Monday, January 31, 2011

Ice Skating: Still Gliding

After I retired from playing ice hockey, I stopped ice skating. I was somehow able to close the book on ice hockey. I had had my fill. The rest of my life took over: marriage, our daughter being born, a sudden infatuation with golf, changes in my career. I had climbed the mountain I wanted to climb. The ice dream had melted.

But then in the fall and winter of 2006, construction began on an outdoor ice rink next to where I work. I remember watching it get built, feeling a certain stirring in my bones, a certain anticipation. The ice dream had come to me. I dug out my ice skates from the basement.

Once the rink opened, I began skating there at lunch. The first few visits brought a rash of falls as I tried to regain my ice skating muscle memory. I hadn't skated in many years! I found myself smiling a lot, as my legs rediscovered the edges of my skates once again. I felt elated when my movements became smoother. I was ice skating again! How did I ever let it leave my life?

On those occasions when I have the ice rink to myself, I'll skate figure eights, forwards and backwards, the entire length of the ice. I'll pretend to hold a hockey stick, and take shots on goal. I'll glide slowly on one edge, figuring out how to balance myself. I'll skate fast enough to produce that pure feeling that comes from racing across the ice.

In the end, this was the dream: to know this feeling, this feeling of flying over the ice, this feeling of competence. The allure and the novelty haven't worn off in all these years. I still love every minute I'm ice skating.

For the month of January, I'll be blogging about ice skating, and my love for it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Ice Skating: Looking Out from the Ice

Not long after I dropped out of figure skating class, I learned about and started attending an evening ice hockey 'school' for adults. Think of this as ice hockey practice, for hockey wanna-bes! From these sessions, I latched onto a group of guys who rented their own ice for "stick and puck" practice. I went to that 'school' and attended those pick up games for many months, right through the summer and fall. In the winter of 1993, I joined an adult ice hockey league, and was put on a D-level team called The Boston Heat. (D-level represented "beginner level".) We had uniforms, we hired a coach, and our games had regulation clocks and referees. We had a great great time playing organized ice hockey. I wore the number 25, my age when I started to play the game of my dreams.

During one game, I remember jumping on the ice for our own warm ups. Our team skated around in a circle, shaking energy into our legs. I noticed a few spectators, their faces planted on the glass, looking inside at us. They were probably family or relatives. We glided by these onlookers. I glanced backwards at them as I passed, remembering something.

I remember attending a hockey game in college, and I was down at ice level, watching the team go through warm-ups. The team skated around in a circle and I pressed my face to the glass, watching their smooth strides. I watched closely as each player passed, looking at every detail: how they held their sticks, how they stretched themselves while skating. One of them, skating quickly past me, took a fast glance backwards in my direction.

The game felt so far away back in school. But now there I was, playing the game. I was living that ice dream of mine. The more I peeked over at those spectators behind the glass, the more I remembered that I was once there, wondering how to get to the other side. I wanted to offer this advice to them: you can get there. It is possible. Take small steps. Be deliberate. Commit.

The start of the game would have drowned out those thoughts. It's only now, years later, that I am able to ponder the journey, and how wonderful and special it was.

For the month of January, I'll be blogging about ice skating, and my love for it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Ice Skating: Finding my Edges

After Paul's visit, I joined a group figure ice skating class at The Skating Club of Boston. Not content to be dazzled anymore, I paid attention to the instructor as she distinguished between the inner edge and outer edges of our skate blades. She gave us instruction booklets, and handed out stickers for the completion of individual skills. It didn't bother me that a majority of the lessons were geared for figure skaters, or that I was the only student wearing hockey skates.

I also began to skate a lot more. It is possible to ice skate every day in Greater Boston, and there were weeks that I did so. I soon learned the location of nearly every ice rink between downtown Boston and the outer suburbs. I practiced the skating lessons (edge work, figures, 3-turns, snow plows), as I tried to break in a new pair of ice hockey skates.

With each skating hour, I became more assured on the ice, largely because I knew the techniques for skating forward. My turning continued to be awkward, however, and I still fell down a lot. I didn't skate smoothly yet, but I felt like I was getting "closer."

My ice skating epiphany came at the Daly Memorial Rink, one Saturday morning. If Twitter was around back then, my tweet would be: "I found my edges!"

