As an early summer afternoon ticked away the cars rolled into the Ice Haus arena parking deck at Jay Peak for Green Mountain Rock Crushers training camp. Plates from Ontario, Quebec, and Wisconsin among others, each beating their own to path to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom that day.
On the road before the sun rose over the streets of Brampton, caught in the morning commute of a bustling Toronto.Others departed the day before along the Southern edges of the Great Lakes before stopping in Burlington, unable to push through the last hour and a half without real danger of falling asleep at the wheel.
Hockey bags branded with airline luggage tags from Vancouver International to Helsinki-Vannta.
For a large group of hockey players hailing from different corners there is a certain feeling out process. Every new body pushing through the doors of the rink, a lobby full of eyes to size them up.
The questions never stray far from the routine. The where you from? The where’d you play, and what position? It’s most likely a town you’ve never heard of or only been through on your way to somewhere else. The resumes are packed with teams from the long acronymed leagues of Northern Ontario or now defunct single “A” conferences of the great American Midwest.
As small conversations proceed over stick taping and edge tuning connections are made. Mutual teammates, coaches, or opponents are unearthed for most players in a five degrees of separation sort of fashion.
It’s actually easier than one would think. Another goaltender like myself was an alumni of Vermont high school hockey before moving onto Jr. A. After naming some common players from the time period we had come to the conclusion that we must have met at opposite ends of the ice some seven years prior before finally meeting face to face today.
Slowly connections are made and quick bonds are formed. The players warm to each other as they warm their muscles before getting dressed. Even at a single “A” level of professional hockey the commitment to the body is second to none. Though some look like they are in the gym for two hours a day while others appear to go only two hours a week, all know what makes their individual hockey machine tick best.
I change into my spandex and sneakers to take a walk to a secluded corner of the rink. I stretch alone and feel my body loosen outstretched along the cold rubber flooring. I toss a racquetball up against the glass in rhythm as my hands and mind become one. Others put themselves through plyometics or close quarters golf ball stick handling routines.
Whether extreme focus or relaxation all players have their own ways of preparing for the physical strains of play.
Players get dressed in the way that each is accustomed. Some are fully dressed twenty minutes before the scheduled practice, others refusing to tie their skates until the zamboni driver clanks the lock open on the doors in preparation of cleaning the ice.
A tall Indian boy sways his way through the door before plopping himself upon one of the only remaining benches in the locker room, a skunk stripe of bleach blonde darting through the middle of his long black hair.
Unpacking his bag, his hockey pants are plastered like Times Square billboards with logos for industrial lumberyards and other British Columbia businesses that feel 21-year-old hockey players are an untapped advertising opportunity.
“Did you play in Europe or something man?” someone asks him pointing to his pants, European leagues often covering their players in similar advertising.
“No this is from my team in B.C.” he says simply sifting through his equipment in a Canadian drawled out accent.
A few of the more seasoned professional players share horror stories of other teams and leagues around the campfire of half empty hockey bags. Clubs folding mid season. GM’s or coaches skipping town, their replacements showing up with 20 new players of their own and release forms for everyone else.
“In Troy we lived in an old office building with all this left over office equipment.” Explained one player who spent half a season with the Troy Bruins a year earlier “We tore that place apart.”
Sleeping in rented out office space or in cars in the rink parking lot. Paid late or sometimes not paid at all.
Those who find themselves here as a first dive into professional hockey can’t help but cringe a bit. Those who have been around the block in pursuits of their dreams take a late paycheck or couch surfing as a simple par for the course.
About five or so minutes prior to taking the ice for the first time there is almost a complete silence over the room that is almost too unison to seem coincidence. A fan humming overhead and water being used to slick back an unruly head of hair are the only sounds to break the quiet.
Helmets drop to the ground and eyes look up through visors at empty space. Toes tap away silently inside the shell of skates. Though new friends have been made and old acquaintances met, it has never been more evident that what stands before everyone in the room is a job interview.
Players file out of the room. As I walk onto the bench some are already warming up the glass with wild slap shots or lobbing loose pucks out into the traffic of center ice.
As I take the five or so inch plunge from doorway to ice I float above the surface for a split second. But it’s in this moment of weightlessness that I change the most. It is in this brief instant that my transformation into a hockey player is complete.That moment falling forward is my phone booth changing room, just before bursting out the other side as person a world away from my normal self.
This evening’s skate is scheduled as a practice. Players have met off the ice but on ice behavior is a whole other getting to know you process. Who’s a passer and who’s a shooter. Who will step up to you on the blue line and who will try to push you to the outside. Who’s the meat and potatoes and who’s got what it takes to be a star.
For myself as a goaltender this practice is an extremely valuable experience to become familiar. Through controlled situations over the next 90 minutes I begin to mentally take notes. I start to connect faces with skating styles and shooting habits. I recognize certain players quick releases and others tendencies to hold onto the puck a little bit longer. By the end of the skate I hope to be familiar enough to know the most of the players out of the corner of my eye.
For the majority of the time we run through flow drills, characterized often by long stretches of skating and passing followed by a shot on goal. Strange as it might sound to an outsider there is no need to skate players into the ground. You are in shape or you aren’t, and it will become evident over the next few days of activity.
Among six goalies split up to three in each end, we cycle through every 10 shots or so. In my mind total focus on the puck and my position in front of it, raw reflexes being left to nature. 20 shots time in between thinking about the next ten I will face. What to do different on a certain shooter or what adjustments to make.
With the majority of practice behind us it’s going well. I’m not surprised I seem to be doing well, but there is a certain unexpected pleasure in it. I run through the cycles cutting off angles and keeping my hands up, one of Matt’s biggest pieces of advice. Of course it’s impossible not to get beat by the occasional scorcher perfectly placed over your shoulder or by a bad beat deflected off a defensemen between your arms.
When I let my hands come down for even a couple shots it isn’t long before the ping of a post behind my head serves as a reminder to keep them up. At this level, players don’t usually miss those types of shots if they are given them, and it’s a testament to the amount of talent that has shown up for camp.
One of the last drills we perform involves a breakout of one end going down for a three on two, and then cycling back for a three on zero. I luckily enough am on the receiving end of the three on zero and that is not said to be sarcastic. Personally as a goaltender I enjoy being put on odd man breaks. Prevailing in inopportune situations is something that can be used to set oneself apart.
On the first cycle three forwards bear down across the blue line, my eyes focused in on the puck but just as well on the two propped and waiting sticks on either side of the puck carrier. Each pass small adjustments made in position and angle. My legs coil in wait. Just inside the hash marks a quick pass no more than 12 feet puts me in motion all the way to the right face off dot. Natural instinct tells me to slide, butterfly, dive, anything to move to the puck, but my instinct must be fought off.
I push across still on my feet to square to the puck. As soon as the puck hits his tape it’s propelled across with a one-time pass to the other side of the crease. The far winger collapses on the puck on the perfect moment, his right-handed shot making the distance I must travel to the puck longer than if he were a lefty.
With all the force in my body I push off, hands leading, legs splitting as I slide across the open net every inch of my body reaching for the far post. The puck makes a deafening thud off my outstretched left leg and dribbles off into the corner.
A few sticks slap and some reach their necks out off the bench to see. A high pitched “Whhhooo!” belts out from some unidentified source across the ice. There is no time to admire myself, a quick recovery must be made to mimic a game situation. As the next group breaks down on the opposite end of the ice I let myself smile for a moment, but realize quickly, there is still nine more to go.