A new year always makes me a bit nostalgic. As I’m
waiting for the Annual Winter Classic hockey game (which takes place outdoors),
I started thinking back to when I used to play pickup hockey.
I fell in love with hockey when we lived in Chicago and 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
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 to keep their balance.
But that first time skating, there was no teaching, it was 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 two pieces of firewood we’d set
up 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, (the small jagged section
on the front end of the blade) 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
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 a neighbor girl 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 her, “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 my 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 beginner’s drills. She said, “Let me see your blades.”
I showed her the blade of my old skate. 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? I
thought 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! Suddenly 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
I didn’t learn anything terribly difficult in skating
class, but I did re-learn how to skate, forward and backward. I learned to do
those fancy backward crossovers. I could even do a 180-degree jump… in other
words, skating backward, jumping, and coming down on the other foot, facing forward. On 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
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 overdo 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 me.
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 was afraid I’d stand out as a rube, but in fact, I was in the middle of the
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 two teams. 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 twos
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. In 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. (Except for goalie, of course.) 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 yell out their position. Whoever was next in line would go in and take
that their place. 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, and 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, and your hair blowing in the breeze behind you. Yeah, I had longish hair back then, at least
in the back. My idol of that era was Jaromir
Jagr. Hockey fans and Pittsburghers who were around in the 90s 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
Penguins 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
Oh. My. God. We were sooooo slooooooooooooooow. I don’t
know how it’s possible to feel like you're zooming all over the place and then watch the
tape that shows what looks like a bunch of people drifting aimlessly about the ice.
It was excruciating.
I played for four 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 myself, 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 alongside them.
Having long arms helped a great deal. If I was facing someone on a breakaway,
they’d go around me like I was a giant cone. But if I turned and went the same
direction, I could always interfere with their shot and usually force them
wide. One of the guys once told me, “Trying to
get around you is like trying to go around a wall.”
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 battling people, chasing the puck, and fishing it out of the corners.
Great wrist shot,
absolutely no slapshot. (Where you take a big windup, with the stick up
off the ice.)
I couldn’t shoot a slapshot to save my life. I’d either
whiff or it would just kind of dribble up there. But I was a sniper with a
wrist shot. (Where you just kind of snap
the puck without lifting your stick.) I was one of the few people that could get
the puck up in the air easily… it’s something I’ve 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 slapshot… 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 like the Red Sea. No one had any
idea where it was going to end up and it was seldom on net.
Plays a 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 into 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,
"Lighten up, Francis."
I was only ever called for two penalties, one of which I
deserved. One of the bigger dudes (four inches shorter than me but about 50 lbs
heavier) knocked me off the puck and stole it, taking it up the ice. I got up
and just charged. I was praying he’d keep possession of the puck because I
thought that would give me cover. I caught up to him and basically flew at him,
like "My Cousin Vinny" did to the redneck that wanted to fight him.
Then I had the nerve to stand there with my arms out
It was a clean hit that wouldn’t be penalized in a
regular game, but we were in a non-checking league, hence the penalty.
It was a learning experience playing with 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. Even in 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 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 from me with great regularity, so often that I wanted to kill them. There
were two, in particular, the teenage daughters of a 40-something player named
Joanne. We’d be in the locker room
afterward, (no one was getting naked, just getting pads off and on) and I told
a couple 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 against 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
into 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 him. She looked pissed. I said, “You
want me to get him, next shift?”
She was like, “Hell
There was one guy in our group that was really good. He
was a smallish, wiry guy but he could just blaze up and down the ice. Before I
knew his name, I just thought of him as "My Nemesis." (Later, he was just "Danny", and
happened to be a really good guy.) But I decided to make it my business that this
was the guy I was going to dedicate myself to stopping. The dude undressed me
more times than a $20 hooker, but it forced me to get better. I became a much
better defender because of it so that by the end of my tenure, we'd have some
pretty epic battles. But that’s a life lesson, isn’t it? You never get better
at anything unless you go up against someone who’s better.
But OMG, what a workout the game was! Every muscle group
would be spent... legs from skating, back from hunching over the stick and
getting low, arms and shoulders from pushing and grinding in the corners...
After a game, it was all I could do to get my gear bag back to the car. I'd be
totally whipped, especially early in the season. But later, of course, it would
get easier. I was in the best shape of my life when I was playing hockey.
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.
After moving to Baltimore, I tried to find a similar gig.
There was a rink nearby, but there were two things going against it. First, the
pickup hockey hours were 11:30-1:00 on Saturday nights. I’m sorry, but I'm ready for bed at that hour, not ready to
go out and scrap. But most importantly, the people were very clique-ish. I did NOT
feel very welcomed. Everyone mostly seemed concerned with skating exclusively
with their friends. I went twice, then never again. They were not interested in
entertaining any "intruders" in their club.
Still, I’ll never forget the woosh of the wind in my ears
and long-gone hair blowing behind me.