Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Drop the Puck, It's Time to Go!

He zipped across the blue line, alone, puck cradled against the curve of the blade of his stick. The only thing between him and the goalie was me, my gray shirt dark with sweat, and he drove to the outside on his forehand trying to swoop around me. I drifted back with him, waiting for the moment when he realized that path was closed and tried to cut back toward the middle. He was bigger, stronger, more experienced and ten times the skater I was, but I had the angle on him. At least, I hoped I did. After all, I'd only been a hockey player for all of 80 minutes or so. What the hell did I know?

His skates slashed into the ice and his momentum shifted direction. My blades dug in as well and I struck . . .


I'd been looking for something new to challenge me, as time constraints had caused me to give up on rugby and I was feeling the need for a new sporting outlet. At a party consisting of people I didn't really know the host mentioned that he'd started playing hockey recently, despite the fact that he'd never played before and couldn't really skate. Hey, I had those same qualifications! If he was a hopeless spaz as well we might be brothers. Turns out one of the local hockey rinks had a league just for us, filled with players of  'zero to limited experience.' His enthusiasm was contagious, and I started to look into actually doing this thing, because man, I love hockey. One or two nights a week after the kids were in bed? No problem! Equipment? My brother-in-law thoughtfully donated his old stuff, and I filled in the gaps with a trip to HockeyMonkey. $45 hockey skates? How couldn't I? (My fear at buying such cheap blades, even if they were Bauers, was allayed when I noticed at least ten others wearing them at the clinic). And when I mentioned it to my friend Sheq, he seemed pretty interested too. His brother wanted in as well, so the three of us took the plunge and signed up for the winter league.

First we figured we should, you know, learn how to play, and signed up for a four-session clinic. Out of the three of us Jeff, Sheq's brother, had the best chance of not being horrible, as he had several years of rollerblade hockey in his distant past. I took the family skating two weekends in a row, which turned out to be a big hit and allowed me to shake of thirty-plus years of rust from someone who was never an avid skater to begin with. Thanks to Sheq's daughter Zoe by the end of the second session I could sort of stop, sort of skate backwards, and glide for about  five feet on one blade. I was ready to take this clinic by storm.

Ice House in Hackensack is huge - four rinks and fifteen locker rooms under one roof. Jeff showed up at our agreed-on time - we wanted to get there early to figure out how to put on our medieval knight's worth of gear - and informed me that Sheq had left work with a migraine and was unlikely to appear. As he had a couple of pieces of Jeff's gear that made an interesting show of confidence on his brother's part, as he had to go without a faceguard or hockey pants. Let me just say that hockey pants are awesome. Remember skating and landing on your tailbone? Hockey pants make that go away. They're like the friend who shows up with coffee and bacon after a night of hard drinking.

We found our rink and, with help, our locker room, which looked less like the carpeted opulence of Madison Square Garden and more like a prison cell. I was able to figure out what went where mostly by observing others getting suited up, and before long we were out on the ice, two goalies and twenty-six skaters. As the coaches had us warm up skating laps it became obvious that the rumor I'd heard that much more skilled players often took the clinic for fine-tuning on their skills and cheap ice time was true.  There were four or five guys in white Ice House jerseys who zipped around with the ease that spoke of years of practice. Still, I wasn't bothered. I'd left my ego in my hockey bag. For fuck's sake, I'm 45 years old. I'm not expecting to be Gretzky out there.

The first thing we worked on was skating. I was doing it wrong. It seems my two sessions of rec skating had done more harm than good but to be fair, pretty much everyone was told this as well. We worked on keeping our feet beneath us and pushing off with the inner edge, while keeping our heads up and sticks on the ice.  One of our drills involved skating from the goal line to the blue line and stopping, then to the red line, and so on. Over the course of several trips up and down the ice I fell numerous times, but I didn't care. It was fun and I could feel myself getting a little bit more confidant each time. Moving to the faceoff circles, they introduced the concept of the crossover step. I simply didn't have the confidence in my skating yet to pull it off. Maybe next session. Jeff had it down after a little while. Bastard.

The coached talked about how to use your stick (PHRASING!). I was doing it wrong. My hands weren't in the right position (PHRASING), I had it too far away from me (PHR - aw, forget it), I had it too far out to the side.The coach corrected me. I listened.

Then we were given pucks and worked on stickhanding. I was doing it wrong (are you seeing a pattern here?). The coach showed me how to do it correctly, and I practiced it as we skated in circles and around cones. It's SO MUCH more difficult than it looks like on TV. The puck has a mind of its own and skitters everywhere. I pretty much just laughed at myself and my antics, but kept trying.

Then, with about ten minutes left, they divided us into teams and said, "Let's play hockey!" By virtue of where I went on the bench I was dubbed a defensemen, one of two players who think more about protecting their own goal than attacking their opponent's. A kid of like twenty was my first defensive partner, and he offered me good-natured ribbing as we headed out for our shift. The game moved so quickly that at times I was lost as to what was happening. My first few shifts I was extremely timid about going anywhere past the red line, afraid to get caught too far up. I knew everyone else could easily out-skate me forwards, and backwards would be even more of a disaster, so I played it safe. On my second shift the puck was in our zone and went back to one of their defensemen, who was not scared to be there and wound up for a shot as I placed myself in harm's way.. His shot glanced off my foot and either bounced away or deflected to the goalie behind me, who made the save. In any case, they didn't score. I had a rudimentary idea of where a defenseman is supposed to be in certain situations so I wobbled to and fro, just trying to get in the way. Also, having a load of fun. This was GREAT.

Jeff and I ended up as a defensive pairing as someone's idea of a joke. Jeff could actually skate very well but couldn't stop. One of the good players in the white shirts had the puck and skated from Jeff's side of the ice over to mine above the blueline. Jeff stayed with him, which left me in a quandry - what to do? Stay at home, which left the other side of the ice open, or back off and cover that but leave open the chance that this guy would have a breakaway? I stayed home, and he fed it to his wide open teammate in the slot. Our goalie bailed us out with a nice save, snapping shut his pads and denying the gap between his legs known as the 'five hole.' Jeff and I skated off, talking about what had happened. A coach skated up and pointed to me. "You did the right thing." To Jeff he said, "You didn't. Stay on your side of the ice." Jeff countered that he thought he had the angle on the guy, but the coach shook his head and disagreed, saying "Staying at home is more important. next time you know.  You're doing great!"

Which brings us back to the play I started with. When the guy made his move, two things occurred to me at once: one, I was in the right position, and two, I had been skating backwards to get there and not even thinking about it. Scary! My frantic pokecheck was lucky enough to get the puck and send it out of the zone, and later on as we clambered out for the last shift I felt daring enough to venture all the way to the other team's blue line as we attacked. One of their defensemen tried to clear the puck from the zone but sort of whiffed, and I was able to get to it before his teammate and shove it toward one of our forwards, who made a shot that was saved. I had contributed in the offensive zone! Then the coach blew his whistle and I fell flat on my ass.  The zamboni was already coming out onto the ice, and I skated off with reluctance, knowing I'd been lucky out there but looking forward to having the opportunity to be burned again next week.

Now how do I clean all these pads?

writing: 486 tired words and you better believe my body is PISSED I made it get up at 5am to write. You don't even want to know the creaks and groans that came later during pushups and situps.

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