I jumped at a chance to play in my first hockey game, but it largely let me know all of the things I need to learn and what skills I need to work on to be a better player. I admit I was in over my head. My sum total of hockey experience to that point was two hockey lessons, several stick and puck sessions, and public ice skating once or twice a week during the summer. This was my first game and only the third time I put on all of my gear. I had not even been in a scrimmage yet. The game was hosted by the Dire Wolves Hockey Club and is geared toward D-level players with little or no experience. The game moved a lot faster than I had anticipated. I had a chance to try things, observe a lot and the game was a ton of fun.
One element that kind of threw the game balance for me was the lack of referees. Players were self refereeing as best as they could, but icing probably occurred many times and wasn't called. The lack of face-offs left people taking the puck from behind their goal line and moving onto the attack really readily, making controlling the puck an automatic advantage that would normally would have to be won.
Being in a no-hit league is relevant only to extent that the other players are able to stop. I was headed to pick the puck off the stick of a guy and suddenly noticed he was looking down with his head down while he was stickhandling... and was headed straight at me. I'm a whopping 5'4" and not much taller on skates. I came close to getting the puck and his chest hit my face and knocked me backwards. I was able to stay upright and redirected myself back to my left defense position, but I felt should have had little cartoon stars and birdies circling my head. My friend Anthony and I were racing to get to the puck as it slid quickly along the boards, we both missed getting it and he checked me into the boards. There were a lot clips and bangs into other players.
I was strong in the group for skating backwards and moving around people but overall a lot slower. A lot of the guys in their twenties were able to pour on the speed but they also fell a lot when they lost control or checked themselves into the boards. They maybe looked good for power but lacked control in steering turns and stopping. I was ready to keep taking shifts at the end of the game while many players were huffing and hurting.
Overall, my stick handling skills need a lot of work. I learned three big things about stick handling that night. I shoot left and I had developed a habit of wrapping my right pinky finger around the butt end of the stick to get more control on rotating the stick and adjusting my grip with my left hand. One guy who cracked my stick really hard to steal the puck sent a shock through that finger and hand and taught me to never, ever do that again. Keep all of your fingers in alignment and wrapped around the stick.
The second learning curve came with my fumbling to try and control the stick with one hand. If Gordie Howe could do a lot with one hand on his stick, I surely cannot. From this day forward, I vow no more one-handed nonsense when it comes to stick handling.
Lastly, I had an overall failure to keep my stick on the ice. I meant to, but I was sorting out all the information on where the puck was, decided what to do and kind of hanging back with my stick in my hands and not down on the ice. Most of the players were determined to hit the puck and sticks handling the puck as hard as possible. I felt a deep moment of gratitude for the thickness of my gloves as players were hacking and cracking wood all around me like maniacs.
There was a comedy of errors with some of my actions. The puck went between my feet, and I kicked to beautifully to a player's stick blade, but he was on the opposite team. (Oops.) I made a beautiful pass to my friend Anthony, having recognized his face but also forgetting he was on the opposite team. (Oops, but funny.) I flubbed receiving a puck that was coming at me fast but bouncy and it went between my skates and stick into the defensive zone. Another fast bouncer that came my way I just let crack into my shin guards because it was nearly at knee height when it got to me. I was holding a hockey stick, not a tennis racket.
I made one good play the whole game: I passed right to a player in front of the net whom I wanted to score. I hit it right on the middle of his stick blade. He had the goalie screened and then he had the puck. He looked shocked to suddenly have the puck, his eyes were wide and the puck deflected off his stick blade back to the opposition.
The last ten seconds of the game someone tried for an empty net goal, not accepting the roar of the Zamboni as evidence we were done, so I dropped to one knee sliding forward with my stick down but he just shot wide and missed. I hoped for an epic last-minute save to redeem my slow, awkward shifts but failed at that time. At least I tried to do something.
Learning positions is tricky. I did better on defense than I would have expected. I tried to cover players on the attack or waiting to receive the puck. I skated to positions to mess up their passing or block shots on goal. I was used to my strong suit being my neat, smooth passes from practices and classes. I had it in my head that I would have been best as a wing, sending the puck to players with better shooting accuracy so they could score. The mosh pit of an actual game was a lot of data to process. I wound up falling back to defensive positions and doing maybe a little better in that role. I'm humble enough to understand I was nowhere near the skill level to be a play maker but stubborn enough to concentrate on messing up my opponents game.
At least I got through the whole game without falling. Not falling is a goal I aim for every time I hit the ice. I left with my head full of things I had not had time to come across in a class all thrown at me that night. I did heed my Coach Lou by keeping my body facing the puck or an opponent, even on turns, and embraced Don Cherry's advice by never turning my back to the ice. I have a steep learning curve on choosing the best actions to advance the puck for my team. I need to learn to keep on the move and skate continually rather than coming to a stop and hanging back to understand what is happening. Those skills will only come with time and more games played. I left feeling excited from getting to play in a real game and feel really determined to get better at playing.
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