I don't remember the last time I didn't have something on my body not hurting. Wether it's from knee surgery 6 years ago, the puck that clipped my tooth last week in pickup (still got em all, no idea how), or the nail on my right big toe that permanently grows weirdly sideways from a shot I blocked in juniors. Some of the pain earned from playing competitive hockey for 15 years still lingers with me over 15 years later...and I didnt do it for THAT long. Can't imagine what the guys who play into their 30s/40s feel like 15 years later. Having said that, I feel pretty fucking lucky that I was able to play, and still play, without ever SERIOUSLY being hurt. Thats not to say that I haven't been banged up. From 1998 to 2001, I suffered: broken collarbone. cracked kneecap. both shoulders separated. broken knuckle. my teeth went through my bottom lip. Oh and I "fell down some stairs" and think I broke my ankle, but that happened the night before the first day of practice my first year in juniors, so I just taped it up and tried to hide it from the coaches. That ankle still sucks. Fucking Bambi.
My dad is originally from Toronto and has told me my whole life that the word "hockey" is from the Canadian First Nations language and it means "it hurts". Probably not true and just some shit your dad says when you're a kid to sound smart, cause pre internet, who the fuck spoke First Nations and could tell him he was wrong? I don't even know if he was being serious, or it was some weird old Canadian inside joke. Whatever the truth is, its the truth. Hockey fucking hurts. When you're a kid it hurts cause you're a kid and pain sucks and so does your gear. You don't really know how to stop and turn right, so every once in awhile you go face first into the boards or a post and another dumb kid that cant skate. When you get to be a pee wee (12 years old) and things get more violent, it hurts in a completely different way. It hurts, but really, you're just trying your best to not be a pussy and embarrass yourself. You're starting to learn how to hit and get hit. Some of the worst pain during this age is when you go to throw a big hit, and you end up taking the worst of it. The dreaded "cold shoulder". You realize it hurts cause you weren't ready for it, which is very important, because when you're on the ice, you learn that you have to be mentally prepared for pain at all times.
And then you get to the age in which you play against grown ass men, and everything changes. You learn a lot about yourself when you start playing against the big boys. Prior to playing Jrs, I had spent 4 years playing QB in high school football. My offensive line was absolute dog shit. I think we averaged like 175 lbs, which is criminal. I literally got the shit kicked out of me every single game I played. It wasn't a big deal to me. I was a hockey player. I could take it. Then I would go play hockey, and think "I play football, this is nothing!" Well, I got a lesson in what it feels like to play hockey against guys the size of football players when I started going to Junior camps and playing in prospect tournaments. Thats one of the things about growing up out here...not many of the good players were the big kids. Also, I had been getting into street fights pretty much as far back as I could remember, so fighting and getting punched in the face never really scared me. Thats not to say that I was willing to go with a heavy, cause thats just stupid. But if someone did something or challenged me, of if I felt like in a camp or tryout situation that it would help me stand out more, I would go. Anyways, story time:
I will never forget my very first shift of Hockey Night In Boston. For those of you unfamiliar with HNIB, it was possibly the most prestigious high school aged prospect showcase tournament in the country (others would argue Chicago Showcase) at that time. I've heard its not really a big deal anymore, since there are so many other avenues to be seen by scouts/schools...but back in 1997, it was the shit. The tournament consisted of a collection of teams from all over the country. I was on Team Pacific, which was literally the biggest thing that had happened to me in my young hockey life to this point. I was beyond stoked when I got the letter in the mail that I had made the team and would be headed to Andover, MA to play in the Merrimack rink for 2 weeks in August.
