Last spring, I was listening to a hockey podcast covering the Sochi Olympics. They were talking about Martin St. Louis, the then-Tampa Bay Lightning player that made the Canadian Olympic team after Steven Stamkos pulled out due to an injury.
None of the experts were sure how much Marty would play during the Olympics, but he did see some action during the early games. He was dressed but didn’t see any ice time in the game versus the United States, but came back and played 4 minutes in Canada’s win over Latvia. In the gold medal game versus Sweden, St. Louis was +1 with 3 shots and 6:46 on the ice. The reporter commented on St. Louis’ performance by saying that he was playing every shift trying to get another shift.
That’s a great observation, and a great lesson for young hockey players. As good as Martin St. Louis is, on a team where every player is a superstar, even he didn’t know if or when his next shift was going to come. So he went out and, on every shift, played like this shift was going to be his last. By doing that, by playing that hard, he earned another shift, and then another, and another. If during any one of those shifts he went out there and coasted, his day would have been done because, even though he is the star on the Lightning, on Team Canada he was surrounded by a team of guys that were younger, bigger, stronger, and better hockey players than him. But he got his minutes because he played every second of them.
There are very few players in the league that are guaranteed another shift. Sidney Crosby always knows he’s going to get another shift, and that he’ll likely be put in during crucial situations. But even though he knows it, he goes out and plays every shift as if he is earning his next shift, and that’s why he’s one of the best players in the world.
Odds are, you are not a Sydney Crosby. If you are a Sydney Crosby, first send me your autograph, then do what he does and show the world why you get the minutes that you do. Odds are, though, that you’re a Martin St. Louis on Team Canada, a great player surrounded by other great players, fighting for your minutes. So go out there and fight for them as if every shift could be your last.
Last Sunday, I took my son to his weekly “learn to skate” class. I parked the car, grabbed his gear, and we walked through the automatic doors in to the lobby. Tracking a four-year old through the chaos of a hundred other kids coming and going takes most of my attention, so I don’t usually notice any of the other parents until my son is on the ice. But as I pushed through the double doors heading to the rink, I found myself face to face with another parent that happened to be a player on our local NHL team.
When I take my son to his class, I stand at the glass for the entire session. I want him to know that I am there to support him, and that nothing is more important to me for those 30 minutes than him. I do my best to not be a distraction, but I will give him an encouraging smile or a thumbs up when he does something that I can tell that he is proud of. While he’s waiting for other kids to catch up, we’ll do a fist bump through the glass with our signature “boom!” at the end before I point his attention back to his teacher.
I’ve often dreamed about what it would have been like to be an NHL player — playing a game that I love for a living, representing my country in the Olympics, scoring the game winning goal in overtime, and winning the cup. But the other side of that is the travel, being away from my family, and the lack of privacy. Sure, few NHL players have the recognition factor of a George Clooney or even a Peyton Manning, but the odds are that walking around town in the city where you play or in a big hockey market, you’re going to get recognized and, inevitably, your life off the ice will get be less and less private. It’s one of those pieces of the professional athlete’s job description that makes me grateful of being just a guy with a normal job. I can go out to dinner with my wife or watch my kid skate without being stared at or asked for autographs and being unable to be truly present in those moments with my family.
Fortunately, everyone left him alone, and midway through the class, the NHLer reached through the door to give his kid a tap on the helmet and a “good job”. Well, it was in French, so I’m assuming he said good job. But I smiled at them because for 30 minutes on a Sunday, he wasn’t a celebrity or a professional athlete. He was a dad cheering on his kid in a “learn to skate” class, just like me.
One of my son’s favorite movies is Disney Pixar’s Finding Nemo. It’s the story of a timid clownfish’s search for his young son named Nemo who gets captured off the Great Barrier Reef. Along the way, this clownfish (Marlin) meets an optimistic fish named Dory who sings a song proclaiming the simple philosophy: when life gets you down, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.
I’ve had the song in my head since yesterday’s drop-in game. I was back on the blue line as the other team broke out of the zone with a two-on-none. I turned, put my head down, and skated as hard as I could. I saw that the puck handler was on a trajectory that would bring him wide of the net, meaning that he was looking to pass, so I angled myself towards his winger and kept skating, skating, skating. Head up, I saw the pass coming and, at the last second, I poked my stick in between the shooter and the incoming puck and rendered the shot harmless as the puck slid in to the corner.
