I’ve been wanting to chronicle my experiences as a hockey player for some time now, but have held off because I think it’s a story that will only be interesting to me. Still, for the purposes of finally just doing it, and getting some practice in a style of writing that I am not very good at, this will be the first in a series detailing my experiences with sports.
I didn’t grow up with hockey. That fact surprises many people who know me as a diehard Sabres fan, hockey columnist, and rambling tweeter. My family never had cable TV growing up and thus most of the games were unavailable to me. I didn’t really get into it until I went to Clarkson University, which offered free Division I hockey for all students. That, coupled with the Sabres magical playoff run of 2005-2006 got me hooked from the start. That’s cliche, I know, but there was a definite sense of “this is awesome, why haven’t I watched this before?” almost immediately.
So through four years of consuming as much Clarkson Men’s, Women’s, and Sabres hockey as I could, the itch to play grew steadily more palpable. I made a hockey net out of PVC pipe and a blanket, imagining myself as Maxim Afinogenov or Thomas Vanek on the sidewalk outside our townhouse. When I returned home, I donned a pair of aggressive skates and practiced my abilities on our craggy driveway. I taught myself how to stick-handle and skate backwards and do all the things I saw my favorite players doing, this in my early 20s.
I got a job right out of college, and finally obtained the money to pay for equipment and league membership fees. I didn’t know of any ice leagues, but there was an inline league that played near where I was living at the time that had a lower division so I signed up to play my first summer after college. Luckily for me, the league featured a preseason of pickup hockey that I would come to find I needed more than I originally thought.
My parents’ driveway was uneven and full of cracks and rough patches, so I always skated with a sort of fawn-like wariness, knowing I could catch a wheel and go down at any moment. Compared to that, the slick and perfectly smooth mateflex tile surface of the inline league might as well have been ice to me. My first game, I was behind every play, and I don’t think I even touched the puck. My second game, I received three breakout passes in one shift and managed to mishandle them all with no one around me.
Despite my obvious deficiencies, I did have a few things in my favor. I was relatively fast, even as a poor skater, and I wasn’t afraid of anything. I would go hard into corners, screen the goalie, and block shots, a lot of things other players wouldn’t do. My speed, coupled with my recklessness and proficiency for using the boards as brakes quickly earned me the nickname ‘Crash,’ which everyone still calls me to this day. I could barely skate, couldn’t stick-handle, and couldn’t shoot, but I could play tough.
Despite all this, my first three goals were pretty high skill goals. The first two were deflections, point shots/passes that I tipped in from the top of the crease, one of them five-hole, one of them low blocker. My fearlessness and my time spent playing baseball made me a pretty good net-front presence despite my 140 pound lack of size so I focused my early game there.
I did score on an actual shot a few games later, a two on one that saw me receiving a pass in the slot from the right corner. I gave it my best attempt at a snapshot, surprising everyone in the rink, myself included, when I wired the puck into the top left corner. Celebrating in rec. is kind of taboo, and in pick-up rec. doubly so, but I couldn’t help but give that one a fist pump.
I thought, given my complete lack of any offensive skills, that I was going to end up playing a lot of defense, so I chose #6 for Jaroslav Spacek, my favorite Sabre of the time. While I did play some D, I ended up shifting to center because I was the only one that ever wanted to take faceoffs. For the first time, I found something I was naturally good at, and worked to improve my draws as the rest of my game slowly developed.
The edge to my game created space for myself early on. No one wanted to go into corners or dig for a puck along the boards with a kid whose primary method of stopping was running into things. Likewise, the way I blocked shots with abandon garnered a sort of fearful respect from some of the other players. I ended up with a puck sized welt on my back at one point, and at another took a shot off the collarbone which prompted the shooter to ask if I was okay mid-play. Of course I was. In one of the later games I suffered a brutal blindside crosscheck (in a non-checking league…dick) that, judging by the three months they took to heal, broke ribs.
My skating started to improve and I saw more and more chances every game. People would probably describe me as snake-bitten, but my lack of goal scoring was due to a lack of talent, not luck. I scored 4 goals in 17 games that first year; a 3 on 2 that the goalie never saw and had no business going in, a rebound picked up crashing the net, a point shot that the goalie never saw and had no business going in, and a Jochen Hecht-esque bad angle shot from the goal line that deflected off god knows what and had no business going in. I contributed 17 assists along with them in that freshman campaign for a respectable 21 points in 17 games.
My second season was similar, although slightly better than my first. I’d developed into the premiere faceoff guy in the league, at times utterly dominating opponents that refused to take draws seriously. My skating got a little better due to experience, but really started to take off towards the end of the season when I got stiffer skates, and new wheels. As I broken them in, I started to show flashes, creating chances for myself with my speed and my ability where there appeared to be none. Still, the rest of my offensive talents weren’t particularly developed and I finished that year with 6 goals and 19 assists in 15 games.
