The author, learning hockey with people who are smaller than the cones they skate around.

The author, nearly thirty, learning hockey with people who are the same size as the cones they skate around.

Sunday Morning

I am only three strides gone when I lose the puck. I don’t know how it happens. One moment, I have it, and the next it is in my skates and then gone. I look back and the thing seems a hundred feet behind, the mocking eye of the ice. I turn back to retrieve it, determined to exert my dominance once and for all over this piece of recalcitrant rubber, and I botch the crossover and fall sideways onto the ice. It is at that point that Sean passes me, deftly skating around my splayed body, puck firmly on stick.

Sean is seven years old. I am 28. On the sidelines, his mom snaps a picture.

I never intended to learn to play hockey. A serious fan of the game and sometimes-serious writer about it, I wanted to play. I wanted to play so badly it would literally hurt, a twitching kind of spasm in my arm muscles when I’d pass an outdoor rink on a sunny, frigid Montreal afternoon. Someday, I’d tell my friends with a convincing semblance of sincerity, I’ll take lessons. Someday, when I finish my degree. When I have more money. When I live closer to a rink. Someday, really. But it was a lie. The truth was, at the time I discovered hockey, I was 24 years old and rocking a 12-year-run of total inathleticism. Hockey is something to be learned in infancy. If you’re not a Timbit, you’re never going to be any good. I wasn’t about to invest a lot of time and money in something I knew I could never do well.

Most adults enjoy being good at things. We go through a learning phase of life, from perhaps birth until 20 or so, and then we enter the working phase, where we more or less give up learning. From our last graduation until our eventual retirement, most of us will do basically the same thing over and over. We might change jobs, we might learn new information, we will certainly refine our existing skills even further, but we won’t really learn to do anything new. We might dabble casually, with a class in ballroom dancing or pottery. But we’re not serious about actually learning those skills. We’re just amusing ourselves. “I just want to try something new,” we’ll tell our friends. Not learn, not do. Try. A little taste, nothing more.

So our skills stagnate. We have lots of justifications: too busy, too poor, too tired, too old. But beneath all that, it’s mostly fear. Somewhere in adolescence, we acquire a morbid terror of looking stupid. Knowing what good looks like, we are embarrassed to look bad. “Better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” Better to do nothing than do something poorly.

New skills are not sampler plates at the grocery store, snifters at a brandy tasting. They’re mountains. Huge, dark, snowcapped mountains, slopes riven with pain and failure and public embarrassment. Mountains that take years and years to climb. It will take me, for example, two or three years of practice to be able to do anything remotely useful in a hockey game. It would take a similar time to learn a new instrument. Fluency in a new language? Four years hard work, at least, to carve those new pathways into your frontal lobe. The peak is so far away it seems pointless to try.

Wednesday Afternoon

Josh is mystified by the tongs. He holds them by one prong and bends them apart, waves the free end in the air. He pokes it at a large yellow fuzzball. The fuzzball is unresponsive. He pokes a few more times, frowns. He decides to bend the prongs back together and hit the fuzzball. This is more effective, insofar as it manages to knock said fuzzball onto the ground.

“Josh! Clean up your fuzzy!” I holler across the room. Josh dutifully picks up the ball and holds it between his fingers, perplexed. He sets it on the table. He puts the two ends of the tongs on either side and shakes. When that doesn’t work, he tries to balance the ball on one prong. He gets it perhaps two inches in the air before it tumbles down again.

This is the part where I intervene. I come up behind him. “Can I help you, Josh?” He nods, silently. I step behind him and wrap his tiny hand in my own long, nimble fingers. “Like this. Squeeze.” I say the word and press his hand around the tongs. “Lift.” Together, we pick up the fuzzball and move it across to the bowl. “Open.” I release my hand and the ball drops. “Again,” says Josh. So we do it again. We do seven or eight fuzzies, and then I leave him to try one on his own. When I look back, he’s hitting it again, this time with the bent end.

Josh will choose to ‘play’ with the tongs a hundred times this year, and for the first two or three dozen sessions, he will not successfully pick up a single fuzzball on his own. I will show him again and again how this ‘squeezing’ process is supposed to work, and still his fingers will fail him. And yet, no matter how many fuzzies he drops, no matter how many times he has to clean up his strays, no matter how many times an older kids points out how ‘easy’ it should be, he will keep choosing this game. It’s just how two-year-olds are.

