when you’re wired as a player

As the year draws to a close I hear so much “gee, I should have done” and “oh, I only wish I could”. It feels like opportunities left in the dust and it’s a depressing way to move into the new year. To put it all in perspective, I asked a friend of mine to write a guest blog for us, and I specifically asked him to tell us why he does what he does.  Why he drives into town late at night  (because that’s when ice time is available) and why he plays.  His story is inspirational. Enjoy. 

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When You’re Wired As A Player   by Ray Masson 

            Once, when I was very young, I experienced boredom for the first time. I liked it so little that I promised myself it would never happen again. Ever. And it hasn’t. Not once in my 66 and a half years. Interesting how only the very young and very old count the “halves”. Like we’re quite proud of our age and every segment of it.

I have quite enjoyed every segment of my time here. Currently, I am playing hockey, again. And when the hockey season draws to a close, I play lacrosse. I say, “again” because I was out of both games for 35 years. I got caught up in the blurred swirl of my career as a teacher. And volleyball coach. And theatre director. Fifteen hour days for six days a week. I could only manage eight hours on Sundays because sleep deprivation accumulates and exacts its due. So… no time for hockey or lacrosse.

The whole time, though, I had to try to explain to people why coaching was so difficult for me.

I’m wired as a player, not a coach. That’s not an easy switch to turn on and off. I must admit that there is a deep level of satisfaction watching a system you designed and trained intensely with a dedicated group of kids, play out on the floor. Like the first time our grade 10 girls team hit a true “quick”. Not a hanging set, where the setter sends the ball up and then the middle jumps, chases it down and puts it away for the point… but a true “quick”… where the middle jumps first, before the ball is even in the setter’s hands, while the opposing blocker is looking up at her and wondering where the ball is… then the setter shoots the ball up to meet her swinging hand… crack! The ball is coming back up off the court before the blocker can blink, let alone twitch her jumping muscles. Around these parts, I have seen no college teams and very few university teams run that play under game conditions. I was so proud of my kids.

Then there was the time our club team was at a the Western Canadian Open in Calgary. We executed a perfect right “X”. We ran the middle quick and drew the blockers, then as the middle and their blockers were descending, our right side attacker came around behind the setter and middle as the ball drifted over and past the middle. With no blockers in sight, she unloaded everything she had on that ball. Unfortunately, their right side back row defender was trained to play “hands down” defence. She just had time to turn her head before the missile got her square in the side of the face. Of, course, our kid broke a few rules to duck under the net and run to her to see if she was okay and to apologize. I don’t think any of us who were there have yet forgotten the beauty of that play.

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But it’s hard to participate from the bench.

I’ve always been a player at heart.

 

 

I eventually retired from that world. But not without a plan. I didn’t remember the particulars of that boyhood boredom thing, but I remembered the promise. I grew up playing hockey and lacrosse in rotation. So, I hung around both games until an opportunity opened up. It was lacrosse first. One of the goalies approached me and asked if I wanted to take his spot, as his knee had deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t continue. This is senior C lacrosse. It isn’t high-end by any stretch, but it isn’t bush league either. There are some high end players in the league: one who plays pro in the National Lacrosse League, and a couple who play field lacrosse for American universities. So, I was elated when they offered a chance to an old guy who was almost 60! So, I spent more money than I should have to gear up with modern equipment. Now, those high end players mostly make me look like a pylon. But, when I do get a save on one of their rockets, it feels pretty good. It hurts. But it hurts good.

Then, a year or two later, one of my contemporaries from way back said I should come out for the over-50 drop-in hockey group he played for. I was in! Living the dream! Soon, I was playing six or seven games a week for four different old timers hockey groups. I don’t do that any more. Old age is a real thing. You have to deal with real issues. The modern “butterfly” style of goaltending is very demanding, especially on a frame that was put together in 1951. A few of the parts are getting rusty.

First, my knees started to go. “Butterfly” is all about… down to your knees with your feet as far out to the sides as you can get them, (try that at home), side to side, back up again, back down again, repeat. Try that 80 times in an hour and a half.

Then my back decided to remind me about the pounding it’s been taking. I have arthritis in the last three vertebrae: L4, L5, and S1; plus degenerative disc disease. So, I have surrendered to the reality that my days as the “okayest goalie” in the Northwest are numbered. Now, I play a reasonable three times a week and I savour every second, every save, even the agony of every goal against. I’ve busted 90 for save percent in about a quarter of my games, and I’ve worked my way up to 70% on breakaways in my over 35 league, and 85% in my over 60 group.

Now, I know what you’re visualizing when I say “over 60”. You’re seeing doddering old farts leaning heavily on their sticks and stumbling in confused circles looking for the puck and uttering epithets to no one in particular. But let me tune you in. I admit that some of the shoulder pads in the dressing room look like they came from the Sears Christmas Catalogue of 1962. But most of these guys were high-end players in their day. They may have lost a step or two in speed, but they still have “hands” and hockey IQ. They can put together a skillful east-west passing play and finish off by ripping a top corner faster than a goalie can say, “crap” .

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Like I said… living every Canadian kid’s dream.

It ain’t the NHL, but you should see these sixty-somethings acting like kids again when they hit the ice.

You should see the light in their eyes. I can.

         I can see their faces when they bust in on a breakaway. I know that in their minds, they’re back in junior again, trying to impress the coach enough to make it to the next level… trying to impress their peers and get a pat on the back or a comment or two in the dressing room afterward.

Yes. There is that reality thing. There are consequences to sixty-somethings believing they’re kids again. Last year we had two broken legs. One from stopping too hard from a full-out sprint down the boards, and another from turning too tight to shake a check. One of them is back already. He turns more tentatively now, and accelerates and stops more gingerly. But for an hour and a half, we all get to be kids again! What a wonderful hour and a half!

My over-35 old timers league plays downtown at the Prince George Coliseum… well, officially they now call it the Rolling Mix Concrete Arena… but to me and my contemporaries, it still is, and always will be… the Coliseum… the hockey cathedral we all grew up in. It is a venerable building from the 1940s. The dressing rooms smell of generations of sweat infused wooden beams with rough, cracked surfaces. They smell exactly the same as they did when I was a kid.

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It smells like home to me.  I grew up in that building.

         Every game I play there, during the warmup laps, I skate through the corner where my dad passed away. He was refereeing a minor hockey game when he collapsed in that corner. He was 55.  I am deeply connected to that building.

 

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