Hockey is a beautiful game.  There’s really nothing like it.  I’ve been playing soccer for the last 10 months and it’s been great, but the moment I stepped onto the ice for the first time in almost as long a few weeks ago, it was overwhelming.  Suffice to say, I’ve had a lot of free time lately, free time that has enabled me to spend two hours in the morning thrice a week at the nearby ice rink playing adult pick-up hockey.

I’m not a good hockey player.  I’m alright, but not good.  I’m small and lanky, but I make up for my size disadvantage by being one of the fastest players on the ice, skating circles around many, and generally being everywhere.  In that first game I played three weeks ago, I could not receive a pass.  It was as though my stick wasn’t there.  During and after every shift, my legs burned, and I could not walk nor stand straight up the next day.  My skates were as dull as Star Trek: The Motion Picture though the rest of my equipment had been no worse for wear than it was when I played in college.

In the days following that game, I got my skates sharpened, washed my jersey, and hit the ice four more times.  Every time I get better.  In college I played intramural hockey in the lowest skilled tier.  When we all signed up for the team in the beginning of freshman year, we had no idea what the skill spectrum on the ice would be.  It turned out to be quite broad.  I was always one of the better players solely due to my ability to skate; my mediocre hockey skills were irrelevant in the face of opponents gliding glacially toward me or falling down around me.

While it was fun to play with friends (WHAT TIME IS IT!? GAMETIME!), they didn’t cause me to improve my game.  It’s often said that if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.  I find this applicable to more than just intellectual situations, and obviously to hockey in this instance.  I’ve been playing with adults, some of whom have been playing for longer than I’ve been alive, and the simple fact that their abilities are of a higher caliber than my teammates in college has led to an immediate and necessary advancement of my game.  In order to keep up with them, I have to be better.  Just yesterday I began and ended a play that involved at least eight clean zone passes, touching every one of my teammates’ sticks, and finishing up in the back of the net.  I’d never been on a team that could even dream of doing something like that before, and here we were, a group of four guys who’d barely played a game together pulling that off.  It was awesome.  These good players have made me better.  For once I feel confident in my abilities as a hockey player; somehow just having confidence has increased my performance on the ice.  Take heed, Sabres.

That brings me to hockey in general.  It is the greatest game on the planet, and I’m not just saying that as someone who’s basically Canadian.  There are fewer sports that require as much acquired skill as ice hockey: you need to develop incredible hand-eye coordination, not just between your hand and your eye, but also with your legs, feet, and most importantly, your stick.  Shooting a puck isn’t that easy; it requires a lot of balance on skates and special motions in the wrists and arms.  Performing a slap shot?  I still can’t even do that, so I’m not going to attempt to describe the fundamentals.  Most importantly, all of these tasks are done on the lovely low friction surface of ice.  Nobody is born knowing how to ice skate, much less perform all of this whilst skimming around with knives strapped to one’s feet.  It’s only after learning to skate without consciously thinking about it that one can begin to develop hockey skills; in my experience that learning curve is rather steep, though I’ve seen a lot of friends and teammates surmount that obstacle, sometimes stunningly fast.

There’s nothing like a good game of hockey.  The graceful footwork of skaters on the ice, the schwwwp sound of a hockey stop, the loud, dull thuds of pucks ricocheting off of glass, the instantly recognizable clap of a well received pass.  There’s the feeling of being on the ice, soaring around freely, flying up and down the rink and letting the cold wind flow across your body.  (Aside:  I don’t understand why hockey doesn’t work in warm weather markets.  An ice rink is a welcome change from the heat).  Don’t get me started on the PING of a goal scored off of the post.  I could listen to this all day.

Most of the friends I’ve made in the last year have been soccer players and avid fans.  I’ve spent more time watching soccer in that period than ever previously… and I’m actually starting to like it less and less.  Don’t get me wrong, these guys are skilled, but all of the fancy footwork in the world isn’t as impressive to me as a simple well-executed saucer pass.

We love to rag on the “bad” players of our favorite NHL teams, but the truth is they each have more talent than any neophyte like me could ever dream of having.  Getting back on the ice and just playing the game have shown me just how incredibly hard it actually is and I’ve rapidly come to appreciate the professionals that much more.

I can’t wait to get back on the ice.  I hope the feeling of pure joy I get when I step onto a freshly resurfaced sheet of ice in all of my hockey gear never diminishes.  It’s one of the best in the world.

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