When I was a kid, I played one season of ice hockey as a Toronto Maple Leaf at the Mites level. The Atlanta Flames were my hometown’s professional team at the time, and hockey was popular enough to support a vibrant youth program in what was at that time one of the few southern cities to host an NHL team. My dad (who also played amateur hockey) took me to see a lot of Flames games at the Omni, and we sat right behind one of the goals—literally in the first or second row. I got to see some of The Greats—Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Bobby Clarke, Curt Bennett (need I say more?)—playing at close range, smashing into the glass sans-helmet (back when that was allowed), seventies hair flowing in the breeze. In between the periods, I was one of the kids to whom referees would sometimes toss game pucks over the glass. In a box in an attic somewhere, I must still have one or two of those pucks, and autographs of several of the Flames.
Hockey is a sport of contrasts. As a mild-mannered, peace loving guy, I am as conflicted about the brutal and aggressive aspects of the sport as I am enthralled with its beauty and regalia. The code of honor between the players. The beautiful graphic design and colors of the uniforms, set against a brilliant field of snowy white. The sheer grace of the dance on skates. The speed. The strategy. The skill. The uniqueness and obscurity of it. The crispness of the cold air. The bravery. The adrenaline. The passion. The pizza. (Okay, I digress.)
I don’t remember whether, after one season, I quit playing of my own accord, or whether my parents couldn’t afford to keep buying bigger and bigger skates and pads to keep up with their growing boy. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I fell in love with the sport, and always thought that I had played it better than any other organized sport I had played as a kid (which consisted of soccer, basketball, and baseball).
Later on in my childhood, I had a notion to try out for football, a seemingly more accessible sport than hockey, but one I had never played before. I didn’t even like football very much, but many of my peers were playing it, and for some reason, I got it in my mind that I should play too. But a strange thing happened when I arrived at the tryouts: I freaked out. I panicked. I chickened out. I cried. I hid behind the bleachers. The sight of all those kids confidently playing a sport I didn’t yet know how to play filled me with angst. The prospect of embarrassment was terrifying. I ended up begging my mom to take me home, before I ever set foot on the field. In her motherly compassion, she obliged. (Thanks, Mom!)
As trivial as that incident seemed, it stuck with me over the years, staying safely stowed away in that part of my heart where I stow such things. Even as adulthood offered more meaningful opportunities for me to develop my competence and self confidence, I occasionally recalled that time of self doubt, and I imagined it symbolizing something I needed to overcome at some point, when the opportunity presented itself.
On a wing and a prayer, I moved to New England in my early twenties, and ice sports once again entered my consciousness. I lived not far from an outdoor rink that the Town of Amherst maintained during the winters, and I occasionally played pick-up hockey with the locals. Later, while studying art at the University of Massachusetts, my studio space was located in the legendary Art Barn, just a stone’s throw from the Mullins Center ice rink. For several semesters, I managed to finagle my class schedule such that I could ice skate every weekday at the noontime public skating session. I got really good at skating during that time. It was meditation. All of that time on the ice gave me a lot of time to reflect on and romanticize my childhood hockey experience. I often thought about how cool it would be to play again someday. But when? And how?
A few years back, as my fortieth birthday approached, it hit me: THIS was my time to start striking things off my bucket list. Trying out for an amateur hockey team served a dual purpose. It gave me a chance once again to play the sport I had played and loved as a kid, and it gave me a chance to revisit the aforementioned football tryout shame incident, and this time, to push through and overcome the fear. I am happy to report that the whole venture has been incredibly worthwhile and successful on both of those levels. I have made some good friends, and have achieved a difficult goal that I set for myself. (Did I mention that playing hockey is difficult?) Playing has kept me in pretty decent shape, and—I would argue—has contributed to my physical dexterity and mental sharpness.
But some good things must come to an end*, and I’m beginning to feel the toll that an intensely physical sport can take on a body. My injuries over the past handful of seasons have been fairly minor, thankfully. Some bumps and bruises and a puck to the chest. One painful hip pointer that lasted a half a year or so. Other people in my league have not been so fortunate. A couple of guys have sustained pretty serious and bloody accidental skate-slicings in the last two seasons (one in the forearm and one in the thigh) and there have been a few garden variety busted knees, snapped tendons and the like. Amazingly, no lost teeth (the smart guys like me wear the full bird-cage face masks on our helmets). Ours is a fairly collegial, gentlemanly, no-check league in which referees are strict and fighting is not tolerated. But hockey is fast, and incidental contact is unavoidable. I want to get out before my number comes up!
While I am a little emotional about my pending retirement, I have no regrets about bowing out of the league honorably at this point, and I will leave with my head held high. I’ve represented the forty-something crowd quite respectably, skating head-to-head with, and scoring goals against kids half my age. I’m sure I will continue to play informal shinny and pond hockey when available. But I am looking forward to reclaiming my Saturday nights from this long-standing commitment. Saturday nights I will henceforth spend working in my studio, visiting with friends, adventuring, reading and relaxing at home, possibly watching hockey, and maybe—just maybe—updating my website from time to time.
Saturday, February 25th, 2012, at 8:00 p.m. in Greenfield, Massachusetts, I will play my last regular-season game as a winger with the Canadiens of the Greenfield Adult Hockey League. Then the following Saturday, playoffs begin. If we lose the first game of the playoffs, it’s over. I’m done. If we win, my team goes on to play a best-of-three series for the championship. Which ever way it goes, I can’t wait to play my heart and lungs out, then retire #11.
* 2015 update: Retirement just wasn’t for me. I’m back in the rink.