the hockey diaries

Tuesday, October 3, 2006, at about 8:50 p.m.

Should the 57-year-old geriatric have taken up shuffleboard instead?

            I’m standing, unsteadily, on what seem like dull rounded-bottom ice skates*, wearing what could be 25 pounds of padding.  My view of the surroundings is impaired by a helmet which is not fitting very well.  I have to hold up the bottom with one hand so I can see out through the metal-wire face guard.  People, big fast athletic men**, are skating my way, intending to whip hard rubber hockey pucks right at me.

            Remember the first STAR WARS movie, where Luke wears an opaque face-mask as he learns to use the force to protect himself against a floating taser-zapper ball?  Picture Luke, light saber in hand, Obie Wan perplexedly nearby, as he has no idea where the annoying zapping floating ball is.

It could be argued as to whether-or-not my doing this was a conscious decision.  More probably, it was a semi- or sub-conscious decision.  My life had been getting more and more boring.  Many (most?) nights I fell asleep in front of the teevee — “drooling in my beer.”

Since high school I had infrequently played hockey, on ponds, with family and friends.  Nothing organized.  Nothing which would warrant full body padding and helmets.  However, if anyone asked me what my long-term ultimate athletic ambition was — sometimes I would tell them that I planned to be on the U.S.A. over-65 age group national ice-hockey team.  THAT seemed a long time in the future, plenty of time to stay in shape, perhaps re-learn to skate starting at 60 or so.

Time passes, it creeps, one day you wake up and it’s no longer the 1990’s.  And — NO — I’m not planning on trying out for any national old men’s age-group team, because I’m fairly sure that there is no such thing.  However …

River City never had a year-round ice arena until about three months ago.  Betty wanted to go check it out right when it opened.  It was about 106 degrees that day — not unfortunate for the Glacier Ice Arena.  It was packed.  Party atmosphere.

I’m not sure why, but I went back a few times.  Partly to inquire about “open skating” schedules, as Betty occasionally verbalized a desire to go skate.  And — there was a personal reason.

I thought that there couldn’t be THAT much interest in ice-skating in a town which never had access to ‘permanent ice’ (without having to travel 100 or so miles).  If ever I was to get into a league, play the game at the “ground level,” this would probably be the last opportunity.

I was surprised.  The sign-up board for hockey was filled to 6 or 7 pages, and the likelihood of easily getting on an entry-level team seemed, well, not only inconvenient, but expensive, and perhaps combative as well.  The fee for players was about $200 per season, but “goalies play free.”   (Note to self:  Should I have spent some time wondering WHY goalies were free?)  I submitted an application.

I worried a little.  A couple weeks went by.  Oh well, I hadn’t heard anything back from the rink, and if I did end up on a team I’d get on the task of equipment-acquisition right away.

Eight days before my first game, but the day before what could have been the first game, the hockey director from the rink called me.  “Your first game is tomorrow night.  You’re on the Bombers,” Curt said.  I was stunned.  I expected more advance notice.  Also, apparently they did NOT have enough goalies for all the teams.

“I can’t make it,” I said.  “I have an appointment tomorrow night.”  That was true.  But what I didn’t know was that the games started late — I could have gone to my meeting and then the game.  It was just as well.  I needed more time for this to sink in, and to prepare.  Maybe ‘preparation’ meant coming to terms with my fate.  I then found out that the arena would loan most the goalie equipment, also for free.  I already had skates, but had to buy a helmet.

 I could buy an ice-hockey goalie helmet for about $250 or an inline-hockey goalie helmet for $50.  Even if ice-hockey helmets were available without having to wait a couple weeks to be shipped, I would have been a cheapskate anyway.  Pun intended.  I found a helmet which fit.  I wriggled on my glasses inside the thing, and I shook my head a few times.

What I should have done with the helmet on was to jump about erratically, fall to the floor a few times, bump into the walls.  And see what it was like when I began to sweat a lot.  But I didn’t.  As I put the helmet on game night, I noticed a warning sticker:  “NOT INTENDED FOR USE IN ICE-HOCKEY.  Helmet is intended for use in games with inline hockey balls, but not ice-hockey pucks.”

Oh great.  Perhaps a referee would disqualify the helmet, and me, from the game due to unsafe equipment.  But no… I asked an official if the helmet was okay and he looked at me as if that was a silly question.  But what I really wanted to know, was … would the helmet pass the puck-in-the-face test?

