A lot can change in a year

photo credit: Paul Nicholson via photopin cc

photo credit: Paul Nicholson via photopin cc

When you start playing such a unique sport you really do feel like it is a privilege. Every time you jump over the boards you remember that people would kill for a chance to do what you do each week. It is a hobby, but one that not many people are able to do.

I will never forget my first session on the ice and how terrifying it was. Things progressed quite quickly. Maybe it was a case of too much too soon but for one reason or another things changed and people were not happy. Eventually the team folded and that brought an end to my time playing hockey for a while.

I wondered what to do with myself. Doing 100 mile-round trips at 11pm was not something that I enjoyed and I could not commit to doing that due to changes in my work and studies. I thought about selling my kit and just scrapping the whole idea. But ice hockey has this strange appeal and no matter what happens, you do not give up.

For someone that is meant to be good with words it is difficult to explain the mentality that you develop when you play hockey. No matter what happens; you carry on. Picture Gregory Campbell during the playoffs last season: with a broken leg and his side on a penalty, he finished his shift.

So I have gone from a team that self-destructed in August 2012 to Alternate Captain with a new one. A pretty big jump you could say. My old team helped me get my foot on the ladder and for that I will always be grateful but I enjoy walking into the locker every week without all the politics that goes along with it.

When there are only a dozen rinks in the country then you can understand where the ruthless nature of some teams comes from but it is not game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals; everyone still has to go to work in the morning.

I am playing as a forward now and it’s a lot more fun both on and off the ice. We are a small group but one that would run through brick walls for each other. I’m improving each week and we have some players who were in my position this time last year. I do what I can to help because I know what it’s like to be one of the worst people on the ice.

Things are on the up and I’m looking forward to seeing what lies ahead for us. It is going to be a tough year but we have got the strength to battle through it.

I realise that this blog has a slightly different tone to it, but it’s not all doom and gloom. I have met some of the nicest people you could imagine and people who I would consider to be lifelong friends, all by falling about on the ice every other week.

And I would not give it up for anything.

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I am a hockey insomniac

So I had my third practice session last night and slowly but surely, I’m beginning to get to grips with this game.

The session took place in the most unfamiliar of places as our home rink, the Braehead Arena, is closed due to some sport called Tennis which is taking place in there at the moment. As a result I made the fairly long trip from Glasgow to Kilmarnock and as the rest of the sensible Scottish public slept at 23:00, I was awake and playing the greatest sport on the planet.

It felt strange playing at such a late time and in a different rink. The main difference wasn’t the time on the clock, but the size of the rink itself.  It was at least half as big as our normal ice and this meant that the training drills and scrimmage were played at a much higher tempo than usual and you had less time on the puck, forcing you to keep the biscuit moving at all times.

It’s still difficult to be able to try and process three different things at the same time when you’re on the ice and the heat is another big problem when you’re out there, the lights combined with the physical exertion means that when you take your helmet off it looks like you have just fully submerged your head into a bucket of water.

We carried out several different drills than normal and it was good being able to learn new skills. In the three sessions I’ve had I’ve realised that my body can’t do what my head wants it to do yet and I also need to learn how to walk before I can run. Thankfully the rest of the team are supportive and are always on hand to give advice – you’ve got to start somewhere, right?

One of my minor gripes so far has been my failure to hit the back of the net. I did so in a physical sense last night but I wanted to be able to do so with a puck instead of my body. Our coach gathered us round and explained one of the new drills that we would be carrying out. We would carry out two drills at opposite sides of the rink and one of them was for two players to skate from the half boards, the inside player passing the puck to the player on the boards at the half-way line then becoming a defenceman and trying to win the puck as the other player tried to get a shot on net.

We repeated the drills a few times and eventually I lined up on the right-hand side with my girlfriend on the left and as neither of us can play defence just yet and time was running out, we agreed to turn the situation into a 2-on-0 opportunity.

I played a simple pass to my girlfriend and charged towards the net with everything I had, trying to get into a goalscoring opportunity. Aimee played a teasing pass into the slot and I received it with my forehand then brought the puck onto my backhand. The goalie was on the ground, fate had repeated itself and I was determined to make amends for the last time I was in front of the net. I managed to drag the puck across the slot and onto my forehand and fired the biscuit past the goaltender’s left-hand side. I had scored a goal in hockey! What a feeling!

With my new-found confidence the team got together and the scrimmage got underway. I got another two shifts under my belt and enjoyed chasing after the puck and getting into good positions. I was also pleased with how I covered the point when we got into the opposition’s zone when our defenseman charged forward, showing good positional awareness. It’s all about jut gaining experience at this stage and getting comfortable with the puck, it’s a tricky little thing when you’re learning.

