On Memorial Day weekend 2011, like many others, I found myself rising with the sun. The car packed full the night before careened down Route 3 South of Boston which leads to Cape Cod, better known outside of New England as the playground of the Kennedys and others so privileged.
There was no beach in my immediate future, though. No sun bronzing my exposed shoulders or samples of saltwater taffy with a summer fling. I had been coming to the Cape for a few weeks now to lock my body and mind away in a small commercial storage unit in a not-so-Kennedy-esqe industrial park located in Mashpee, MA.
The unit was much like any other, dark and musty, heavy with heat even in the early morning. The exception being that this unit’s floor was lined with large interlocking plastic tiles sliced up and down by skate blades. Against the wall a hockey goal, it’s once freshly painted red posts now severely scarred with puck marks.
Here for weeks now I’ve come here to shuffle, t-push, recover to the post, take a shot, recover again and repeat on the synthetic ice of Puckstoppers Cape Cod for over an hour at a time. In a few weeks I would be taking the ice for a training camp held by the Green Mountain Rock Crushers of the Federal Hockey League. If in your head the only connection you can make to the Federal Hockey League is of the high flying Hanson brothers and a goonish Ogie Oglethorpe… well, your memory serves you well.
The FHL is a Single-A professional hockey league composed of 10 teams throughout the Northeast, now expanding and filling with talent from all corners of the hockey world. For many the league is a starting point, a first pro tryout, a chance to be seen. For others it’s the end of the road, where the arc of careers hits its lowest point before gracefully exiting the stage.
I grew up playing hockey at a young age in Rutland, Vermont. My first organized team as a mite all players took turns playing goaltender with old duct tape repaired hand me down pads. When my turn came to give goalie a try I could tell the brown leather with what can only be described as cheap sofa filling made me feel different. I can’t remember if I won that game as an 8 year old. Who knows if we were even keeping score? I only remember my friends and teammates exclaiming that they didn’t want to take turns any more. They said that I was their goalie, and I never looked back.
Some 14 years later my hockey career had come to an abrupt end on a wrap around goal from a University of Connecticut forward just a minute into overtime of my last game playing for Endicott College. There was no flash before my eyes of road trips to Montreal for spring tournaments or high school championships won. No profound moment. It was just…well over.
After that, hockey and I had a falling out. The Stanley Cup playoffs weren’t appealing. Calls or emails looking for a pickup goalie the next town over were ignored. At the time it seemed that after nearly 15 years hockey didn’t even have the decency to explain to me why. Not even an “It’s not you it’s me”. No note on the kitchen table. One day I had just come home to a house with half the furniture and appliances gone and I couldn’t do anything but slouch up against the door and pray she hadn’t taken the dog too.
Hockey left and was out there somewhere living on without me and it felt like it had changed its cell phone number and email.
I did what anyone else would. I tried to get over it. Tried to find new hobbies. Tried to get out more. Probably drank too much on the weekends. I skated once or twice in that first six months. Luckily with the help of some former teammates hockey and I learned to become friends again. I joined a competitive men’s league with other former college players. I got to see a lot of shots and enjoy a cold beer in the locker room now and again.
I had come to grips. I could still play. My hips still transitioned and slid like second nature. I still smiled after I made a save I shouldn’t have. Though the compete level was gone, it felt good to play again. I got a part of me back.
A year and a half flew off the calendar when I found myself clicking on a link reading “Vermont to Get Professional Hockey Team.” My eyes darted across the electronic text explaining the FHL was expanding to include a team in the ski resort village of Jay Vermont, just a few miles from the Canadian Border.
I sent around the link to old friends and had a laugh. We all joked about trying out and got a kick or two out of it. But inside my head, or maybe my heart since I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins when it comes to hockey for me, a very real seed had been planted.
It was an ending I could control this time. Instead of a bad memory my last shot would be on my own terms in the state where I grew up. At the time I only told my parents and close friends of my plans to attend free agent training camp. When asked “Why?” I chalked it up to a fun long weekend, but deep down in every hockey player there is some form of a “what if?”