After about 3 minutes into the first period, I asked a nearby ref if we could stop so I could get the helmet to fit (I had already taken off my glasses, which were not staying put.  This was due to excessive sweat and the helmet slipping around).  Jeremy (who had already assisted me in the locker room with the unfamiliar leggings and chest protector) pulled and yanked at the 5 straps until the darned sweatbox fit much more snugly.  (It still slipped a little).

Partway into the second period, I was facing what had become a familiar sight — this time just one (often there were two) enemy skater(s) bearing down on me without any of my team-mates in sight.  I rushed out to deflect the shot, sort of diving/falling down in front of him.  For the briefest of a split second I remember seeing the puck going right for my eyes.  A second or two later, I was aware of the puck deflecting wide from the goal.  I was pleasantly surprised — oh joy and serendipity — the protective grating over my face would deflect a direct shot!

I watched my team the previous week, after my earlier meeting.  They used a goalie from one of the more advanced leagues, and were “having their way” with the other team.  This week was different.  We were playing a team bumped down from the B league so the novice league would have more teams.  The team had three players from the local college team!  The Bombers didn’t expect to win, in fact, the pre-game talk in the locker room focused on how to minimize the damage.  Something called “icing” was to be used — a lot.

Therefore, I think we were loose — we were there just to play, and amazingly, played a bit closer than anyone might have expected.  Final score:  12 – 7.  (One of the closest games the “Freeze” has had in our league.)

Oh!  One last word (or, few paragraphs).  When I arrived at the ice arena, an acquaintance was walking in the door just ahead of me.  “Hey, Dave” I said. “What are you doing here?”

I asked that because I remembered him telling me he played in one of the more ‘advanced’ leagues.  “Oh, I’m not here to play.  My daughter’s playing tonight.”

She was out of sight, presumably in a locker room getting ready.  Dave told me she was sixteen, and … “she usually plays out on the ice, offense, defense … but this is the first time she’s played goalie.”

*They were.  I had them sharpened before the next game.

                **During the post-game mid-rink hand-shake, I noted that at least one more opposing player was a young woman.

GAME TWO (the hockey diaries):  Betty goes and watches.  Betty is NOT ‘supportive.’  The next day I announce to her that I’m emailing the kids, telling them how mean their mom is.  She doesn’t contest nor question ‘the mean’ — just curious which category of ‘mean’ I’m telling them about.

So I tell her (and them):  I’d like to think that if I attended some function she was doing, no matter what it was, I’d try to focus on something positive if asked to comment.  At our “advanced old age,” I should focus on how neat, how adventurous, that she would take up something new.  If she sucked at it, well, see the comment on “how brave, especially at your age…”

Does she focus on that?  I KNOW I sucked.  And she reminds me, as soon as I emerge (last, and late, as it takes a bunch of time to get all that stuff OFF) from the locker room:

“You sucked!  I’m surprised your team doesn’t get rid of you.”

Goals allowed average:  15.  Shots stopped? I KNOW I stopped many more shots than goals in the first game, but in the second game it might have been about 50%.  Highlight of the game (for me) was stopping a penalty shot.  I don’t know who on my team did what (a team-mate was lying on the puck, I think).  Jeremy instructed me to rush the attacker as soon as the whistle sounded.  However, I waited a few seconds to see if he would zig, or zag, or whatever.  He started slowly right at me, so then I rushed right at him.  Nothing elaborate on my part, I just smashed into him.  Betty said she was surprised they didn’t call a penalty on THAT.  His shot attempt was snuffed, and he congratulated me.  Cheering from my bench.  One of a very few bright spots for the team this game.

GAME THREE (the … diaries):  Something happened which I had not experienced as a soccer goalie in two years of collegiate intramurals and one year on an adult coed team.  We won!  Of course, with me in goal the game was closer than it could have been.  Perhaps my soccer team nickname, “The Sieve,” would become a moniker of the past.  (Yeah, right).

The helmet wasn’t the only piece of equipment I purchased.  It was also strongly recommended to acquire a “protective cup.”  Though I rankled somewhat about paying $30 for shorts with the cup, a direct shot to “that area” was stopped, and I hardly felt it.  This was during the pre-game warm-up.

Goals allowed average:  approaching 10!  16 shots stopped, 2 goals allowed.

GAME FOUR:  the “Freeze” again.  We played them much closer than during my initial game.   And … attitude-wise, this was different than the previous games.  The over-riding feelings of fear and apprehension I had come to regard as normal were gradually replaced by, yes, looking forward to and anticipating the next attack.