At this point, I’d put in a lot of work. I’d made it to all but two regular season games, and played both the spring and fall pick-up sessions each year. When my team played the first game of the night, I usually showed up an hour early to get extra practice time. I played as much hockey as I possibly could to get better. I don’t know where exactly the lightswitch was flipped on, but at a certain point I realized that my unique combination of size and strength gave me abilities that no one else had. I was one of the fastest guys in the league, and due to my lack of size, could start, stop, and turn faster than anyone.
That third year, there was a lot of turnover on my team, and we frequently had nights where only four or five (inline is four on four) guys showed, getting me a ton of playing time. A relatively active person already, my stamina was sent through the roof as I often picked up shifts for my less in-shape teammates. It wasn’t unusual for me to play 40 minutes of a 45 minute game. Because of this, I got chance after chance after chance, and I started to put a lot of them away.
The best moment of the year came in a game in the middle of the season against the eventual division winner. I still remember the time on the clock because I called timeout in order to get us a breather. The score was 8-5 in favor of our opponents and there was 4:32 left in the game. Shortly thereafter, I skated in on the right wing, and put one of my better snapshots past the goalie, my mind mostly on the frustration that had followed me throughout the game for not being able to score. A few minutes later, I was screening the goalie when the shot from the point came in. I got knocked around and ended up on my knees with the puck sitting in the crease and the goalie out of position. I slid it home, and with a little over a minute left, the game seemed within reach. With thirty seconds to go, our captain picked up a bouncing puck, and skated in on goal. Seeing the opportunity, I used my speed to get us a two on one. He got forced onto his backhand and later said he was just trying to get the puck on net. It ended up being a perfect rolling pass to me that I slapped in behind the goalie to tie the game. I got tripped on the following faceoff, giving us a late powerplay. The opposing team never saw the puck again. I won the next faceoff at center ice, screening the goalie on the point shot that put us ahead 9-8 with 14 seconds to go. I won the following faceoff as well and we played four corners in our own end to seal the victory.
I know it’s silly to be proud of rec. sports accomplishments, but I was genuinely honored to make the mixed (upper and lower division) All-Star weekend as an alternate. I was surrounded by guys that had been playing hockey since they could walk, and here I’d only been at it for a few years. That much was evident in the skills competitions where I largely floundered, but I made up for it by notching a hat trick in the actual game. I ended up finishing that year with 21 goals and 27 assists in 17 games, the last of which came as a two goal effort in a 5-2 playoff loss. Against the most loathed team in the league, I came roaring in on two defensemen, made two cuts that only I could make, causing the second d-man to fall over, and put a shot in low glove on one of the league’s best goalies. In my best Kaleta impersonation, I capped it all off by rolling the dice right in front of the opposing bench.
Between my third and fourth seasons of inline, I opted to play ice hockey in the winter for the first time, mostly to have something to do when inline wasn’t in session. It was like starting all over again in terms of abilities. Not only did I have to learn how to skate, but also how to deal with a smoother surface on which to stick-handle. My first pick-up game, I scored the 8 ugliest goals you’ll ever see, every single one of them coming on a deflection or a rebound that wasn’t five feet from the net because all I could do was plant myself and let someone else do the work.
My skating was atrocious and I was a serious risk to injure myself at any given time. Still, the talent of the team wasn’t that much better, and in my first ever official ice hockey game, I was named the team’s first line center. If there’s one thing to like about ice hockey, it’s that draws get even easier. I might not have been able to skate for shit at the start, but I could dump the puck in and help us by getting and winning offensive zone faceoffs.
As one would imagine from the above, our team was terrible. The only thing that kept us in games was our goalie, who had played mid-level Junior hockey in one of the maritime provinces in Canada. In our first game, we didn’t register a shot on goal until there were five minutes left in the third period, were probably out shot something like 80-3, and only lost 6-0. Rec. goalies are a mixed bag, with most of them good at one or two things (or they were the only person willing to play goal). This guy had everything, and he never looked like he was working hard. He was always in the right spot, he had the best reflexes, his instincts were superb, and he could skate and stick-handle like a third defenseman.
I contributed in bits and pieces for the first half of the season as I learned to skate. I think in the first seven games I had 0 goals and 9 assists. When I started putting things together, and learning how to play the five player game with offsides (which inline does not have), things really took off. In the last ten games, I notched 15 goals and 10 assists a variety of ways, although most came with won faceoffs and extended zone time.
While playing ice hockey, I worked extensively on my shot, not only speed and placement, but in developing a slapshot as well. It was the one part of my game that was lagging behind everything else, and I knew that with the amount of chances I got, if I could just get a little bit better at beating goalies, I could score in bunches.
Early on in the preseason of my fourth (and latest) inline season, I started pushing my abilities to really see where they stacked up against other players in the league. The great thing about the pickup sessions was that they mixed divisions so it gave me an opportunity to go against and learn from the best players in the league. I was coming in on the left wing with the puck on my stick, trying to get the defenseman to chase. When I started to get a step and he turned to follow me, I utilized my hockey stop (something almost no one could do on inline skates), and cut hard into the slot. The defenseman flew out of the picture, hooking me as I went by. I don’t know if the shot went in or not, all I can remember is looking up and realizing the guy I just beat was the guy that had won the league’s version of the Norris trophy the previous season. I was no longer a good player in the B division, I was a good player, period.
