“I used to play hockey.” That’s how I’ve summed up my life’s major sporting experience for the last 30 years.
Hockey had become a combination of memories of early morning practices and late night games, colored by the twin catastrophes of the debut of the St. Louis Blues (flooding amateur hockey with non-skating, Barclay Plager wannabes) and being called up for the real draft. With little hockey on television, my relocation away from old friends and older ice rinks left little more than the occasional, “Yeah, I played hockey when I was a kid.” as a reminder of what I had once been.
Then, in the unlikely environment of Houston TX, they opened up Texas Ice Stadium.
With a son who had grown up on stories of my midget days, I already had one foot in the door. This new facility was too close to home to not redeem a promise made long ago. And, there’s nothing like watching a bunch of eager youngsters flail away at a loose puck at 6 a.m. to produce feelings of “I can do better” in any lapsed hockey player.
The best thing about geezer hockey (as my cocky son calls it) is that the days of tight skates, worn-through socks and broken pad straps are a thing of the past. Now, it’s “I’ll take those leather Koho gloves; here’s my check,” and you’re done; no Dad to pester or pennies to count.
For someone who has spent a lifetime avoiding wool, the modern plastics and fabrics are a joy to wear. Gone were the itchy uniforms, the metal buckles, and the felt “padding” that transmitted every bit of impact. Now, I was well–protected, rash-free and remarkably unrestricted. It all seemed like wearing hardly anything at all.
Extra body mass
Which was a good thing, for there was that slight matter of my extra mass. At 6–foot–tall and 170 pounds, I was in the average category in my teenage years. Decades of meat and potatoes later, all of the extra weight was on me, not in the equipment. Imagine skating around with a bag of cement strapped to your stomach and you’ll get the idea.
Three weeks of self-directed practice was poor preparation for what was soon to follow. I quickly found that the basic ice hockey concepts were still imprinted in my mind. Getting my body to implement them was another matter. That magic moment when you realize that your mental and physical sides aren’t on speaking terms any longer is not a pleasant one.
My first game in 30 years was mostly spent turning in circles trying to follow the flow of play. Middle-aged transplanted Canadians blew past me like I was standing still. Fifteen minutes of play found me drenched with sweat and praying hard that the A line could stay out there just a minute longer.
Big adjustments had to be made. Sleeping in on weekends became a thing of the past; my leisure time now started before my workdays. Ever since feeling the twinge of a slight groin pull, stretching became part of my daily routine. Stairways avoided for years to “make my knees last” were now the route of choice.
The search for a jersey that would properly fit my broad-shouldered adult frame ended only when I special ordered a pro-quality size 56 Yaroslav Torpedo (the single–most colorful and expensive piece of clothing I’ve ever owned). Gone was the full face shield which my wife had insisted; too much sweat and fog on the glasses. Now she and I tolerate a half visor in its place.
Yet, beneath all of the strain, disruption and expense, changes have appeared. I’m down into the “ninth of a ton” weight class for the first time in 20 years, shifting my belt to its unused second notch. Each week finds me skating harder, longer and smarter. Since the third week, I’ve played all of my shifts, and even after going full blast for an hour, I feel like the proverbial million bucks.
Interest from a co-worker maneuvered me into taking the adult introductory hockey class with him. There, I relearned a lot of what I’d forgotten (and a few things of which I’d never heard). For the first time in my life, I’m stopping hard to my right … without first thinking about it. “Power skating theory” has modified my stance down into a toad-like pose (and boosted my speed to boot). I can even keep my feet after a slap shot from the line while putting the puck high on the goal mouth in the bargain.
I’ve grown used to the smell of stale sweat of others on team-owned jerseys. The chaotic experience of drop-in hockey has given way to the house league, an interesting mixture of older guys like me who come from a wide variety of backgrounds but share the common passion for the world’s fastest sport. My “hockey wife,” Joyce Ann, knows where the coffee pot is hidden, and where to keep warm and yet have the best view. And my son now treats me with some respect, especially after he learned that my bent knees and inside edges could deal with the best body check he could dish out. All in all, a most enjoyable experience in the late summer of my life.
This space recently detailed the sorrow a father felt when his child finally decided to “hang up his skates” and give up the game of hockey. Cheer up, Dad; all is not lost. Remember, those skates can always come down out of the attic in the future. The legs may not be as agile, and the bone-jarring body check may no longer be part of the game, but a geezer can still have a good time chasing a rubber disk around at eleven o’clock at night … even in Texas. l
Terry L. Stibal is a 47–year–old program manager for the US Department of Labor in Houston TX. He returned to hockey after a 30–year absence, and hasn't looked back since.