Part 2: Still suiting up for hockey

So we’ve just finished putting our shorts and socks on and now most hockey players will opt for their skates next.

Skates – Possibly the most expensive item of kit, hockey skates are obviously an important purchase. Having comfortable and well-supported skates is a must for hockey. I’m rocking some CCM skates currently and even at £65 they’ve been great to skate in. It’s worth checking the descriptions before buying skates too as some of the cheaper pairs will slip in ‘not suitable for hockey’ despite looking the part. This is often because the bridge between the blades isn’t strong enough to deal with impact or fast movement. Skates take a battering at times and you don’t want to go breaking your ankle.

Price: Between £50 and £700

Shoulders – Not quite the shoulder pads your Mum wore in the 80’s, these cover your chest plate area, upper arms and shoulders, and a large part of your back. They’re far lighter than you anticipate when first wearing them but provide great coverage when a puck is smashed at you. At my level we aren’t taking big hits regularly so my Warrior pads have been a good buy.

Price: Between £25 and £70

Elbows – One of the only legal requirements for playing recreational ice hockey in the UK. Elbow pads protect you from collisions with other players and the sideboards, but most importantly they cushion any falls onto the ice. You’d be surprised at how quickly you fall at times and often you have little control over your elbows. Again I’m wearing Warrior pads here (I’m not sponsored, honestly) and these have done the job. I’ve also noticed that my elbow pads are a great help when climbing over the bench late in a session. I can really put my weight into my elbows as I shift my tired legs over.

Price: Between £15 and £50

Gloves – My vote for hardest item to adapt to, hockey gloves offer limited movement between the fingers and it takes some getting used to. They cover your hand and cuff area, with different lengths available depending on your preference. I go long to avoid any contact with my wrists but this can reduce my stick handling at times. Hockey gloves will often wear down in the palm and you’ll notice your stick tape leaving a mark here.

Price: Between £20 and £70

Helmet – No prizes for guessing what this is for. Helmets aren’t particularly comfortable but they’ll save your life. You’ll notice that you can get open fronted helmets, helmets with a half visor, helmets with a full face visor, helmets with a cage. Once you’re 21 or older this is really down to personal choice, with it being a rule to wear a full visor or cage as a youth player. Hockey players look their teeth so as a beginner I’m wearing a half visor / half cage combo. The visor allows me a clear line of sight, whilst the cage gives me more protection on my jaw. It feels safe and has already helped cushion one particularly brutal slip on the ice. You’ll notice that those with an exposed jaw will often, or at least they should, wear a gum shield too.

Price: Between £50 and £150

Stick – This can say a lot about a hockey player, as sticks can come in all materials, lengths, blade curves, and colours. Cheaper sticks will be made of wood with a fiberglass covering over the blade, whereas the more expensive options will be aluminium or a composite material. They’re loosely L shaped and this is broken down into a shaft, the part you hold, and the blade. Both parts will often be covered in generous amounts of hockey tape, a fabric based material that protects the stick on the blade and gives your hands a better grip on the shaft. As a beginner I’m using a wooden bezerker stick with a fairly pronounced curve on my blade. It’s supposed to give my shots more movement but I’ve yet to really nail that!

Price: Between £15 and £300

So that’s it for the average players. It takes around 20 minutes to put on, and considerably less time to take it all off again. The key once taking it off is getting it dried and aired as soon as possible – the longer you leave it the earlier it starts to smell of old sweat and damp and that’s never a pleasant session. I tend to head home and hang my kit up on a clotheshorse, spray it with Fabreeze, and turn a portable fan on. It’s kept the smells away for the last seven months so it’s worth trying.

Part 1: Suiting up for hockey

Kit / equipment / suit / swag / gear/ armour…it all means the same thing as far as hockey goes. Being protected is important no matter what level you’re playing at, so I wanted to break down what the average hockey player is wearing when they hit the ice these days. This can come in all shapes, sizes, qualities, and price brackets and at my level it’s not uncommon to hear of some rookies spending well over £1,000 on their kit.

