Tolerating The Light and Dark Of Pain

After what seemed like forever but was only about a month and a half, I geared up and stepped back on the painted ice.

I’ll admit I was nervous driving to the rink. I spent the almost two hour trip thinking about the mistakes I had made previously. I also knew that I wasn’t the same skater or the same player.

Sure, I was the same person. Maybe I’d changed philosophically because we all are supposed to be growing, changing and learning in some way, right?

I thought that my legs wouldn’t fail me this time.

“They couldn’t,” I told myself. “I’m not going to let them.”

Driving toward the rink I noticed people headed to the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins opening game only a few miles down the road. My little rink was many levels down in terms of competition but it felt like it was the start of my season too.

I forgot how heavy the equipment bag can be when you don’t lug it around every day. Maybe not heavy but just bulky and unweildy. Holding the door for some people coming out of the rink it got in their way.

After seeing the class instructors, I caught up on what was going on while checking out the CCM RBZ Revolution sticks – damn they are nice. I paid and dressed for what I hoped would be a fun time on the ice.

I carted my stuff to the locker room and pushed the door open to the fewest number of people I’d ever seen.

I was greeted with “Hey you’re the long distance guy.”

“Yup that’s me.”

Normally I’m either Kessel (after my Phil Kessel jersey I wear), rookie, John or “Bend your knees.”

Take your pick – I’ll answer to any of them. My favorite is probably Kessel because I like to think I look like Kessel. I’m like the guy that you see at the press conference that doesn’t appear like he should be out on the ice but is a hockey player anyway?

Although Kessel is a bit more than that. Kessel is a star. He might not look like Lundqvist or have the Crosby mold he damn near willed the Pens to victory last year. In fact I still believe he should have won the Conn Smythe.

But I digress.

Anyway, I took my stuff out of my bag and I thought about the first time I dressed. It’s funny to think about some of these things that you never forget how to do once you learn them. It’s like that old saying “you never forget how to ride a bike.”

I’m not sure if getting hockey equipment on is quite like that or if it’s more like bundling up Ralphie’s brother up in A Christmas Story. Once you bundle him up a few times you’ll never forget that you can push him out the door and let him roll around in the snow without getting hurt. I kinda feel like that kid when I get everything on.

I did my best not to have fear when I stepped on the ice. My skate hit the ice and I thought I was going to fly right over to the board but I felt my balance go just a little bit. I corrected myself and skated over to the bench to drop off my water.

I got out on the ice and it felt weird. The ice was fast. Really fast. Or was I faster than I remembered? Either way I felt better. Something was going good.

As soon as the pucks were brought out and I started with shooting I felt that feeling. It’s Hockey Night In America.

I ripped one at the net. Probably 10 miles an hour – but it felt good coming off the stick. I skated around and took shots. Then one puck came flying over to me so I leaned into a slap shot. It was too much leaning and down I went. That was the first of what would be many falls on the night.

After a few minutes the drills began. Some skating to warm up. Then on to the good stuff, the passing and shooting with some great commentary from our instructors:

“Let’s play by the seat of our pants.”

“But not end up on the seat of our pants.”

Too late. Besides, my game is to end up on the seat of my pants. If I don’t end up on the seat of my pants I’m not playing.

That my friends is probably the problem.

Coming around the crease to try and stop a pass I either cut an edge too close or got caught in a rut. Down I went. I knew something was wrong. I felt it in my quad and my back flared up. Something was wrong and I skated away from the drill and went to the other side of the ice. I tried to stretch and water thinking it was a cramp.

No such luck.

I sat and stretched as well as rested.

The drills turned into a 3 on 3 small ice game. Which I eventually got on the ice for and I paid the price. Pain.

The only one who knew was the goalie on my team. He saw me stretching and reaching for my quad.

Trying to fight through it I could only go so far on one leg and I pushed to chase down a loose puck all the way to the blue line.

As fast as I could before the whistle blew.

Another twinge of pain.

Now another change – 5 on 5 full ice.

No chance.

I’m not going to make this.

I skated as hard as I could for as long as I could before my back and leg gave out. I couldn’t put any weight on it. I couldn’t push off on my leg. I rotated back to defense and skated around in a circle like I had a flat tire. I blocked shots with my stick and skated as high up the ice as I could so I could get back in time but everyone caught me flatfooted.

I did manage to block some decent attempts. However I felt terrible. I gave everything I could to the point I felt like I was going to throw up. As soon as the class was over and I got off the ice I managed to hobble to the locker room and sit down.

After I got out of my gear and into street clothes I knew I was in for a long painful drive back.

I thought about how hard it must be for guys who are visitors in the NHL that get hurt and have to fly back home. Getting onto a plane, dealing with pain and trying to sleep in one of those seats. If it’s a trip across country I can’t imagine how difficult that must be.

In John Branch’s telling of former NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard’s life “Boy On Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard,” he details many times when the skater would visit a team doctor to pick up Ambien to help him sleep through the night. These drugs would be given to the players for them to cope with travel demands as well as pain issues so that they could fall asleep because doctors had deemed them safe to be used.

I wondered how that would play out over the life of an NHL player. Certainly Boogaard had his own demons that he was never able to shake. Team doctors never got to the bottom of those and continued to dish out pills like candy that only masked the symptoms and lead him to rehab after rehab. His real pain was hidden behind the highs of whatever he could get his hands on while still getting on the ice and dishing out punishment on someone else.

When the tolerance for these drugs moved up so too did the amount he took. A consequence that would eventually take his life – a life taken too soon.

I’ve often wondered how many of these cases happen that we don’t hear about? How many Derek Boogaards don’t make it to the NHL? Boogaard had an issue back in junior hockey. No one addressed it then. The physical pain is swallowed and a player deals with it through some other means. However another kind of pain can’t be dealt with. Maybe it’s an emotional pain. Boogaard had all the signs of depression but was never treated.

How we deal with our pain whether it is physical, emotional or mental is complicated. There is not always a right way or a wrong way. How Boogaard dealt with his pain isn’t right for me to say. I never walked in his shoes. I know he cried out for help at times and the signs were missed. I just wonder if at times we don’t know how to truly deal with the pain. Or maybe we don’t know how. Pain is such a tricky topic. It comes in so many forms. One pain is not like another. I don’t know how you experience it. What I do know is that it can’t always be fixed. Sometimes it lasts a lifetime. Sometimes it has to be moderated. For those like Boogaard that can be a scary thing.

I hope that I can continue to fight through the back and leg pain and skate. I hope these things don’t stop me. But I don’t know. Some people have a body that doesn’t respond well to certain activities. Maybe that’s me? I struggle to find some sort of balance. While trying to still play a game I think loves me back.

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