Week 11 – Goodbyes and the Varx Select

When I first started back at hockey 3 years ago I was unsure about how much my skill level would have diminished over the years I was away. I joined the Varx in the hope of joining in to improve and build my fitness. I was very unsure of myself. But I remember the turning point at the time was when a long time respected Varx player said one simple sentence “…you come on my line with me”. It meant he thought that I was good enough to play as his defence man above all others.


This player and his wife have both played for the Varx for a long time. Since that day they have continued to coach and guide me. When I joined the Falcons he was there to encourage me, he is the one who constantly puts himself against me in scrimmage so that I have someone to battle against and work up to.
Now his wife has a job opportunity over in Texas and will soon be moving over there. They will be sadly missed. 
I have only known them for about 3 years though. They have been part of the hockey community for over 12. So this week as a final tribute they have gathered together a team to play against the new Varx players. All the money will go to charity.
The Varx select team is a team of players that they have played with over the years who have become part of their friends and hockey family over the years. 
For me it means I get to play hockey where practically every person on the ice is a friend. It was a wonderful experience.
Also because the select team was made up of a lot of the Falcons players it was a good pace to play up to and prove how much I have learned.
Varx played the Falcons in a friendly the year previously and honestly I was out matched and left standing easier than I’d like to admit. This time was a different story.
The first 20 minutes we actually matched their pace and I’m very sure they were unexpectedly on the back foot. We even scored the first goal.
Really these guys were the select team and not the Falcons but the pride we felt after that first period was immense. 
Sadly as the game went on, stamina and pace finally overtook us and despite no one actually keeping score, there was a fair gap between the points. 
But we regard the two teams as brothers so we were all proud of each other, and we were sad when it ended. I had personally had a brilliant game not letting people through and really getting stuck in. I have shown my worth in that match. 
It was a brilliant match that we enjoyed. In the end it was to see too people off who we all had come to respect over the years and whom we will be sad to see go. 

Week 10 – Perspective 

So far my journey in the beer league has gone right in every way. I quickly adapted to training, I earned a spot on the team, I got ice time in the pre season matches all quite quickly. 
I always knew however that it wasn’t going to be easy to get on the team. The pace and skill set was high and although I was keeping up I knew I wasn’t going to be fully up there yet.


As the first season game was drawing up I was optimistic and after good ice time at the pre season games I was eager to further my place on the teams line up. 
Unfortunately this was the week where I was going to have to take a step back. 
The training time on the Falcons changed, back by an hour. This made it more difficult for me to get there. But it made it easier for everyone else. As such a whole group of old time Falcons players could suddenly make it to training. As a consequence my ranking was pushed down as more familiar, experienced players suddenly wanted a spot. 
There was even a defenceman that they had been trying to get on the team for years, a real good one from the pro leagues who had become available. 
I was proud that my team had an influx of new players and the quality on training sky rocketed with even some of our top players being out worked. It benefited everyone.
The coach called me over and politely informed me that I was totally welcome to come to the game in Solihull, but it was the most players they have ever took and ice time would be limited.
I was disappointed. 
It happens a lot in the game where a player will think he deserves more ice time than another, and he complains and moans, or his parents complain and moan. But ultimately a coach wants/needs to put his best team on the bench. After 10 years as a coach working a bench, no one knew this better than me. 
So should I go down anyway ride the pine pony? I put the question to my Dad. “If he wanted you there,” he said, “he wouldn’t have said anything. If you go down, he will have to think about giving you ice time instead of concentrating on the game.”
It made sense. I knew it did. I would have to sit this one out. 
Looking at my position within the team I’m a line 4 defence man. Which is a lot better than not being on the team at all. I am grateful for my place on the team and happy that there are more high quality players to train with, it will only improve my own level. 
Ice time will come more and more I am confident in that because I am confident in the rate I’m improving.
It’s important to always take on a positive perspective that way you can always make step forwards, even when you step back.
If anything it has made me more hungry to improve, to get up to that higher level consistently. Until then I will continue to work hard and take the opportunities that come my way.

