Like Riding a Bike … If Bikes Were Metal Blades On Ice
It occurred to me it might be inappropriate, possibly sacrilegious, and just short of criminal that, as I was lacing and taping protective hockey pads to my body for the first time in my life, I was about to step into hockey pants Wayne Gretzky wore as a NHL Western Conference All-Star back in the day. I had never ice skated wearing a helmet, shin guards, shoulder and elbow pads before, and I had certainly never worn a pair of breezers with a pad that once covered the tail bone of the greatest professional hockey player of all time.
But there I was in the Hobbs Ice Arena office of the newly hired UWEC women’s hockey coach Mike Collins, putting on his gear to practice a sport I hadn’t played since I was a kid with a group of hockey novices, mostly medical and support staff workers at Luther Midelfort. They were The Eau Claire Mighty Docs.
It was a conversation with Terri Winter and her husband Dave, a radiologist at the hospital, that got me to the rink that November night 11 years ago. We’d been talking about strength training for Dave’s knee rehabilitation, and because I’d recently finished my fifth inline skate marathon, I asked Dave if he’d ever considered rollerblading as an alternative to running and biking. And that’s when Terri said, “You skate? You should skate with us!” Not being one to join groups, I blurted out what seemed to me the oddest of replies. I said, “Yes, I should.”
There are many skill sets easier than gliding on hard ice using sharp steel blades strapped to the feet. My first skates, circa 1950s hand-me-down brown leather with no ankle support, had me flopping around on the ice like a land bound seal. In the warming house (overheated by a pot bellied wood stove with the smell of hot, wet wool) we’d take turns pulling hard on our laces while a friend would press on the eyelets, perceiving that a tight skate would keep our ankles straight. Within minutes of returning to the ice of my town’s old municipal swimming pond, my feet were frozen and numb. Ice hockey was, for me, an exercise in pain tolerance and character building back then. Inevitably, basketball became the winter sport of choice.
Decades later, my first stride on the bright white ice sheet that November night (in my brand new Bauer Supreme 3000s) revealed to me that skate boot technology had made quantum leaps in my absence from ice skating. As I glided effortlessly and efficiently across the ice for that first practice, I felt that my ankles were firm and straight. But my amazement at the speed with which the far side boards approached turned to panic as I realized I had no plan for stopping my momentum. In that moment of confusion, out of rollerblade habit, I stuck my right skate forward to make a heel stop, so that it was the first of the borrowed equipment to hit the boards, followed immediately by Mike’s shin pads. Then my hockey stick and water bottle flew in opposite directions, and I bounced off the boards at the Mighty Doc’s bench – backwards onto Wayne Gretzky’s tailbone pad… my return to ice hockey complete.