At 26, I changed careers. I left academia- the great bastion of calcified, specialized skills- and became a preschool teacher. I spent my days among tiny little people who couldn’t use scissors, had no concept of left and right, and generally didn’t even know what day it is. They had no useful skills whatsoever. But they practiced hard.

The ability to form long-term memories develops sometime during the second year, so we cannot remember what it was like to be two. So let me remind you: it is practice. The most diligent, committed, obsessive practice you’ve done in your life. Practice squeezing tongs and scooping beans and stacking blocks, talking and dancing, eating and sharing. My students are so dedicated to practicing that they will risk embarrassment, injury, and adult disapproval to continue it. They don’t care if they’re wrong, they don’t care if they can’t, they have no fear of falling down or breaking or losing. They try everything, all the time, little hands in every corner of the world. They are not frustrated by failure. They are frustrated by exhaustion or hunger or restraint, but not by failure.

Neurological research makes great claims about the plasticity of two-year-old brains. They are wired to learn, they say, to pick up skills with astonishing rapidity. Adults have added this to their repertoire of excuses for not trying new things- if you didn’t learn it as a child, you’re never going to be all that good. But after a few years in the trenches with the toddlers, I don’t think it’s any miracle of two-year-old brain chemistry that makes them such terrific learners, it’s the shameless consistency of two-year-old effort.

Everything is a mountain. All the simplest things- counting to ten, jumping, pouring water- you learned them all the hard way. You spent three long, forgotten years of your life practicing these things day after day, failing almost constantly, and you laughed through it. You enjoyed every barely-individuated muscle in your tiny, awkward body; every fall, every mistake, every time-out, every mess, you giggled and grinned and got up and you tried again and again and again, and then, one day, as if by magic, there were fewer falls and less messes, and no set of tongs ever fazed you again. But it wasn’t magic. It was just practice.

When I fall, now, I think of Josh. I try to think like Josh. And I get up, snow streaked, flash a smile at Sean, and go find a new puck.

Comments (26)

  1. Great post! Keep at it Ellen! I played street and roller hockey through my 20′s and 30′s and at 39 decided to leave that surface behind and get on the ice – I’ve never regretted it. I play goal so the transition was difficult at first but I stayed with it and enjoy every second of it!! Keep up the hard work.

  2. I think it’s great you play. I wonder: do you find that “playing the game,” at whatever level it is you do it, affects your thinking and writing about the NHL? Do you feel like it gives you some insight you might not otherwise have?

    • I didn’t start seriously playing hockey until I was 28, sure I played some street hockey as a kid but nothing organized. Now I play rec league at least once a week and I although I’m not a writer I can absolutely say there are a myriad of things I notice about the game now that I didn’t notice before actually stepping on the ice. It’s funny because even casually watching games with friends who don’t play, I’ll try to point out something only noticeable as a player but I feel like it’s hard for them to grasp or my observations are just lost on them.

      TL;DR: Yes playing gives insight.

      • On a further note (don’t get too big of an ego or anything), but that’s the reason this is my favorite hockey blog. It’s the only one with the perspective of someone who actually PLAYED at some professional level.

      • Or if nothing else, it gives you an appreciation of what the top 10-12 yr old kids can do. My 11 yr old could skate faster backwards than I could forwards, at 9.

        And then extrapolate it to all pro players.

        It’s rather eye opening.

    • I find that Ellen’s tales of her hockey playing highs and lows makes her stories more relatable and authentic. I started ice hockey at age 10, had to quit at 16, and then started over again at 46. I retired again a year ago at age 50. During that 30 year period, I experienced that longing to play, but I had too many adult responsibilities to make it happen. So when she writes about wanting to play so bad, it hurts, it resonates. When she describes being unable to accomplish what she wants to do with the puck, those of us who were never great can tap into our own experiences with that frustration.

      Ellen’s writing style has a similar feel to it as Ken Dryden’s “The Game”, where you feel like you are living it, but aimed at my level.

    • I can’t answer for Ellen, but from my perspective (I started to skate with the intention to play in college but didn’t learn to play until a few years ago), it definitely affects how I think and write about hockey.

      First, it really emphasized the tremendous speed these players have and how little time there is to make a conscious decision about (most) plays. I feel completely flustered at my super-low-level adult league by the lack of time and space. I know some of that would be remedied if I had any athletic skill whatsoever, but that would be matched by everyone else around me having the same advantage. Where I used to pick apart player decisions as if they were made in the moment of the play, I try to see what they saw in the moments leading up to it and how it might have led to the issues. It really emphasizes how bad plays are usually a sequence of breakdowns and poor reads and sneaky forwards rather than one guy making a terrible decision in a vacuum.