Week 8 – Always a Falcon

As I stepped onto the ice on Varx training it was for the first time since I had signed for the Falcons and made my debut the previous evening.

Players from the Falcons train with the Varx. We had set up a drill that we also used in Falcons. Instead of shooting from the middle we started to shoot from the side. I followed suit.
My Falcons teammates reminded me of how the drill should run. This was when I realised that now I was a Falcon, I was always a Falcon. I remember looking up to the Falcons players, watching them for how the game should be played. 
I don’t arrogantly think I should be responsible for leading by example, I think all players should build all players up. If someone is doing the drill wrong, or needs help or coaching, we should all be encouraged to help out.
Hockey is a team sport and the most successful teams are ones that build each other up. Work together to create plays and work on tactics. There is a wealth of books or videos online that can teach you the basics of the game from your home. Although these are important to practise in the rink, the true benefit and purpose of going to training is to learn as a team. 
We had a match on our training session for the Falcons this week. My Dad who had recovered enough to play was itching to get on the ice and disappointed he had to wait another week.
However the next generation of Hirst players made his latest step towards playing some puck. Sawyer passed his Grade 1. Next week he starts his Grade 2 training along with his sister who will be starting her skating lessons.


I am so proud with how far he has come on. He is looking really confident on the Ice now and I am confident that he will keep up when he goes on stick and puck training. 
 

 

 

Week 7 – The Week I joined the Team

Despite this being the beer league a lot of people on the team take there fitness seriously, or, like me, they are fighting age and trying to return to a time when they were at the peak of their physical condition.

It is in this endeavour that the drop a stone in a month challenge started. Two players challenged each other to lose a stone. Whoever lost gained a tenner. Then the banter escalated and the rest of the team were some asked who there money was on. But it didn’t end there the forfeit also fell on the backers and extended further, by the end the losing team had to skate the ice naked and slide across the ice similar to the forfeit in Mystrey Alaska. 
Because I picked a side before I realised the forfeit included the group I was stuck. Suddenly we were all doing the challenge. 
This worked out in my favour I suddenly had a support network and access to good information about weight loss. However if I didn’t lose a stone in a month then I had a naked skate to perform and I would lose 10 pounds.
Our coach is a qualified doctor and has access to scales and fat calipers. At training we were required to get there early for a weigh in. We all got weighed and had our BMI measured. Currently I weigh 186 Kg with a fat percentage of 30%. Honestly it was a lot better than I expected, I certainly wasn’t the biggest. My fate had been sealed, I was commited. 
At Varx training I had took advantage of the slower pace and had been practising my basics. In particular I had been working on the legs and glide, stopping on my wrong side, and my shot. My shot had came on loads since I got my new stick and now I was getting practised with it. However this week I did not hit the net once, the power on the shot was awesome, if I was shooting against a wall at home I would be very impressed, but on the ice the puck sailed wide and or hit glass each time.
In scrimmage however I had some excellent moments, it all came together, getting the puck in the offensive zone, pulling off some dangles, skating hard into positions. All in all after Varx I felt ready, so I on Falcons I wore my circa 2005 Falcons jersey and I brought my signing fee.
On Friday we have our first preseason game against Widnes Wildcats, we went through our strategy and practiced our plays. Everyone was getting fired up and knowing that I was finally signing made it feel so much more like part of the team. 
Once the session was over, and I signed the paperwork and I was officially a team member. I was so pleased that all my hard work had paid off, I had achieved my goal. 
I realised that now was the beginning, to learn, to play at this level. Despite being on the team i knew I had a lot of bench warming to do, to watch and match my pace to the new level.   
I was in the same league as my brother, the fixtures showed that I had 3 months until our teams played each other.
I was a Falcon now.
I would play with passion and pride.
Starting with the match on Friday. 

Week 6 – Legs and Glide

“They hone their skills by playing each other, Saturday after Saturday for as long as anyone can remember.” Mystery Alaska

The preseason matches are booked and everybody is itching for more ice time. This week there are more Falcon players on the Aardvarx than usual which is good because it raises the bar for Varx players.