I know I shouldn’t be too hard on myself because I’m only starting out but I know I need to be much better when it comes to skating. There’s a big difference between being able to skate and being able to hockey skate. I’m far too slow and robotic when it comes to turning and stopping and I need to start facing play more often. I know I need to work on this if I am to improve my stick handling and general hockey ability but like everything, it will come with time.

As the session ran to a close with the Zamboni driver desperate to throw us off the ice we headed home under the Scottish moonlight. I felt that I had learned a lot from the session and was no longer as nervous as I had previously been. My team-mates have helped tremendously and it’s great to be playing alongside some good guys who know a thing or two about hockey. Someday I hope to be in their boots and helping a beginner like myself develop and enjoy this incredible sport.

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He shoots…He misses

I had my second ever training session on Wednesday night, this game is so addictive it’s unreal. All I think about now is hockey; it really does take over your life.

I felt a lot more confident on the ice than I did at my first practice even though I hadn’t been on the ice since then.  Maybe it was because my helmet arrived with its full cage so I knew I wasn’t going to kill myself.

We took to the ice and it was immediately clear that more people had turned up than normal and it was going to be difficult to get a lot of time on the puck. It’s a clear sign of just how popular this sport is becoming in Scotland, a fairly large portion of our team is made up of complete beginners who are just as eager as I am to learn all that they can about the most entertaining sport on the planet.

I was expecting our first drill of the evening to be the dreaded hockey stops but thankfully it wasn’t to be, we would simply do a full lap of the two faceoff circles and the centre circle. I felt more at ease because I knew I would be getting off to a decent start and the drill ended with no drama to report.

Our next exercise would prove to be more difficult, we would skate from the half boards to the red line, passing the puck to a teammate on the opposite side on the way and we would both skate towards the net and one of us would take a shot on goal. Strangely I felt ok about this, even though I can’t lift the puck from the ice yet. I charged up the rink and passed the puck to my teammate, who delivered a perfect return pass and I found myself with only the goalie to beat – I was absolutely desperate to score.

I pushed the puck ahead of me and tried a simple deke to distract the goalie and, incredibly, it worked! The goalie had gone down to the ground. I now had a large gap to my right side to aim for and all I had to do was lift the puck. Wait, I can’t lift the puck. I tried to bring the biscuit over to the right of the goal to get a shot away but I lost control at the last second and the puck drifted away. It wasn’t to be this time but I was pleased at just how close I had come to hitting the back of the net.

We repeated the drill a few more times before taking part in a scrimmage. My objective this time was to simply walk away unscathed. Because we had so many players I went down to line four and would be joined by my girlfriend and three other experienced guys who took us under their wing. I lined up on the right wing this time and the puck hit the ice. I was going to do something here except for spill my blood, I was going to make a contribution.

I decided to make a small leap into the unknown beforehand and enter the ice by going over the boards. It sounds silly but it’s a big deal when you’re just starting out and you’ve never did it before. It was surprisingly easier than I thought and I went over with no problem at all. NHL here I come.

Nobody had scored by this point and time was running out. The experienced guys were linking up well together and trying to push forward so I decided to mark the opposition’s left winger and play as more of a two-way forward, contributing both offensively and defensively. The shift seemed to go on forever but giving up wasn’t an option.  It was end to end stuff but nobody could find a goal and our line headed towards the bench.

The game progressed and there was still no goal and I was about to play for the second time in the game. Immediately we were pinned back in our own zone but we would not back down, we kept fighting and trying to clear the biscuit from our end. Wave after wave of attacks ensued but we still wouldn’t back down. With a few minutes to go our opponents found themselves in an odd man rush and I was determined to play my part in preventing a goal.

I charged back with every ounce of strength that I had and almost caught up with their left winger, who was driving towards the far post waiting to receive the cross crease pass. The forward looked up, ready to cut inside and pass but I got in front of the left winger, blocking the passing lane and went to ground in desperation as I seen the puck move towards the far post. I could only look on helplessly as I slid towards the boards but our goalie stepped up and produced a great save to keep the score tied and the game finished level.

As we headed for the dressing rooms I knew that it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. I’m glad I made the decision to play the game, it’s not easy by any means but it’s so much more fun than it looks.
Just remember to buy a full cage helmet.

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Blood, Sweat and Tears

I had my first ever training session a few weeks ago and I have already c0me to one conclusion: Ice Hockey is hard. Really, really hard.

When you watch from the sidelines it’s easy to think “How hard can it be? All you’re doing is hitting a puck,” but it’s much more than that. There are so many different things going through your head at once; where’s the puck, where should I be and don’t fall over and look like an idiot.

My kit arrived a few days before my first practice but the helmet didn’t fit and had to be swapped. The only problem was that I wasn’t in for the postman arriving so I didn’t have a helmet. I wasn’t expecting to take to the ice but brought my kit along anyway. Thankfully, the rink had a few spares but they didn’t have a visor or a cage – a big mistake.

