Great amusement — and inspiration — arrived early in 2013 for me when my cherished sixty-three-year-old pal Michael up in Portland, Maine, rang one evening to inform me of a most novel New Years resolution: He was enrolled in a Pre Alpha skating class at his neighborhood rink.
“Yes, I’ll be out on the ice with three- and four-year-olds,” Michael rather matter of factly announced over the phone.
Michael loves beer more than any puckhead I know, so naturally I asked him how many he’d had prior to our chat.
In his six-plus decades prior to this January I’m not sure Michael had ever stepped inside a rink to do anything but watch a hockey practice or game; I do know that he’d never before slid his feet into a pair of skates. I listened to my friend rather breathlessly detail this scheme during that memorable phone call. I could tell that he was deadly serious about it. I could hear both resolution and passion in his voice.
My initial reaction was one of simultaneous thrill and concern. Ice skating comes easily to precious few, but almost all of us who do pursue it do so rather early in life, when the inevitable learning falls are fairly easily absorbed. Michael is lithe and fit and nimble, but still I did not want my pal hurt or, more likely, his ego badly bruised by the myriad frustrations associated with trying to learn how to balance one’s self and move about with speed on two most meager slivers of steel.
But I was also quite gleeful about this grand plan. I loved it for its daring, I loved it for its courage, but mostly I thrilled at its potential: Suddenly I very badly wanted to visit my friend up north years hence and take him out with me to some of the most awe-inspiring shinny sites in the country. Maybe . . . we’d even toss the biscuit around a bit together out on black ice. Michael and I have grown close over the past 10 plus years bonded by a beautiful game, and closely following the fortunes of the hockey team in Washington. Now he was undertaking a remarkable venture to broaden and strengthen that bond.
Recently retired to Portland after spending his first six decades in D.C., Michael simply has immersed himself in that region’s wondrous embrace of winter sport. He’s made new New England friends from all walks of life, almost all of whom seem to share a common passion: prior to starting their workdays, or in the middle of them at lunch, they race off to rinks and frozen lakes for hearty skates. I think Michael simply felt a bit left out of the fun.
I visited Michael and his wife Marleen over Inauguration weekend, and he and I went shopping then for his very first pair of skates. The battered and dull bladed rental boots newbies are forced into for lessons are high crimes against skating humanity. The Play It Again Sports in Portland is an oasis of winter sports gear new and used, and I made it my life’s mission in this moment to ensure that Michael was perfectly fitted in a beautiful and quality pair of hockey skates. A week or two after my visit Michael rang me one evening during a Capitals intermission, proud to announce that Marleen was fetching his beers for him, as his legs were propped up before the television in his new skates. With all the glee of a child unwrapping a new pair of skates on Christmas morning he noted, “You break them in best by getting them to feel as comfortable as slippers, my instructor told me.”
On my visit I also accompanied my friend to one of his Sunday skating lessons. Then some three weeks into his remarkable new hobby-passion, Michael, as you might imagine, looked like everyone else does then. He clung to the dasher boards for dear life, every lurch forward halting and hesitant, his trust of his booted feet elusive. It’s the unavoidable rite of passage. But I also witnessed how well taught Michael was in his Pre Alpha class. There’s a set of instructors at the rink in downtown Portland who very much know what they’re doing, and Michael had been assigned to perhaps the very best one of them. Once I stood at the entrance to the ice sheet and offered a few words of instruction and encouragement to my friend and was instantly and appropriately scolded by Michael’s instructor. I am not a certified instructor, and students in Pre Alpha especially require a single voice of professional guidance. I witnessed a special emphasis on safety imparted in Michael’s training — his classmates and he were actually taught how to fall.
At that rink while Michael moved about so gingerly, with so much trepidation, I watched scores of experienced skater youths fly fast around the ice sheet, almost all of them wearing Milan Lucic sweaters. I thought about how unnerving and intimidating that was likely to be for my friend. Necessarily Michael was a very long way from such proficiency, perhaps even years. It made me appreciate anew how gutsy this scheme of his was.
Michael rang me again this past Tuesday night. He’s graduated from Pre Alpha and already, instantly transitioned into Pre Alpha Plus. He’s hooked, big time. He’s skating almost daily, and he has plans to skate straight through summer in instruction. He detailed for me muscle development he’s detected in his legs from immersion in his new devotion. He noted that his years teaching Irish step dancing absolutely aid him in this new dance form.
“We’re learning to skate backwards a bit,” he informed, his pride apparent and moving. Then he dropped a bombshell on me.
“I’m passing people at the public skates, and it almost scares me.”
During my visit Michael drove me out to a secret spot for shinny that his new friends had bragged about, and in their company out on the ice I lost all semblance of the limits of middle age in the endless play and idyllic frozen conditions. On our drives home after the skates I told Michael that he’d be skating in the games with us next January, but he reflexively dismissed the notion as farcically far-fetched. I bet he doesn’t think so now. I’m greatly looking forward to having a rookie on my line for that skate.