It wasn’t a hard shot. There are no hard shots in adult women’s non-competitive beginner shinny. Okay, maybe one, but she doesn’t use it much, out of a sense of decorum or maybe just not giving a fuck. Beyond her, though, there a couple of accurate shooters, a few quick shooters, and a great number of terrible shooters, but no one who sends a puck flying in high or heavy. On defense, I’ll get in front of anything. Why not? There is no shot in this hour capable of denting my layers of plastic and foam, providing I have the ovaries to face it square.
So when I deflected a puck off my skate and pieces of black shrapnel scattered across the ice, it took several long seconds for me to figure out what happened. At first, dumbly, I thought the puck had broken. But then I remembered that rubber does not work that way, and looked down, and saw the pink of my toes peering back up at me.
My skate had shattered. Not just cracked, but shattered. The goalie was busy fishing up chunks of plastic from the crease and other bits hung by tenuous threads and specks of glue from the sides. My toe cap was gone.
I didn’t know such a thing was possible.
“I’ve never seen THAT happen before,” said the goalie, sympathetically, as I skated alone towards the doors.
In the dressing room, I mourned. They weren’t good skates. Probably they had never been good skates, some kind of leathery-looking CCMs that were already worn and dented when they came to me, their silvery plastic highlights battered to a dull iron grey, the ankle supports pre-softened by the sweat of whatever Taiwanese teenager had them before me. His name had been stuck on the back when I got them, three characters on a little sticker with a cartoon dog at the end, but somewhere along the way the tag had been lost. Whoever he was, we had had the same feet.
I dug my old skates up out of the dusty upper room of the only hockey shop in Taipei, out of masses of gear that would, in any normal hockey society, have been thrown away long ago. But in Taiwan, people save hockey things, reuse them, pass them along from one generation to the next, and old equipment survives well beyond its intended lifespan. I scavenged that room for whatever bits of gear I could fit into and take away for free- a pair of shinpads with hand-mended elastic, an old black helmet with a bulbous cage- but at first I wasn’t sure about the skates. I had been warned about the dangers of secondhand skates. They’ll pinch, people said, and bite, and leave you with sores and blisters and great thorny bone growths everywhere. I imagined my feet growing into knotty, scarred, Hobbit-like things, and clomping around the ice in pain.
But the old CCMs fit perfectly. I slid my feet in and stood and it was like standing in my very own boots, as if years of hard wear had molded them to my very own arches. I was absurdly grateful. It was like they’d found me, in a cool, quasi-mystical way. We were destined for each other.
This is all an elaborate way of saying that I loved my old skates.
Hockey is a technological game, it advances with the science of plastics and metals . We often talk about how players now are bigger and stronger than ever before, but much of what the modern hockeyist can do that the 1967 hockeyist could not has nothing to do with the man. It’s the stiffness of his skates and the lightness of his stick. It’s polymers. Half of hockey evolved on frozen lakes, but the other half was invented in a lab.
More than any other sport, hockey is a game where you can buy yourself better. Not dramatically better, maybe: you can’t buy eyes or instincts. But you can buy yourself stronger shoulders, a higher shot, and lighter feet. Everyone has had this experience: oh my God, with new stick/new insoles/new sharpening, I’m a whole new player. If you’ve got money and don’t mind spending it, you can upgrade you every damn year.
But perhaps because it is so easy to buy self-improvement, there is also an undercurrent of resistance to shiny new gear. A lot of rec hockey players (and even a few pros) take a perverse pleasure in wearing battered old things. People will show off the skates they’ve had for twenty years with twice the pride they’d take in a new pair, and vintage shoulder pads are an instant shortcut to respect. Some retain a commitment to wooden sticks with a haughty intensity that would shame the hippest of hipsters. Paradoxically, it is good to have new equipment, but it is better to have ancient equipment- and indeed there is no quicker way to earn the approbation of your fellow rec players than to have gear that is too flashy and expensive for your skill level, except maybe to wear a douchebag number.
