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Confessions of a Hockey Novice: The Boy Who Couldn’t Skate

Learn Hockey Class

Aug 15, 2013


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Know what you write.

It seems like a relatively simple mantra, but it’s not.

I know how to watch hockey. I know how to eat a hot dog and watch hockey. I know how to tell you what I just saw. I know how to ask about what I just saw. However, if you stuck me in skates and put me out on Bridgestone Arena ice, would I have any clue what I was doing?

I had to find out.

I have never been an athletic person. Oh, I’ve played sports, don’t get me wrong…for the most part, I’ve played them poorly.

I played rec league basketball from sixth grade until I was a senior in high school – I scored 5 points. It would have been 8, but I walked when I hit my 3 pointer.

I played baseball for a while, but when we switched from coach-pitch to player-pitch, I was absolutely unable to solve the 20 mile per hour heat that was coming into my wheelhouse.

I ran cross country for a year in middle school and can pride myself on the fact that I always managed to beat at least one person.

Wrestling was perhaps the worst – I wrestled in seventh and eighth grade and won exactly one match…and that was by forfeit when the other wrestler did not show up.

There actually were a couple of sports I was good at, though. Lacrosse I did surprisingly well at, but because I was 14 and did not properly understand hydration, I wanted to die at the end of it and ended up hating because I never came off the field. The ironic part is that being good and never being taken off the field actually made me hate it.

The one sport that I was a master at was shooting. In tenth grade I joined the rifle team. We rattled off three straight state championships (granted, Tennessee is not a very competitive state) and I snagged all-state honors as a senior.

Rifle team, however, requires very little – if any – physical exertion.

Even as an adult, I’ve played kickball and dodgeball with very small levels of success.

Nothing, however, has ever gone as poorly as the time I signed up to play on a hockey team.

I overestimated my ability to skate.

By “overestimated”, I mean that I thought I could skate when in fact I didn’t even know how to tie the skate onto my foot (pro tip: tightly).

I spent about $500 purchasing shoulder pads, elbow pads, shin guards, hockey pants, a helmet, sticks, and skates. I had last skated around the time that I was 13 or 14, but I figured that it had to be like riding a bike, right?

Wrong.

So very wrong.

I hopped over the boards to play my first shift. I only did that because I couldn’t get around anyone to get to the door. Surprisingly, I landed on my feet and was able to skate away. That was my first and only success.

As I got to the faceoff circle, I realized my first problem. I didn’t know how to stop. I kind of bowed my feet out to slow my progress and eventually came to a rest. Unfortunately, instead of lining up facing the puck drop like a normal person, I pulled a Washington Generals-esque move and faced towards the wall.

And that was how the faceoff went.

Once play commenced I took about three strides and fell down, which was honestly no big whoop. I stood right back up and continued along my way…until I fell down again at center ice.

This time I couldn’t get up.

While play progressed at a goal – to this day I couldn’t tell you whose goal – I sat on my knees at center ice trying to crawl back to my feet. I couldn’t do it. So I tried to lunge back to the bench. I couldn’t do it.

I was flaling and rolling on center ice back to the bench before I finally got close enough to our bench for someone to throw out a stick and reel me in.

The whole incident only lasted about 30-45 seconds, but in my head, it lasted a lifetime.

I sat back down on the bench and noticed that one of my skate laces was cut – I had probably dragged the other skate across it. That’s alright, because there was no chance in hell I was going to set foot back on that ice.

I walked back into the locker room, took my gear off and waited for the end of the game.

It wasn’t my proudest moment.

After the game, I was given a choice of learning to skate or not playing.

I was about as discouraged about hockey as I had ever been in my life – I opted for not playing.

For four years, I didn’t touch a pair of ice skates.

When I’d be asked to “go try skating again”, I’d come up with some excuse. I had to wash my hair, walk the dog, wash the dog, etc.

Eventually, I just came to grips with the fact that while I enjoy watching hockey and talking about hockey and occasionally criticizing players for being able to do things that I can’t do, but only not as well as other people can, skating and hockey wasn’t going to happen. It was a thing like whistling or singing on-key that I just couldn’t do.

“Want to go skate, Patten?”

“I don’t skate.”

A few weeks ago the e-mail popped up in my inbox. I admittedly don’t expect to get too much out of said e-mails due to my inability to skate…but this one caught my eye.