When I train I got into the habit of taking 2 jerseys with me for scrimmage. That way I can weigh up who is on what team and pick the other team accordingly. This started out as banter between my friends and Dad, and it was a way of us all playing together, but recently I use it to pick the side opposite the better players. In particular there is a Falcons player who is always at Varx and always wears white so I tend to wear black. It is of my opinion that you improve better against better opponents, that way I have to push myself each week. 
Some weeks there are more who pick whites, and this was one of those weeks. Needless to say it made for some good hockey and loads of effort needed to hold them off. 
I have a collection of hockey jerseys accrued over many years. One was a set of 2006 Home and Away Falcons tops from my last season before my break. I found them and since I was training with the team again wondered if it was too arrogant to wear them. I decided in the end that I would wear them as I was proud of my new team and pleased to be part of training again.
The pace of Saturday continued through to the Falcons training on Monday. I had been watching NHL games recently and my team mates and noticed something important. When I’m on the ice I move my feet, constantly moving. This is itself is right. But what I noticed the top players doing was also using a glide technique. This was usually on run up to the net. This gave them 2 advantages, 1 a firm 2 footed base, and 2 the freedom to concentrate on their hands for the dangle or shot. Players used this a lot more than I thought, when they were timing a shot to the net, when they went in for a check, when they were dekeing past someone.
When I saw some of my teammates doing it I knew I needed to apply it. I knew the perfect place to test it. 
The drill is a breakout drill, defence men skate backwards behind the net, pick up a puck, skate forwards out, pass the puck to the breaking forward at the boards and then turn back round the net and repeat on the other side. After that the defence man make a break him self full ice.
It is exhausting for the d man, with a lot of leg movement. It is difficult to keep my legs moving and look to hit the tape on the pass. My attempt now was to move my legs hard to the net, glide to make the pass, and the move my legs again to the net to repeat the other side.
It worked like a treat, I was less tired and was able to read the play better, I also hit the pass a lot easier and more consistent. 
Since then I have been using it a lot more, legs for quick breaks, then gliding for accurate plays.
This has also been my best week for stamina and I’m going to need it, next week is the last training before the first preseason match again Widnes. Will I get ice time? Will they let me sign? I find out next week.

Week 5 – Allstars

This week was the week the week of the NHL Allstar game and skills competition. I love this event as is shows a real banter between the top players in the world. 

Hockey is a game and as such the most important thing is to have fun. These competitions show the world that the worlds elite feel this way too. 
But what a show. The skills competition was epic as always. My favourite is the skills relay but if I’m honest they are all brilliant. It was a shame McDavid didn’t beat Larkins Speed record but then again, good for Larkin. Highlights for me was Mike Smith scoring from red line, Weber retaining his hardest shot, and Crosby showing the rookies who’s boss.
I enjoyed the game too. I enjoy the build up and the fact that it’s the centennial so they have all of the 100 greatest players peppered in there as well makes it all the more watchable. 
It was nice to see Gretzky behind the bench and getting involved. It was also nice to see how we have really took to the 3 on 3 format. It makes for a much more exciting experience. 
Also how many goals were scored. Wow both semi finals had 10 goal wins with only 1 goal in it for the final. Again despite being a big McDavid fan it was nice to see the Ovi/Crosby team winning it in the end. Well done Metropolitan. It was a brilliant experience to watch and I look forward to watching it again next year.
So back on the Varxs team and my constant playing up on the Falcons is really starting to show. I’m faster and have more of a shot than ever before. My chest infection is dying down and I’m able to go for longer again. Still only one Goalie though but hey it’s not all about the net and scoring. There have also been a few Falcons players down which brings the pace of training and scrimmage up, but a few of our guys are really coming on too which helps.
At Falcons we have started training in teams. So as we change we get given a colour, Black, White or Red. We then play each other in those lines. Swapping full lines at scrimmage on a 2 on 1 off basis. It means I get good recovery time. The people on Falcons take there fitness seriously, they want you to get the maximum amount out of it, regular water breaks, controlled recovery time and full power when you are on the ice. 
The pace has jumped right up. If I can get up to this pace then I will certainly be an elite player. Currently I am playing the best hockey I have ever played, but I know I’m still a long way off where I need to be. 
Our resident professional took the defenders this week. We did a number of backwards skating drills. When I play scrimmage I can keep up, there are so many factors that influence the game, but when I’m doing a skating drill the difference in skill level is obvious. I was a long way behind. I have a lot to work on. But I listened and there was a lot of people talking to me and coaching me. 
When I get off the ice I write down a few of the things I learnt so I can remember them better.
Don’t panic on the puck