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In order of how I personally suit up before a session…

Sweats / Skins / Base layers – All the range across most sports it seems, a tight fitting underlay that comes in a number of styles. I’m rocking the shorts and long sleeved top option; I like to keep my knees free. To the average person it’s essentially Lycra and it feels glorious to wear. This helps hockey players in two ways – the first is the compression element. The tight fit helps prevent muscle fatigue, guard against cramps and pulls, and generally keeps the muscles warm. Secondly the ‘moisture transportation mechanism’, a fancy way of saying that it helps to keep your sweat off your skin. I can’t stress enough how important that is hockey.

Price: In the UK you’re looking at £20 for the lot here.

 

Box / Jock strap – Available in both male and female shapes and sizes, and there to protect your ‘personal’ areas from significant damage. I’m sure you’d all like to know that I skate in a rather fetching belt and box combo.

Price: Probably the best £15 you’ll ever spend.

Shins / guards – These cover the top of your knee to the top of your ankle. These are usually held up with one or two straps and the average hockey player will cover theirs in leg tape to avoid them slipping down. Why do they slip down? Well that area moves a great deal and eventually the straps loosen and can’t keep the shin guard up on their own. Note from the picture below that most offer little protection to the back of the calf. Talking a shot in the back of your leg is painful but a part of the game. You tend to have a bit of soft muscle / fat there to absorb the shock.

Price: Anywhere from £25 to £50 depending on your size and preference.

Socks – A thick layer that covers the shin guards you’ve just put on. These tend to be without the foothold, giving you more movement in the ankle and making it far easier to put them on and take them off. Again these are often wrapped in two or three loops of leg tape to avoid constant movement when you’re skating.

Price: One of the cheapest parts of your kit, you’re looking at no more than £10.

Shorts – These aren’t your standard shorts, and as a result can be one of the most expensive items you wear. You’ve got thick padding on the coccyx, lower back and hips, protective cover across your thighs and can have a few bands of lighter cover on your hamstrings. This helps protect against a catalogue of collisions with other players, equipment, and the puck.

Price: Between £45 and £120, again dependent on your size and quality preference.

Part 2 will be up later in the week!

The hockey Goon

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There’s an old joke that goes “I was watching a fight last night and some ice hockey broke out”. It’s funny, sure, but it’s ultimately a misconception. There’s undoubtedly a physical element to the game, your size and frame certainly can play a part. There are fights too, but anyone that watched the recent Stanley Cup Finals would have been disappointed on that front. It’s a game with a higher skill entry level than most and those without decent skating abilities, balance, body control, and stamina can struggle. To put it bluntly – it’s hard to fight if you can’t stay on your feet and follow your target.

The archetypal ‘Goon’ definitely exists though, and right now I appear to be his number one target in our sessions.

When I joined the team I wasn’t the only new starter that week, as a monstrous guy was suiting up for the first time. He’s 6ft 4 and a good 280 pounds in weight. He’s huge before he even puts his kit on. At face value he seemed a nice guy too – a little keen to show off his kit and name drop but we all have our ways when we’re new to a team. As the session started it quickly become clear that this guy wasn’t comfortable on the ice. A few steps and he’s hit the deck with some force. This continued for the next hour until he calls it a night and heads back to the locker room. It was uncomfortable to watch. Every thud on the floor stopped the session as people went to check on him.

As the weeks have passed this has been a regular occurrence. Whilst you can visibly see improvements in other development players, we still have one guy who could be mistaken for a complete beginner on the ice. His persistence is impressive, even if his effort and willingness to learn can be very questionable. He’s dangerous on the ice though and on more than one occasion I’ve taken the full force as he’s crashed through me and I’m left reeling on the floor. It hurts like hell.

The first few times this happens you put it down to an accident. Hits, the term in ice hockey for when someone legally uses their body to stop you playing, are part and parcel of this game. You deal with it. I soon wised up though and even my limited ability is enough to send me clear of the guy on the ice. I assumed that would be the end of it. I was wrong.