USA Hockey was conducting a free learn-to-play hockey clinic at Bridgestone Arena on Sunday, August 11th.

I could skate in the same place as such luminaries as Gretzky, Selanne, Datsyuk, Weber and Gover.

Of course, I still had no idea how to skate, so I sent an e-mail explaining my situation and was told that even if I had never even seen ice, I could take the class…so I signed up…and I waited…and I sent out an APB on Twitter in order to get other people in the same boat as me…and I got nervous…and I checked my health insurance and made sure I knew which hospitals I would be allowed to go to…

On Sunday I arrived at the arena and I parked. First step was complete.

I had on a long sleeve technical shirt that I got from (slowly) running a 5k and some Under Armour shorts. After I signed a slew of waivers, I was handed a bag, a jersey and a stick and sent to the visiting locker room.

This part, at least, I felt I had a better grip on than most because I actually knew how to get to the visitor locker room. However, there is an entirely different feeling walking into that room with a bag of hockey equipment over your shoulder instead of a digital recorder.

I set my bag down at a locker which was once occupied by Corey Perry and tried to find a place for my stick before I remembered that the players always placed them on a rack when they came off the ice.

With the stick situation taken care of, I opened the bag that I was handed. It was full of hockey equipment (surprise!) and all of it was brand new.

Our next step in this class, apparently, was to figure out how to get the equipment on without anyone showing us. Hockey pants are actually massive padded things that fit…strangely. They fit and you can move around fairly freely in them, but based on the padding, it really seems like you shouldn’t be able to.

Also in the bag were elbow pads. Those were fairly easy except for the fact that they kept sliding down my arm…likely a size too big. The gloves basically ruined any way that I thought I knew how to use my hands. I couldn’t move my thumbs and briefly had two fingers in the same hole. They were more hand-shaped pads than “gloves” as I know gloves.

The shin pads, however, were baffling – no one ever sees the shin pads because they are always covered by hockey socks (which, despite the name are more legwarmer than sock). It’s about a 15 inch long molded hard plastic pad that goes on your shin (obviously), but only has one piece of Velcro to hold it in place. I know from my prior experience that I taped all over the hockey sock to keep them on, but…alas, no hockey socks.

Finally, I pulled the helmet out of the bag and was horrified to learn that it had no cage on it. While I wasn’t worried that one of my fellow classmates would suddenly unleash a slap shot that headed right at my face, I did have concerns that one of my fellow classmates would do his best Alexander Radulov impression and spear me as he tried to come to grips with his sudden lack of dexterity brought on by the hockey gloves.

At the end of this, I was drenched in sweat. I expected a little bit of physical activity, but I did not expect that putting on the equipment would be part of it. As I looked around the room, I noticed that I wasn’t alone. Virtually everyone in the locker room had at least a few beads of sweat from getting the equipment on. Part of this, I recognize, is because the equipment is somewhat warm – it’s made for being worn on a giant sheet of ice. But another part of it is that putting on a bag full of padding is kind of taxing. I feel like I should trademark a workout where you have to put hockey equipment on and take it off repeatedly.

But I digress.

Once I had all of my equipment on, the skates started coming into the locker room. At this point I realized that I would need to take the shin pads off to get the skates on. When I finally believed that I had my skates appropriately tight and laced, I started walking to the ice. I made it about 5 steps before my ankle started to wobble.

While most everyone took the ice to try out their skates, I sat back on the bench and retightened my laces. My buddy Michael then showed me a trick where if I looped the lace around an extra time, it would hold in place better. As an Eagle Scout, I am mildly ashamed that I could not figure that out before.

Finally when I had my skate approximately to my liking…or at least as close as it was going to get…I took a few cautious baby deer steps out onto the ice…and promptly reached for the wall. I skated…maybe 20 feet. Basically, I skated from the visiting bench to the Predators bench…felt I had gone much, much too far and turned around and skated back to the visitor’s bench and sat.

I should point out that in the midst of this attempt, my stick was flailing all around. I’m not proud of it, but – if I’m being honest – that’s how it went down.

When the actual clinic portion began, we were asked to skate to the end boards…which is twice as far as I had already skated and had my brief moment of panic. After staying very close to the wall, I made it to the Predators bench drenched in sweat and figured, that’s just far enough for right now, opened the door and sat down while I watched (most) everyone else start the drill in which they skated across the length of the ice. There were a few of us who did no more than watch out of fear or inability or – for the most part – fear of inability.

