Walking to my car last night, one of the many new faces to join my teams this season stopped me. This was moments after a gut-wrenching 5-3 loss after holding a 3-0 lead going into the second period.

"Hey man, I just wanted to say that if you see something out there that I'm doing wrong, let me know OK?" I nodded enthusiastically and assured him I would.

Leading up the game I had posted several times to the team's Facebook page. Diagrams of defensive zone coverage, suggestions to our forwards about choosing patience instead of turning the puck over and so on.

Before the game, I grabbed up my defenseman and had an on-ice huddle. "Two rules," I implored them. "One, don't play with the puck around the crease. You see the puck, you slam it to the nearest boards as fast as you can. Two, no clears up the middle."

Throughout the game I shouted words of encouragement for good play and solid efforts while loudly admonishing poor choices. In between periods I tried some quick hits of advice on what I was seeing.

So walking back to my car after we blew a big lead with 5 breakaways including a penalty shot, clears up the middle and rebounds that remained uncleared throughout the game, my frustration was at a boiling point. Then along comes New Player making sure that I promised to let him know when things were going wrong with his game.

But it's the morning after and I had 55 minutes of commuting to think about the whole idea of hockey education, experience and skills. Here's my conclusion;

Just like there are distinct levels of hockey skill on the ice in every beer league and every division in the country, there are distinct levels of hockey smarts built by experience and education.

I'm no hockey expert. I played growing up, yes. I've watched thousands of games on television (Thank you CBC), I've been to countless live games and my number one hobby is hockey. That means I read. I watch. I digest. All that adds up to a unique and often completely different level of education and knowledge about hockey (sometimes higher, sometimes lower) than any one of the guys & gals I'm playing next to on any given night.

I need to stop holding others to a standard- mine or anyone else's. Now some of my regular readers might recognize this as a recurring theme. Recognizing a flaw in my own character that allows my own competitiveness to drive me to the brink of rage. I suppose it may be, but this choice cut of enlightenment focuses on the reality that there's a good reason players play the way they do.

Joe Defenseman is in his first season playing organized hockey. He's got 3 kids and a back-breaking job and he laces his skates up an hour a week to get the hell away from the wife and kids and just have some fun. Jim Winger has been skating for years and played hockey as a kid but somehow was never coached on the basics of playing his position. He landed 30 minutes before game time and his whole week was listening to some customer complain about the nickel increase in the cost of widgets.

You can roll out a dozen different scenarios that mean the team in front of me on any given night all want to win and have fun but for many (most?) it isn't an exercise in education or self-improvement. It's 60 minutes of playing the greatest game in the world. The rest of the week is filled with domestic chaos and keeping the head above water at work.

Is it worth making an effort to help educate and improve your team mates? Yes. It's part of what makes hockey fun for me and every once in a while I see something getting though. Everyone once in a while I get educated too. That's also part of the fun.

So my hobby will include education and educating but also the journey towards enlightenment and finding pure hockey enjoyment with everyone- no matter the level.

A couple of topics make their way into this entry because I've had a sort of mental break through in my struggles handling breakaways. I also got the chance to skate out again and enjoy the thrill of being offensive-minded instead of guarding the net.

Matching the Speed

Since coming back to goaltending, one of my biggest deficiencies has been playing a break away. For any of you that play beer league hockey, you'll know that the break away is a staple of the game. This was a problem for me because with an average of 3-plus break aways per game, I was probably letting in more than half of them.

Two things have happened. First, I spent some time with my goaltending guru who beat me up about not coming far enough out of the net to challenge the opponent. Secondly, I finally realized why I was so reluctant to do that. When I came out from the crease, the shooter approached, I flopped and he skated around me for an easy goal.

The missing ingredient was to match the player's speed, or at least come close to it, as you retreat towards the net. Being square to the shooter while keeping centered between he and the net is crucial but it's virtually impossible to do unless you are pacing the incoming player.

Over the past two weeks I've had plenty of live game practice on this- including a 14 round shootout. I am definitely seeing some better results. It's given me the confidence to come out and challenge knowing that I'm not going to become a speed bump on the way to the net.

Here's a good video to watch

Sound & Vision

I got another opportunity to skate out recently and was thrilled to score my second goal in four games. While running the game back in my head later I realized that my situational awareness on the ice was not very good and the whole experience was a little like driving through a tunnel with the windows open in a car- dark, windy and noisy. Anytime I got possession of the puck in the offensive zone, I felt overwhelmed and a little panicked.

So I began to wonder. Do many beer league skaters experience a sort of tunnel vision when playing? Is it due to my inexperience and rush of adrenaline?

If this tunnel vision exists for some/many/most beer league skaters then I've been giving far too much credit as to the complexity of tactics. Focus more on the play in front of me and less on the what-ifs of drop passes and tic-tac-toe plays.