As the gap between us has widened it seems to have angered him. His way of dealing with it is to take cheap shots at me when I’m not looking. He’s not agile enough to catch me during a game so he’s taken to slashing at me when the puck has moved on. We’ll cycle through a shift and when I’m least expecting it I’ll be cracked across the lower back with his stick, or I’ll see a stray arm swung at me. A few times he’ll deliberately try to trip me during a drill. It’s a constant threat when he’s near and I appear to be the only target too.

It was confusing at first but once you rationalise it, which I think he’s incapable of doing, it is clearly someone trying to find a role in this team. It’s almost like my improvements are a direct reflection on him and so I’m naturally the person who should suffer. The obvious answer would be to react strongly and give it back, show him that spark that he’s hoping for. That’s not my game though and it’s not what I play ice hockey to achieve. I’m not responding or showing signs that I’m really noticing it. I’d rather it wasn’t happening but I’m certainly not going to cave in and let him see that it pisses me off. Enough of the team have noticed it now for me to feel that protection and as far as I’m concerned his attempts to get at me show that I’m becoming the player he wants to be. After all there’s little fun to take from picking on the weak.

It’s not all in the mind, but being positive certainly helps

Behind some great hockey players are great wives, and with that in mind myself and my new wedding ring would like to apologise for the lack of updates here. I’m yet to find greatness on the ice, but I now have a great wife by my side ready and waiting. Two weeks in Florida, with more than an eye on the Rangers in the Stanley Cup Finals, does wonders for your mindset too and it’s exactly that which I’m focusing on today.

In the last few weeks I’ve noticed how much more I enjoy being on the ice when I actually let myself enjoy it. I’m a rookie, I’m going to make mistakes. In fact I make mistakes all the time and it can play on my mind. I’d then take a longer break on the bench and wouldn’t be as keen to return. Whilst sat there I listened to a line mate really moaning about the session and how he hated it. It made me realise that a positive frame of mind and a belief in yourself is key to not only excelling at sport, but often simply enjoying it.

Now ice hockey is a sport that requires confidence, a word I’ve repeated throughout this blog, in a number of ways. Confidence allows you to take risks on the ice, to try something new. It’s required in your skating, your technique, and even your communication with others on the ice. Whilst natural ability obviously helps here we don’t all have to be the next TJ Oshie or Drew Doughty to feel confident whilst playing. Taking things a step at a time and at your level is something we can all do – so break your game down into shifts and targets. Rookies like myself should focus on making or receiving a pass, creating an opening on the ice, following your opposition, or even pulling off a great hockey stop or crossover. Setting and achieving smaller targets on each shift will naturally start to grow your confidence. Don’t expect to hit each one on every shift too – the game doesn’t always set up the opportunities you want or need each time you suit up.

Confidence is a sliding measure though, and being overly confident can let you down in sport. Having an inflated belief will often lead to complacency or a lack of effort. It often comes from misunderstanding advice or allowing yourself to only hear the praise offered rather than the critique. I’ve already seen this in ice hockey and the lack of effort shown by some on the team does punish the rest of us at times. No one likes a show off and us rookies certainly don’t like feeling like a session is below a more experienced skater.

Attitudes and efforts rub off on those around you, so take a positive frame of mind into your next skate and enjoy yourself. You’ll definitely see the benefits.

Goal!

The face off is taken in the defensive end, won by the team in white, and the puck quickly clears the blue line. I grab possession and slide it across to the speedy right-winger who beats a man on the far blue line and then draws the net-minder out of the crease. Then with a clever flick of the wrist he finds my backhand and before you know it I’ve knocked it onto my shooting hand and lifted it into the net, passed the desperate dive of the keeper. Goal! The rookie has scored! There are cheers from both benches and my first round of hi-fives.

Okay so this was only an inter-team scrimmage but it felt brilliant. The backhand to forehand switch was pure instinct and my only moment of genuine quality in the ninety-minute session. This second week has certainly shown me that my skating in particular needs work.