      And second, it emphasized just how talented and tough these guys are. I have a perma-bruise on my left ankle from a slapshot that was ridiculously painful when it happened. I cannot fathom how much more it hurts to take a Chara slapshot off your foot. And I’m now in much, much more awe of the skating ability it takes to get to that level. Aaron Downey is always my go-to example of a terrible scrub, but having played myself, it’s clear that while he’s a scrub at the NHL level, he’s still a hockey god out here in the real world. That definitely is in the back of my mind when writing.

      Hockey looks so much damn easier when they play it. One day I will learn that forward mohawk turn. One day…

  3. I’m 30, with a similar unathletic history, and I’ve been eyeballing the ‘learn to skate’ and ‘learn to play hockey’ classes at my local rink for months now, but have been unable to pull the trigger.

    Luckily they offer classes for adults, because I’m not sure I could handle classes with little kids, but I still haven’t managed to talk myself off the bench – maybe I should talk this post as a sign :)

    • Dooooo ittttttt!

      I had a hockey stick and skated on a pond once or twice a year when I was a kid. It only happend a week or so out of the year when my aunt and uncle came down from Canada. I was always more interested in baseball and football.

      Right after I graduated high school, my cousin married her husband who played some college hockey. I kept playing once or twice a year with him. Once I finished college, got a job, got married, and bought a house, I really wanted to play. At about 26 years old, I joined my first adult beginners league.

      The Zamboni league has about 30 players separated on two teams. The ages range from 20 to 60 something. Most people are men, but there are a few women who play too. We do some stretching, a half hour or so of drills, and then break into a 45 minute game. It is a great way to learn with people your age (or older) with similar skill sets.

    • I was 30 when I started learning how to skate. That was almost 4 years ago, and I can move around pretty good now, but I’m still next to useless with a stick. Now I’m trying to psyche myself up to do D-league or adult hockey camp…

    • This sounds like me (except the unathletic part, played softball and field hockey for 12 years, lacrosse and basketball for 6). I’m a few years younger but ever since I first saw The Mighty Ducks as a kid I wanted to learn to play ice hockey. Unfortunately in small town southeastern PA the only kind of hockey girls played was on a field. I’ve told myself after I finish grad school and start working I will take learn to skate lessons (hopefully I can find adults ones somewhere) and maybe from there progress to actually playing some form of hockey. At least with this post I’ve found other people have the same ‘dreams’ as me.

      • Sorry to comment twice on the same thread, but cova24 – tweet me (@xphile101) and I can hook you up with women’s hockey in southeast PA. That’s where I’m from.

        • I don’t tweet. Any suggestions you can just put up on this board? I’d really appreciate it, thanks a bunch!

    • Do it. You will not regret it. I started playing 3 years ago at 30 and ever since, I’ve pointed back at it and said “Best thing I’ve ever done.” It not only gave me an athletic outlet and reason to try to stay in better shape (you know, aside from the benefits of being healthy) but it also opened me up to new friends and new experiences.

      Take the adult learn to skate class. Find a private power skating coach. Buy used gear and just get yourself out there.

  4. Fantastic post. I got into hockey at 22 kind of as a challenge to myself, because I didn’t want to just stop learning and get stagnant after college. I did the same thing last year at 28 with golf.

    Have you ever read about the Dan Plan? It’s a guy who at the age of 30 quits his job to try and become a pro golfer, but he’s never golfed before. I find it fascinating.

    • Similarly (and even more related), there’s a book called “They don’t play hockey in heaven” by a journalist named Ken Baker (you may have seen him on stupid entertainment shows. It’s about how he had all these random health problems, but had always dreamed of playing pro hockey. So he took a break from his job and joined a minor league team and basically followed them around and practicing with them. He winds up getting to play in an actual game. He takes a few liberties with how talented he was, but it’s a quick, interesting read. I think he played a few games in college before his health problems.

      • Baker was a Colgate goalie and a youth US national team member, at least for one tournament, before his health problems. He had plenty of training and talent that enabled him to ride the coattails of a minor-league team.

        It’s a very good book that I’d also recommend. But it’s not an “everyman learns hockey” story of book, more of a “real life crushed my dreams and I’m going to try and get them back” type.

