I walked into the Reid Athletic Center two weeks ago about as nervous as I was for my very first hockey practice when I was eight years old, when I kept my dad up all night with chatter because I could not sleep with all the adrenaline pumping through my body. This time around, I was practicing with a Division I hockey team, and I had not put on my skates for about a year.
“Don’t worry, we’ll knock the rust right off ya,” women’s ice hockey Head Coach Scott Wiley assured me in his office an hour before practice time.
Coach Wiley and I have had a great working relationship since I came to Colgate and have worked together on various projects for CUTV. A couple of months ago, we agreed that one really cannot understand what it is like to be on the team unless one actually is on the team, if only for one practice. So yes, my first Division I college hockey experience would be as a women’s hockey player.
“How bad could this really be?” I kept asking myself as I strapped on my equipment. I was no slouch a few years ago when I was at the peak of my hockey career. I captained my high school team to the state championships and was amongst the league scoring leaders. Making it through one collegiate hockey practice surely could not be too difficult a task for me, right?
Coach Wiley was extremely accommodating during the hour before practice started. He was kind enough to get me some laces, tape and a grey practice jersey. Wiley also asked if I was nervous, to which I responded that I had participated in hockey practices countless times.
“Not like this, you haven’t,” he said.
Practice consisted of full-ice odd-man rush drills, transition drills, forechecking/break-out drills, man-to-man coverage down low in the defensive zone and dreaded conditioning drills. On my first turn for one of the warm-up drills, I was reminded of that quintessential line from D2: The Mighty Ducks that Lester Averman delivers in response to Coach Bombay’s incredulous question as to whether the Ducks had practiced during the off-season.
“You know, I knew we forgot something,” the team clown said.
I had certainly forgotten to train for this experience during the off-season, and I paid dearly for it. I took a nose dive on the very first opportunity I had to show my stuff with everybody watching. I got shut down by juniors Clancy Todd, Kiira Dosdall and the rest of the Colgate defense on every one-on-one drill. Every one of the girls had a harder slap shot than mine, and I could barely keep up with my group for the conditioning drills. All the players were so in tune with each other that they did not even require a whistle to regulate the drills. I was sucking wind after every turn, but the time went by so quickly because of all the fun I was having. All the girls cheered me on in every drill and assured me during the breaks that I was doing great.
“I survived!” I yelled in triumph after the final whistle blew. But what I considered more amazing was that I had kept my lunch down. At the end of practice, Coach Wiley had me stand aside as he spoke to the girls and the rest of the coaching staff. He then invited me back into the circle to speak to me.
“Well Ruben, I have good news and bad news for you,” Coach Wiley said. “The good news is that we’re going to let you keep the jersey. The bad news is that you’re not a girl, and not good enough to make this team.”
I then thanked them all for giving me the opportunity to come out onto the ice with them. After practice I spoke with a number of the girls, all of whom praised me. They said they were quite impressed with my play and that it was really fun to have me out there with them. Senior forward Kara Leene indicated that good speed was the highlight of my play. Junior forward Sam Hunt thought that I showed good instincts and picked up on drills quickly despite being out of practice for so long. Coach Wiley affirmed that “It looked like [I] knew what [I was] doing out there,” but he could tell that college hockey and women’s hockey are very different from what I was used to and that I was rather rusty. I later ran into a bunch of the girls in town, all of whom gave me high-fives like they would to one of their teammates.
I am currently writing this article from my desk chair — a position I will not, and frankly cannot, without serious difficulty, change because my legs are aching from soreness. I was too proud to ask for the services of the trainer after practice, but I certainly would not decline some sort of discount for a session with the masseuse in town. Not that I did not respect our athletes before, but I certainly have a newfound appreciation of, and a valuable personal perspective on, the challenges they meet everyday. All-in-all, it was about two hours of the most intense hockey I have ever participated in. But unlike these girls, I got to go home afterwards to recover for the next few days; they all had to come back the following day to do it again. Not only do the players have research papers, exams and classes just like the rest of us, the women’s hockey team must perform these tasks while battling the exhaustion that comes from six two-hour practices a week. On game days, the Raiders spend seven hours warming up, playing and cooling down.
These girls are high quality athletes, all with a special gift to play what I consider the hardest sport in the world. It’s an honor to have been a member of the Colgate’s women’s ice hockey team, even for such a brief period of time. Kara and Sam asked if I would like to come out again with the team sometime before the end of the season. I responded that if my legs ever recover, I would surely love to do so and that I would work my hardest to be in better shape for a second go-around.