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Canadian Kids Get All The Luck (An Englishman Learns To Skate)

PenaltykillWhen you’re growing up, you learn a lot about your body. I know this sounds like an introduction to a school video about what to expect through puberty, but it’s not, so bear with me.

As a child, you grow accustomed to the things in your environment, and they become second nature. Take swimming for example. If you live on a small island, surrounded by the ocean, then swimming is something you will learn as a child and become very adept at, whilst if you live in the heart of China or Russia, where there’s very little in the way of natural lakes and oceans, then there’s no instinct to learn, and thus the people are less likely to start this ability. My father grew up on the Isle of Wight, and clearly remembers having to go for mandatory swimming lessons, simply because the English Channel formed such an integral part of the life of an islander.

The same can be said for skating. Many children in Canada learn to skate very early on in their lives. Not simply for the fun of it, but because when the majority of the country is frozen for the larger part of the year, it’s a very effective and useful skill to have. Therefore it’s taught in the same way that football is in the UK. Ice Hockey is the national sport (or so I’m told my multiple patriotic Canadians), and so surely it’s going to be more natural to a country that is very cold and very icy for the majority of the time.

The problem is, that Ice Hockey as a sport is appreciated all over the world, and thus you end up with many people catching the hockey ‘bug’ who are not only unlucky enough to not be Canadian, but not able to skate.

Enter me, aged 12. I buy NHL94 for my Sega Megadrive (Genesis) and am instantly hooked. I try skating, fall over a lot, and it hurts, but I love it. I decide it’s going to take some serious practice to learn to skate well, and since I’m playing football a lot, for two teams, and very regularly, it’s best that I stay as uninjured as possible. Thus I live in a split world of sports, where I love hockey, and all its charms of speed, excitement and fighting, and yet play football, which has the added bonus of being a sport I can play without spending £5 a time to fall on my knees for 2 hours. So this carries on until adulthood, and the ability to purchase the ESPN network for myself, and the hockey bug gets worse than ever. I now want to play, and I want to join a team.

My wife at the time told me that I would struggle with injury (the 9 years of Sunday League football take their toll on your knees and ankles), and that I’d end up crippling myself. She probably had a point, and thus I listened. Now however, I’m no longer having to listen, so not only am I learning to skate, but I’m learning to play hockey.

Now, for the latter, it’s not too much of a trial. I know the rules, I know the game, and I know where I’m supposed to be and when. Watching the game for the best part of two decades gives this instinct. The issue is the skating bit. Learning to skate as an adult is very difficult. I’d like to think, aged 28, that I’ve mastered the balance issues of life. I can walk without falling over, I can stand still, and I can hop on one leg when required without falling on my face.

Let me tell you, when I did take to the ice, for the first time in 15 years, I was absolutely terrified. However, fear is an obstacle that is to be overcome in life, and in my case, it was the obstacle stopping me from joining a hockey team and playing my beloved sport. I took a friend who was able to at least skate forwards and keep his balance. His tutorial consisted of, “Always keep your knees bent, and grip with your toes to give you more control of the skates”. These were wise words, and I found myself able to skate forwards, under control, and at a comfortable pace pretty quickly.

Getting a little cocky, I weaved between some other skaters and started to direct myself around the bottom of the rink. In a split-second my skates were out in front, and I was falling backward. My only image at that moment was of Donald Brashear’s head pounding onto the ice after McSorely whacked him with his stick. Not that anyone hit me with a stick, but the image of the back of Brashear’s head hitting the ice was enough to instinctively pull my head forward. Luckily, as I landed flat on my back, I’d saved my head, and my neck from being damaged, and so got up and skated on. Whatever happened now, I’d already fallen over, and so nothing could really phase me anymore.

I lobbied myself harder to get a team, and managed to get an invite to train with a team through a contact of a friend of mine (thanks Ollie!). Suddenly realising that buying all the kit was fine, but I needed to make sure I was at least able to skate from one end of the ice to the other without falling over, I arranged on my day off to head down to the rink and brush up.

You know those people that give themselves a really hard time if they don’t pick something up dead quickly? Yeah, I’m totally one of them.