Sometime the previous week I had a dream about one aspect of my “preparation” for the games.  Even before the first game I joked that I had a choice — go skating a few times OR drink to the point of becoming borderline “impaired.”  Yes, I could have done both, or neither, but I chose to arrive slightly sedated.

My BAC was in the neighborhood of 0.05 for three of the games so far.  Only the second game, where I felt I performed the poorest, did I not “prepare” in advance.  So, the dream.  I cannot NOW remember any details, just that the dream indicated that drinking was an aid to this endeavor.  I am such a poster-child for drug-free America, eh?

Goals allowed average:  getting closer to ten.  26 shots stopped, 9 goals allowed.

Either before this or the previous game — as the starting buzzer sounded a thought popped up.  “Oh darn,” the internal voice rankled.  “You have to PAY ATTENTION, FOCUS, for the next hour.”  Yeah, I’ve been experiencing more and more D O A H A D D (delayed-onset adult hyper attention deficit disorder) and my lazy mental inner voice expressed chagrin at the difficult task at hand.  Pay attention, focus, do not wander, watch, be ready, don’t wander off, stay put.  It would be easier if I could see…

GAME FIVE:  back to normal again.  “The Sieve” is probably here to stay.  Being slightly sloshy did not make a difference.  I should NOT have kept track of shots stopped, as more pucks went in than were stopped.  Picture me standing, no, leaning against the side (the outside) of the goal, friendlily waving the shots in…

GAME SIX:  something different, and not just minor stuff, seems to happen each game.  For the first time in “my” five losses, I blame the rest of the team, not me.  Consider:  after the first period, the score was 6 – 3, our favor.  “You do the math.”  If both teams play anywhere consistently, the end score should be:  US, a bunch of goals; THEM, somewhat less than a bunch.  The end score was 8 – 7.  We didn’t even score when the other team had two guys in the penalty box at the same time!

Irregardless of whether or not I think the rest of team lost this one, they continued to have plenty of advice for me.  One good suggestion was from John, whom I regard as the team captain.  He told me to keep my left hand (the “catcher’s mitt”/glove) OUT and away from my body, so as to present more surface area to incoming shots.  Not a bad idea, as I had previously been covering my crotch with the glove.

My … um, visual impairment, which I had hoped had not been too obvious, must have been becoming more apparent.  Perhaps some of them noticed that occasionally I would be concentrating on an attacking player whom I thought had the puck when the player who actually did have it was coming from another direction.  More than one teammate suggested that I somehow try to fit glasses, or contacts, or do the laser treatment.  Yes, even Betty noted that it seemed frequently I had no idea where the puck was.  Darn.

John, and at least one other suggested that I either show up for “open hockey practices” and/or watch hockey on tee-vee.  Why bother?  I figure I’m getting plenty of practice as is, I’m not going to watch hockey on tee-vee, and the pictures I see in the paper of goalies invariably show them in contortionist positions or lying at the bottom of a heap of players.

Yes, I’ve quit trying to keep track of statistics…

GAME SEVEN:  Betty watches again.  Apparently, the range is “suckiness” is fairly wide, as she proclaimed that I still sucked, but nowhere near as badly as during the first game she endured.

The team practiced fast and high slap-shots at me before the game, which was a portend of real game conditions.  During the second period, I, um, ‘stopped’ a shot in the cup area.  Good thing that the cup was there, because I definitely would have been too hurt to do anything for a long time.  As it was, I cussed out loud a bit and did little more than just stand there for the next few minutes.  (I suspect the team and anyone else who is watching thinks that is what I do pretty much all the time, anyway).  Two days after the game, there is a red puck-shaped bruise inches from the, um, target area.  (Two weeks after, there is still a pronounced circular ‘birth mark.’)  And the third period — another stopped shot found it’s way between the bottom of the helmet and the top of the chest/shoulder pads.  Ouch — the right collarbone.  I was even more nauseous after that one.

However, I think I’ve adopted a habit which seems to work whenever there is a melee nearby.  I started doing this the last half of the game.  After allowing two or three sloppy shots skidding right on the ice to go into the goal between my feet, I finally heeded some teammate’s admonitions to drop to my knees.  “Drop down.”  “Fall on it.”  And so, anytime there was a frantic scrambling crowd anywhere near the goal, I’d drop down on my knees, shuffling about like a legless man on a cart, and THAT often ‘did the trick.’