Why do we retain this attachment to old things? The new things are better. My old skates were heavy and soft; I should have thrown them away with joy. But, just like the velveteen rabbit eventually became real through love, through use hockey gear eventually becomes than just stuff you put on your body. It becomes a synthetic extension of your body. That’s not just a wooden stick, there, that’s your slapshot. Those shoulder pads are your work in the corners. The new gear may be technologically superior, but the old gear is a part of you, part of everything you’ve struggled to learn in the game. My old skates weren’t just my skates, they were my skating. They were the appendage that made possible a whole new kind of movement. They were my wings.
The store has a wall of skates six by ten at least. Sixty different kinds of hockey skates at least. Bauer alone is represented by two different lines, each in two different generations. They redesign them every other year, bring in a slightly new numbering system, a slightly different style of highlights, representing slight differences in material and construction that no one seems to properly understand. Doing research online, I found a lot of generalizations- this kind is more for speed, the other is more for stability- but I came away with the singular impression that nobody in the rec league hockey world really understands the meaningful differences between this style and that, this version and its two-years-ago incarnation. Most accounts of the history of hockey skates stop in the fifties, although we know very well that the technology is evolving right up until today. Like everything else in the modern world, like food chemistry and car parts, most of us use skates without even the slightest idea what’s in them.
The salesman, a sharp, perfunctory young man with more knowledge than I, has no advice beyond “try them on and see what feels good” and “get a size smaller than you think you need”. He brings out five or six pairs and I try them on alternating feet. They all feel wrong. The first is too wide and the second too narrow, the next pinches my toes and the one after that bites my heel. All of them hurt at the ankles. None of them have the instant familiarity of my old skates. None of them feel like wings.
“It’s normal,” the salesman says. “The ankles are usually tough at the beginning. Get them baked, break ‘em in. It’ll go away.”
I take his advice and choose a pair of Bauer Supreme One70s. They’re a little wide, but they have the look and feel that’s closest to my beloved old pair. He takes them away and comes back with them warm, like towels fresh out of the dryer, and tells me to sit perfectly still and let them mold to my feet.
I stare at the skates. The skates stare back up at me.
If finding my first skates was like falling in love, this is more like an arranged marriage. The yenta of Sportcheck brought us together and has left us sitting here in his parlor, trying to figure out if we can get along. The skates are trying to charm me, with their bright yellow accents and cozy cuddles, but I’m not sure. I let myself love a pair of skates before, and they abandoned me, left me alone and cold-toed right in the middle of shinny. I don’t know if I’m ready to trust again. But I don’t have a choice.
At home, I put them on and sit on the bed and try to negotiate this new relationship, the way I used to try to negotiate with God when I was seven and really wanted to win at solitaire . Okay, skates, firstly: don’t slice my sheets open. Secondly: I don’t like you and you don’t like me, but we’re going to be stuck with each other for a long time, so let’s make a deal. I promise I’ll sharpen you and get you waxed laces and loosen you properly every time I take you off so I don’t bend your supports all squishy, if only you please please please don’t hurt me too bad. Don’t kill my ankles. Don’t give me blisters and sores and grotesque bumps that make my normal shoes fit wrong. Don’t take away everything I’ve learned so far, my crossovers and backwards skating and three awkward first strides. Please, skates, don’t fuck up hockey for me. I need hockey.
The skates flash their dozen eyelets blankly in their shiny synthetic weave. I don’t think they understand.
I wish there was a happy ending to this story. I wish I could say I got out there and flew twice as fast as ever before, and did all kinds of sexy pivots and turns and realized all the great potential of the ten years of technological development that separate the new skates from the old. But the truth is more disappointing. The Bauers are lighter and swifter, yes. I can pick up my feet a little better and get up more speed on the straightaway. But the balance is all wrong. I go into a turn, take it too far and stumble off the puck. I try to skate backwards and find myself teetering on my heels. Half my skills are better, but the other half are completely gone. I wish I knew how long it would take for the new skates to become old skates, to become, again, part of my very own synthetic hockey body. I wish I knew when I’d be able to fly properly again.