I took my skates to get sharpened, but had to leave them overnight since the sharpening guy was off sick, and so for my final skate before training, I was forced to hire some skates, and join a public skating session, with no pads or helmet. Things turned from bad to worse as I took to the ice, and promptly forgot everything I’d learnt. Standing up straight, I kept my weight on my heels and I found myself going in whichever direction momentum took me, rather than in the direction I wanted to go in! After a couple of hefty falls, I got annoyed with myself. I’d grasped the whole knees, and toes thing again, but was angry for not being able to skate like Gretzky and Messier’s lovechild, and believed that after a few hours of skating, over a course of a couple of months, that I should be a God of the ice. Did I mention I give myself a hard time?

My frustration was funneled into aggression, and I skated harder and faster. My head started to calm a little bit when I realised I had built up a decent head of steam and could skate fast and with purpose. Stopping was out of the question though, and I bodyslammed the boards on a couple of occasions. One in particular where I felt myself crumple into a heap as powered along the wing, having lost control, and my prostrate body hurtled into the boards. Luckily, I broke my impact with my face, so managed to avoid hurting my limbs further. Had it not been for the fact my face was on the ice, getting very wet and very cold, I would still be lying there, groaning, with international curling going on around me.

Skating fast was great, but if I couldn’t stop, then it was pretty pointless. My knees were screaming, and my right one in particular was swelling up quite large. My hip was definitely bleeding after a nasty boards impact, and I was aching all over. I later found that both my elbows, and my right shoulder had joined in the swelling party, and I spent the evening not moving from the sofa unless it was absolutely necessary. I even seriously considered for about an hour, the possibility of peeing into a pint glass to avoid getting up.

I’d stayed overnight at a friend’s house, and in the morning, was barely able to get out of bed. I physically rolled to my left as I couldn’t lift my left leg, and the only way to get out of the depression of the mattress, was to hurl my entire body to one side. This I finally managed at the 3rd attempt, and landed with a wet crunch on the floor. Now I had another problem, and that was getting up off the floor. Trying to pull myself to my feet I audibly gasped at the state of my limbs. My elbows were large and puffy, and coloured in a deep green and yellow. Both knees were huge, and I struggled to put my jeans on over their bulbous swelling. The kicker however, was my left hip, which had indeed been bleeding, and although it had kept its shape and colour, hurt like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

My first training with a new team was in 3 day’s time, and I could hardly walk.

I’ve a couple of friends who play hockey regularly, and even they were a bit shocked at the state of my limbs. They kept telling me “When you’ve got the pads on, you barely feel a thing”, and I just prayed they were right.

The day game, and I arrived with all my gear, got kitted up in the changing rooms and headed out onto the ice with my new team. My head was spinning ‘stay confident, skate smooth, forget you’re a beginner, it’s ok to lean on your stick, knees bent, toes gr…’ I was already staring at the neon strip lights of the rink. I’d made it about 3 yards from the door onto the ice and was sat on my ass holding my stick in the air like some unusual and elaborate trophy. Thankfully, my friends had been correct, and the fall didn’t hurt one bit. I mentally thanked the guy on eBay who sold me the majority of my pads, and skated off.

Luckily, the guys on the team were already aware I was a beginner, and their assistance and tips really helped. By the end of the session, I was able to skate in the direction I wanted to go, turn pretty sharply, at a decent speed, and get myself into shooting and passing lanes.

I was told by the coach that it was clear I knew where I had to be, but that getting to those areas when it was still relevant was the issue. I completely agreed. Second session, my skating got stronger. I was able to improve my acceleration, and I started handling the puck. This was a completely new concept. I’d always played sports with my feet, and now I was having to use my hands, and a stick where the controlling bit was nearly 5 feet away from me. Luckily, I didn’t give myself a hard time, as I was able to control the passes, pass relatively accurately to teammates, and even fire a couple of shots.

The most important thing, was that I adored it. I skated about, playing the puck to teammates, and moving into positions where I would hopefully be effective, all with a huge grin on my face (not a great idea when wearing a half-visor, as your teeth make a decent target for errant pucks!).

Had I ignored the desire to brush up my skating, and simply gone and trained, therefore sparing myself the anguish and pain of slamming myself into the boards and ice so frequently and without padding, then I’d likely have been a lot more confident when I did start training.

And to think, it’d all be so much easier if I’d carried on skating when I was 12, or of course, been born in Manitoba…

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