Everyone's mileage will vary but to what degree are these shooters in my league basically driving through that dark, windy tunnel?
Herb Brooks: I'm thinking about sitting you down Jim.
Jim Craig: What? Wait what are you talking about?
Herb Brooks: No, it's not your fault. I played you way too much, and you're too tired. Besides that, I think it's time I give Janny a look. He's been waiting for seven months.
Jim Craig:  You're kidding me? Now?
Herb Brooks: Of course I mean now!
Jim Craig:  That's my net man. You can't do that!
Herb Brooks: They just scored ten goals Jim. Right now it's everybody's net.
- Miracle (Disney, 2004)

I knew within moments of my game last night that it was going to be a tough one. We spent the first two minutes trapped in our zone. The opposing line was faster than anyone from our team and were beating us to every puck and trapping every clearing attempt. Finally, after a brief exit from our zone, I faced the first shot of the game- a clean breakaway that resulted in a goal. The first of many.

We were outmatched and I was facing an avalanche of shots and quality scoring chances. I tried to stay strong and give my team a chance to stay in the game. Somehow after the first period we were down only 2-1.

Then it happened. Goal after goal poured into the net. Uncontested rebounds, back door tap ins, clean point shots and deflections. I overplayed slot shots, I was sloppy along the post. Pucks popped out of glove. I swiped loose pucks onto opposing player's sticks. Wide-eyed and unfocused I played undisciplined hockey.

At first I was frustrated and shouted at my defense for obvious mistakes. Next I was frustrated at myself and seethed at my incompetence. By the time the 7th or 8th of 9 total goals found the net, I was numb.

I don't have any answers the morning after the collapse. I know I wasn't mentally strong enough to play my best hockey in the face of an overpowering team. Instead I regressed and adopted the "1,000 yard stare". It happens to every goalie- even those professionals who have the talent, the training & the extraordinary commitment it takes to play in the NHL. Coaches are adept at spotting the distant stare and they pull their starting goaltender when they see it. I'm pretty sure that more than a few of my own players saw that on my face last night.

Many of you reading this might wonder why all the fuss and consternation over some late-night beer league game that few will remember a week from now. I don't know either. Something drives me to play my best and feel miserable when I don't. Is that a good reason to keep playing? I think so because I can't wait for the next game. I can't wait to strap on my pads and learn more hard lessons about being the Ancient Netminder.

I have one of the worst memories of anyone I know. I routinely forget people's names. I usually forget birthdays and anniversaries unless I set up a reminder. In fact, I get to enjoy books and movies I've seen before almost like its the first time. But I remember this...

"Sure that's the MVP, but I've got my sweet, "Most Improved"
I'm in grade 5 at Temperance Street Elementary School in Nova Scotia. I'm sitting in a classroom with my teacher/coach and a dozen other boys who made up this year's Elementary team- my first year as a full time goalie. I'm 10.

God I was awful. I let goals in from everywhere and anywhere. I remember one from the other team's zone that slipped under my stick. But this day I was filled with excitement and pride. "Most Improved Player!" It was only many years later that I recognized the irony of that award. I hope I remember until my last day the feeling of walking to the front of the class to receive my trophy from Mr. MacMillan because its one of the few I have from my first year in hockey.

Someone get this kid a bigger jersey
Here is the first of only two surviving photos of my Pee-Wee goalie career. The back of the photo notes the date, 1978. I was a Cooper man in those days- through and through. I stayed with that gear for most of my time in youth hockey because I was a late bloomer as far as growing was concerned. The helmet and cage replaced the "Cheevers" mask I wore in my first season, courtesy of a concussion. I can't begin to describe the weight of those pads to a young goalie of the modern era. It's enough to know that they weighed roughly twice as much at the end of a game as they did at the beginning. A final equipment note... I remember my Dad buying me a brand new goalie stick and I decided to cut the shaft down to size when he wasn't home. I played the rest of that season with a stick that had the top 4" duct taped together. Kids do the darndest things.

Finally we have the typical team photo. I played with the New Glasgow Blue Bombers nearly my entire youth hockey career. There's no date on this photo but I was probably eleven or twelve. In my day, the 'A' and 'B' teams got to travel- mostly to neighboring towns but sometimes out of the province (Canada). The 'C' and 'C2' teams... well they mostly got 5 A.M. ice time and an away game was a 15 minute ride to the rink on the other side of town. My career went in one direction as a goalie in minor hockey. I started on the 'B' team and by the time I was in High School I was the "go to" goalie for the 'C2" team. Alas, the NHL was not my destination.

New Glasgow Blue Bombers Pee-Wee circa 1978
I only remember a few names of team mates in this picture. Greg something and Kirk-the-kid-who-was-good and a couple of others. One name I do remember is the other goalie on the team. Kenny Burgess and I were side by side on nearly every team I played on. He was always a little better than I was and we always split games. I so wanted to get away from Kenny and not have to share that ice time. But Kenny made me try a little harder because of it and I relished every chance to outplay him (they were few). I also remember the tall tow-head in the middle of the photo. Mark was my best friend in elementary school and he was a good player. A defenseman big for his age, his older brothers were excellent players and Mark was one of the better ones I ever played with. Hope you are doing well, whereever you are Mark.

