Saturday, April 10, 2010

This is it: time to play ice hockey for real

At 5 p.m. Sunday afternoon, after about 415 days of skating lessons, hockey clinics, stick time sessions, 6 a.m. pickup games and weekday afternoon public skates -- and after countless falls and a wide assortment of ice-related humiliations -- I get to play in my first official hockey game.

 I am 43 years old. I will flip the page to 44 in August. I believe in medical terms that means I'm on the wrong side of the bell curve.

I started packing my hockey bag this afternoon. I plan to unpack it and repack it tomorrow afternoon. Then I am going to tape and then re-tape my stick. If I was single, I would almost certainly sleep in my hockey gear Saturday night -- yes, including my skates -- and arrive at the rink eight hours before faceoff in case I break a lace.

This is all because I went to a Kings game one night after work in Nov. 2008 and had a fun time watching Dustin Brown smash into a variety of Dallas Stars. After a few more games, I got the itch to learn to play -- figuring it was a matter of do it now or wait and hope there's a decent rink in the Great Hereafter. It was probably the smartest decision I've made in years. I even managed to get laid off from my job a year ago, thereby giving me more time to skate.

I'm getting my chance to play because the Pasadena house league decided to split its league into two divisions -- one for the good players and one for those who aren't quite as good. A bunch of the guys that I skate with in my regular Wednesday night class leapt at the chance and we started a lower division team. Over the past couple of weeks we've picked up a player here and there and as of early Saturday morning our roster stands at an even dozen. I somehow ended up team captain, which has a lot more to do with my ability to beg people to play than any hockey skills I may possess.

For eight of us, this is our first shot at league play. That includes our goalie. Our youngest player is 18. Our second youngest is 38. Everyone else is north of 40. Our most senior member -- and one of our fastest guys -- is 53. We have one woman on the team who is 46 and played on a traveling girls team years ago. She says she's rusty. I suspect she'll be just fine. One player is missing the first game to attend the opera. I like the fact that he has a wide range of interests.

I'm not sure how we'll play. We all have a basic grasp of positioning and strategy and we do hustle. Most of us have little experience actually sticking with a position for an entire game -- our scrimmages often devolve into chase-the-puck affairs. So it will be fun to see how our teamwork evolves. If you want to provide any advice, please leave a comment.

As for me, I have a slight case of the yips. I skated horribly during clinic drills the other night after a two-week absence from the ice because of a ski trip. At my most recent public skate, I caught an edge and took a spill in front of a bunch of figure-skating moms and had to crawl around the ice picking up change that spilled from my pocket before it froze to the ice.

Well, whatever. If I've learned anything about ice hockey it's that things go wrong more than they go right. Passes sail wide or are intercepted. The poke check that initially looked successful somehow results with the puck right back on the same dude's stick. The eight-year-old kid skates around you, as if you're a human pylon.

Oh well. None of this really matters.

Because on Sunday there will be 10 skaters on the ice, a pair of actual goalies minding both nets (no more playing hit the crossbar to score), a pair of refs and a scoreboard that kind of works. A few of us will struggle to climb over the boards on shift changes or feel the sting of being asked to leave the ice because of a penalty. But win or lose -- and let's hope it's a win -- when the sun goes down Sunday, I'll have been privileged enough to play a real game of ice hockey.

--Steve Hymon

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