I've always thought of little league baseball as the piano lessons of sports. For the four years I played park district baseball growing up, I don't remember meeting a single kid that actually wanted to be there. Big, small, atheltic, chubby, flat-footed, and near-sighted, we all had to sweat through those brutal mid day summer games. I remember how hot the metal bench felt against my back. I remember how itchy the cotton socks and uniforms felt. I remember how utterly bored my parents looked sitting in the bleachers.
Around the time I was in fifth grade, I was in the mood for a change. I no longer wanted to play baseball. My parents, of course, were secretly overjoyed. They too were ready to put the hottest, most boring sport of the summer behind us for good.
"I think I want to play hockey," I said.
Hockey seemed like a good fit. Though I had never played hockey in any official capacity, pick-up neighborhood games, gym class, and church camp broomball taught me the basics. And if knowing the basics wasn't enough of an advantage, I was really good on roller blades. Really good.
I'm not even going to be falsely modest it. Growing up, I took my roller blades everywhere. Walking the dog. Small trips to the nearby Target. All over the neibhorhood, bombing big empty hills and blacktops. I could skate backwards, one-legged, even balancing on only my front wheels. And I obsessively took care of my skates, too. Religiously rotating the wheels and polishing the bearings at least once a week. Even if I wasn't yet confident playing hockey, at least I could skate.
I signed up at a nearby park district, and armed with an equipment list, my dad and I visted a used sporting good store. Getting so much new gear all at once energized me, and I felt even more excited to begin my first season of hockey.
I was eager to try everyone on when I got home. There was a set of big round shoulder pads that strapped around my chest. I had a helmet with a face guard, little knobby elbow bads, long segmented shinguards, and a big puffy girdle that went around my waist like a pair of shorts.
Surely, this can't be it? I thought. I was wearing all the gear, but I didn't yet feel like a hockey player. The lettering on my church youth group t-shirt was plainly visible underneath the chest guard. The tops of my white socks and pale ankles peeked out from underneath my shin guards. And the girdle looked absolutely ridiculous - like I was wearing a child's life inflatable jacket around my waist.
I rolled out into the kitchen hallway. My family began to cackle.
"You look like robocop," said my dad.
"Alex, is this it?" asked my Mom.
"Well, I think they're supposed to give me a jersey when I get there," I sighed.
But I wouldn't get a jersey until the first game, not before a few weeks of practice. Twice a week, I put on my rolling robocop outfit and bumbled around the rink with the rest of my team. Most of the other kids had jerseys from last year, and they wore an extra layer of thin hockey pants over their legs. The optional hockey pants were not mentioned in the equipment list, but in the interest of covering up my blinding white socks, sweaty calve muscles, and the soaked backs of my jean shorts, I bought a pair the next chance I could.
I wasn't great at hockey, but at least I wasn't the worst on the team. We had three kids that couldn't even skate backwards. Each practice began with some brisk warm up laps around the rink, and I would have my moment of peak coolness when the coach blew the whistle, signaling the team to turn on their wheels and continue skating backwards.
After our final practice before the season, our coached handed out our jerseys. Patterend after the Toronto Maple Leaves, They were white, with blue lettering and blue bands down the shoulders. I tried on my jersey before packing taking my equipment off and heading to the car.
Getting to wear a hockey jersey for the first time was significant. I no longer felt like some shlub that rolled off the street and butted in on a hockey game. I had a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose.
"You don't look like robocop anymore," laughed my dad.
I played in the fall and following spring, fulfilling my niche as a bulky, average defender. As we faced more teams, it became clear that I would need a stronger skillset than just being able to skate backwards.
My coach told me that they were in search of some extra players to help out in the weekly goalie clinic. They needed some volunteers to shoot on net, stand-in as defenseman, and otherwise just be a warm body out on the rink while the goalies practiced.
I arrived at goalie practice early the next Saturday morning. To my surprise, I wasn't sent out onto the rink to help with drills, as I had planned. The visiting coach instead sent me over to the locker room to get fitted into some goalie pads.
I had secretly wanted to be a goalie. I practiced goaltending on my own time at home, and I suspected that it might be a better fit for me on the team. I was too shy to ask my coach, and then in that moment while being mistaken for a goalie at goalie practice, I was too shy to correct anyone. Skating for the first time in bulky leg pads holding a thick goalie stick, I joined the other goalies against the boards, doing my best to blend in.
I made quite the splash at goalie practice. Thanks to four dull years of reluctantly playing baseball, my glove hand was sharp, and more than capable of snatching a wrist shot out of midair over my shoulder. I was also big for my age. I had a long reach, and standing in the middle of the net, I took enough physical space in the crease to make it more difficult to score. My greatest secret weapon was the flop, which I discovered during breakaway drills.
A breakaway is a 1-on-1 between the offensive player and the goalie - a tense, flash in the pan tactical situation that can emerge from a good takeaway or a power play. Likewise it's a chance for the offense to score a flashy goal, or for the goalie to make a gut wrenching stop.
