December 18, 2016

On Ice Hockey and Being Present

I’m an honest man. I’ll be real. This is going to be a super-niche little write-up. I know that. I’m expecting limited views and that’s okay. It’s just something I need to put into the world.

This reflection sat in my analog notebook for a while, frankly. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever type it up. But then after driving home from a late-night, men’s league barnburner, I had an eye-opening revelation. I realized exactly what it was burning a hole in my heart all these years. On that notion, the thought had to be made more permanent.

So here it is…

I’m obsessed with hockey. If you know me personally, you’re already well aware. I cannot fathom an existence without the essential life-skills that it has taught me. There are no other sports like it. (Even lacrosse — its close relative — is a stretch.)

Anything with a field or court requires running, jogging, or sidestepping. (You know — skills that most athletes already possess.) But not ice hockey. In hockey, you first need to find your wheels before you can dangle with the boys. Unless you’re on a pond somewhere, you need to learn how to skate before even considering joining a team. Even Mites have prerequisite learn-to-skates. You realize quickly that falling on some fresh-cut ice isn’t always fun. But eventually you learn to be present and find some good hand-eye coordination. Then you’re good to go.

This seems common sense at surface level. But what I’m trying to say feels a little deeper than that.

Ice hockey requires you to be present. Like completely, 100% present. Even watching from the bench between shifts. You have to be aware of everything going on and, in order to be successful, your brain has to process these things immediately. You have to react in the moment, based on variables that range from how pucks bounce at different ice temperatures to the size of the goaltender you’re shooting on. You make hundreds (maybe thousands) of these decisions on every 45-second shift. Then you go catch your breath on the pine, preparing to do it all over again.

Sure, there are strategies and systems for certain situations and areas of the ice. But really — none of them matter in the moment. Because they could change in milliseconds. You never know how the opponent will react to something. They’re in the same place as you, reading the same moment like a book. The puck might rebound up out of play or someone’s shoulder could catch you with your head down. You have to adapt to the circumstances at hand.

AND you have to be tough doing so. Because if you mess up, your consequences are physical. I can’t tell you how many mishandles led to me getting trucked just inside the blue line. I mean, you could get ROCKED along the boards if you fumble over a quick backhand pass. Especially if you’re a 5’6 shorty like me.

So I guess what I’m trying to put together is that there’s this unique element between mindfulness and physicality unlike most other conventional team sports. I am NOT trying to denounce these other sports. There are simply some dots I’m trying to connect and ice hockey lets me draw the lines.

I accredit this specific mindfulness (whether or not I was previously aware) as the reason I can’t quit and keep coming back. At least, until my body doesn’t work anymore.

I’ve been involved with and played the sport for nearly 25 years as of my writing this. From when I was about 5 years old, I knew I was in love. I can recall so vividly my mother and father lacing up my first pair of bender boots at free skate as a kid. My dad, to this day, still rags on me when we talk about it; “Boy, I remember you holdin’ onto the boards for dear life! Wouldn’t even let go to take a picture!”

“But dad, I can skate circles around you now…”

“As you should after all the money we’ve spent on clinics and equipment!!!”

[My father and his brothers grew up skating between branches on frozen ponds for a few weeks at a time. Not year-round, on professionally maintained rinks up and down the northeast.]

To this day, I am absorbed by it. I play it, I coach it, I break it down on TV. From October to March, don’t ask me to do anything. I can’t. I have hockey.

You’ve gotta love it.

If I’ve learned anything from dedicating every single winter to this sport for 25+ years it is this:
How you react to things is clear evidence of your preparation, your attitude, and your ability to keep growing as a person. You are everything you’ve ever experienced, so long you learn from it.
The sport has evolved SO MUCH in the short time I’ve been playing. From wood — to aluminum — to fiberglass sticks, from neutral zone traps to hybrid icing calls, and 2-line passing. Even fights that’ll stick you in the sinbin for 5 minutes. So many different lessons.

Ice hockey has taught me to be mindful of my surroundings and how I experience them. I have to be aware. I have to be awake. I have to be conscious enough to recognize what is not in my direct lines of sight. (Yes, my peripheral vision is top notch.)

This “presence mindset” has certainly seeped into other aspects of my life. Teaching. Coaching. Personal relationships. Adventure. I think it is a basic staple of life that an increasingly many are forgetful of in our digital age. Especially our children. We get caught up and stuck on creating virtual realities, trying to escape being mindful by consuming social media and commercial branding.
We must remember that being present is what keeps us human. It ties us to our realities.
Being present clears your mind unlike any vice you’ve ever had. I know it’s what keeps me coming back to hockey. I’m nearly 30 and still play in a men’s league. It’s my outlet. My weekly dose of meditation. Some of the guys on my team are pushing 50 and THEY keep coming back too. (All roads lead to the beer league, kids!) Sure, men’s leagues aren’t nearly as intense as college or junior hockey. But it still forces you to apply your presence. Even if “primetime” puck drops push 10pm, it still requires you to exert physical activity.

Ultimately, this reflection is for all those who know the phrase “I can’t make it — I have hockey” all too well. For those of you who cry at the receipt when you ring up some new wheels or twigs. Those who beat the hell outta themselves on and off the ice, just to be that much better. It’s for those of you hitting the ice at 10:30 on a Tuesday night because you just have to.

It is a reminder to stay present, whether you’re on the ice, in the locker room, or at work. Apply yourself and be mindful of how you interact with your environments.

Eventually, you’ll have to hang ’em up. For me, that’ll be the day I can no longer take the aches and pains that come with the following morning. But until then, try to recognize the lessons that you’re learning every time you step foot on the ice. Be mindful of your presence.