13 December 2016

The Goalie Years - My 5 years in Net

1985 was a good year.
I was, many many years ago, a hockey player. A goalie to be precise and while I only played for 5 seasons, I look back with great nostalgia on those days. I can remember strapping the pads on for the first time at age 12, nervous and scared, I could barely skate. Growing up as a bookworm who caught the hockey bug late will do that and wobbling out onto the ice, I probably spent more time on my ass than on my feet. But I was in love from the first scent of those musty, heavy leather pads and I persisted, getting back up every time. The first moment I took my place in the rectangle to guard the net is fresh in my mind and the whack of the puck as I made my first glove save brings a smile to my face even now.
That 1985/86 hockey season was eye opening for our whole family. We had been part of a 10 pin bowling league but were not prepared for the close knit and sometimes political minor hockey world. But for that first year, it was pure joy. Early morning Saturday games, snacks at the concession stand and a big lunch afterwards of fresh crusty buns and deli meat are the things I wish to recreate when I close my eyes and reminisce. Tournaments meant a weekend spent at the arena with the real treat for us kids, lunch or dinner at a McDonalds's, something that was very rare for our family back in those days. Car rides to the arena and spending time together when we didn't realise we'd eventually grow up and long for those easy days again are but two of the things I wish I could have realised. I know we lost more games than we won that first year, but I was dutiful in trying to get better. I turned to books for help and had a battered copy of legendary NHL goalie Jacques Plante's book that was my everything. His passion for the position was matched by my own and I will always be a fan for his knowledge and wish to spread it to anyone who wanted to improve.
My first team picture
I had been dropped down to a younger division in my first season because of my obvious lack of skill and figured to play the next year with my friends of the same age, but that was not to be. For whatever reason, a lack of goalies, my own bravado and confidence, I skipped right past the PeeWee (12/13) league and into the much tougher Bantam (14/15) division. Looking back, I think I must have been crazy, but it proved to be the greatest season of my very short career. 
Winning with these guys meant everything to 14 year old me.
It was on this team I encountered the man who would influence my later decision to coach and become a leader instead of sitting back. Sid Nelson was a brash, loud guy who was first and foremost a motivator of young men. He taught me about the psychology of the game, instilling a passion that forever remains with me. He believed in me, even when there were times I struggled to keep up with my older teammates or the stronger shots from the other team. One player in particular, Donny Sawchuk, took me under his wing and despite being a quiet young man, was fierce in his defense of his teammates and played with such vigor, I always tried to match him. When we won the two-game, total goal Championship 9-7, I remember being mobbed by my teammates and that feeling of being the best at something, even a house league champion, is with me, warm and happy, to this day.

Our sponsor was a father of one of the other players and when we went to their place for the end of the year party, he presented us with real Championship rings. I wore that proudly for many years and to my regret lost it during those tumultuous teenage misadventures I have spoken of before. I wish I could find it, it meant so much to me. But the memories persist so clear, that I will be happy with just them.
The next few years found me realising just how little skill I had. My heart was big, but my ability could not match it. Mom and Dad even sprung for the not inconsiderable cost of hockey schools, but it was pretty apparent that I was becoming more of a teacher than a player.

The Last season, Repping Hometown hockey
Two seasons removed from that glorious run to gold, I was part of the local Rep team, mainly because there were only two of us the proper age to be on the team and it was an eye opening experience to say the least. Representing Stoney Creek in a AA loop of southern Ontario communities was a moment of pride but also when I finally started to turn my eyes towards being behind the bench instead of the ice. At this level, I didn't play much, and my lack of talent made me wonder what I was doing wrong. My goaltending partner that season, John, was outstanding in net and off the ice. He gave me tips and tried to help keep my spirits up as the goals against mounted and my playing time decreased. Particularly memorable was our playing a team from Sweden, a tie game in which John stopped almost 50 shots and I came to the very real vision, sitting on the bench,  that I was not going to play hockey very much longer.
I finished the season out and even went to tryouts the next year, but the writing was on the wall. I had been pulled aside by those running the team to talk about my future. It was put to me that while I would be on the team because there were only two of us the right age again, if I would accept being cut, a younger but infinitely more talented goalie could be brought on board. I had already begun coaching and knew in my head they were right, I didn't belong on that team. But my heart wasn't so sure and I told them I'd think about it and hit the ice for practice. Skating around, taking in the scene and trying to fight back the tears I felt brimming in my eyes, I knew I was done as a goalie. I took my place in net and finished the day with a final stop that funny enough was a glove save. I remember dropping the puck on the ice and saying a silent goodbye to my dreams of making the NHL. Not that I ever really thought I would make it, but when you are a kid, dreams seem so real. I skated off the ice, never again to strap on those pads and guard my net with my body and soul. A little bit of my childhood died that final skate but it did lead me to what was to be my focus and all consuming obsession for the next few years.

My first Head Coaching job, the 1989 Penguins of Stoney Creek
 Becoming a Hockey Coach was so much more than I could have ever envisioned and for many years, it was the path I thought I'd never get off ; until life decided otherwise. But that's a story for another day.
Game on!

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