What if I went down a different path? What if I played that puck different? What if I had made that save? This surely would leave any remaining questions I had about myself as a hockey player answered.
So here I find myself most of these early summer weekends, hunched over an aluminum chair as my goaltender coach Matt Lopes arranges plastic orange cones around the imaginary crease area. The sun darting through the small windows of the garage door, he takes a few steps backs and taps his stick at each movement he wants me to perform making sure he hasn’t missed anything.
“You’re going to hate me after this one.” he says as I suck down what is now a warm bottle of Poland Spring. Matt seems to say this a lot.
Matt works out of his Mashpee, MA synthetic ice facility. Currently a goaltending coach for various teams including the FHL’s Cape Cod Blue Fins, Lopes was once a player in the Federal League, CHL, and even played a game on call up with the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL.
Matt swears by synthetic. Starting out at UMass Boston Lopes described himself to me as “an average Division III goalie”. That was before Matt moved on transferring to Gustavus Adolphus College and started commuting two hours to train on synthetic ice every other day.
“Next thing I knew I had lost in the Division III National Championship game and I was getting offered my first pro contract.”
To explain synthetic ice in layman’s terms, it’s a plastic surface hockey goaltenders can train on using full equipment, the material mimicking the feel of ice on your skates. It’s the closest you’ll get without stepping on the real thing. For goalies its one of the only options for personal goaltender specific training other than renting an entire sheet of ice.
But unlike ice it doesn’t always slide as smoothly. Every move is a little more labored and met with more resistance. Where on ice a T-Push is second nature, the same movement on synthetic requires complete balance and concentration. Though difficult at first for a goaltender of any experience level, muscle memory is soon built. Movements become robotic and clean again, and when translated onto the ice the results are second to none.
With four weeks until camp, Matt isn’t trying to reinvent my game like he might with other goalies that have more time to spare. Instead he builds off my strengths already in place. He praises my speed, agility, size, and reflexes which I’m glad to hear, but my footwork is immediately singled out.
Two years of men’s league with no goaltender specific coaching has let bad habits creep up since college. Recovering to the wrong leg. Using two shuffles instead of one T-push to get from point A to point B.
These problems in theory are a quick fix. Foot goes here instead. Angle leg a little more this way. To have them become second nature or a natural reaction? That takes time and repetition. So Matt and I rep it out. I often make five or six movements in and around the crease before taking a shot. Even after a few sets of drills it’s easy to let my glove hand drop a little and lean forward a bit more as my legs begin to burn. Every week adjustments made and small victories in my style beginning to look cleaner.
On the last day of training with Matt before leaving for camp we go through the meat grinder. Often times I end up outstretched across the goal mouth, the puck just barely out of reach. I seem to be fighting off shots, and struggling to control stray rebounds. The way I move and recover changes. I don’t say a word. I’m frustrated and Matt can tell.
“I’m making it extremely hard for you right now. You shouldn’t be making these saves. ”
I take a seat and let Matt know what’s running through my head. On my last day I feel like I’m not making as many quality stops as I did on my first. For the first time in the past month or so, I wasn’t feeling as confident I had as when I started out.
“I could have had you come in here and just thrown pucks off of you but it wouldn’t have helped you.” Matt says to me. “Today is the best day you’ve had since you’ve been here, by far.”
Like most experiences, growth as a hockey player is enhanced by being out of one’s comfort zone. Gains are not made in being at ease with your body or mentality. Limits need to be pushed, and today Matt is pushing me“You can stop the puck at this level, you’ll have no problem. If you let one in don’t let them see you down. This is supposed to be fun.”
Fun. It’s something that a lot of athletes present and past including myself probably let slip out of their mind at times. Somewhere between that final goal in Connecticut and my first pair of goalie pads I forgot fun somewhere in the middle. Now, I was staring to remember again.
“Sure, you might end up needing something to make you stick out if it comes to that,” Matt went on while casually looking down at my bag. “Have you ever fought anyone before?”