After a few minutes, I gathered my strength and skated back to the visiting bench, again staying very close to the wall and occasionally holding it for support.

While I was on the visiting bench, one of the coaches first asked if I was okay. I told the truth – I was fine, but I didn’t know how to skate. Surprisingly he did not force me onto the ice. He just told me that when I was comfortable, come out, take a couple of steps and use my stick for support.

With all of the intestinal fortitude I was able to summon, I tried it and skated down to the visitors bench and back without grabbing the wall. I won’t even deny that for some reason, for me, this was one of the most terrifying things that I’ve ever done. Forget the fact that the first time I ever hopped on a motorcycle was in the rain – for some reason, I was absolutely terrified of skating 50 feet in head-to-toe padding.

As I sat on the bench and gathered my mental and physical strength, the class split into three stations with one right in front of me. The station in front of me consisted of standing still on the ice and getting a feel for the puck and then trying to skate the puck through a series of cones.

I decided, what’s the worst that could happen if I stepped out two feet onto the ice and tried the puck handling…so I did it…and slowly drifted away from the boards so far that I had to turn and hook my stick over the side to pull myself back to safety.

When the group started to progress towards the slalom portion of the program, however, I again dove back to the bench. At this point, I sat on the bench with the thought of, “I guess that was my clinic.” This feeling became more evident when other skaters sat down and boxed me into the middle of the bench.

However, the longer I sat, the more the thought ran through my head that maybe I should at least take a couple of steps out across the ice and see what happens.

Finally, I stood up, excused myself as I walked over a couple of people to get to the door at the end of the bench, stepped onto the ice, grabbed a puck and started across the ice trying to slalom the puck between the cones.

On about the third cone, I lost the puck and didn’t exactly know how to turn around and get it without busting my butt, so I left it while figuring that the skating was the crucial part of my mission. When I got to center ice, I got stuck in a log jam and had to stand there for a minute while people moved out of the way so I could continue my progress.

It took a minute for me to actually realize that I was standing at center ice and that I had made it with little – if any – effort. At that moment, I suddenly had the realization that – hey, maybe this is something I can actually do. I also had that odd moment when I recognized that there was a different quality to the ice in the middle of the rink as opposed to near the benches.

Because I did not know how to turn around, I finished my attempt by stepping into the penalty box and having a seat while I waited for the next group to finish (I had no desire to skate haphazardly into oncoming traffic), but not before grabbing a puck and trying to backhand it into the net sitting on the boards (I hit the post).

When the next group finished (which was the last group of the day), I skated back across the ice to the bench and watched a portion of the class scrimmage. Considering I couldn’t turn or stop, I opted not to join in the scrimmage. However, with my two cross-ice skates, I had already done more than I could have possibly imagined.

So as I sat on the bench watching the scrimmage end and soaking in my success, we were called onto the ice to take a group photo. It seems like such a little thing, but considering I could barely skate to the other bench just an hour before, it was like my victory lap. I skated out with everyone to center ice, took my photo and skated back to the bench, walked down the tunnel, got a, “Hey buddy!” and a fist bump from Partner and went back into the locker room.

I may have only skated a few hundred feet and I may have only done it poorly, but it was enough for me to not only get the confidence I needed to sign up to take skating lessons so that maybe I might actually play in a game in which I didn’t do my beached whale impression at center ice.

More importantly, I learned several aspects of the game of hockey that never occur to me while I am sitting up in my comfy press box seat wearing my bow tie. I learned that skating is absolutely exhausting. Two days after my abbreviated skates I was still sore all over my lower half. When I came off the ice I was drenched in sweat. I can now easily see how Dan Ellis was able to lose 10 pounds in a game and have even more appreciation for the dedication it takes for a player to basically sprint around on ice for 15-16 one minute shifts per game. I understand what sort of world-class athlete it takes to play multiple overtime periods in a playoff game. Considering I could barely stand after maybe 5-10 minutes of light skating in a one hour period, I can’t imagine how hard it must be to go all out for hours upon hours. Yes, there’s a giant sheet of ice underneath you, but it doesn’t provide the air conditioning qualities you would think it would.

So no, I did not have quite have the Plimpton-esque journey into hockey that might have completely changed the way I look at the sport, but I did have enough of a go at it to at least have an appreciation of what players have to go through virtually every day.

And I did learn that I want to do it again.

Photo Credit: Justin Bradford