Friday, April 22, 2011

Learning a New Sport

Two years ago in 2009 I decided that I wanted to, and was finally financially able to play inline hockey.  I wasn't sure how it would go since there were factors pushing me in both directions.  Working for me was the fact that I was and am a pretty athletic guy.  I've played pretty much every other sport in an organized sense so I figured I could adapt to hockey eventually.  Working against me was the sheer difficulty level in hockey.  It is harder and more complicated than any other sport.  Nothing combines balance, endurance, and dexterity like hockey does.

So I guess it made sense that my first performances were a mixed bag.  I tried hard so I had my fair share of moments, but I couldn't quite put everything together, and was bad to average on a fairly consistent basis.  The first few games I played I didn't touch the puck much, and when I did it was a disaster.  I remember getting three breakaway passes in one shift and screwing them all up.  Not a "defenseman came back" type of screw-up, or a" mishandled a bad pass" kind of screw-up, they were "I was by myself with no one around me and I lost the puck completely on my own" types of screw-ups.  They weren't pretty.  Still through sheer force of will I managed to tally over a point per game in the six preseason games.

That was pretty much my goal heading into the season, to put up over a point per game (the average inline score is probably around 9-8), and chip in as many goals as I could.  It was tough at times, especially when we played games against teams that were much, much better.  We got shut out on a few occasions and I had my share of pointless games.  With my efforts though I was able to at least contribute in other ways, by blocking shots, and by being pretty defensively responsible.  We were 2-14-0 on the season but I would guess that I was closer to having a positive rating than anyone else.  I was also pretty solid on faceoffs and I never let in a goal killing penalties all season.  I ended the season with 4 goals and 13 assists in 16 regular season games, and 1 goal and 2 assists in our lone 5-3 playoff loss.  I was pretty happy to be putting in a good effort and contributing more than other players in the league who had much more experience.

My initial skillset was pretty simple.  I was able to do things that other players didn't want to do, to take faceoffs, to block shots, and to play the swing spot (inline is 4 on 4) that is responsible for being both the third guy in on the rush and the second defender back.  My ability to receive passes was god awful, my shot wasn't much better, and my puck-handling was very underwhelming (though looking back this may have been as much of a confidence issue as a skill issue).  My hockey-sense was improving...but still far behind.  On the plus side I had my effort, my toughness, my willingness to play physical, and I was an okay passer.   Good, but not enough for me.

The only way to get better at a sport is to expose yourself to it over and over and over again so that's basically what I did.  I watched game after game in the NHL, I made a hockey net and skated over and over in my driveway and I signed up for the preseason again in 2010.  My first goal was to get better with the puck, to pick up on the tips and tricks for handling it and receiving passes, especially while moving, and to improve my hockey sense, to slow the game down, and to know where to go with the puck.

I'm not entirely sure where it came from, but I think the thing that helped me the most was an increase in confidence.  I realized that I was much, much better carrying the puck up ice than I thought and could often lead the rush.  In one of my first games of the 2010 preseason I scored four goals, equaling my total for the previous preseason.  Playing in the preseason helped my game out a lot, not just because it helped me get in shape, but because there aren't very many people so the A, B, and C guys are all thrown into a mishmash of teams and it's more of a pick-up environment.  Playing both with and against some of the better players helped me elevate my game, both seeing what they do with the puck, and seeing what I could use against them.

During the regular season I was the leading scorer on my team for a few stretches, and the assists leader for a few others.  It only took me a little while to figure out that I could use my speed and agility to deke the pants off bigger defensemen and I got a lot of good chances.  I probably should have scored more, but tallying 6 goals and 19 assists in only 14 games was a nice improvement.  I added another goal, a meaningless tally at the end of a 9-3 blowout in the playoffs to cap off the season.  Midway through the season I started to see the first flashes that told me I was picking up the game.  In our fourth game I had 1 goal and 4 assists in a blowout win where my vision was miles better than everyone else and I ended the season on an 8 game point streak.  My efforts didn't go unnoticed as I took home the League Grinder award for being the hardest working player.

Luckily the commisioner wanted to get more out of the inline surface so there was a fall session and also a floor hockey league, both of which ended up following a pick-up format.  Of course I signed right up looking for another opportunity to improve and genuinely loving playing hockey.  I played well in both leagues and started to come into my own as someone who could carry the puck and be a consistent force offensively.  In with a lot of players that had great shots and where I was willing to try harder than everyone else, I racked up a ton of goals and assists just flat out beating guys to pucks and letting the more talented players do their jobs.  My skillset actually started to morph out of the grinder mold and into something with a bit more offensive talent.  I still wasn't great at receiving passes, or shooting, but I steadily became very good with the puck, a threat to make defensemen look stupid and deceptively strong for my small stature.  Most importantly I started seeing the game much better.  I knew where to go with the puck, what guys would be open, and didn't have to rely solely on my speed and sheer will as much.

In the past offseason I've had a chance to play floor hockey over at the Cicero YMCA a bunch of times.  It's a different game on feet, but I've tried to use it to continue to improve.  I've spent a lot of time working on my shot and have evolved into a decent goal scorer.  Now instead of just blindly firing away my mind is starting to consider the situation and what the goalie is giving me.  I've also been seeing the game extremely well and my mistakes are usually physical and not mental.  That's carried over into inline hockey a lot more than I thought it would as I'm actually capable of scoring goal-scorers goals.  In my first night of play I had 3 goals and 4 assists in 2 games of hockey.

More importantly I was talking with one of the guys that had been on my team for that first season of play and received praise for how I'd come along as a player.  I know that first year, being vastly more talented, he was frusterated with me several times.  I flat out wasn't very good skill-wise and I frequently made the wrong play due to inexperience.  Now though I still have my moments of ineptitude, I feel like I'm seeing the game as good as anyone out there.  He made the comment, "you're like Ryan Callahan, great effort from the beginning, and the skills started to catch up eventually."

I still have plenty of things I can improve on, though I'm sure I'll plateau eventually.  Still, it's nice to see how far I've come along, and even nicer to get noticed for it.

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