As age wraps its bony fingers around us, it gets harder for our bodies to do the things our minds say we can do. Mountain biking, hiking up a steep trail, running, or just going to the gym and trying to bench the weight you had when you were in your early thirties. It’s just harder and, frankly, disappointing. I still feel like I’m in my late twenties or early thirties…at least in my mind, I do. I supposed having a young mindset is a beneficial thing, but that doesn’t negate the fact that you can get your body into trouble if you act on your young-mind daydreams. I bumped up against this annoying little feature of life after learning to skate – then ultimately learning to play hockey – when I turned 50.
From the time I was about eight years old, I’ve been a hockey fan. For whatever reason, that sport hooked me when none of the other major ones ever held sway. I went to see a baseball game or two and saw a pro football game once but that’s about it. I’d never gone to see a hockey game until I was in my early thirties, but I loved the game just the same. Knowing what I know now, I see it as a missed chance to have a truly glorious experience watching a favorite team as I grew up.
Eventually, life got in the way and while I followed my team, I didn’t avidly watch the games. Children came along and there was little time for anything, let alone TV. And while I did watch my adopted hometown team win the Stanley Cup in the mid-nineties, and attended a game from time to time over those years when young children took precedence, the fire for the game dimmed somewhat and my interest went dormant.
Fast-forward a decade or so and Darla is in nursing school studying her brains out. She’s stressed because she’s trying also to work part-time and the nursing program is accelerated. One day, my favorite team from childhood was in town playing my favorite team from my adopted hometown. I thought since Darla was stressed and we all love to do things together, maybe it would help if we went to the game. A night out when she didn’t have to think about school and something to distract her even if she did. She brought her note cards to study, the boys brought their curiosity and we had a pretty good time, the stress of everything held at bay, however briefly.
Fast-forward another six months. The nursing school thing didn’t work out because a better, more lucrative opportunity came along. But Darla still remembered the thrill of the game and it got her thinking. “If it’s fun to watch. It might be more fun to do.” And there began our journey into the world of hockey…not only as fans but also as players.
I had skated a handful of times when I was a kid, but it was the spastic, arms-waving, barely-controlled kind of skating and not the graceful, smooth, and confident kind that makes it truly skating. It took a year to learn to skate well enough to pick up a stick. It took another year to figure out how to skate and stick handle and move down the ice with some semblance of control.
Then came Hockey 101, a 10-session learning program with scrimmages at the end. Then a team formed from a subset of people in 101. We had a good time but the first year we went 0-15. We sucked (well, Darla and I did) but it was amazing. Eventually, the competitiveness of those games felt too pressurized; especially in a beer league. Some of the other players were chirpy, aggressive, and took themselves and the games too seriously (game seven of the Stanley Cup Final…every game.) That was a turn-off, man.
I and the boys stayed with it a bit more but one by one we fell away and opted to continue the 101 sessions when they were held and to find times when we could rent the ice and just play around. Sometimes there would be a stick and puck session we’d attend just to practice or shoot or do whatever without the requirement of being good or competitive or anything other than what we wanted and what made it fun to do.
At some point in this journey, about three years in, I realized all of us skating around was fun but without a goalie, there was no challenge in shooting. It’s easy to hit an empty net. One day, I kinda just decided I’d be that goalie. Darla and the boys now had someone to shoot on, practice their offensive skills, and add a little bit more fun to the times we had on the ice together. Those breakaways could be a little more real and there was a little more of a challenge.
I picked up some used equipment, sparing no expense on a facemask (how much is your head worth?), and tried to figure out how it all worked. Then, I just kinda showed up in net. It was hard throwing myself around on the ice like that. My body wasn’t moving as I wanted it to and honestly, it wasn’t ever going to. I was older and less flexible, I was nowhere near as lean as I needed to be to play the position (you want to have to move as little weight around as possible). Although I used to play goalie from time to time during street hockey games when I was a kid and often pretended to be a goalie by throwing a tennis ball against the wall and making pretend diving saves, I didn’t really know what it was I was supposed to be doing.
Goaltending provided a challenge that was perhaps barely above being one of those orange-and-white traffic bollards. But, it was something. And the best part about it was it was a blast. Darla and the boys improved quickly and soon I was taking pretty hard bullets to the chest. A lot would get by but I’d snag a few with my catcher or deflect one with my blocker. Some shots would stay on the ice and I’d drop to my knees, kicking out my leg pad to redirect the puck harmlessly into the corner. And every so often, I could make one of those diving saves.
It was exhausting but amazing and after these times on the ice together, we’d get drinks at Starbucks, talking about the fun we’d had; a shot that was especially precise and gratifying, a save that stole the chance for one of those shots to find the back of the net, the thrill of working our bodies hard and feeling the endorphin rush of exhaustion and satisfaction afterward. Of all the amazing times we’ve spent together, be it on a vacation, having a particularly enjoyable time out at dinner, or just watching TV together in the basement, some of the best times we’ve had have been on the ice.
Over time I started to become better. I could hold my own. Darla and the boys continued to improve, too. We continued the 101 sessions and thankfully there was a former semi-professional goalie who came with her goalie boyfriend. She volunteered to train us and I got better still. I loved it. A lot!
I recently read an article about the best way to spend money on yourself and your family. The core idea of the article was that spending money on things was a waste of time but spending money on experiences provided a lifetime of return. When I consider the times we’ve spent together on the ice, that sounds about right to me.
But here’s the thing about being a goalie. You skate some, but not like players do. You don’t do the turns or stops that players do and if you do turn or stop, it’s different. There’s some skating backward but that’s just these wiggling C-cuts to move back into the net if there was a need to come out, but the play changes and it’s time to get deeper into the house. The skates are different too. Goalie skates are flat down the entire length of the blade. Player skates are curved and the contact with the ice is only a little bit of the blade.
I got out of practice on player skates. I could still skate, but not with the full confidence I’d had before. After skating on the goalie skates, putting on those player skates was weird. It takes a bit to get the ice legs back. My favorite thing about skating is the speed. Which doesn’t jibe with the goalie thing but, whatever. Most of what I do during the times I have my player skates on was just zipping around, practicing cross-overs, and getting up as much speed as I could in one circuit of the rink. My sons and I call it doing a hot lap. The speed is just so thrilling. That part is easy. It’s the rest of it; stopping, turning quickly, controlled motion, and balance. Being out of practice provides you with some limitations. Disregarding my own limitations proved to be my undoing.
Ah, yes, my undoing…