  5. I certainly think it gives you a different perspective on how the game is played. I also started playing in my “twilight years”. I’ve always been a hockey fan but it wasn’t until I was 27 that I started playing roller hockey. I only lasted a year before I made the jump to Ice hockey. Playing Hockey (granted at a lower level) makes me appreciate what NHL players do and how fast they react to situations. I couldn’t tell you how often I attempt a pass or take a shot from the top of the circle only to watch it sputter with just enough velocity to make it a laughable attempt. Th concept of taking a wrist shot WHILE skating never occurred to me until trying it. Every game I learn something that I took for granted or looked easy.

    Positional play as well. When I watch a game and see how the players instinctively interact with each other and fill holes left by pinches or movement. This is also why I enjoy this blog a lot. Justin gives us actual insight into positional play and break downs of plays.

  6. Love these stories! I’m 37 still doing adult learn to skate classes. I’m at the point Ellen talks about where everytime I take some monster spills trying to push for a new skill I was a little embarrassed etc because all the parents etc would be watching. But now I realize it takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there like that.

    I’d been feeling a little down about my progress lately so this article came at a perfect time. Thank you so much

  7. Best decision you will ever make. There’s nothing like scoring a goal in a ice hockey game. At any level. Keep at it.

    • For some reason, I don’t get the same satisfaction scoring a goal that I get when making a save, a zen-like rightness that I am in harmony the rhythms of the game,

  8. Beautiful. I stopped thinking about hockey at all. And I also feel as though “neuroplasticity” and whatnot is not nearly as deterministic as it seems, and that our consciousness has a far greater role to play in such things than researchers are allowed to give credit to. Another solid piece by Ell-Zen Etchingham.

  9. I grew up in California, and other than surfing and some early childhood soccer, was not an athlete. I started rollerblading at about 30, and playing roller hockey at 32. I sucked, but as a 6’2″ 200 lb. 32 year old, I was having a blast. About a year later, I started playing ice hockey at a local rink. I worked my ass off learning how to skate on ice, and before long I was pretty smooth, and could skate backward and transition from forward to backward, so I ended up playing defense and occasionally center on most of my teams. I played in several rec leagues and a community college club team (where checking was allowed – added a whole new challenge!). I scored a few goals on slapshots from the point, and a few where I activated down low, including the game-tying and game-winning goals on consecutive shifts in one memorable game. Sadly my ‘career’ was cut short by knee issues, but it was one of the best things I ever did, and I recommend that every fan who has even a little bit of an urge to play give it a try. Even at the lowest rec level, it is one of the best experiences of my sporting life.

  10. I got a very late start (for a ND, Minnesota kid) at 15, but played quite a bit outside and even made the High School team (4th line). Played on outdoor rinks in University and went to Grad School in Kitchener Waterloo, where some friends actually took quite a bit of time and coached me in skills and I got quite good because I worked on them with that 2 year old persistence. Did not play for about 20 years (kids, travelling job), and then started coaching skills and playing again at 37. Now at 55, I still have what it takes to play at pretty decent levels, but the young guys are getting a bit faster… What is gratifying for me, is a lot of the people I have taught skills to are utilizing them, playing the game and passing it on. When I coach beginners, they all want to learn to take a slap shot, but when I break it down into individual moves, when they see all the balance and skating involved in that seemingly simple play, they realize the importance of the other drills and skills we are teaching and then can work on up to getting a decent shot on goal. As adults, that process can take well over a year of twice a week sessions. Even at my age, when I have some ice, I am still working on a better toe drag and my backhand shelf shots. Hockey is a game you can play all your life, if you can put up with the odd injury…

  11. I didn’t get my first ice skates until I was 38 years old. And almost 15 years later I still lace ‘em up at least once a week. If I miss two weeks I feel physical withdrawls. And I used to run in High School, and it annoys me no end how slow I am on skates. Which is not too bad since I am goalie.

  12. Great for you Ellen!

    I am just about to turn 31, I didn’t start watching hockey until I was 26. then one night watching a game, after a few too many beers a friend and I made a pact to learn to play. So at the age of 28 we went and found an adult hockey course.

    I had ice skated maybe a double handful of times in my life up until this, and I rollerbladed a lot in my teens. It turned out i was the Loius Mendoza of my adult LTP class… I could take off extremely well for a beginner and couldn’t stop until the endboards did the job.

    2 years later, a lost of bruised body parts, and one exceptionally bruised bit of pride/ego and I’m a passable C league player in a mid-atlantic state… Read: Most canadian 6 year olds could beat me hands-down and probably check me hard enough to take me off my skates. I enjoy every terrible decision I make on the ice, and look forward to my next game constantly!

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