Growing up in Green Bay WI, I spent plenty of time on ice skates. I probably was smaller than the kid in this photo when my dad first "laced 'em up" for me. But it wasn't until I was ten that I got involved in a formal hockey program. At the time, I was one of the smallest kids on the team, but I did have two things going for me:
- I was lightning fast
- I was fearless
Hockey has been called a 'collision sport' as opposed to a 'contact sport' because of the technique of 'checking' opponents. If you've ever seen a hockey game, you will no doubt recall players slamming into others and knocking them into the boards. That's checking.
Anyway, during one of our early practices our star oversized player had the puck in one corner and I flew almost the length of the rink and decked him with a perfect check. Unfortunately, his buddies were watching and laughed uncontrollably because a pint-sized teammate had just leveled him. I was pretty proud of myself, but he knocked the smerk right off my face by hitting me from behind a minute later, sending me crashing into the boards head first.
And he got sent to the penalty box for it.
As we were warming up for our first game, the coach pulled me aside and pointed at a large player on the other team. "Mike," he said, "the first chance you get, give that player the hardest check you've ever thrown."
The game started and it wasn't a minute into the first period when I had my first chance. The guy took the puck in one corner and was looking to make a pass when I streaked across the ice, jumped, and sent him sprawling to the ice. The opposing bench broke into peals of laughter and jeers. I turned and started to skate toward the action. My checkee got up and tore after me and executed a perfect, but illegal cross-check in the back (sending me flying).
Of course, he got sent straight to the penalty box, we went on a power play, and with five skaters to their four we easily scored!
You can guess where this is headed, can't you? Yep, I used the same tactic all season long and in nearly every game the exact same thing happened. Sometimes my 'taking one for the team' helped, and sometimes it didn't. The tactic was good for one goal only.
So what did I learn from this experience? A few things, actually.
First, you can gain an advantage on an opponent by getting inside their head. My coach knew that the best kid on each team had a super-sized ego and would not stand for being embarrassed by a much smaller opponent. They were also not mature enough to wait for a legal opportunity to retaliate.
Second, there is always a way to make your mark in any endeavor. I was 'just a guy' (as the scouts say) aside from my 'special talent', but I was able to make a meaningful contribution in an unorthodox way.
Third, your helmet, pads, and mouthguard are you best friends on the ice! I got tossed around like a rag doll on some of those cheap shots, but I never broke anything (for which my mother was very grateful).
This post is a late entry into Robert Hruzek's What I Learned from the World of Sports
group writing project. Check out the other entries; [Tony the Tiger voice] they're great!
Photo courtesy of fatal Cleopatra