I waxed on about why I came back to hockey after being away for 25 years when I started this blog. This entry and the photos don't lend much new to the question of why I came back but it helps remind me of why I have hockey in my veins and why- despite walking away for most of my life- coming back has made me feel a bit more complete.

Its been a year since I've worked up the courage to get some video of my play. Why? Well nothing can kill your sense of accomplishment and shatter the ego faster than looking at yourself on video. Think you can dance? Watch yourself on tape from a recent party. Think your karaoke skills are among the best in the bar? Have your buddy videotape your latest song. The heartbreaking evidence becomes reality.

The fact is, that after killing myself on the ice, getting coaching and getting into shape, a year ago I decided to see what my meteoric progress looked like on YouTube. The result? I almost quit playing hockey on the spot.

Time has passed and I guess the sting of those images wore off because I went and did it again. I borrowed a GoPro and slapped that bugger behind the glass and recorded for all of history my progress since coming back to hockey a year and a half ago.

The results were cringe-worthy and feelings of self-loathing immediately rose but perhaps slightly less so than the previous evidence. So, without further delay, here's the latest self-written scouting report on the Ancient Netminder...

[previous Scouting Report] | [previous Video]

Ancient Netminder

6'2, 215 (Whoah! the fat bastard dropped some weight!)
Catches: Left

Born: After A. Lincoln but before W. Gretzky in Ontario, Canada

Drafted: Never, but left the window open one night and caught a cold.
Last Season: Played full-time for 3 teams, subbed for anyone, anytime, anywhere.

Scouting Report:

Moderate improvement in positioning- doesn't shrink into the net as often.
  • Improved athleticism with new ability to get up without seeking assistance.
  • Now seems able to leg slide with some regularity
  • Still dropping into butterfly too early but marked improvement.
  • Despite evidence during practices, still not making use of push/slides to reposition.

Improve flexibility for better butterfly and agility on the ice
  • Sharper T-pushes and shuffles. Stop bobbing that head!
  • More upper and core strength to reduce collapse and slouch when down.
  • More body control. Stop taking yourself out of the play.

A new season for all my teams has begun, with varying degrees of success and there's been a lot of changes.

Before assessing this season's teams and my on-ice performances, a re-cap of last season is in order...

Moneyshots- I've been with this team since the beginning days of my return to hockey and over the course of 4 seasons, we were awful. Yes, we won a handful of games but we just never found the right mix of defense and players who could score. Most games we weren't competitive and it caused me many nights of frustration. Halfway through another dreadful season where we managed only two wins, I decided it was time for a change. I would move to a different team next season. It freed me in some ways and I played pretty strong down the stretch and even skated out with some success for a game. After spending 4 seasons with a terrific core of guys who never did anything but put out effort, I've since joined the Nordiques in the same league and tonight we meet the Moneyshots for the first time. Am I pumped? Ya I am, but not to prove anything to my old team but instead maybe deny a goal or two while grinning from the crease at my buddies who I shared so much hockey with. [Update-- we beat the Moneyshots 2-1 in a really intense game]

Jokers- Previously I wrote about how this team was gutted with the loss of several of the best players who got moved up a division and so the season marched on without them- for the most part. As playoffs began we found ourselves with a short bench and we called upon some of old teammates to fill in as subs. By the time we got bounced out just short of the championship game, our team had the look of previous seasons and we played some inspired hockey. It was a great ending to a rough season and we will miss those guys - as you will soon read.

Spitfire- This team was in shambles at the end of the '13 season and I was about ready to throw in the towel. In-fighting, lack of players on the roster and bad play on the ice was a combination that made for very little fun. Our team co-ordinator convinced me stay and promised a revamped roster for the winter. What a turnaround! We played some great hockey through the winter and the locker room was full of guys excited to play. We got to the second round of playoffs but it ended with a thud. We got bounced by a better team and I put in a pretty lackluster performance in net that night. I'm really glad I stuck with the Spitfire- theres a terrific core of players.

Chupacabras- I was sort of adopted by this team closing in on the end of the winter season because their regular goalie was on a long trip overseas. Many of the former Jokers who got moved up were playing on this team so it was an easy fit playing with them. As the season wound down, we were playing great hockey and I managed a couple of shutouts when it mattered most. We came into the playoffs with tons of confidence and cut through the rounds like butter. The championship game was never in question and we cruised to a 4-1 victory to take the D3 Winter Championship. Sadly, the team dissolved for the summer season and their future remains unclear. I enjoyed the run with this team more than any other the past season and got my first ever league championship since returning to the net.

Winter '14 D3 Nytex Bronze League Champs

My next entry will update on how the summer season is going and how my new wife has officially joined the fraternity of hockey players.