This happens about this time every Wednesday afternoon. This evening, at 6:30 p.m., my adult hockey class will take the ice at the Pasadena Ice Center and I've got the butterflies.
There's usually about 10 to 15 of us, with most north of the age 40 and a trio of teens. I'm in my second 10-week session of the class. Everyone gets along fine and we're all there because for a variety of reasons we've come to the sport of hockey late in life. For some guys, it's something to do with their kids. For me, it's turned into some sort of strange salvation from middle age -- a place where all other problems cease and desist.
Because, let's face it, it's kind of hard to worry about the termites chewing up the backyard fence when there's a puck traveling at high velocity toward your head.
The class alternates between two coaches. Both are perfectly nice guys. One is a local who works at the rink much of the week and is a talented former player who now coaches. He's in his late 20s and a typical quote from him is this: "I know you guys are old and out of shape, but come on -- doing these drills right is important." He's right.
The other coach hails from--get this--Siberia and played much of his hockey outdoors on frozen lakes that the team would first have to groom before skating. He works in academia and coaches for a little extra money. He, too, is an amazing player and I can hear him yelling "you're not looking up, Steve" and "skate, skate, skate" in my sleep. He's the guy I hired last winter to teach me to skate and I hold him in absolute awe.
They're both nice guys. They have to be. Watching us flail about the ice and try to follow their simple instructions ("skate around the cone slow and do a crossover) requires the patience of Job.
Our class spends an hour on the ice each week. The first 30 to 40 minutes is exhausted (literally) doing drills, the remainder of the time we scrimmage. I like the scrimmage a lot -- it's a scrum of activity in which actual hockey sometimes breaks out. The drills are a bitch, owing to the fact that a lot of us aren't the best skaters.
Some of us, for example, can stop in one direction, but not the other. And some of us find that skating through the pylons is quite easy until two rather essential ingredients are added: sticks and pucks.
Putting the skating and stickhandling together is, I'm finding, insanely difficult. All sports, to some degree, involve getting all four limbs and your core working in tandem but hockey seems to require these abilities to an exponential degree. I know that I have improved in the past few months, but the toppled pylons in my wake are testament to the fact that my improvement is infinitesimal. In some weeks getting through a particular drill without falling on my ass is progress.
Which explains the butterflies circling my interior at the moment. At 43 years of age, I have a lot of things that I should be worried about. Like, for example, death. Or how to pay my taxes. Or my career -- a particular concern since my once considerable ambitions have seemingly gone on vacation. A job hosing things off sounds pretty good right now.
I could worry about all those things. But I don't. Instead, I fret about hockey. I suppose you could argue that's a sign of mental health: I've found something new and relatively wholesome to be obsessed with. I could have bought a yacht or started buying chocolates for a Bulgarian mistress.
If there's good news here it's that collectively the class does seem to be getting better. Both coaches like to run us through a myriad of different drills. A couple of weeks ago, the Siberian introduced one by saying "this one is dangerous, but important."
With that, he had the dozen of us skate around one end of the ice between the goal line and blue line while dribbling a puck. The idea was that we were in a confined space and had to look up at all times to avoid smashing into a classmate. We did this for a few minutes and, amazingly, the drill did not end up looking like a demolition derby.
Here's another drill: the class splits into two groups, each standing in opposing corners of one end of the rink. At the same time, a skater from each group breaks to the blue line, turns around a pylon and one player passes the puck to the other. Then, as we pass, each player turns around and skates backward and passes the puck again. The recipient of the puck then takes a shot on goal.
In many cases last week, the first pass went as planned. The killer was turning around -- meaning one guy had to pass to the other while skating backward. That's not an easy move because it requires drawing the puck backward and then having the strength to pass it forward. More often than not, this pass was flubbed. I never got a good pass off going backward, but once I was able to receive the pass and then skate forward -- although my shot slid weakly to the right of the goalpost.
Even as I continue my effort to turn my life into a complete shambles, that shot has been haunting me for the past week. And now I'm leaving for the rink in a few minutes. I haven't skated in seven days. And I'm thinking way too much. It should be an interesting evening.