I was practicing left cross-over turns (public ice skating normally moves counter-clockwise). I could lift my right foot over my left foot, but my left foot felt "stuck". When I turned, I slowed down, and that's not what I see when I watch figure skaters or hockey players turning. I fell repeatedly, sometimes catching my crossing boot on my left foot.

Then I made the one critical adjustment my skating instructor emphasized: I skated on my edges. I entered the left turn by pushing off my right foot, but this time I had slanted my left boot so that its outside edge cut into the ice. From that position, my left leg was planted on the ice at an angle, as if I was standing on an incline. I picked up my right leg, and suddenly found myself accelerating in a sharp left turn. I spun into a fall, but while falling I recognized that my left foot was gliding on its outside edge. I was gliding on one leg, using my outside edge!

I jumped up, and tried the move again, this time pushing hard with my right foot, and leaning on my left outside edge. I heard the satisfying sound of cutting ice. I banked into a left turn, and just at the edge of falling, I quickly crossed over my right foot, planting its inside edge on the ice. I turned and accelerated at the same time!

Instincts took over. My left foot, exhausting its outside edge arc underneath my body, no longer exerted any effort. Now I was gliding on just my right foot's inside edge! I picked up my left foot, and brought it to the forward position again, planting it hard on its outside edge. All of a sudden I was doing cross-over turns!

A feeling of elation and understanding washed over me. Everything about ice skating suddenly seemed easier. I did the turns again and again, giddy with excitement. In the weeks and months after that, I learned right cross-over turns, and backward cross-over turns in both directions. I no longer fell as much. I had found the edges.

At the group ice skating lessons, the instructor noticed my new found abilities. She gave me another sticker one evening, and said "I think you're ready to learn some jumps!" At that point, I knew I was ready to try ice hockey. The game that seemed so distant and unattainable was now right in front of me.

For the month of January, I'll be blogging about ice skating, and my love for it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ice Skating: Paul Nunes

When I think about ice skating, I often think about my college friend Paul Nunes. We were freshmen in the same dorm, and in our later years we were roommates. Paul and I shared an obsession with ice skating. I don't remember how we came to this, but it was there, and we somehow recognized in each other a kindred spirit.

In the spring semester of our freshman year, Paul and I took a physical education course called "Skating". The class was taught by a sprite of a woman who was an incredible ice skater. Towards the end of our class with her, after all of us had improved our skating, she challenged us to a relay race across the length of the ice. "To even things up a bit, I'll skate on one leg," she announced. My first reaction was "that's crazy", but my second reaction, as she repeatedly beat skater after skater on her one leg, was "how do I do that?"

Through our years in college, I grew to admire Paul's methodical approach to getting his ice skating fix. He was the person who hunted down the ice rinks in the Albany Area. He was the one who figured out the various differences between ice skate brands. He was the one who found ways to sneak in ice skating even during the summer. When I look back on it, Paul was showing me, by his example, how to approach our skating interest. His steady and deliberate manner would eventually become my own guiding principles.

After we graduated (him moving to New York, and me moving to Boston), my desire to learn ice skating and play ice hockey began to disappear. Maybe the ice dream just got too hard, or too old. Maybe I became realistic.

Paul visited me one weekend in the summer of 1991. When our conversation turned to ice skating, he told me how much he'd done since graduation. He upgraded his ice skates, and acquired hockey gear. He discovered Laura Stamm's book on ice hockey skating techniques. He told me about all the rinks that he found, and how he began to hang out there after public ice skating. He read the bulletin boards at the rink, and learned about "recreational" hockey leagues. He joined a group of players in "pick-up ice hockey" sessions. He was consumed by the sport, playing a good number of times even during the spring and summer. He was living the ice dream.

Later in the winter, Paul visited me again. I had begun ice skating on my own, charged by his last visit. He had given me his old hockey skates and I had been using them. I took Paul to my secret ice skating location: the small lake at Boston's Public Garden. In the late evening, the darkened lake presented free ice skating to those who dared. I skated there a handful of times, the ice perfectly frozen thanks to weeks of temperatures below freezing.

As soon as we stepped on the ice, I knew that skating was somehow different for Paul. He skated exquisitely on the pond that night. He glided effortlessly. He was able to skate turns in both directions, his legs crossing over perfectly. He didn't fall. He pivoted and skated a circle around me backwards. I stood there dazed by his abilities, by how far he had taken himself. He was skating as smoothly as that skating instructor from college.