I was voted team captain and finally felt confident in my first line center role. The team was a mixture of young players and older guys with other commitments, so we often had a short bench of tired players and I saw a lot of playing time yet again. With the captaincy and an expectation to produce resting squarely on my shoulders, I started pushing the play and using every ounce of my speed, agility, and stamina I could muster.
We had two goals that season, knowing we weren’t long on talent; have fun, and never get shut out. The first was easy, it was the best mix of people I’ve played with, and the most enjoyable season I’ve played. I held myself personally responsible for the second. I was one of the fastest and definitely the most determined player in the league. If I played, we were going to score.
I was a little worried about my production that year. I knew my point totals couldn’t keep increasing forever, and I thought the competition I’d face would be the strongest I had seen in my career, particularly in net. We lost our first game 10-4, with me scoring all four goals. Instead of being relieving, this was terrifying to me. The last thing I wanted to happen was me being the only one with the puck and the only one scoring goals. However, the question of whether or not my work on my shot had been fruitful, had been answered.
The great thing about my particular set of talents is that it made most other aspects of the game easier. Because I was so fast and because I could cut so hard, I could hold onto the puck pretty much as long as I wanted to, waiting for my teammates to get set up, or frustrating our opponents into breaking containment. (Or killing entire penalties by winning the faceoff to myself and then skating around alone with it laughing.) The goals came in bunches for me and for everyone else, and I like to think that because I placed so much of the offensive burden on myself, it took pressure off our younger players and helped them develop.
And because I was a threat to score even if I was the only one on the ice, it allowed us to gain some favorable match-ups I played most of the season on a line with my friend Cassie, one of two girls in the league, and our least experienced player. We developed great chemistry together, with me working both ends of the ice, and carrying the puck while she focused on offense and getting into good scoring positions. I worked with her on faceoffs so that she could dump the puck to an area for me to pick up and skate myself into a breakaway with.
Her first point came on a faceoff in our end that she took. The puck skittered behind the opposing center, and he, his winger, and I all went for it. I had the speed and the desire and picked it up first, pushing it ahead. The defenseman made the mistake of pinching in, and by the time I reached our blue line, I was already all alone. I don’t remember which of my two breakaway moves (snapshot five-hole and Vanek-ian slapshot) I used, but I put the puck home and raced back to congratulate her.
As much as I enjoyed the strides I’d made as a player and their statistical backing, it was more fun to watch my teammates score, especially the younger players whose confidence can at times be tied strongly into whether or not they’re producing.
We did actually end up winning one game that year, a 15-0 romp against a woefully shorthanded opponent in which I mostly played defense to get our young forwards some experience and to preserve our goalie’s shutout. We were the only team in the B-division to never get shutout, even putting up goals in our few games against A-division opponents, our worst effort coming in a 13-1 loss to another B team in the game in which I lost my tooth.
I made All-Stars again, this time as the Gold Team’s captain and came in third (.03 seconds behind second) in the fastest skater competition, only losing out to the former professional player by any notable amount. I finished the year with 32 goals and 19 assists, tallying 51 points on my team’s 77 total goals in an 18 game season and coming in 6th or 7th overall in goals scored. More importantly, everyone had fun, with a bad word rarely said in the locker room despite a 1-17 season in which we gave up 207 goals against.
For my final hurrah in the inline league in New York, I played in the end of season tournament which mixed in a few teams from our league with a few local college teams to play 4 on 4 games of two periods with only one sub allowed. We were cobbled together from players that had been left out of other teams in the tournament, and given the longest odds to win by the league’s commissioner. Unfortunately for our opponents, we were also the grittiest team, quickly figuring out a 3-1 mess of trap hockey and shot blocking that we dubbed the “clusterfuck plus one.” When you’ve got five fit players that are not only willing to contest every puck, but to also block shots, and a reasonably talented goalie, you can become pretty difficult to score against. Teams opened up a shooting gallery against us and it just didn’t matter. Despite a 1-4-1 record, we never gave up more than 4 goals in a game, took the eventual second place team within 6 minutes of a 0-0 tie, and gave up the second fewest goals in the tournament to the team that was comprised of former professional inline players. Never have I been prouder to finish 6th out of 8 teams.
That takes you up to the present day, where I will continue to play hockey if I can. There is nothing quite like the sense of camaraderie that hockey brings, the simple joy of sharing a locker room, a bench, and a playing surface with teammates. I haven’t won a lot, but I’m not playing for that, or even for personal accolades. I like the difficulty, and the level of teamwork, and how it’s the only sport where effort directly translates to results. And there is nothing quite as exciting as watching a puck travel from your stick to the back of the net.
If you made it this far, congratulations, that’s one more person than I ever thought would find this interesting.