People ask me sometimes why I talk about hockey so much. They wonder why I watch so much of it, read all I can about it, and write about it, too. Let me explain it.
I miss the games a ton, but the best parts were in the locker rooms, the hotel rooms on trips, and all the other team stuff.
My brother plays for the Pittsburgh Hornets, and is a damn good defenseman. He's 14, and much better than I ever was. He has an obsession with hockey that's bordering on insanity, but it keeps him happy. Unfortunately, I worry that he's not getting the same fun out of it that I did.
When I played, I was never on a team that made hockey everything. It was a large part of my life, and definitely the most fun part of my life, but it wasn't everything. Don't get me wrong, I played to win, and so did my teammates. We just didn't kill ourselves over it. I wish my brother knew that experience. For him, hockey is everything, no question about it.
Me? I miss the games, but I miss a lot of other stuff even more.
The smell of the rink is one of the biggest. Exhaust fumes from the zamboni hung in the air, the snack bar always had popcorn and coffee on high, and the locker rooms smelled of something bordering on disgusting, but never straying from comfortable. I even miss the artificial smell of hotel rooms on the occasional trip to Rochester or Mentor.
More than that, I miss the stuff that went on in the locker room. Teasing some kid about a girl he was dating or messing around with, making fun of someone for a missed play...hell, I even miss figuring out who was going to be filling up the water bottles (and then filling them up when nobody else raised a hand).
One thing I don't miss is the odd, empty feeling of coming back from a game, and even more so, a tournament. That feeling is a testament to the fun that preceded it, though.
I wish I had a clearer memory for things. I remember winning the playoff tournament in Indiana, PA, in my second year of pee wee hockey, but not as clearly as I'd like to. That was the most fun I've had in my entire life, just learning to play the game. I'd take a time machine back to those days in a heartbeat, even to hang back as my present self and watch the things I miss so much.
Eventually, I'll have a kid, and if all goes according to plan, they'll play hockey. Selfishly, I almost wish that if he or she does play, they're not very good. If they are, then that's even better, but with greater skill comes more emphasis on winning, and nothing else. In simpler terms, I hope they don't take it too seriously.
Things around us always change. People go away, more responsibility sets in, and you seem to have less time for anything. I think that the growing pressures of being a bit older are worth the few years I spent learning to play a game that became a lot more.
Hockey is a sport, not a chore. If it ever stops being fun, it's time to hang the skates up. When the fumes stop smelling good, and when you stop looking forward to finding out what locker room you're in, and flinging open the door, it just isn't worth it anymore.
I never hit that point, but I know a lot of people who did. My only advice is to take some time off, then go back to where it began. See it all through the eyes you had when you were a kid. You'll find it again.
One of the best memories I have from the past summer is walking into the old Mt Lebanon rink in early July, sitting down to watch an adult league game, then walking through the hallway, past the locker rooms I learned to tie skates in, and finding the banner we won that year in Indiana. It's still there, and it isn't going anywhere. That old strip of vinyl with my name and my friends' names on it is a little yellowed from time, but I still remember skating over to hold it up.