If you play goal in a hockey market, maybe you’re lucky enough to end up in net for the occasional game of summer shinny against some pro players.
But when you live in Houston, where there are maybe 25 guys in a city of 6 million who play pro and they all leave like bats outta hell when the season ends, the odds decrease dramatically.
So when the Houston Aeros PR man Rich Bocchini said, “Bring your gear” to the team’s playoff media day skate with the coaches and players, who was I to say no?
I will admit, I was nervous. I had to take a Benedryl to sleep the night before, otherwise I would have laid in bed for hours doing the Goalie Twitch, where I close my eyes to try and sleep, but instead visualize people shooting on me (either reliving a game or anticipating one). I’m a ball of tension and sleep comes slowly or not at all.
I’ve only been playing for a couple of years and when you start learning to skate at 32 years old…well, you’re still not exactly a gazelle out there by 35.
Normally I’m facing D and C level players. And I do okay against them. I even got my first shutout with my women’s league team two days earlier. But against guys who are paid to play? I think my nerves were justified.
My friend and former pro player-turned-hockey writer, Justin Bourne, told me over Twitter, “Be excited for the patronizing shots to the pillows, followed by the occasional puck beside your ears.”
I figured he was probably right, but I was ready to give the boys some lip if they went too easy on me.
So I got to the rink and watched the end of the Aeros practice while I suited up. I especially watched Matt Hackett, the Aeros’ number one goalie, go through drills both with the team and on his own.
It’s one thing to watch him in reporter/analyst mode when I’m writing about the Aeros. It’s another to watch him in just before stepping into the same patch of blue paint in 10 minutes. It’s a wicked contrast.
Finally, head coach Mike Yeo cracks the nearest gate and invites me and a few other media members brave enough to lace ‘em up to come out onto the ice. After a warm-up lap to get used to the badly-chewed-up-from-practice ice, Yeo tells me to get in the net.
Deep breath. “Oh boy.“ And I get in the net.
My ice time starts with a blood-thirsty swarm of shooters made up of a handful of Aeros players, with the coaches coming and going, and a few media guys.
Yeo took the first shot. An off-speed knuckle puck. Right in the net. I’m not sure I even moved.
Now, I talk to Yeo after every Aeros home game. He’s a friendly guy who is a pleasure to work with, but in this context — skates on, stick in his championship-ring-loaded hand, puck loaded — maybe I was a little intimidated.
Then the players started shooting. I had to ask later who they were (among others, defenseman Sam Lofquist and winger Kris Foucault) because they are with the team on tryouts. Moreover, I had no time to look at the numbers on their helmets.
All I knew was, I wanted to stop them. And I did. Because they took patronizing shots to the pillows. I hate when Bourne’s right.
“Awww, come on, boys! Gimme the real stuff!”
I’m still not sure I saw the real stuff because I stopped a couple of those, too, but they did their fancy deke and dangle stuff and put a pretty good licking on me. It was awesome and humbling.
Assistant coach Brian Wiseman gave me a confidence boost shooting an easy one right into my glove. Fellow assistant coach Darryl Sydor was less kind and busted out the fake slapper to freeze me and then a soft shot down low to burn me. Uncle!
As much fun as it is to score lots of goals, the players eventually departed for the locker room. The coaches stayed out, though, and after the media guys had their way with me (one attempt at which you can watch here), Yeo got the last crack at me.
He lined up three pucks in front of him, right around the hash marks.
I knew this was my chance to see some real shots. So I told him, “Don’t let up. Give me some real shots.” He grinned and I knew every dumb thing I’d written about his team this season was about to get paid back in a billowing of the net behind me.
First shot: Right over my shoulder. Second shot: Tried to go 5-hole but I somehow got some pad on it and the ice was so chewed up, it didn’t have the energy to trickle in.
Third shot: I’m at the top of my crease, square to the puck. He’s taking his time, looking for holes. Tells me I’m not showing much, and while I’m thinking, “Yay me!” for covering the angle… BAM! He takes about half a millisecond to rip one in the gap between my skate and the post.
DONK. Game over.
I drove home, grinning ear to ear, wondering how I can ever write about a “soft goal” by a pro goalie ever again. No denying they do happen, but I think what I took away is that there are fewer “easy” saves than I give credit for.
As awe struck as I am by what shooters at the pro levels can do, what the goalies do is, to my mind, that much more dynamic and improbable. As a writer and observer, I’ll be interested to see how the experience changes my perception.
But as a goalie, even though I literally cannot fathom my body doing what is required to have a respectable GAA against these guys, a sniff of that speed and precision is irresistible. I want more. Next time, guys, I’ll be ready for you.