My first shift: I got the puck on my off wing with a good head of steam coming out of my own zone and made a decision that I was going to try and take this big lumbering oaf of a D-man wide. I quickly came to the realization that I was skating as hard as I could and he was basically gliding. I had no chance of getting around him. I also realized upon a quick glance that the end boards were getting very close. Within a flash, this big ass dude opened his lead foot and hips, closed the gap on me, and rode me into the boards. The finishing move he chose to go with while he steered me into the boards was that he put his free hand on the back of my helmet, and literally slammed my head into the glass as he finished his hit. He crucified me. I had NEVER been hit like this. I remember that shitty feeling that all hockey players know, and thats my face being covered in my own snot. This asshole literally knocked the snot out of me. I got up, skated around aimlessly for a minute, then made it back to the bench, mostly out of fear that my old man would literally kill me if i stayed down on the ice after traveling 3000 miles to play against most of the best players on the east coast with almost every single college/prep school/junior scout in the region watching. I'm kind of joking about that, and kind of not. My dads the guy who when he was coaching kids, would run out onto the ice to make sure that a kid was ok...unless it was one of his kids. If me or one of my brothers laid on the ice, he would literally take his time, walk out there slowly, stand over us and say "you better be dead, cause if you're not, and you're just laying on the ice, this is the last game you'll ever play." He meant that. He came from an old hockey family of Scottish/Irish Canadian immigrants who were tough and mean. His dads famous line to me as a kid was "if you lose an arm on the ice, you pick it up and go for a change. You don't lay on the ice."
Anyways. The next thing I remember was that thing that lots of you who played know. That "who the fuck was that?" feeling. What # was he? I'm going to buckle that asshole. Then I realized who it was. Some of you nostalgia fans will remember this name from the past. The dude was Mike Pandolfo. 6'3" 225lbs, and maybe the strongest person I had played against up to that point. He was literally on the cover of the HNIB program that year. You want to know the worst part about it? HE WAS A FUCKING WINGER. I'm out here flying down the wing getting hammered in the corner by a dude out of position? Where am I? Who are these guys? Do I even belong here?
Back to the point. IT HURT. Like nothing I had felt. I once got hit my junior year of high school football by two linebackers at once so hard trying to get into the end zone that my helmet flew off and landed in the back of the end zone, all 4 snaps on my chin strap broke, and my mouthpiece, which was attached to my face mask broke off and stayed in my mouth. I was fine, but everyone who saw it thought I was dead. Getting up from that hit and brushing it off literally won me the starting varsity job (Polk High). This was WAY worse.
The Funny thing is, you really do learn how to deal with the pain. You learn how to deal with it because its worth it. You learn how to deal with it because simply put, you have no other choice. When you're playing the wing and your D man makes a shit play and throws it up to the point while you're down at the hash opened up for a tape to tape, then you have to get back to the middle and take away the shooting lane while trying to get out there and close the gap on the shooter, cause you know it hurts less the further it gets to travel. You're doing this while looking at a guy over 6' tall and you KNOW that he has an absolute cannon of a shot. You know that you better get in the lane. You know its going to hurt, because you know its going to hit you. Why is it going to hit you? Because if it doesn't, if you pull the flamingo, you know you might end up on the bench the rest of the game, and then maybe you're in the stands the next night cause the guy who took your spot had a couple apples and a block on the kill, and then the next thing you know, you're at home playing adult league, because you got cut. So you MAKE SURE it hits you, even though you know your shinguards don't cover the bottom of your shin/top of your foot because you think smaller shin guards feel better and look cooler. You make sure it hits you, and to prove its not by accident, you lay down in front of it. Sure, you're wearing a cup, but have you taken a slap shot straight to the cup? Doesn't exactly do much. You pray it hits the right spot, and even then, its going to hurt a little. You learn to deal with this, and you learn a lot about yourself. You learn how much playing hockey means to you. My dad always told me that Hockey doesn't create character, it reveals it. Nothing I had experienced in my life showed me what I was made of more than doing something that I knew I was going to physically suffer for. But nothing felt better than knowing that you earned that pain and dealt with it like a man, and that the reward was the love, trust, and respect of your teammates and coaches. Thats hockey to me. Thats why I love it, and miss it every day. I don't miss the pain...just what it meant.