I don’t scare easy on the ice and I have been playing a long time. Yet when I get the puck I have been known to throw it away quickly, or get annoyed when it gets stuck against the boards, fearing the time pressure I have in this faster moving level. 

I have to anticipate where the puck is going, a lot of time not knowing my next move is playing on my mind. Look up and look for my pass. This should give me the reality that I have more time on the puck than I think and enable me to give a more accurate pass for the breakout. 
Triangles

The whole game is about triangles. As a player as long as I move as part of a triangle I can’t be far wrong. Most plays, especially defensive ones form triangles. I will talk about this in a further post.
Always face the puck

Usual I end up in front of the net, pushing and pulling with a player in the crease. If however instead of facing this player I stand facing the puck I can read if the player is a problem or if I need to be elsewhere. I could even block the puck before it even gets to him. Always facing the puck allows me to read the play more. I can always keep my stick on him similar to a blind man using his cane. That way I always know where he is.
Tactics and tips will be given a lot more as I continue to strive to improve. But I’m having so much fun learning, and like the NHL Allstars have shown this week, that is the most important thing.

Week 2 – Back on the Ice 

Finally I get to get back on the ice. As I get changed someone enlightens me that it has been 4 weeks since our last training session.


For Christmas I got a new stick. A Nexus 9000. There are two differences between this stick and the last. The first is the length, my previous stick I cut down really short. The basis for this was to emphasise puck handling over shooting. I have never had a shot, certainly not a slapshot, and because I keep low for checking the length suited me.

Because it was short the second difference was that it had no flex. Like none at all. Once cut it must have been over 150 flex. 

During the break I was worrying about playing with a longer, whippier stick.

How would it effect my puck control? Would it really give me a better shot? Or would it just get in the way?

My other concern was how much damage my Christmas belly had done to my fitness.

4 weeks of questions followed me as I stepped onto the the ice for the Altrincham Aardvarx Saturday session. As I skated up and down in the opening few minutes I realised my skates were sharp enough, I hadn’t left any of my agility behind.

There were no net minders on the Varx. All had prior commitments it being the first Saturday past the Holidays. That didn’t stop me from firing out a load of shots off. Wow. It was worth the initial clumsiness when the power in my shot had grown so much. At one point I thought someone behind me had taken the shot… and they kept hitting the top left bag… from the blue line.

Due to the lack of net minders the drills consisted mainly of skating and puck handling drills. Perfect. Just what I needed to feel out the stick and my stride.

One thing I noticed was I had more of a reach I could dodge one way and have my stick out the other side, cutting them off completely. I got the puck 90% of the time.

I didn’t feel any awkwardness with the stick until I returned to the Blackburn Falcons 2 nights later. With the higher intensity I really got a feel for how differently I could pull moves on it. They were different moves which gave me more space. It was easier to guide them to the boards because of my reach. This time there was a net minder to practice my shot on.

The Falcons drills were as always more situational and during a cycling drill I found the true power of the shot, scoring several top shelf bags past the net minder from a one timer, on the move. I had never done that before. 

In my last Falcons training before Christmas I had a higher intensity and even started to match the others players pace. I could never have matched them before. Thankfully this session was no different, carrying my confidence through into this new year.

A surprise was that in the scrimmage the two players known for the harder most liberal checks were against me. I’m pleased to say I held my own and took and gave a few checks back. Checking is something I need to build back into my game so this was a nice first step.

The first training sessions of the new year had gone well and wiped any doubts that come from absence out of my mind, now I can move forward with pride and self confidence.