I grew up in Syracuse, NY, with long, cold winters and lots of icy ponds, but, in my early youth at least, no hockey. That changed in the early ‘50‘s, when the War Memorial was built, with an ice rink that attracted an American Hockey League team and gave the impetus to a Pee Wee hockey league.
Dad signed me up. He was a hockey lover, who had played a little as a kid, skated as well as an ex-goalie could, and taught me how to skate, first on a treacherous back-yard rink constructed with a snow-shovel and a garden-hose, and then on an outdoor rink at Drumlins Golf Course.
The Pee Wee organizers gathered eager fathers and sons in the War Memorial’s underground parking garage, explained what Pee Wee was about, and suggested that, until we knew hockey was for us, we could use old Life magazines as shin guards.
Yes, we kids were absolute novices, but no more than the coaches, who were well-meaning dads, offering their sons a new pastime, keeping it simple when they had to assign positions: Can skate – Forward; Skates on ankles – Defense; Cannot skate at all – Goalie.
The two seasons I played are a blur, and (fortunately) not retrievable from any archive. Our team was the Optimists, which, without any experience and few regular practices, we had to be. We may have won a game or two, most likely against the American Legion, absolutely the worst team (Cannot skate at all).
I did try to practice on my own, shooting pucks against our cellar wall until someone shouted STOP THAT RACKET from upstairs. I managed to raise the puck a few inches, but transferring that skill to the rink was another matter.
We played Saturday mornings. On the way to the arena, Dad would buy me a steak sandwich, possibly on the theory that meat would turn to muscle as the game progressed. (It didn’t, then or ever.) After the game, it was a milkshake, always a safe-bet consolation prize. Mom stayed home, not out of apathy, but nerves.
Since I could skate — and not on my ankles — I was on the team that went to a couple in-state tournaments, one in Potsdam, where we slept in a firehouse and got no sleep, and one in Troy, where the coaches decided on a hotel … and we got no sleep. I don’t think we ever won, and may never even have scored.
Undaunted, we nourished our delusions of glory, idolizing the Montreal Canadiens of the great Maurice and Henri Richard, and their goalie, Jacques Plante, the namesake of our Jacques Plante jocks.
After I aged out of Pee Wee after two years, I played a little pond hockey in the frozen swampland near Onondaga Creek. With no goalies (who could lug such heavy equipment that far?), my scoring improved marginally, though I — indeed all of us — got no real shooting practice, cautious not to raise the puck, which was easily lost in the snow.
I eventually got to high school, one with a hockey history that was, by then, sadly dead. But a group of us who had played Pee Wee together still had the itch, and, in our senior year, we formed a team, found an ex-high school player to coach us, and worked up an actual outdoor practice rink in the parking lot of a local strip mall.
We found one other similarly patchwork high school team to play. It was our only game, played at the War Memorial. Whether we won or lost has evaporated with time, but the memory of the perishing indoor heat, in such contrast to the bitter cold of our outdoor practice rink, is still strong.
In college, at Dartmouth, I tried out for the freshman team, competing with classmates from Massachusetts and Minnesota who actually knew what they were doing. In straight skating drills, they were at the other end of the rink by the time I hit the first blue line.
I was ready to face reality when the student manager skated across the ice to ask me my name. Stunned, I spelled it out carefully, twice, for him, but crucially failing to note that even he skated better than me. The next morning, I was at the top of the Hand in Your Equipment list.
For the next forty years, I skated occasionally but played no hockey until 2001, in Beijing. I was stationed at the American Embassy, where, for reasons I never understood, hockey was part of the Marine Security Guards’ physical training regime. They let me join them.
Playing hockey with a group of strong, fearless young men, wearing what are essentially highly sharpened knives on their feet, with little notion how to stop or turn, is probably not the way a nearly-sixty-year-old should come out of retirement.
They were good lads, and they appreciated what I knew about hockey, but I felt I was only one serious crash away from a disability check, and decided to join a group of Chinese, introduced by two locals who also played with the Marines.
The Chinese were even crazier than the Marines, but without the body mass and the uncontrolled velocity to cause serious injury. They didn’t know the rules and didn’t care to learn. Offside was too complicated. Position-play and passing were irrelevant.
I once tried desperately to get our best, but most selfish, player to pass the puck to me, as I headed, in the clear, toward the opposing goal, finally screaming Pass the fucking puck, you asshole!! Nothing!
Afterwards, I thought of asking my Chinese language teacher how to express this in Mandarin, and also how to ask the smokers who habitually lit up on the bench to Stop your fucking smoking, but decided no. After all, it was their turf and their terms.
After China, in Switzerland, I played a few times on a lovely, artificial outdoor rink with a perfect view of the Jura Mountains. Curiously, the Swiss were almost as undisciplined as the Chinese, with sometimes as many as twenty players on the ice at the same time. But at least they passed the puck and did not take smoking breaks.
I’m now living in Denver, and still at it, playing pick-up games and taking hockey classes. I’m doing all right, buoyed especially by the comments of a class assistant who said, You skate well. You’ve got potential.