And, THAT is perhaps the most surprising thing, “at my old age,” about this hockey-goalie thing.  At home, doing yard work, sometimes during a hike, it seems that I can’t do much in the way of bending over, kneeling down, etc.  It’s gotten so that when I’m emptying the clothes dryer and an item falls to the floor, I’ll wait until I’m done because something else often will fall, and I have only so many ‘bend over’s’ in me.  But — during my 7-game hockey career — I now don’t even think (much) about falling down, laying down, dropping down, throwing my body on the ice, and getting back up.  I get up relatively quickly, often in time to do it all over again a half-minute later.  However, back home, emptying the dryer the next day, it’s the same old conservation of altitude…

There is no way my goals-allowed average will drop to less than ten — this season.  I can only hope (and, yes, I think it’s true — ) that I stop at least 2/3’s of all shots.  Yes, you’re right — many of those stopped shots are done simply by me standing there.  But (of course) I’ll act like I meant it.

GAME EIGHT:  I was on vacation the previous week and the team acquired a substitute goalie.  I had mentioned missing the next game to them after my last game and they immediately began to talk about who they might get.  Turns out someone knew a goalie from Montrose, a quite good one at that.  They shut out the poor Firefighters 9 – 0.  I bet they used at least another ‘ringer’ or two besides.  During my only win, so far, there were at least two players drafted for the occasion from the ‘B’ league.

When I arrived at the rink on game night I chatted with Curt, who opened the equipment room for me before each game so I could borrow the leg-pads, shoulder/chest pads, gloves, and stick.  I sensed a note of disdain in his voice when he answered my inquiry about my team’s goalie the previous week.  “Yeah, they brought in the San Juan team goalie.  He’s of “A” league caliber.”  If I correctly sensed disdain, it was due to Curt’s desire for, basically, novice teams to be mostly novice.

I also bumped into Jacoba, one of two women on our team.  She’s married to Nick, and they regularly come down from Rifle.  Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I felt that Nick was somewhat friendly when I first met him.  Before the following and subsequent games, whenever I would come into the locker room Nick would look at me with a mixture of disgust and disbelief.  Disbelief that it was I who showed up and not someone else.  Anyhow, I was still in street clothes and I quipped, “you guys sure played a good game last week,”

She brightened.  “Yeah, it’d be neat if we could always have that goalie.”

I smiled back.  She didn’t recognize me, and if I were her, or anybody else on the team, I’d want a much better goalie.

We were playing the Firefighters again, and I was nervous, possibly more so than usual.  If we lost, obviously it’d be MY FAULT.  Also, due to the convoluted novice-league records and standings, if we lost we’d be tied with the Firefighters for last place, whereas if we won, we’d be tied for 2nd (it’s a 4-team league).  Trivial details.

We were ahead for most the game.  Fortunately (?) I’ve forgotten most the details until the 3rd period.  We were up 3 – 2.  Then they tied it.  With two minutes remaining they scored another.  This is the only team in the league which has a dedicated following.  Usually, there are a couple dozen or more fans — family members and other fire-personnel.  There was excitement and an anticipatory buzz from the stands.  Their team called a time-out with less than two minutes remaining.  I disconsolately skated over to our box.  No-one said anything to me, just a comment or two among themselves — “Let’s get a goal and tie this up.”

Unlike the game where I felt I didn’t lose — the rest of the team did — this game was the reverse.  The Bombers scored THREE GOALS in that final 1:30.  One was called back, another player in the crease or something like that.  Still, a 5 – 4 nail biter.  Gave the people in the stands a thrilling conclusion (too bad most of them were rooting for the other team).  Jacoba and Nick came up and congratulated me.  I had the feeling that they’d recently attended a “be kind to senior citizens” seminar.

GAME NINE: (the post-season play-offs):  For a few weeks, and a few games, I had been considering something really radical.  Improve my vision.  I had gone to a glasses store and asked for ‘rec-specs’ — something which might fit in the helmet AND not slip nor fall off.  Now that I think about it, they would probably steam up.  So …

I got contacts.  Forty-five years of wearing glasses and avoiding the alternative.  I’m somewhat surprised how quickly I was able to get some.  I wore them home from the eye-doctor’s, then took them out when I got home.  No sense in too much too soon.  However, I put them in before leaving for the game.