I am not the fastest skater; far from it. But most of the time in those situations, the offensive players stop skating. They’re focused on reading the play, or controlling the puck, or simply slowing down to stay in front of the net to make a play. I’ve seen a lot of defensemen stop skating as they close in on the attackers, but what happens is that they winds up gliding at the same speed with no hope of actually catching up and impacting the play.
Even if you are a slow skater, you will (probably) move faster than someone whose legs aren’t moving. But even if you aren’t able to catch up to prevent the shot, you’ll be in place to make a play on the rebound.
Learn a lesson from a little, blue, animated fish: Just keep skating. Just keep skating.
My son started watching hockey the day after he was born. I laid on the couch holding him and watching the Avalanche play on one of the handful of channels that came in to the recovery room. He left the hospital wearing a Vancouver Canucks tuque over his tiny head. A few weeks ago, some four years later after his first hockey game, he stood on his skates on the pond watching hockey and asked when he would get to play.
When I was growing up, I had an absent father who occasionally took me to a Hartford Whaler game. My only other hockey experience was playing on the flooded softball field that made for a temporary pond and bumpy hockey games with my friends. No clinics, no leagues, just a bunch of yankees skating around with sticks and a puck. Both those were some of the best memories from my childhood, and it was enough to solidify my connection to the game for the rest of my life.
As an adult, I took some skating and hockey lessons and joined my first team and had an incredible eight year run with a great group of guys until I left the team before the birth of my son. Those late nights make it hard on a new family, and I didn’t want to miss any part of my son growing up. As soon as he could stand, he grabbed his first hockey stick. When he broke his foot jumping off a chair at the age of two, he played hockey with a cast on his foot swinging the stick from his knees. In our new house, we left the basement empty with two nets on either end of the room, and most nights you can find us down there pretending to be NHL players battling for the cup.
No matter what he does or where he goes when he grows up, I hope he keeps his love for the game, because it’s been part of what has also connected us.
During drop-in last week, I dumped the puck in to the zone and skated to the bench for a change. In between gasping for breath and trying to get my water bottle open, out of the corner of my eye I saw a familiar face on the bench sitting next to me. I looked over to see a teammates from my old team. “Andy!”, I said, and we caught up between shifts.
When I moved to Colorado, I found a team through a friend of a friend and joined them as they were transitioning from roller hockey to ice. They had an established team but they wanted to add a few people with ice experience to help with their move, so they picked me up and I played with them for eight years. With three seasons a year, that’s adds up to a lot of late nights, which is fine for a younger, single guy. But after I got married and we had our son, my priorities changed, and I left my team to open up a slot for someone who could more fully commit.
In my four-year hiatus, I focused on my home life and my career, and then on playing Nerf hockey in the basement with my son. A little over a year ago, with the encouragement of my wife, I started playing drop-in again to get back on the ice. It was great getting back on the ice, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I ran in to my teammates. Even in a good-sized city with 10 rinks, there are only so many leagues and only so many drop-ins, and the odds of crossing paths again are always high. I’ve heard as much in the locker room, as well, with random people coming in and out for drop-in and seeing old friends and teammates from years gone by, brought back together by their love for playing the game.
The hockey world is a small one, especially here in the U.S. But we’re also a loyal one, and we play the game because we love it. And even if we leave it, it’s rarely for good. So it’s nice to come back to some familiar faces.
My four year old son wants to play hockey. He’s wanted to play hockey since before he could walk. Even after he could walk, when he broke his foot and had a cast on it at the age of 2, he found a way to play hockey from his knees until the cast came off.
We also watch a lot of hockey. He knows all the team’s logos and the numbers and names for most of their stars. He likes to cheer for the home team, no matter who it is, unless it’s the Avalanche or the Lightning, in which case he’ll cheer for them whether they are home or away, and from the couch he’ll start his “Let’s go Avalanche” chant, to which I happily join in.
But hockey is a fast sport played by grown men. It’s dangerous, and aggressive, and there are dirty players, and big hits, and fights. It’s quite a big chasm between explaining the concepts in the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Cody McLeod boarding someone or punching them in the face.
Say what you will about the brutality of football (we don’t watch that, anyway), but you don’t see a lot of on-the-field fighting. Same with soccer. Sometimes, although rarely, a fight breaks out in baseball. But fighting is still a part of the culture in hockey, and something like 40% of the games have a fight. That’s a lot of explaining to do.