"Be aware of your angles," the coach explained to me, ushering me over to the net. "Stand here. Do you see how much space is between you and the posts?" He used his stick to show me the gaps in my pads.
"Now come closer," he motioned. "Notice the closer you get, the less room I actually have to score. You cut down the angles."
When it was my turn to take a breakaway, I skated out to the goal, nervously adjusting my pads. I contemplated what I had just been taught about angles, about how the closer you get to the player, the less room he has to score. "If that's true, then a player has no room to score if you are right next to him", I concluded.
While the other player was still at least fifteen feet from the goal, I lunged forward to meet him in the middle of the rink, flopping on my belly with my legs spread as wide as possible. Just before hitting the ground, I saw him panic, trying to flip the puck over me. The puck clattered against my helmet, rattling my face mask. I climbed back on my feet to the sound of modest applause from the bench.
"You just stopped that with your face," said my dad. "Excellent."
When he had heard about my surprise showing at goalie clinic, my coach set me up full time in net. Playing as a goalie not only fit my skillset more comfortably, but it was also a better fit for my personality. Where the rest of the players had to drill, practice, and skate together in constant communication, as a hockey goalie I felt more like a lone wolf.
I kept all my hockey pads in a giant black duffle bag. Before long, the fresh smell of shiny plastic an breathable cloth ripened away. After two summers of playing hockey, my hockey bag smelled like death. It smelled like a teen horomone factory. It smelled like gym sock tea. In all my life, I think it's the worst smell I've ever made, and possibly the worst smell on earth.
"I don't know what to do about it," I protested. "I mean, it doesn't smell as long as you keep the bag closed."
"It does smell," said my mom. "I can barely breathe!" My move drove me home from games with all four windows and the sun roof wide open. I tried hosing off the pads after each use and letting them dry in the sun at the end of the driveway. But the smell remained. It lingered. It fruited like an alien fungus, aided by the warm humid bosom of my black duffle bag.
My dad took me to a Blackhawks game that year. Since they weren't doing very well, the tickets were cheap, and with a nearly empty United Center, my sister Sarah and I were free to move as close to the boards as we wanted. We picked a seat right behind the bench, next to the players' entrance.
The Chicago Blackhawks walked out of the locker room, looking larger than life in their bright red jerseys and professional gear. As they passed, a familiar smell wafted into my nostrils. My dad nudged me with his arm.
"Do you smell that?" he asked.
"Yeah. It smells like my hockey bag," I whispered.
Each player that passed, we got a fresh whiff of hockey bag.
My dad and I began to laugh. "It's so weird," he said. "It's the same smell, even in the NHL."
My park district only went up to eight grade, and heading into high school, I would need to find a new leauge if I wanted to continue playing. I decided to play a season at a hockey club in Rolling Meadows called Hat Trick.
Hat Trick's reputation preceded them. In our park district league, we passed around urban legends of high schoolers on steroids, parents getting into fist fights, and really special players being taken out of high school to practice full time in a secret hockey camp Canada.
Hat Trick was more competive. As there convoluted hockey club rules would have it, the only two teams we were eligible to scrimmage were ourselves and the Rolling Meadows team.
The Rolling Meadows roller hockey team could have passed for the heels in a sequel to Mighty Ducks. Those kids were rich, small, crass, cocky, and infuriatingly talented. Playing them once a week, our team of junior high park district washouts were pummeled into the double digits. Some games I'd take sixty shots on goal, usually catching a puck to the throat, the groin, or that soft veinous patch of unprotected skin inside your elbow.
During our last game of the season against the Rolling Meadows team, things got heated. The players were throwing shoulders, and the trash talk was vile even for a hockey player's standards. Most frustrated of all was Kyle, our towering six foot five defender, who had been teetering on a full blown rage the entire game.
Their team's star winger scooped up the puck from center ice, whizzing into our zone and flipping it over my glove for an easy goal. He skated over to Kyle, getting uncomfortably close to his face, nudghing him with his face mask. He and Kyle began to circle each other, the tension building at center ice.
Their star player, who was at least three heads below Kyle, had been in bad form all game. He had been trash talking the refs, his teammates, and even our coaches. Fueled by what I assume was just a rabid case of Napolean syndrome, he raised his hand and gingerly punched Kyle in the chin.
It was just a little tap. His glove bounced off Kyle's helmet. But Kyle was waiting for it. In a flash, he threw his stick and his gloves to the ground, cocked his fist back, and hit that little twerp right in the face. Their player collapsed to the ground, Kyle falling on top of him, following him with viscious punches. In the time it took the referee to skate over and pull the two apart, Kyle used every millisecond to hit that kid in the face. Kyle shrugged the referee off his arm and skated to the boards. Shell shocked from the beating, their star player sat up. Even though he was still wearing his helmet and face mask, his nose was filled with dark blood. He slinked away in shame, leaving little crimson drops on the rink behind him.
That was our team's last season in Hat Trick hockey club, and also my last game. It would have been nice to end with a win, or at least a few flashy saves, but watching Kyle beat the snot out of the most spoiled hockey player I've ever shared a rink with (who hit him first, mind you), was pretty good too.