Now I’m not the best skater in the world by any means. I’ve taught myself everything I know by watching videos on YouTube and copying people at the public skating sessions. You may think you can skate but you can’t hockey skate, it’s a completely different beast. But how hard can it be it’s only hitting a puck, right?

I took to the ice and I was a bundle of nerves, first ever session for the Glasgow Grinders. First ever session full stop.
I hadn’t skated in a few weeks and was more than rusty from the start. Our first drill would prove to expose my first weakness, hockey stops.  They’re simple enough at first glance but it’s hard to get over the mental block of fearing falling over and hurting yourself. I did the drill by skating slowly and avoiding hitting anybody. The added weight makes a simple skate around the rink feel like you’ve just climbed Mount Everest. I’m in fairly good physical condition and this was a real shock to the system.

With the small crowd of parents and children watching on, no doubt laughing at my expense, it was now time to grab a puck and shoot on goal. As a complete beginner I didn’t expect to be firing like Gretzky but I was hoping to at least hit the target.  My first effort could only be described as cringe worthy; I hardly hit the puck at all. Why was this so difficult? I thought it looked easy.

The third drill of the evening was a pig-in-the-middle exercise where we had to pass the puck to a player in the circle and if you missed the pass, you were in the middle and had to try and intercept the puck. Needless to say when the puck travelled in my direction I wasn’t looking and I missed it, so I was in the middle in my first ever session. The puck cycled round and round and eventually I found the confidence to start putting my stick in and winning possession, coming close on a few occasions.
As I continued to chase the puck more and more people began to lose control and join me in the middle, making the task much easier. I felt good at the end of this drill, knowing that I had given a good account of myself.

After a few more drills it was time for a scrimmage. I didn’t feel confident enough to ice but I knew I had to start somewhere. I would be on the third line and play centre. I watched with apprehension as the more experienced players whizzed around the rink with ease, making the game look so simple.
Finally, it was my turn to take to the ice and as the centre, I was responsible for taking the face off. I knew in my head what to do, go in hard with the backhand, but could I put it into practice?

The puck dropped and I forced my stick in front of my opponent’s and, incredibly, won the faceoff and passed to the left winger to create an offensive attack. I even got the second assist on a goal, I think. The rest of the game is a blur and things were about to take a turn for the worse.

Here's me looking like an idiot after practice.

I chased the puck at the opposition’s blue line and just missed it and lost my balance, resulting in me falling over and hitting my chin on the ice. “Get up you complete idiot,” I said to myself. I charged back to my own area and completed my shift soon after.
As I sat on the bench my girlfriend pointed towards my face, with blood pouring from my chin. It turns out I had cut myself on the ice and you could see the train of blood heading towards the bench. I didn’t feel a thing; the adrenaline had kicked in a long time ago.

I knew I couldn’t carry on because I was likely to fall again and could have made things a lot worse so I decided to try and patch myself up. Spencer, the club supremo, kindly gave me a big plaster to put on and I watched the remainder of the scrimmage from the sidelines, disappointed that I couldn’t play on.

It was a crash course in ice hockey and I survived, just. It’s such an entertaining game to play, the thrill from taking part is incredible and it’s made all the better by the fact that we play on the same ice as the team I support, the Braehead Clan.

My next training session starts soon and hopefully I can learn more about the most addictive game on the planet. Hopefully I don’t hurt myself either.

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How I discovered ice hockey

If somebody had told me at the start of 2011 that I would go on to become an ice hockey player then I would have laughed in their face. I hardly even knew what ice hockey was. As somebody who was brought up to watch football, ice hockey was unfamiliar territory to a Scottish youngster from the east end of Glasgow.

My story began in January 2011 when I went to watch my local team with my girlfriend, the Braehead Clan. The Clan were playing in their first ever season in the Elite League and we only went along because we had a ‘Buy one, get on free’ voucher for the game. We took our seats not knowing that by the end of the final buzzer, we would be well and truly hooked.

The puck was dropped and the game got underway with the Clan facing Britain’s longest-established club, the Nottingham Panthers. Within five minutes we were blown away by the pace of the action on the ice and by the atmosphere created by the small, but passionate home crowd.

Braehead soon took the lead and controlled proceedings thanks to Canadian forward Jordan Krestanovich. The majority of teams in the Elite League are made up of players that featured in the AHL or various other lower divisions in North America but when they come to Great Britain the vast majority of them are head and shoulders above the British players due to the sport’s lack of popularity in the country.

Hockey seemed like such a fascinating game due to the speed and drama of it all. The simple rules of the sport gives it a familiar feel to football and I immediately knew which one of the two was the most entertaining and also better value for money.

The Clan went on to win the game 6-3 and by that point we had already decided that we were going back the following weekend. The game was just so entertaining and I was eager to spread the word and let everybody know that Braehead was the place to be on a Saturday night.

I had caught the hockey bug.

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