For now, fighting is a part of hockey. It’s too common to ignore, so we talk about it when it happens and I think he has a good a grasp as a four year old can on such a complicated concept. The last thing I want is for my son to think that behavior is appropriate off the ice, such as in school or the playground. And so I explain it to him as best I can. Those players are making bad choices, I’ll tell him, and that’s why they go in to the penalty box. There is a great book called Dino Hockey that has two dinosaur hockey players fighting and the narrator says “That’s not the way to win the cup”, and so we apply that same concept to the real world fighting, as well.
There are great lessons to be taught by watching what goes on on the ice, and some times those lessons come from teaching how not to behave.
So far, our basement hockey games are recreations of great shots, great goals, great celebrations, great saves, and the sportsmanship that should be the core value in any sport. He’s as gracious when he wins as he is when he loses, and we shake hands at center ice and tell each other “good game” when it’s over.
A few times a month, I play drop-in hockey during lunch. Drop-in is a great way to play hockey and improve your skills without committing to the long term commitment of a season.
Drop-in is just that; players drop in to play for about an hour to an hour and a half. Typically, the sides are divided by dark and white jerseys. There will be pockets of players that know each other and get on the same team, but generally the players naturally get segmented in a way that keeps the teams as even as possible.
There are no face-offs in drop-in, and no refs. The players are responsible for calling offsides, for example, and the players also generally police themselves.
1. No long term commitment.
Especially if you’re just starting out, you might not be ready to sign up for a team. Drop-in provides a way to get as much or as little hockey experience as you are ready for without shelling out a ton of money to play a full season only to decide you don’t like it.
2. No set positions.
Because drop-in works on a first off, first on rotation, you’ll likely be playing in every position during a single session. That means you’ll be offensive one shift and defensive the next, working on different skills each time. It’s a great way to see the game from those different positions and improve your game overall.
3. Play with more skilled players.
With a few exceptions, leagues generally tend to group people based on their skill level. Drop-in is for everyone, so an average player will have some players worse than and some players better than them. In some cases, I’ve played against people visiting home that play college or junior hockey. Playing with and against other people that are better than me is the best way to challenge myself and has a dramatic affect on my skill level.
4. Play with a lot of different people.
Along the same lines as playing with players more skilled than you, hitting the ice with a lot of different players with different styles will keep you on your toes, too. You’ll need to adapt your own play to match those around you, and anything that gets you out of your comfort zone is a sure-fire way to learn, grow, and improve as a hockey player.
5. Meet new friends.
Drop-in hockey is a great way to meet other players in your area. When the time comes to join a team, this networking can help you find a team to join with people you already know!
When I was a kid growing up in Connecticut, I was never on a hockey team. We played pond hockey (the pond was actually a flooded and frozen softball field), but it wasn’t very organized and what we lacked in strategy and skill was made up by an abundance of energy. Eventually, I left Connecticut and moved to the great frozen tundra of Florida before I think they knew what hockey was. My dreams of being a Hartford Whaler were dashed both by my own move and by the team’s eventual move to the south.
When I was in my twenties, the landscape changed. Florida had two NHL teams, and my loyalties switched to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Young and single, friends and I would hit a few Lightning games a month. When an ice rink opened near my house, I was nostalgic for those days playing hockey on the pond and I called to see what they had to offer and was pleasantly surprised when they mentioned a Hockey 101 class.
Taking that class–and another one with some friends that were switching from roller hockey to ice–was probably the best thing I could have done to learn to play hockey as an adult.
I’m a big proponent of taking classes to learn almost everything. When I moved to Colorado and wanted to snowboard, I took lessons. When I wanted to learn to cook, I took classes. That’s why I recommend that you take classes, too.
The beauty is that most ice rinks offer a number of programs that can get you from the couch to the ice, even if you’ve never been on skates before!
Learn to Skate
If you’ve never been on skates before, or if you aren’t comfortable going forwards, backwards, and stopping, then you should take a learn to skate class. If you’ve been off skates for a number of years, these classes are great for refreshing that muscle memory that you might have lost to rust.
Most rinks offer a number of different learn to skate classes for different ages and levels, so be honest with your abilities and sign up for the right one. There is no shame being a grownup taking a “Beginner 1″ class, and it will be more fun and more useful to take that one than it would be to take a more advanced class where you can’t keep up with the other students. If you have any doubt about which class to take, call the rink and talk to someone in the program.
You may not needs skates at this point. You might be able to rent skates or they may come along with the cost of your class, so be sure to ask.
The better you are on your feet, the better the hockey experience will be, so I would recommend participating in open skate sessions, as well, after your classes are complete to practice what you have learned.