On the way to the arena, a policeman pulled me over for going 16 over the limit and running a red light.  Good thing I hid the open beer bottle.  I didn’t even have to do much pretending — a somewhat distracted borderline senior citizen en route to a rendezvous with probably overwhelming circumstances.  No ticket, just a warning … “Good luck,” he said.  “Watch your speed and those stop lights.”

Oh yeah, the Firefighters — AGAIN.  Of course I was apprehensive.  Improved vision might not make a difference.  And the other team would be hungry — they came so close last time.  And … we were missing a few players.  That wasn’t unusual, but what made me (and, I suspect, the rest of the team) feel doomed was the absence of Jeremy, our best regular* player.  Blood in the water …

Larry, the only guy on the team I knew from my prior existence, had a son in high school.  Tanner regularly played in the high-school league but had played for us before.  There are several people who can’t get “enough” hockey and play in more than one league, on more than one team, AND are available as substitutes for other teams.  Jeremy and another team member also play in a B league team.  Anyway, there was little doubt among most of the team that Tanner saved our lives.  An explanation, of course, is in order …

The league officials decided that the playoffs should include only the three “real” novice league teams.  The in-house team, the Freeze, which had won all ten regular season games by comfortable margins, was excluded.  After all, they were supposed to be in the upper leagues.  The three remaining teams had similar records.  We regularly outscored the Firefighters.  They beat the Rovers two out of three times.  And the Rovers won our three games with them.  However, they had the best statistics of the three teams.  The winner of tonight’s playoff would get a break and play for the championship the following week.  The loser of this game would have to play the Rovers immediately after the game.  Whoever lost, would be too tired to do well in a second game.  No wonder the sense of dread and doom was palpable in the locker room.  If we lost, well, if we didn’t actually die, it would seem like it.  And so Tanner saved our lives.

During the pre-game warm-ups I could actually SEE.  For the first time, I was able to use the left, the “catcher’s mitt” glove to try to catch pucks.  Seeing helped me resist the impulse to use that hand to cover the crotchal area.  I could see what the other goalie was doing.  Previously, I could tell approximately where the goalie was, if he (or she) was flat on the ice, but little else.

We were on the offensive right from the start.  Actually, we are a good first-period team.  If all our games ended before the second period, we would have won a few more games (we were actually ahead of the Freeze early in the 2nd period  one game, and ahead of the Rovers twice).  I think I deflected three shots on goal when the period ended.  The score was 0 – 0 with perhaps 75% or more of the game played at their end.  We were up 3 – 0 after two periods, and I had a little more action.

During the final period, I was wishing time would speed up.  “One minute down fourteen to go” I said to myself.  “Three minutes gone, twelve to go.”  At about 10:00 they scored a goal, followed a couple minutes later by another.  And then we fouled twice.  Two guys in the penalty box at the same time.  Although I feel that I am “dug in” most the time, this time we really did.  The five of them gathered expectantly around our three for the puck drop.

A bit of frenzied scrambling, some swats at the puck, and Tanner was off on a solo break towards the other goalie.  Though his goal attempt was deflected, I could feel the other team become more wary.  The pressure was off, slightly.  Somehow we held our own for that two minutes, and with about two minutes to go the other team’s “big guy” was whistled for knocking Tanner to the ice.  I was relieved but not about to let my guard down.

With less than ten seconds remaining the battle is on near my goal.  I remember Tanner swatting the puck up-ice with 6 seconds on the clock and time ran out.  Nick started to hoist me up on his shoulder, expecting another or two to join him.  No-one else seemed so inclined, so he just bounced me off the wall a few times.  One teammate asked if I had been watching goalie instructional videos, and another said he thought I was much improved.  “I can SEE,” I said.

*By ‘regular’ I mean actually on the team roster.  I don’t think the Bombers had played a game yet without an upper division ‘ringer.’  The previous week, for example, we had Jeremy’s future brother-in-law, a smooth precise sharp-skating Ontario resident.

Post Script:  (finals of the play-offs):  my gift to the team was not to be there.  They acquired the 17-year-old son of the premier team’s goalie.  And they won, 9 – 2.  So, seeing as how I was the regular team goalie, playing in nine of twelve games, I am a league champ too.

I would have liked to have played, but my employer had a meeting in Denver the morning after the game.  It would have been darned inconvenient to play and then get to Denver by 8:30 a.m.  I’d like to think we would have still won, but the score would have been more like 9 – 6.

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