The first time I checked someone was a real thrill. I was around 10 years old and playing in a league that, while still technically “non-contact,” was much more relaxed about calling penalties for checks than the levels I’d played before. By this point in my young hockey career, I’d come to the conclusion that I was never going to be a pro hockey player. I just didn’t have the skill level. I could skate fast and well, but I just could not master stickhandling. I’d have to look down at the puck, leaving me vulnerable to getting run over at any given moment. So I’d developed what could maybe be called a “defensive game” which, at 10, basically meant passing the puck off to someone better than me as soon as it was on my stick, and then trying to tie my man up as much as possible without being whistled.
I was determined, however, to be an asset to my team. I really wanted to contribute – no one wants to be the guy the other guys don’t want to play with. Which is when it occurred to me that hey, I can skate fast and in a straight line, and I have shoulders – maybe I can put those two things together and help my team.
I didn’t have to wait too long to test my new theory of hockey effectiveness. On one of my get-the-puck-away-from-me-as-quickly-as-possible passes to one of my teammates, the puck was intercepted by an opposing player who came streaking down the ice about thirty feet ahead of me and to my right. I took off on a beeline right for where I thought he was going to be by the time I reached him. I judged the distance perfectly and I ran straight into the other player’s chest with my right shoulder.
We both hit the ice and laid there. I don’t know what happened to the puck, but after a few seconds, the whistle was blown. I was given a well-deserved two-minute minor for contact (they might have been more lenient about checking at that level, but an open-ice check following a 30-foot charge wasn’t going to be dismissed). From that point on, that became my role on the team – getting the puck to other people and running full speed into anyone I could get to on the other team who had the puck on his stick. They always tell you to play the man, not the puck, and that’s exactly what I did. I led the league in penalty minutes a couple of times, but I finally felt moving forward in my hockey career that I was a valuable teammate. There’s always some way you can make yourself useful, no matter how good (or not-so-good) you are at something.