It’s my first night back in my third beginner class. Yep, still not good at hockey, but we’re getting there!
So after a summer away from the rink, it was time to hit the ice once again as a new session of Adult Beginner Class (ABC) began tonight at Union College in Schenectady, New York. If you’re unfamiliar with college hockey, you may not know that Union was the national champions back in 2014. I don’t know how relevant that is, but it makes me feel good to be learning to play on the same ice that some of the best college hockey in the country is played! It also has the added benefit of having REALLY nice ice to skate on and instructors that know a thing or two about high level play. This is the 16th year that these classes have taken place up at Union, ran by Brianne Brinker, the assistant director of athletic facilities for the college. This experience had lead to a well run program that benefits players of all ages (above 18 of course), genders and skill levels.
For a little bit of history on my experiences with the ABC program, this is my third session, going back to December of 2018. Prior to joining the program, I had skated about 3 times in my life, having never put on skates before Christmas that year. When I began, I could barely stay standing on the ice, let alone skate around with a puck. To say I was bad would have been an understatement. By the end of my first session I could skate, pass and shoot. While that may not seem like a lot and I’m certainly no Connor McDavid on the ice now, the leaps and bounds that were made in that first 10 week session felt great and kept me motivated on my journey to play in a league. A big part of this motivation is the fantastic group of experienced players that come back year after year to keep their skills sharp. Never once did I hear a snicker or snide remark when I couldn’t do a drill or fell on my butt repeatedly. There was always someone to pick me up, make sure I wasn’t hurt and give me some kind words about how everyone had been in my shoes (or skates) at some point in time. This friendliness and inclusion is my favorite part of the ABC community. Coming from playing competitive baseball as an adult; where tempers ran hot and kindness was seen as weakness to many players, the way the hockey community accepted me blew my mind. I felt like I was harming the class by being bad, yet all I got was words of encouragement! Needless to say, if you’re thinking about taking one of these classes, but worried you aren’t good enough yet, trust me when I say, you couldn’t be worse than I was when I started and I had nothing but great experiences with the groups.
As for tonight, I felt good going into the lesson. Not only was I super excited to get back onto the ice after a few months away, but I had been trying to keep in better shape the past few months. I thought I would feel great out there. Boy was I wrong! When I had mentioned this to Brianne, she assured me “you really can’t get in shape for skating without skating”. So much from coming out and feeling like Nathan MacKinnon this week.
The classes always start the same way, with the full group doing a warm-up skate that involves a few balance drills; full knee bend gliding, crossovers, one leg kick ups and other activities to get you feeling comfortable on your skates. It is to your benefit to try to do all of these, even if you are new, as they are the building blocks to a lot of the skills you’ll need to perform on your skates to play hockey effectively. Added benefit, they do warm you up (and tire you out) before the class gets split into smaller groups for more personalized instruction for your skill level.
I know it sounds weird to put being “tired out” as a benefit to the warm up. Maybe it’s just me, but I skate a whole lot better when I stop thinking about it and the best way to stop thinking about how you’re skating is to start thinking about how tired you are. I’m probably just a weirdo.
Once the warm up is completed, the group gets split into beginner and advanced students. This is great because it allows each group to work on the skills they need to focus on. Advanced players don’t really need to know how to stride properly or do basic stick handling while beginners aren’t going to be doing front-to-back transitions and crossover strides their first night (although they do get covered in later weeks). It also helps keep the beginner students from getting overwhelmed or discouraged by the vets skating circles around them. I went with the beginners, as I’m still not great on my skates. We started with basic strides, learning to push and glide with both skates. Yes, it does start simply and even now with a lot more ice time under me than last December, I found it to be a great way to start a new session. After a number of passes back and forth across the ice, utlizing each leg as both the stride and glide leg, we turned around backwards and did the same thing.
Skating backwards has been one my biggest sticking points since I’ve started skating. I’m proud to say I finally got myself going backwards in these drills tonight. It is something that keeps me coming back to these classes, every time I’ve picked up a new skill or improved on something it makes me feel good. It’s a sense of accomplishment that is different from achievements in other avenues of life, and is a big boost each time it happens.
With the beginners successfully striding forward and backward, the next lesson was stick handling. This is one of the skills that you can practice at home with your stick and a ball that does translate to your on ice endeavors, however putting skates on does change the feel. The drills began stationary and evolved to moving with the puck, making sure to keep your head up. The instructors make sure to move to each person in the class, giving tips and demonstrating techniques when they see you struggling to pick up any drill or skill being worked on. You really can’t beat one-on-one coaching.
After the stick handling portion of the class completed, it was on to passing and shooting. Instructors break people into partners for passing, working on both forehand and backhand passes as well as receiving them on both the front and back of your stick. For shooting, each person gets a puck and a section of wall to shoot against. The instructors are key in this area, as even in the beginner group, some members need the basics broken down while others just need some tweaking or a new aspect shown to them. I’ve been pretty fortunate as while my skating sucks, I can really pass and shoot the puck. When it came time for the instructor to help me, I got a really great tip about how to utilize both hands to get the puck off the ice when I shoot. It seemed to work well, as prior to tonight I could get good zip on a shot, but it would never get more than an inch or two in the air. With the instruction given, boom, shot hits the glass above the board! Victory!
Finally, the class closed with a full ice scrimmage complete with line changes and a goalie at one end (goalies at both ends when available, sadly not tonight). Yes indeed, real hockey in a beginner class, how awesome is that?! I took my customary position on a forward line and waited for my first shift to come. My first shift came and went without much action, just me trying to find space on offense and get my stick in the way on defense (no slap shots or body checking in these scrimmages, not that I could do either at this point). My second shift however saw my first time seeing the puck on offense, wide open in front of the net near the face-off circle. My teammate found me with a perfect pass and I got the one-timer up! Sadly, the goalie made a nice stop with his shoulder and I couldn’t get the rebound past a defender’s stick, but I put the shooting tip given to me earlier in the night into practice and nearly had my first hockey goal. Yes, even in a scrimmage I would TOTALLY count any goal I scored as my first. It was a play I felt highlighted the immense growth I’ve made in the 9 or so months I’ve been learning to play hockey. I knew where to be, and what to do when the puck came my way and a few inches higher I would’ve had a goal. Unthinkable stuff. It really stands as a testament to how good the instruction given at the ABC is.
So, week one is complete and I feel good. My goal from the start of these classes last year was to play in a competitive game on a line with my best friend growing up and thanks to Brianne and the team at Union, I feel like this might be the year I get to live out that dream. I’ll be back with another post in this series each week documenting my growth and progress towards making a recreational hockey team. Season starts in October, so I have a few months to make it happen. If you want to follow the journey, please click that like button and subscribe to PJ Sports Life to get e-mail updates on when new posts are uploaded. You can also like PJ Sports Life on Facebook to make sure you don’t miss a post!
For more information about the ABC program at Union, visit https://unionathletics.com/sports/2005/12/13/Messa_Rink_Schedule_of_Events.aspx
Just a guy who loves sports.