As it sit here writing this on a packed TTC bus heading north to the rink with all of my goalie gear, I can’t help but think of the people who call me crazy. If you’d like to know, on average I play hockey four days a week. And, if I can, I like to play more. (For the record, I only take the bus to one of those games.)
Some people find my hockey frequency excessive, some find it ambitious, while others find it inspiring. I suspect my girlfriend, Claudine, finds it cute, but mildly annoying. Me, I find it necessary.
Fact is, I don’t possess the words to adequately describe the sense of joy and contentment I get when I’m playing hockey, whether it be as a goalie (my true position) or as a skater — on ice or off. Participating in other sports gets me close to this feeling, but hockey, as some say, must be in my blood. Such a cliche, I know.
I wasn’t born with skates, but since I can remember all I wanted to be was a hockey player. Like most people who share the dream of playing pro sports, I tried hard but fell short. If you ask my parents, I had a wonderful career and just needed that one big break. If you ask me, I was good but not mentally strong enough as a teenager to ever make it out of junior level hockey. As an adult I understand and savor the game in a way I never could as a teenager.
I suppose my attachment to hockey has something to do with consistency; hockey being one of the constants in a childhood that contained a fair share of moving and friend changing. No matter how disconnected I may have felt, I knew there was a rink nearby and a game to play.
I “retired” when I went to university. I spent the last two years of my hockey career bouncing around various Jr.C and B teams, being told I was good, but not big enough. I was even recruited to Lake Superior State college in the NCAA, but I had had enough of the politics of hockey and I decided that at university I would focus on school (partying).
Last week I met a guy named Jeff Keacher, and his journey got me thinking a lot about hockey and my relationship to it.
Jeff is an American from Minnesota who picked up the game as an adult in his early 20s. He is now turning 30 and has been playing goal for near 8 seasons. Jeff has said that his desire to play hockey came from the notion that as a resident of the State of Hockey, he had to live up to his birthright.
Now, Jeff is on a six-month hockey-playing odyssey — a road trip that will take him through all 50 American states and 10 Canadian provinces. (Follow his blog to track his progress.)
When I learned of his trip I contacted him, and on his stop in Ontario I invited Jeff to take over my crease and suit up as the goaltender for the Pylons, my Tuesday night league I’ve been playing for 7 years. The Pylons have never been an incredibly successful team, but what the group lacks in skill they make up for in team spirit — it is the best group of guys, and the dressing room couldn’t be more fun.
I was happy to introduce Jeff to such a fun loving, tight-knit group of guys. And he responded well, taking a few barbs and spouting a few comebacks before it was all said and done. The game ended in a blowout, uncharacteristically won by our team. I played defense — I figured if I couldn’t protect the goal, I might as well protect the guy in it.
After the game beers and pizza were consumed, heroics were relived and stories were shared. Jeff and I talked some about the book of his travels he hopes to write when he finishes his trip. All in all, it was a nice tidy evening.
A week has gone by since Jeff played, and a few days have gone by since I started this post (we won the game I was traveling to, 3-2!), and Jeff is now in PEI continuing his North American tour. I was really happy to become a part of Jeff’s odyssey, and his love of the game has made me think of my hockey story.
I came back to hockey as an adult. After being away from the game for four years, I slowly made my way back by playing ball hockey once a week with a group of artists and writers who had started Roscoe Magazine so many years earlier. To begin playing in the zero-pressure environment of ball hockey was bliss. It was a return to my youth, and to how I was introduced to the game. Ice hockey was great when I was young, but it was controlled and scheduled. Ball hockey was ours, and was played without coaches or supervision; it was as pure as sporting fun could be as a youth. Reliving that as an adult was inspiring. I soon dug my equipment out of the closet and began playing ice hockey again. As Don Gillmor describes his return to hockey in his essay, “Hockey’s Prodigal Son,” I, like Don, could feel myself being sucked back into the national business.
Playing hockey also brought me back to watching hockey, which in turn brought me to sports publishing. Now I’m the sports editor at Firefly Books, and we are the official publisher of the Hockey Hall of Fame. I pretty much eat breathe and sleep hockey these days (so much so that I make saves in my sleep that wake up Claudine).
I used to have a t-shirt with a slogan that read, “Hockey is life, the rest is just details.” and while those “details” now are pretty darn important, my relationship with hockey as an adult has grown beyond what I could have ever imagined when I would pull on that shirt as a teenager. I love my details and I love hockey. In fact, my details and hockey are so intertwined that they are no longer separate. I suppose my t-shirt now could just read, “Life.”