This was how I kicked off last year’s column. Looking back, the irony is unavoidable.
Last year, the seasons were wildly muddled and created havoc with different plans (foraging, flying, caving, baseball), but this one turned out OK.
It was a good time and really need to get back to an ice rink soon.
One of the great things about West Virginia is that it has four very distinct seasons. Sometimes, we’ll get a short spring or a winter that won’t seem to end, but we always get summer and fall.
You can really see the progress of a year here.
As One Month at a Time has evolved, I’ve thought of trying to take advantage of some of the seasonal offerings. It’s a lot easier, I figure, to learn how to keep bees or look for snakes in the spring or summer.
Fall is maybe a better time to learn to make moonshine.
Winter presents some real problems. Unpredictable weather, frigid temperatures and bad roads make a lot of seasonal activities difficult, if not impossible.
The last two years, my editors and I have talked about finding some way to get me out to learn to ski.
Skiing is seasonal. You can’t really do it in June. But, honestly, skiing has never been much of priority for me. Sliding down the side of a frozen mountain dodging trees and other people doesn’t have a lot of appeal — besides, I’ve already kind of done that.
All the way into my teens, I used to love to go sledding. I spent many happy hours whooshing down the steep hill of my neighborhood. On a good run, I’d end at the bottom of the street. On a not-so-good run, I ended somewhere in the middle of Route 460 and oncoming traffic.
My interest in sledding and most outdoor winter activities ended the summer after I got my driver’s license and discovered video rentals.
There was also the matter of the drive. The nearest ski slope was over an hour away, which seemed a pretty tough commute to squeeze in.
So, skiing has been brought up, but generally dropped.
Pursuing the puck
Still, what else was there to do in the winter? Make snowmen? Train for an epic snowball fight?
Then I thought, “Maybe I could do some ice skating.”
That seemed feasible. South Charleston Memorial Ice Arena was just up the road. I could maybe take some lessons and try to figure out how to audition for “Disney on Ice.” Maybe Snow White needed a sidekick or something.
Then I discovered there was hockey in West Virginia.
I knew Marshall University and West Virginia University had hockey teams. About twice a year, the two teams square off at the South Charleston Memorial Ice Arena. I’d even been to a match once, but I didn’t know anything about the leagues for the kids or adults.
Hockey has always been something on the periphery of my limited sports awareness.
I’ve always been kind of a niche sports guy. I wasn’t great at baseball. I was too short to be anything but a hindrance in basketball, and I hated football.
In high school, I was on the eighth-grade football team for exactly one season. At best, the coach ignored me. At worst, he used me as a tackling dummy for his first- and second-string offensive lines.
For sticking out the whole miserable season, my reward was the opportunity to take the field for exactly two plays in the last minute or so of the last game of the season.
When I turned in my gear in the locker room at the end of the night, I was done for good.
Instead, I played soccer, swam on the county swim team, ran cross country and lifted weights.
If hockey had been offered where I lived, I probably would have gone out for it, but hockey in rural Virginia was pure fantasy. The nearest roller skating rink was 50 miles away.
If you could ice skate in Virginia, that was probably in Richmond, but the idea of the sport seemed cool — like soccer with sticks, while wearing skates. And better than football.
I remember wanting to play, but growing up, I scarcely saw much about it — almost nothing on television except for highlights on the news during the finals or during network Winter Olympics coverage.
Hockey was just a very northern thing. Up north, on Saturday afternoons, I imagined the local stations carried hockey matches. Where I grew up, in western Virginia, we got professional wrestling.
While I grew up in Virginia, I was born in northern Michigan. My father and stepmother live not far from where I was born. My two younger brothers, Al and Jake, were raised there and played football, baseball and hockey.
Hockey was my birthright.
A family affair
So, I reached out to Keith Allen, a name and an email buried on the South Charleston Memorial Ice Arena’s website, who also turned out to be the president of the local WV Wild Youth Hockey association.
After a couple of messages back and forth, Keith and I met for lunch. Over french fries, he told me a little about how he got into hockey.
“I got in through my son, Drew,” Keith said.
Like a lot of sports fan fathers, he was excited about sharing the games he loved with his son. He imagined the two of them tossing around an old football in the yard, getting a couple of mitts to play catch or maybe work on his son’s curveball. But Drew didn’t seem all that interested.
Then came hockey.
Drew heard about hockey at the South Charleston Memorial Ice Arena from his friends and wanted to play, too.
“And I hated it,” Keith said.
Hockey wasn’t a sport Keith played. It wasn’t even something he generally watched on television. He barely knew anything about it. So, he crossed his arms, frowned and let his wife take their son to practice. He wanted nothing to do with it.
This went on for a while, but the sport wore him down.
“Hockey has a very long season,” he said.
At first, Drew had a hard time being on the ice, Keith said. He was 5 years old and didn’t know how to skate. It was frustrating to learn how to stay upright while trying to move a puck with a stick.
Getting back up
Drew fell down. A lot.
He was in kindergarten. He got upset, if not hurt, and frequently ended up in tears by the end of practice.
“But he thought it was just the greatest thing,” Keith said. “He absolutely loved it.”
So, Keith got involved — a little, at first. He started skating, began learning the rules of the game.
Keith’s first time on the ice was worse than his son’s.
“My first time out on the ice, I fell and cracked open my knee,” Keith laughed. “When you go out on the ice, you need to just be OK with the idea that you’re going to fall down.”
Almost everybody falls down. As you get more experienced, he said, you just don’t fall down as much.
“But you’re still going to fall down,” he said.
That first time on the ice made him a little shy of trying it again. The second time he went out suited up with pads and a helmet. It didn’t stop him from falling down.
“But I didn’t feel a thing,” he said.
Hockey equipment, Keith said, has come a long way over the years. It’s more than just padding, but a kind of armor.
He said they had a player take a pretty bad spill, which required a trip to the emergency room to get the kid checked out. Keith remembered the doctor being astounded by each piece of protective gear. The doctor examined the padding almost as much as he examined the player.
“And the kid was fine,” he said.
In time, Keith became a coach, which was a five-step process that focused on different kinds of safety for the kids.
“USA Hockey seeks to control the experience of the players,” he said. “They want a safe environment, which is what everybody wants, really.”
With time, Keith got better at skating and learned the sport.
“I learned along with my son,” he said.
Along the way, Keith got involved with the local hockey association, eventually becoming president.
“When I got there, they were glad to have anybody show an interest,” he said. “They were glad to have anybody with any management or business skills.”
As a business analyst with CASCI, he had some talents to offer.
Keith and his son have been involved with West Virginia hockey for seven years, and Keith said the program has seen amazing growth.
“With the kids, we’ve gone from having no matches to having three teams that have won their leagues,” he said.
There is a lot of travel, however. There are a lot of trips deep into Ohio or Kentucky to play other teams. But the numbers are growing, and more adults are getting involved.
Currently, adults can play Friday and Sunday nights.
“Sundays are for the more advanced players,” Keith said. “They’re better skaters, and it can get pretty fast.”
Friday nights are for the curious — for beginners.
Keith invited me to give a shot, and I signed on before we got the checks for our food.
I couldn’t think of a better way to dig into the winter season and kick off 2018. This would be a chance to make up for my Southern upbringing and to have something in common with my younger brothers.
Maybe we could get matching hockey jerseys.
Excited, I texted my stepmother, Laurie, in Michigan to get their phone numbers. I thought I could get them to explain the rules, give me some tips on how to play or what it was like for them to go out on skates.
So, I texted, “Jake and Al played hockey, right?”
A couple of moments later, Laurie texted back.
“No. They wrestled.”