It’s about 20 minutes to game time and I’m tying my skates in a corner of the dressing room. Idle chatter bounces around the room as other players arrive and begin dressing. There are groans and mutterings as bags are unzipped and long dormant gear eyed suspiciously. The general theme of the conversation is that tonight is going to be painful due to a summer spent away from skates and exercise.
“I didn’t do much dryland training,” deadpans a teammate named Mike.
A round of laughs follows his well-timed understatement, the unspoken understanding being that no one has come close to doing any dryland training. I laugh along with the others but also suppress a private grin. I alone know how naughty a beer leaguer I’ve been in the last three weeks.
This is a new team for me. I played just three games with them near the end of last season. I’m still getting to know these guys and I’m not about to divulge that I’ve been engaged in hard-core training.
As is the case before any game, I’m feeling a range of muted emotions: nervousness, dread, anticipation, excitement. On this occasion, due to the special circumstances surrounding this season debut, all these emotions are heightened by approximately 17 per cent.
From down the hall we get word that the ice is ready. I make my way with my teammates through the tunnel toward the ice, proudly clad in my just-acquired tan socks and uniform bearing our team name: Hillbillies.
I stash my water bottle and extra stick on the bench, step onto the ice and start circling around our end with slow deliberate strides. I know from experience that the warmup will tell me very quickly what I’ve got for legs. I notice right away that my feet feel a bit heavy. I gradually pick up the pace, but I put off the true test, already suspecting that it won’t go as I’d hoped. Finally, after several moderately-paced laps, I force myself to take off as fast as I can go, trying to explode to top speed within a few strides.
It’s a laborious chore. Though my legs feel strong and solid, they’re also slightly leaden and unwilling to move quickly. With a fair amount of effort I get myself cranked up to a decent speed but there’s no explosiveness going on here.
It’s clear that a miraculous return to 1998 is not going to happen. On the plus side, my legs aren’t turning to Jello midway through the warmup, which has been my experience in the recent past.
As soon as the game starts our young opponents start flying around the ice like randy mustangs. We withstand their relentless attacking but it’s clear that they’re the faster, more skilled team.
My first few shifts are uneventful. It’s clear that I will not be dominating the play from my defenceman position. There will be no end-to-end rushes or fancy dangling from me.
As my effectiveness has waned in my advancing years, I’ve adopted an increasingly simple, stay-at-home game as a defenceman. If this league was the NHL I would be Steve Staios (before he retired): not flashy, not fast, but competitive, sound defensively (more or less) and always trying hard.
As the period unfolds my fitness status becomes more clear. My right knee emits some slight groans from the slight MCL sprain I suffered back in July, but it’s holding up. Overall, I’m moving not too badly. My quickness, while a bit lacking, has improved over where it was last season.
The defining play of my game comes in the second period when I deflect a puck past a defender and find myself at our blue line with a potential breakaway. The 28-year-old version of me would have employed a few quick strides and been gone like a jet taking off. The current version of me, suddenly feeling like a cross between a fattened bull and Bambi, feels a quick flash of dread.
“Oh no, now I gotta try and race all the way to their goal without getting caught,” I think.
I don’t think I have a chance but, out of a sense of duty, I force my legs to churn as fast as they can go and I get myself going at my top cruising speed.
I hazard a glance around. To my surprise, there are no opponents around to catch me. I’m still on a breakaway. As I grind toward the net a teammate catches up to the play and heads for the far post for a pass while a defender tries to fill the passing lane and cut off my angle to the net.
I want to pass to my teammate, who happens to be our most skilled forward, but I don’t like the look of it. Everyone in the rink, including the goalie, can see that I’m thinking pass. Changing my mind, I skate in and pound the puck at the net. It’s a skill-less shot that smacks the goalie right in the middle, effectively squandering the scoring opportunity. Oh well. The old legs and the old hands both lived up to their historical precedents.
The game is tied at two in the closing minutes and our team presses hard for the go-ahead goal. We maintain good puck possession in the opposition’s zone and I participate in the barnstorming by directing a few shots toward the goal from my point position. I’m not a hard shooter and these shots are mostly attempts to get the puck to a position where one of our forwards can get a deflection or a rebound. We come close but can’t get that next goal. The game ends in a 2-2 tie.
My assessment of my performance is that it was definitely better than it otherwise would have been had I not done all that training. My training virtually eliminated the perpetual fatigue that has plagued me in recent years. I felt fresh every shift and this freshness endured to the end of my shifts. Even at the end of the game – when I usually feel like I’ve emptied my guts onto a battlefield – I wasn’t tired at all. I felt ready to play another game.
Casting aside the fatigue allowed me to be a more effective player. Though I stayed within my usual role as a stay-at-home defenceman, I did manage to more actively participate in the offensive aspect of the game.
The one conditioning element that is clearly lacking is first-step quickness, the ability to go from standing still to skating at top speed. I’ll have to review my training modules and plan out the next few weeks to address that issue.
My parting thought: my training has brought significant benefits but I still have much work to do to get to where I’d like to be.