Saturday, December 03, 2011


Just get it on net.

“You need to start from further back. Behind your skate.”

“No, I just need to get it on net.”

“You’d get more power that way.”

“But I wouldn’t get it on net.”

He sighs. We’ve had this argument before. We always have this argument when we go out to practice. He wants me to do it right. I want to do it however I can actually do it. We’d go around and around and around until he gave up, realizing that if I can’t practice the way I want, I won’t practice at all. And the boy likes to have somebody to practice with.

Today I am practicing proto-one-timers. Or, something that you might call proto-one-timers if you sort of squint and think kind thoughts, but to call them one-timers would be to accord them a dignity that they do not have. My ‘shots’ are not worthy of the name. But they are, increasingly, on net. He passes to me from the fringes along the boards, and I try to whack the puck without having to stop and control it first.

“You need to snap your wrists more.”

“No, I don’t.”

“It’d be more accurate that way.”

“Don’t need to beat a goalie. Just need to get it on net.”

After two hours, I can hit the net on passes from both sides, standing anywhere from the hash marks down to the front of the crease. That should be enough.


The problem with learning hockey from Canadians is that Canadians do not fully appreciate the complexity of their hockey philosophy and practice. The edifice of Canadian hockey knowledge is the Angkor Wat of sports thought: vast, labyrinthine, and covered everywhere in ornate detail. It’s taken the culture generations of dedicated research and development to produce this understanding of the game, and it is truly a magnificent thing. But Canadians themselves tend to think of it as easy and even obvious, as though it’s just the way hockey is and always has been. They look at the palace and think it’s a pebble.

Every single thing you do in hockey has at least 19 different rules about the right way to do it. Consider shooting. ‘A shot’ is not just putting the puck on net. Oh, no no no. You’ve got to point your toes this way and have your weight just so and make sure the puck is on the heel of your stick and behind your skates and drop your shoulder and open the blade and then close the blade and then open it again and also shift your weight and twist your wrists and hold your breath and lift your spleen and tense some weird little muscles under your butt that you never used before for anything and say the Heart Sutra four times fast in your head. Experienced hockey people do this and they look awesome and pick corners and such. Inexperienced hockey people do this and whiff the shot, fall down, and glare malevolently at their so-called ‘instructor’, who just looks disappointed and skates away, muttering, “That’s what happens when you don’t lift your spleen.”

And it’s not just one part of hockey that’s viciously intricate, it’s all of them. Skating, stopping, turning, passing, taking a faceoff, battling against the boards, everything. There is not one discreet hockey skill that can be explained in a single sentence. There are essays out there on the internet 50% longer than the longest post I’ve ever written just trying to explain good skating form. I get sore quads just thinking about them.

Now, before all y’all pile on with all your explanations of why every single element of that is really really really important, let me emphasize this: I KNOW. I know that in order to play hockey at all one must do at least 50% of these things competently, and in order to be good at hockey one must master them all. I’m not saying they’re wrong. I’m just saying it’s impossible to take it in all at once. It’s just too much. My brain doesn’t have the RAM to run all these processes at the same time. It overloads the synapses, and leaves me on my ass, staring at the inner Blue Screen of Death and not having moved the puck one inch.

There is an order of operations to everything in life, learning most of all. Trying to teach a textbook wrist shot to a hockey novice is like trying to teach calculus to a two-year-old: incredibly difficult and relatively pointless. We will learn things only when we need and want to know them. Toddlers do not need calculus, they need to describe the quantity of apple pieces they want. Similarly, I do not need to take a perfect wrist shot. I just need to get it on net.


I have zero physical advantages in my girl hockey class. I’m small and feeble even by lady standards, and the class leans a bit in the direction of jockish women- the sort who run marathons and participate in co-ed flag football leagues. They have actual muscles and far more kinesthetic intelligence than I do. I’m never going to outplay them on speed or strength.

But I have watched a bit of hockey in my day, and as the class wears on it becomes clear that most of the other participants have not. They don’t recognize the common terminology (offensive zone, crease, backhand, etc), they don’t know how offsides works, and they don’t play positions. But most interestingly, they do not defend the slot. At all. Ever. Last class I was fortunate to be teamed with one of the more talented chicks and therefore got to spend more than ten seconds in the O-zone, and I realized that I could just hang out in the low slot all day long and nobody would so much as look at me, much less actually try to cover me.

I’m no master strategist, but it doesn’t take much to realize that with even the tiniest bit of finishing ability I could kill on the totally nonexistent scoreboard. All I have to do is get the puck on net. Quickly.

So yes, I am deliberately plotting to exploit the tactical deficiencies of a beginner women’s hockey practice. This is not honorable. The honorable thing to do would be to point out to my defending classmates that there is this one place on the ice from which it is extremely easy to score and, therefore, one should try to keep opponents and pucks out of that area. The honorable thing would be to turn this into a teachable moment and improve everyone’s skills. The honorable thing would be to put the good of the group ahead of my own. An honorable hockey player would recognize that this game is meaningless as a competition and exists only for the improvement of the community, and therefore it is unseemly to take it too seriously, and utterly immoral to run up the score.

Unfortunately for my honor, this could be the best opportunity I ever get to score a goal. Competitiveness 1, Ethics 0.


I get to the next practice late and over-caffeinated, and the drills are as much of a struggle as they always are. I strongly suspect that no one in the history of the game has mangled a horseshoe as badly as we do in this class, although the breakouts are getting better. Also, I only get accidentally whacked in the head once, down 60% from last time (some of these women are going to be very surprised when they find out what high-sticking is). But my so-called ‘shots’ are not working any better in the drills this week than they were last week. Not auspicious.

