The first time I was checked was a complete surprise. I was seven or eight years old (we’re talking 30 years ago, so give me a little leeway on the exact age), and I was playing in what was, of course, a non-contact league. I had been playing for a few years, so I was a decent skater and could move around the ice quite well. But my biggest deficiency was an inability to stickhandle without looking down at the puck while I did so (a deficiency that persists to this day).
I remember being on the ice for the face off, lining up at left wing. The other team won the draw, and the puck went back to one of their defensemen. I charged forward and managed to snag the puck when he tried to pass across to the other defenseman (these were also seven- or eight-year-olds, so there wasn’t a whole lot of mustard on the pass).
Suddenly, I found myself on what, for me, was an extremely rare breakaway. As I mentioned above, my big problem was that I couldn’t really take advantage of it as well as I might have while having to look down at the puck rather than keeping my head up and reading the play around me and the opposing goalie. I managed to get to the hash marks, and while staring down at my hands, I flipped a wrist shot that I watched actually beat the goaltender and clang off the post. Then the world flipped upside down.
With my focus so intently lasered on the puck on my stick and as it flew toward the net, I’d completely missed the larger, faster defenseman who’d caught up to me, and just as the puck hit the post I was creamed from my back right. I’d never been hit before. I wasn’t supposed to be hit. No one was supposed to be hit. It was a no-hitting league. It was a bunch of kids, after all.
That feeling was something else. I felt like I was going to throw up. My back hurt from the check and my side hurt from hitting the ice. The whistle was blown and the kid who hit me was given a two-minute minor for contact. I had to be helped off the ice.
It wasn’t long before I’d gotten my breath back, and I did go out and play more that game. But for the next eight or so years that I played organized hockey, and through to this day when I’m just out and about in the world, I make a concerted effort to keep some semblance of situational awareness of the world around me, even when I can’t keep my head up all the time.