I fluttered around him, awkward and stuttering in my own skating. We talked about skates, and about techniques. It was clear that everything Paul said about ice skating was coming from his own deliberate experimentation on the ice. He was the very personification of the slogan "just do it." My admiration for him swelled, and at the same time it made me realize how little "real" effort I put into this desire of mine.

I was still only dreaming the ice dream, not living it. I was all talk, but no walk.  That all changed after Paul's visit. Everything about ice skating that happened next for me came from that evening skating with Paul.

For the month of January, I'll be blogging about ice skating, and my love for it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ice Skating: Getting the Bug

I probably got the bug to learn ice skating back in 1980, while watching the United States ice hockey team and their improbable victory over Russia, setting them up for their gold medal game. I was 12 years old. On top of the heady feelings of patriotism and sports pride, I know that I was very bitten by the sport itself, and its central skill: ice skating.

I was also fascinated by Eric Heiden, and the speed and grace of his powerful strides. Anything with the ice drew my eyes, including figure skating, but it was ice hockey that stayed with me.

Back then, I imagined that hockey players came from either Minnesota, Massachusetts or Canada. I knew that hockey players didn't come from Jersey City, NJ where I lived. So when I went to high school, and found out that we had an ice hockey team, I was very surprised.

During one high school rally, the ice hockey team was brought out, and they darted around the gymnasium wearing roller blades. I was dazzled by their speed, as they did loops and turns on the basketball floor before sliding to a stop to watch the rest of the rally. I kept my eyes on them, watching them bounce on their wheels. I wanted that.

I told my friend James McDermott about my interest. He promptly suggested visiting an ice rink, and generously gave to me a pair of black figure skates that didn't fit him. I love that he helped me with both a pair of skates, and his knowledge of where to skate. We went to the Pershing Field Ice Skating Rink, an outdoor rink near Journal Square. It was there that I encountered the slippery nature of a sheet of ice.

I don't remember my efforts at Pershing Field too much. I know that I went there on my own a few times. I know that at least once I drove there only to be turned away because the rink was closed or in use. Like most beginners, I probably hugged the boards, and like most beginners, I must have fallen a lot, trying to reproduce the smooth turns that I saw on television. I know that I wanted to "master" the ice. I wanted to be able to glide without effort, and to turn without falling. I wasn't sure where this desire was coming from, but I didn't question it.

Maybe that same winter, or the following winter, I was taking out the garbage, and noticed a small puddle of frozen water in my backyard. I touched my foot to it, and it was indeed a small ice patch, the kind that you might slip on if you stepped on it. I went back inside, grabbed my skates, put them on, and then I gingerly stood on the ice patch. I could feel the blades slipping over the tiny surface. Standing on the ice felt like levitating. Every tiny twitch of my leg muscles brought a smooth motion, before the blades reached the border of the ice patch.

It's said that every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but for me and ice skating, it probably began with that one moment of me just standing on a square patch of ice in my backyard. Unable to glide or move, I was left to stand, and in standing there I let my imagination hurtle forward to the time when I could ice skate for real.

For the month of January, I'll be blogging about ice skating, and my love for it.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ice Skating: An Inquiry into My Skating

In December of 2009, while ice skating at the Kendall Square Ice Rink at lunch, an elementary school kid called over to me. "Yo, mister. Hey, sir!" It took me a second before I realized he was calling me. I turned around, and smiled at him. "Hey, how do you do that?" he asked. I squinted at him. He was standing, not too wobbly. "You're standing," I said to him. "That's a big part of it!" He scowled. "Standing up is nothing!" he said, almost challengingly. So, the kid wants some skating knowledge. "Push off your edges," I said, and he let it go at that.

"How do you do that?" Such a simple question! I hope my response about the edges got him curious enough to look for the rest of the answers on his own. Edges are important in ice skating, perhaps the most important thing. His question, though, brought to mind a deeper inquiry, about my own voyage to learn and understand how to ice skate. Ice skating is the best sports thing I've ever learned, and as the years go by, it's the one that has given me the best pleasure, the best feelings of satisfaction.

"How do you do that?" To really give anyone the answer to this personal question, I have to go through some old memories. I have to recall my ice yearnings from grade school through high school. I have to recall my college friend, who shared my fascination with this slippery sport. I have to recall my own commitment and recommitment to learning this skill after college, and the culmination of that effort by playing a few seasons with a rag-tag hockey team. Thankfully, the memories are well-worn and fond.

For the month of January, I'll be blogging about ice skating, and my love for it.