t really see it, (camera-wife lost me) I totally beat the goalie on the far side like a rented mule. Watch how angrily he swats the puck out of the net.
But still, it really gave me the appreciation of how fast the pros must be going. Those guys really fly.
I played for 4 years and had the time of my life. It was very gratifying, over the years, to see the overall skill level pick up. We were worlds better the 4th year than we were when we started.
If I had to scout me, it would be like this:
Good skating in straight lines; not so maneuverable. Outstanding reach. Hard to get around.
Smaller players skated rings around me, but I could often catch them if I turned and skated along side. Having long arms helped a great deal. If I was facing someone on a break, they’d go around me like a 6’5” traffic cone. (The skates add 2".) But if I turned and went the same direction, I could always interfere with their shot and usually force them wide.
Good in the corners, a grinder.
My skating or puck skills weren’t going to dazzle anyone, so I decided I’d try to out-hustle. I’d be the guy chasing the puck, battling people and fishing it out of the corners.
Great wrist shot, absolutely no slap shot.
I couldn’t shoot a slap shot to save my life. I’d either wiff or it would just kind of dribble up there. But I was a sniper with the wrist shot. I was one of the few people that could lift the puck easily… it’s something I’d always been able to do since I was a kid. Every shot came at least knee high. I had this one stick I got from the local minor league team that had a wicked curve and loft to it. It took me a while to get the handle on it, because every shot would go high and to the left. I took a shot from the right point once and almost took off our defenseman’s head. She was standing at the bottom of the left circle.
(There was another guy that just had a cannon of a slap shot… but he couldn’t control it. I called it the Moses Shot, because he’s wind up from the point and everyone would just part. No one had any idea where it was going to end up and it was seldom on net.)
Plays sportsmanlike game but don’t get him riled up.
I was so glad it was a non-hitting game, because another thing I learned is how easy it is for one’s passions to run over. I normally played a very gentlemanly game, but if someone were to, say, jostle me, elbow me, or knock me off the puck in any way, it was like my eyes would turn red and I’d just want to plow someone. I’d go all “Francis” on them and make it my mission to “accidentally” mash the offender into the glass, the post, the ice, or whatever.
I was only ever called for 2 penalties, 1 of which I deserved. One of the bigger dudes (4” shorter than me but about 50lbs heavier) knocked me off the puck and stole it, taking it up ice. I got up and just charged. I was praying he’s keep possession of the puck because I thought that would give me cover. I caught up to him (good in a straight line, remember?) and basically flew at him, like My Cousin Vinny did to the redneck that wanted to fight him.
Tweeeeeet! Two minutes!
Then I had the nerve to stand there with my arms out going, “What?”
It was a learning experience playing with the women, and sometimes their daughters. I found that while they may not have shot as hard as the guys or were as physical, they skated better and were better passers. What was hard for me was getting into the physical battles for the puck. While we were a no-checking group, there was a lot of pushing, shoving and muscling for the puck. I always felt like I shouldn’t do that with the women. I was brought up to never raise a hand to a lady and that was a hard thing to overcome.
The women helped me with that though, mostly by stealing the puck off of me with great regularity, so often that I wanted to kill them. There were 2 in particular, the teenage daughters of a 40-something player named Joanne. We’d be in the locker room afterwards, (no one was getting naked, just getting pads of and on) and I told one of them how troubled I was about not wanting to be rough with them.
They basically laughed at me, telling me that the boys they play with in their own league have no such inhibitions. Made me feel better, anyway. I still didn’t knock them around like I could have, but I didn’t feel so bad about using my size if I had to.
The family aspect of our group also made for some memorable encounters. I was skating with Joanne one game and she got plowed behind the net. I went flying up to put a shoulder on the guy that did it, but I pulled up at the last moment when I saw that it was her husband!
We got back to the bench and I told her I almost went after her husband. She looked pissed. I said, “You want me to get him, next shift?”
She was like, “Hell yeah!”
Anyway, it was really a great group of people. We’d chase each other around for an hour and a half and then limp down to the pub and drink for another 2. Good times.
It killed me to leave all that behind, but my non-hockey life was in the toilet. Divorced, working a shitty job with horrible hours, living like a monk… there was nothing left for me in New York.
One night I made a list of all the reasons I should move to Baltimore to be near family, versus all the reasons I should stay. Needless to say, one list was very long and the other was quite short. The biggest reason on the short list, the one to stay in New York, was playing hockey. But sadly, there had to be more to life than that couple hours a week every winter, so I moved on to start a new life chapter.
But I’ll never forget the woosh of the wind in my ears and long-gone hair blowing behind me.