General skating sessions in the UK are predominately anti-clockwise loops of the rink and you start to develop a strong right to left balance. I can happily cross over on corners, with my right skate stepping over my left, and then push my way forward. However left to right cross overs are a challenge and I feel far weaker on them. It’s rare that I’d need to stop or change direction at any real pace too during these sessions. Now compared to the rest of the general public I’m still a fairly strong skater but dump me into a hockey game and I’m very limited. You really need confidence with your feet – the puck can find its way to you from any direction, at any pace, and with any number of players round you. It’s those players who can shift their body or create space that become better with the stick.

Fortunately I’m not alone and the team split into two groups and the development players run through skating exercises. The key I’ve found is to push myself in these exercises and fear nothing. It takes some getting used to though. I’ve always been weary of falling onto the ice whilst skating and the added protection hasn’t quite clicked in my head. If I fall now it’s unlikely to hurt me. I have enough control to fall with some style, although a few others in the group appear to be hitting the deck with some force. The first exercise is to get as low to the ice as possible, ideally with your head being level with the top of the boards (the start of the plexi-glass). This is obviously far easier without the puck to focus on too. We then learn to transition between forward and backward skating, with the focus being on stepping into change, and how to stop at pace. Even these 15-minute sessions are a great help and I’m a far better skater for them.

For the record – I’m still not Charlie Conway.

First night nerves

Walking into the locker / changing room (substitute as appropriate) for the first time can be a daunting prospect. You naturally want to impress people, show them a bit of personality, and fit in with the crowd. Whilst each team is different you still encounter similar personalities across most sports. You’ll always have the overly confident types who lead the conversation, the settled players who will dip in and out where appropriate, and a handful of quieter players who try to keep themselves to themselves. You do meet a few other characters but on the whole these types are ever present. You also learn that personality types don’t always reflect sporting ability and this definitely applied the first time I walked into the hockey locker room (sticking with this now).

My approach – I always aim to head down there early, talk to a few of the team, and then stick with those guys as we’re getting changed. It’s interesting to see them go their separate ways whilst inside from there. This worked well tonight as I was sat with a good bunch who are chipping into the conversation and happy to welcome me into the fold.

Playing ice hockey requires an incredible amount of kit, something I want to run through in my next update, and the team rallied around those who were short. It did mean I missed out on the full set up but I had my skates and borrowed enough to get by. It’s harder to be confident when you’re waiting for spare kit though and definitely puts you behind when getting ready.

Now we’re ready to hit the ice. The doors open and my first few steps as a hockey player definitely lacked confidence. I focused on getting around the rink with all the kit on first and eventually swung an awkward stick at a puck and I was away. The sweat began pouring down me. It’s a familiar smell for hockey players and I’m almost wearing it like a badge of honour if truth be told. At first I was surprised at how comfortable I was with moving round the ice with a puck on my stick, it felt natural. However passing and shooting were a completely different story. No matter what I did I just couldn’t get any power or movement on my shots. It looks far easier when you’re sat in the stands or swinging a stick off the ice. That’ll no doubt take a bit of time and will certainly make me work on my balance.

Tonight there is a good mix of abilities on the ice – the better players glide effortlessly around and drive pucks into the empty nets whilst the rest of us tried to look like we knew what we were doing. After some joint exercises we split into two groups and the development players, like myself, worked on improving our basic skating. Skating for hockey is quite removed from your average general skating session and I certainly have work to do.

We then came together as a team and played some scrimmage (practice match). Playing alongside more accomplished players is good for you – they lead by example and show you the level you can work towards. I’ll admit to being a little jealous of their skills too and someday I’d love to get to that level.

The game passed me by a little but I made a few nice moves and climbed over the boards for the first time, something I’d always worried about being able to do. It takes a bit of lift in the knees but feels easier when you’re wearing so much protection.

I’m finally playing hockey and it feels great.