August 16, 2011
When I would first lace 'em up after taking a few weeks off the ice, I'd step into a summer shinny game that was not the slightest bit competitive. The majority of guys we skated with had contracts signed and nobody was watching us, so we were just a bunch of like-minded individuals trying to get in shape for the season, helping each other along the way.
I was pleased to learn that fact during June and July as a 19-year old when I first got to skate in the premier summer game in town.
So… we just have good quality shinny, score some goals and get a good sweat in? AWESOME.
In August, I skated headlong into a reality check. Turns out I wasn't so much "keeping up" with the pros in the game, as they had been toning it down and not trying since the season was still months away.
I just wished somebody had posted a memo in the locker room or something so I would have been aware of what was coming: "To Whom It May Concern — the NHL hockey players suddenly noticed that the season is on the horizon, and are about to start trying. Step on the ice at your own risk."
I was oblivious.
Early in the summer, there's sort of an unwritten rule — if two guys are racing for the puck against the boards, and one guy has so much as a quarter step on the other guy, you let the lead guy grab it, and commence with the playing of half-hearted defense. At the very most, you stop and battle for the puck, pond hockey style (and since that option involves stopping, Option A was more common).
Being that I had about a full stride on a guy on my way to casually picking up the puck one fine August day, I was surprised to find that not only did I not end up with possession of said puck, but that my "one-piece" stick wasn't exactly living up to its name.
Hm - that didn't seem very considerate. Apparently someone decided to go 0-to-60 on their effort level today.
And so began my education in not being good enough.
The biggest difference between that guy who plays junior or college at your local rink (with ridiculous hands, oh what a future he has!) and the guys who actually make it, is this nearly indescribable gear that dudes start to pull out around now. I was already in fifth, so I was disappointed to note that I didn't seem to have that same oh-so-important bonus gear so many of those guys had.
I've said this before — the first time I skated with Dany Heatley(notes), I was immediately depressed. You can work your ass off in the gym, on the ice, on the track or wherever — you can snort protein powder and never touch a drink in your life — but for many (most?) of us, there's no physical way you can get to his level. And he's what, the 50th best player in the NHL? Higher?
He's all of the 6'4", 220 pounds he's listed at, skates well when he wants to, has a bomb of a one-timer, soft hands and good hockey sense. Honestly, I was a decent player — I led my D1 NCAA team in scoring in the tough WCHA — and no amount of work could take me to that level.
So after carrying the pieces of my stick back to the bench, I grabbed my back-up and watched the action on the ice. Something was … different.
Guys weren't over-passing as much, opting to rattle one off the crossbar instead of looking for a tic-tac-toe. They weren't charity passing to lessers like myself, who for awhile were fooled into thinking that, hey, maybe that NHL dude wouldn't look me off on a 2-on-1 (yes he would). And, the game was suddenly more physical.
When it becomes apparent that we're suddenly closer to next season than we are the previous one, guys start training and skating accordingly. Extra weights on the bar, and less days that involve the other type of bar.
For a few months of an early summer, I believed I could hang with the big boys. I could keep up speed-wise, I scored my share of goals, and the future looked bright. And then … August.
That's when I first saw that damn extra gear up close, the one where big men start moving like you're watching their shifts in fast-forward.
Somewhere, in some rink around the world, some kid just realized his place in the hockey world. Things are starting to get real for the guys between the glass - it's that time of year.
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