Of Insults and Assaults: A Middle Aged Man’s Adventures Playing the Fastest Team Sport
“Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing” — Oliver Wendell Holmes
When my son, seven years ago, decided to learn the game of hockey, I encouraged him. And I joined him. At his second practice, the coach invited interested parents to help him on the ice. I had learned to skate in my youth, and had played pond hockey and street hockey before (never mind that it was 3 decades before), so I stepped up. When the coach saw that I could stay upright at the subsequent practices, he invited me to play in the adult league. After due consideration, including consultation with my better half, I accepted the invitation, with some important qualifications: I would wear a helmet with a cage, to prevent facial re-modeling and costly dental work. And I would NOT engage in fighting other players. We both agreed that was just plain stupid.
So, in parallel with my son’s hockey odyssey, my own adventure in truly learning the game began. On my first shift, on my first shot, the puck somehow found its way into the net. It wasn’t a high velocity shot, to be sure. I think the equivalent in baseball would be the Eephus (or junk) pitch. But the goaltender muffed it. Badly. Embarrassingly badly. While the goalie cursed out the puck, I assured myself that the invective was not directed at me. And that lucky break was all the encouragement I needed to continue playing.
So I have kept at it, playing usually once a week, and have improved my game. Somewhat. At least my shots have come off the stick with considerably more velocity than the first one. My son, on the other hand, has become an excellent player. The same could not be said for me. However, I work hard, play my position, and compete hungrily. I play as if each shift could be my last, because, more than the younger players, I realize that could end up being true!
This past summer, I played on a good team. There were a few highly skilled players who carried the play. My approach for the season was to contribute what I could, and to make sure I never hurt the cause. Often, for the likes of me, that means staying out of the way of the talented guys. The strategy was executed well enough, as I contributed some assists — even a couple of goals — and we made the playoffs.
The first playoff game was hard fought. There was an interesting moment in the first period. I was forechecking one of the opposing players, when he accidentally fell down. The referee blew the whistle and called me for a tripping penalty.
“WHAT?!” I objected. “I never even touched him.”
My objection didn’t count for much. There was no instant replay or challenge flag opportunity. So, I sat in the penalty box and fumed while the other team scored. After the period ended, the referee came to the bench and apologized to me. It was the first game he had ever served as a ref, and he realized he blew the call against me. I had to smile. Our team could overcome that obstacle.
It was 3 – 3 in the middle of the third period when things got really interesting.The face-off was in our defensive zone. As a winger, my job, once the referee dropped the puck, was to cover the other team’s defenseman. That is what I set out to do. But the winger on the other team, who looked like he was the same age as my fourth oldest child, got in my way. (On purpose, I might add.) When I tried to go around him, he persisted in obstructing my progress. Then we became a little entangled. He pushed me. Then I pushed back, hard enough to knock him down. I didn’t see what happened next, because I was tackled from behind by one of my obstructor’s teammates. When I rose from the ice, I first looked for the knucklehead who jumped me. But I also sought out the newbie referee.
“Did you see THAT?” I inquired. He did not respond. This increased my sense of injustice even more. Was he going to ignore THIS!?
When I found who was the likely perpetrator, my teammate (our captain and best defenseman) decided to enter the fray.
“Why are you jumping on him?” he scolded my tackler. “He is 75 years old.”
It was then that indecision struck me. Who should I clobber first? The thug who jumped me? The clueless referee? Or my teammate, who just royally dissed me?
“SEVENTY FIVE??!” I heard myself yell.
A shrug was the response. “I didn’t know how old you were,” my captain apologized. Sort of. He knew I was older than him (30-ish), presumably because he saw my white chest hair in the locker room, but he didn’t feel the need to be precise about it. It was OUTRAGE OVERLOAD! (For the record, I was, at that moment, some 22 years away from achieving that particular milestone.)
I did not drop my gloves. I was way too angry for that. Suddenly, the young referee appeared, and called a penalty on my assaulter. I skated to the bench, to collect my thoughts, to upbraid my captain, and to assess my creaky bones and joints for new injuries. (Happily, there were none.)
If you don’t know hockey, the way it works is the penalized team skates with one less player for 2 minutes. The idea is that the wronged team should have an easier time to score a goal. That would be the socially-acceptable revenge.
And so the tackler’s team played short-handed, or under-manned. But they managed to score a goal during the penalty time, not us! And they ultimately held on to win the game, 4 – 3.
I knew the hockey gods were having a good, hard laugh at my expense. But I was able to chuckle with them. After all, I realized as both teams shook hands after the game that I was fortunate enough to be able to skate with these boys, some of whom are about one-third my age.
And this particular adventure gave me a new goal to shoot for: to play this amazing sport when I really am 75!