My first hockey game

June 14, 2006

It was the spring of 2002. Life was exciting in so many ways for me. I was set to graduate from college that June (finally), I was dating the future Mrs. EOB, and I had a new-found love in the sport of hockey.

When it was announced back in the mid-90’s that Columbus was getting an NHL team, I checked the news every day to see how many days left until we played a game. Let me tell you, numbers above nine hundred never seemed so large. The hockey finally came, and I found myself captivated by the game. It was unlike anything I had ever played. The closest I could come to relating to playing the game in my own athletic history was like a very fast version of soccer (and I only played soccer for one year).

I began to have thoughts of taking the ice and scoring goals. “How hard can it be?” I thought. I’d been in-line skating for years and I’d fooled around with our own neighborhood version of street hockey a few times. I researched the cost of equipment via the internet, and found that this might be the prohibiting factor. I’d never seen a sport that could cost so much to play. With a minimum of $400 for the gear, I also had the nearly $200 fee just to join a team. I decided to ignore the cost, get the stuff I needed and go for it.

I spent a few days ordering things from the internet, and shopping at used and new sporting goods stores. A short while later, I had everything I needed. I looked at it strewn across my room (covering up homework I wouldn’t do and clothes I wouldn’t put in the dresser) and wondered exactly how to put it all on. For those of you who grew up playing hockey, you don’t know how daunting this task can be for a 24 year old. I played baseball as a kid. You wear pants, shirt, shoes and a hat in baseball. It’s not too unlike every other day of your life. Dressing for hockey, there are pads, socks, suspenders, skates, gloves. Not only did I have to figure out where everything went (not too tough), I had to figure out what to put on first (this took a minute). I learned the hard way that (unless you have the pants with zippers in the legs) that you can’t put your skates on until after your hockey pants are on. Fifteen minutes later, I see a reasonable facsimile of a hockey dude in the mirror. I was ready to hit the ice!

Through the local league commissioner, I got hooked up with a team captain who needed a forward. Since I wasn’t all that great at skating backward, I thought that would be fine. The day finally came when I was to get on the ice for an organized game for the first time ever. I thought that day would never end. When my last class was finally over with, I made the hike to Ohio Stadium where I’d parked and headed downtown to the Blue Jackets practice facility.

I learned the smells of hockey that day. Walking in to the locker room, I sat down on the bench and went through my carefully rehearsed dressing routine (I’d practiced a few times so it didn’t take me too long). The other guys on the squad filtered in, and my team captain informed me that I’d be playing left wing. Right or left, I didn’t care as long as I didn’t have to take a faceoff (I didn’t want to look like any more of an idiot than I was sure to otherwise). I tightened the laces on the skates and walked into the hallway to stretch. Due to nerves, this took all of about two minutes. I decided to wait on the bench and watch the zamboni make its passes around the ice. Once the ice was done we hopped over the boards (careful not to trip at first contact and inspire tons of confidence in my new teammates), threw some pucks out there, and started skating around.

I took a few laps around our half of the ice to get used to skating in all the equipment. Confident that I could at least stay vertical while going forward, I decided to pick up a stray puck and stickhandle. Of course I went for the puck in a puddle of water, and it didn’t move. There were maybe six or seven people in the stands to watch, but in my mind I was on national television and Doc Emrick and John Davidson were having a good laugh at the rookie’s expense. Slightly embarrassed, I made a quick U-turn and tried a little harder on the same puck. It came loose, and I carried it slowly around the boards behind the net. My confidence was rising by the second, so I carried the puck around to the faceoff dot, circled around and fired a shot on the goalie. It seemed like four minutes before the puck actually got there. The embarrassment and nerves crept in again, but I fought through it all until the buzzer sounded and we headed to the bench.

I was the third line (of three) left winger. So I’d have a few minutes (rec hockey shifts are much longer than NHL shifts) to take in the action. I was feeling pretty good, if slightly nervous. I had wandering thoughts of scoring goals and making sweet passes. My mind was jolted back to reality as I saw someone skating towards our bench yelling “LEFT LEFT LEFT!!!” and I realized he was telling me it was my turn. I hopped over the boards and hurried over to my side of the ice. When our team got the puck, we started up ice. I hoped they would pass me the puck so I could “show my skills” and at the same time I was horrified that this would be exactly what would happen.

Later in the shift I had my “revelation of the game.” I was skating hard into the corner to retrieve a loose puck, when I realized that I was missing a major part of any hockey players skill set: the ability to stop. The boards and glass helped me in my quest to stop, and in addition to attempting to process everything that was happening so fast on the ice I had to figure out how to stop, or at least slow down. I decided that I would drag my right foot behind my left at a right angle to create the drag necessary. It wasn’t pretty, but it was certainly better than letting my face plaster up against whatever piece of glass happened to be closest.

I didn’t score a goal that night, or for many nights in the future. I didn’t make any sweet passes, and probably didn’t even touch the puck for much more than three seconds (both by choice and design) the entire game. The best anyone could say about my game for many quite a while was that I was the only one on the team willing to go to the net and attempt to screen the goalie. I say “attempt” because at 135 lbs it was a bit difficult to create the screen, and most of the time the opposition blueliners would deliver the heavy cross-checks to my back and knock me on my face. This was a good thing for our team, because I’d draw more than my share of penalties for taking the abuse.

If you’ve played the game you know the joy of gliding on the ice, shooting a puck, receiving a pass, and (illegally in my league) delivering a check. If you haven’t played, I can only describe these things for you and assure you that it is singularly the most fun I’ve ever had playing organized sports. I haven’t played in over two years, but I’ve got the itch. I’ll be saving my pennies to get back out there, and try to overcome my ice-bound ineptitude.

Thanks for stopping by the End of the Bench. Come back soon.

One comment

  1. Fantastic look into day one EOB. My first adult league game was with a brand new team. I hadn’t skated in around 15 years and I was nervous as hell. The good news was that everybody hadn’t played in awhile and were as nervous as me. I had the luxury of playing a bit as a kid in Cincy and a couple of years in the fraternity intermural league at Miami, but it had been over 15 years for me.

    That first night we had a guy in the lockeroom who was around 6’4″ and 240 who dressed in NYR gear from head to toe. He looked like a Lindros clone. When he got to the ice, he couldn’t skate lick. He lasted two games before he disappeared.

    Keep playing. I’m playing C league out here and it’s still a blast.

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