HAMILTON, N.Y. — I walked into the Read Athletic Center about as nervous as I was for my very first hockey practice when I was eight years old — it was at 6 a.m. and I kept my dad up all night with my nervous chatter because I could not possibly sleep with all the adrenaline pumping through me.
This time it would be my first practice with a Division I hockey team, and I had not put on my skates for approximately a year.
“Don’t worry, we’ll knock the rust right off of ya,” Scott Wiley assured me in his office an hour before ice time.
Wiley is the head coach of Colgate’s women’s ice hockey team. He and I have had a great working relationship since I came to Colgate and have worked together on various projects for CUTV, including the “A Day in the Life” feature that we filmed over the course of a weekend road trip last season with the team. 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, captained the Long Island VYTRA All-Star Team to a championship, and was among the league scoring leaders — this surely could not be so hard.
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, and asked several times if I needed anything more. He also asked if I was nervous, to which I coolly responded that I had participated in hockey practices countless times.
“Not like this, you haven’t,” he said.
On my first turn for one of the warm-up drills I was reminded of that quintessential line from D2: The Mighty Ducks delivered by Lester Averman 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.”
I took a nosedive on the very first opportunity I had to show my stuff with everybody watching. I got shut down by Clancy Todd, Kiira Dosdall, and the rest of the Colgate defense on every one-on-one drill. I had certainly forgotten to train for this experience during the offseason, and I paid dearly for it.
So much for men being the stronger sex — every one of the women had a harder slapshot than mine, and I could barely keep up with my group for the conditioning drills. There was a rapid pace to each of the drills the likes of which I had never experienced before. All the players were so in tune with each other that they did not even require a whistle to regulate the drills.
Practice started with some full-ice odd-man rush drills, then transition, forechecking/break-out; we then worked on some man-to-man coverage down low in the defensive zone, and finished up with some dreaded conditioning. I was sucking wind after every turn, but the time went by so quickly because of all the fun I was having in spite of my ineptitude. The players 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, and what I considered more amazing was that I had kept my lunch down. At the close of the practice, Wiley had me stand aside as he spoke to the players and the rest of the coaching staff, then invited me back into the circle.
“Well, Ruben,” he said. “I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that we’re gonna let you keep the jersey. The bad news is that you’re not a girl, and not good enough to make this team.”
I was in total agreement about the latter, and thanked them all for the former and for giving me the opportunity to come out onto the ice with them. After practice I spoke with a number of the players, 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.
Kara Leene indicated that good speed was the highlight of my play. 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 you knew what you were doing out there,” he said, though 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 players in town, who gave me high-fives as 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 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 every day. All-in-all, it was about two hours of the most intense hockey I have ever participated in, yet, unlike these women, 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 they have the research papers, exams, and classes just like the rest of us, the women’s hockey team must do these things battling the exhaustion that comes from two-hour practices six days per week, games that they must devote seven hours to getting ready, playing, and cooling down every weekend, and road trips that can be as long as five hours each way.
They are high quality athletes, all with a special gift to play what I consider the hardest sport in the world (where else does one have to suffer high-speed play with 70-80 mph solid rubber disks whizzing by, all while on ice?).
I consider it an honor to have been a member of Colgate’s women’s team, even for 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.