Shinny starts and I’m beginning to doubt the plan. Could be they’re wising up and they won’t let me get away with it. Could be I’m still not good enough to finish the chances when they come. But the talented chick is on my team again, so insha’allah they will come.

And soon. First faceoff we win and gain the zone honest-like, no offsides and puck in deep, and she’s chasing it behind the net, three defenders on her. I know the girl in the black is going to hang back at the blue line, because she’s smart like that and also doesn’t like to have to skate end-to-end. So I go to the slot, alone- three girls on my one teammate and one on the far side boards covering another, nobody’s looking at me. So I wait. The puck will pop out into the middle. It always does.

It does. I whack it so hard the stick vibrates in my hands.

A goalie of my acquaintance once told me that you can hear a goal before you see it. A blocked shot is a dull thunk off padding. A missed shot is an echoey bang off the boards. And of course no one could mistake the dulcet ping that comes from a post. But a goal, most of the time, sounds like nothing. A goal is a split second of silence chased by a wall of noise.

This time the only noise is me. It is a most undignified whoop.

There is no feat of emotional control harder than attempting to stay cool after scoring the first goal of your entire life. It takes literally every reserve of classiness in my body to keep from launching into a full-on jumping/hugging routine. I have to visualize every old-school hockey ethicist I’ve ever seen sternly lecturing on the evils of goal celebrations. I have to remind myself in the harshest possible terms that I am a shitty hockey player and this game means as little as it is possible for any game to mean. But I still take the next faceoff grinning, with a high-voltage heat in my chest so intense I’m sure it must be visible through my jersey.

Nothing in hockey literature palls faster than accounts of games you weren’t at and don’t care about, so I won’t bother with the play-by-play on the subsequent fifteen minutes, suffice to say this: the second one was much the same as the first, and the third was a rebound off the blade of the ad-hoc goalie, and once I was safely changed and outside with no one to judge me except the hockey gods and the non-hockey pedestrians of Parkdale, I sang out loud the whole way home.

Next week, I’ll tell them about the slot. Promise.


alice said...

You can't know—even when I tell you—just how much this brightened my day.

wychwood said...

Oh man, that's such a great story. Congratulations on the hat-trick! :)

I'm terrible at physical stuff, and it's so hard to explain to people, like you say, that you can't do all the things right at once, that it really does require working on one thing at a time. I suppose once you have the whole thing seamless, you don't even realise that it has all those tiny components any more.

I hope you keep posting about your adventures - it's fascinating to read about.

Jonathan said...

This is me, tossing my imaginary hat on the ice.

Black Dog said...

As a guy who writes about his own hockey exploits quite a bit let me just say how much I enjoyed this Ellen. Absolutely fantastic.

Baroque97 said...

As someone who is only 5' 2" and not at ALL athletic, this was a great story.

And honestly, if they didn't understand a "slot" before, they weren't going to fully understand a purely verbal explanation. You needed a clear example to point to so they would understand, and it wouldn't be a waste of your effort and their time.

Scoring a hat trick is the perfect example for next time. :)

The Forechecker said...

Wonderful stuff, isn't it? I remember my first beer league goal from 20 years ago. We lost the game 18-1 (we were horrible) but I felt like a frickin' star.

jono said...

Tremendous write up. I remember my first goal at every level I played: from Mosquito to Beer League to Friday night pick-up. Always that electric feeling in your chest, always trying to be "cool" about the goal celebration.

Now teaching my boys to skate and shoot and backcheck and realizing the truth of your words about progression. First we focus on connecting with the puck, then we focus on not falling down after connecting, then making sure we hit it in the right general direction...

I also sacirfice my imaginary hat in celebration.

Alice said...

Ryan Jones, is that you?

That would explain a few things.

Ender said...

I feel your pain/glee.

I'm a Canadian male who didn't really learn how to skate until 28. Close to having my citizenship revoked, I'm sure. I'm not a horrible player, really, because I've played a ton of street/floor hockey, but on ice it's a completely different story.

I play a weekly game with a bunch of people who are way better than me. Some of them played U18 for their respective countries. I normally play net, though, and in net I can more or less hold my own.

But every few weeks I need to play out because the nets are full. You might not know, but goalie skates and player skates have pretty different blades, so it always takes me quite a while to work out the balance of them. Even then, I have a really hard time skating and doing anything else at the same time. Pivots and all that. A good chunk of my game is flailing around and slamming into the boards.

But I'm not a horrible *player*, just a horrible *skater*. People see me skate and assume I'm just bad. and then I get a tip-in because nobody thinks I can stand long enough to do anything in front of the net. And then I get a top-corner goal because the slot is full of bodies and, coming from the outside, nobody challenges me. It always takes me a second to realize that, but when I do I just kind of walk in and put in through/around the herd.

And then they clamp down on me the rest of the game and I get knocked down onto the ice a lot. But since I play out so rarely, this pretty consistently happens.

Long story short, you're not the only one. Take them while you can and never feel bad about exploiting idiocy ;) They'll learn eventually. You're just teaching.

E said...

thank you kindly, one and all. i used to feel rather ambivalent about the personal posts- kind of self-indulgent, you know?- but the longer i'm around the more i believe that hockey is something that belongs equally to everyone who plays it no matter what their level, and it's sort of sad that we talk so much about the pros and so little about the rest of us, even there are so many more of us than them.