Learn the Basics
I’l have another post covering this topic in more detail, but learn the basics if you don’t already know them. Learn the positions, learn the basic rules (offsides, icing), and learn the basic terminology (power play, shorthanded).
I mean, really watch hockey! Once you have a basic hockey vocabulary, you’ll be able to make sense out of the game as it unfolds on the television. You’ll start to understand the strategy of the game, how where the different positions typically play, and how they work together as a team.
Hockey is a fast sport (much faster in the NHL than on the recreational rinks, but it’s still fast!). The more you watch, the easier it will be to follow, and the better you’ll be able to turn that knowledge in to action on the ice.
Get Your Gear
If you don’t have it already, it may be time to buy your skates and other gear. Check out my Resources page for a list of the gear that I use. Minimally, you’ll want skates, a helmet, shoulder pads, elbow pads, gloves, breezers, knee pads, skates, and a stick. The equipment I use is a good combination of quality and cost.
Learn to Play Hockey / Hockey 101
Once your comfortable on your skates and understand the basics, it’s time to sign up for a Learn to Play Hockey (sometimes called Hockey 101) class, also offered at your local rink. They’ll cover hockey-specific skating skills, stick and puck handling, and basic strategy. They might break the participants up in to teams and work through scrimmages and strategy. I remember my first scrimmage, the first time I was “really” playing hockey, and the smile on my face could have been seen from space.
Once you finish the Hockey 101 class, you’ll likely be ready for a lower recreational league, but you can ask your instructor for their recommendation. If you’re not ready for a league, you can also sign up for a “stick and puck” session where you can go practice your skills, or for more of a challenge, sign up for a drop-in session.
One major hurdle to getting started playing hockey is the cost of the equipment. Even with the great prices over at HockeyMonkey and GoalieMonkey, a full set of equipment will set you back a few hundred bucks to over a grand for decent goalie gear. That’s a lot to drop at once, especially if you’re just getting started in the sport.
Used gear provides a lower-cost way to get the gear you need without going broke. If you’re a smart shopper and educate yourself before you buy, you can get a complete set of used gear for a fraction of the price of new.
Where To Buy Used Hockey Gear
There are a number of places where you can buy used hockey gear both in person and over the internet. Don’t worry if you don’t find what you are looking for right away. Keep checking back and eventually someone will have the piece in the size you need available.
Play It Again Sports - If you live in a hockey-friendly area, Play It Again Sports (PIAS) is a good place to look for used hockey gear. I picked up a starter goalie set (mask, chest, blocker, glove, and leg pads) for around $200. The glove and blocker are pretty tired, but they’re good enough for drop-in and certainly good enough to take shots from my little forward. Some PIAS affiliates have equipment on their website, but because of the nature of how they operate, you should check in regularly to see what they have in stock at any time.
Craigslist - Similar to PIAS, Craigslist is best for used equipment in areas with an established hockey market.
eBay (Team Sports – Ice & Roller Hockey) – If you are outside of a hockey market, eBay is a good option. The downside of eBay is that you can’t touch and see the gear and check the fit before you buy it, so be sure you know your size before you buy anything. Also, as with everything on eBay, check out the reviews and comments and only buy from reputable sellers.
goaliestore.com - Message boards with classifieds section for buying and selling hockey gear. I haven’t used this site so I can’t speak to the quality, but it’s broken down by specific pieces of gear so it is easy to navigate.
Visit The Clearance Section
Can’t find quality used gear in your size? Another great option for getting gear at a good price is to visit the virtual clearance section over at HockeyMonkey and GoalieMonkey. The clearance section includes a lot of last season’s equipment and overstocked items, so if you don’t care about having the latest in hockey fashion, you can take advantage of great deals if you can find your size.
Although I’ve been playing hockey for a number of years, I’m just starting my journey as a goalie. Since I want to stay true to my mission and only recommend products that I have actual experience with, instead of recommending specific products, I’ve put together a list of equipment with links to Goalie Monkey where you can see all the equipment for a specific category. Many of the items for sale have reviews from people that have used them, so be sure to read them before you buy.
The prices I’ve included in the table below are for entry-level senior gear, which should be fine for starting goalies. The more expensive gear is generally better with better padding, so if you’re planning on standing in front of an NHL slapshot, you’ll want to pay more for higher end gear.
Goalie Monkey also put together a sizing guide that you can find here.
Leg pads will be the single biggest investment, but considering they’ll take a lot of abuse from pucks, sticks, skates, and general mayhem, they’re worth it.Leg Pad Size = Size of skate + Ankle to knee (inches) + Knee to thigh (inches)