Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Getting Iced

My fourth-grade teacher was a passionate, kind-hearted woman who regaled my class with many a story about her difficult and (to our ears) strange childhood. She was, she told us, a fiery kid and a natural athlete -- traits we had no trouble believing. Consequently, she was usually one of her classroom's "captains": one of two kids responsible for picking team-members from half the class.

She did this in the usual manner: if she won the coin-toss, she selected the most gifted athlete available. Her nemesis then took the next most gifted, and my teacher would move one rung lower on the ladder of natural talent, until the class had been evenly divided into teams of nearly equal ability.

Her father, however, threw her a spiritual spanner-wrench one morning. He took her aside and said, "Could you do something for me? Could you choose the poorest player first today? No, scratch that -- first is too obvious. But how about third? It would be such a gift to his soul!" This she did, and now, standing before us as an adult, she reported that not only had the little chap in question been touched, he'd also played his best game yet.

Yes, and the morning she told us this heart-warming story was the morning the athletic kid in our class chose me third for his soccer team. I'll admit I was "touched", but confess too that my game that day was hardly stellar. Being too self-aware by half was a significant part of my problem, but the simple fact is I sucked at soccer.

I still suck at soccer, but if there was a local effort to gather and play the game, say, twice a week, you could count me in (and choose me last, thank you). I might be lousy, but I see soccer (or "football", as it is properly referred to by the rest of the world) as the most enjoyable way to get into shape. As a player you are in near-constant motion, but in a measured way that keeps you from courting cardiac arrest.

Alas, the men of rural Ontario are not yet ready to embrace the soccer field. They are far more likely to tie on the skates and play some hockey. What attention they pay to safety will depend entirely on the level of physical contact they agree to. In other words, if you're 40 years old, brace yourself for serious debilitating injury.

Or worse. In a Globe & Mail piece (which G&M is too cheap to post on-line) James Christie reports that "each year, 12 to 15 of the estimated 10,000 Canadian men who play recreational and pickup hockey for fun, die with their skates on." Christie talks to a 49-year-old who strapped on a heart-monitor. "'I did a normal warm-up, and I went from a resting heart rate of 70 beats perminute to 90. Then I played a shift and looked at the monitor and it said 188.' According to rule-of-thumb guidelines for safe exercise, [this man's] target zone should have been around 120 to 130 beats per minute. His maximum heart rate should have been no more than 171. Yet shift after shift, he climbed out on a limb."

I'd say the real surprise is why there aren't more fatalities.

The last time I played hockey, I was 21. A bunch of us got the Saturday midnight slot at a local arena, and played for 45 minutes. After that we sped to the local bar for a quick beer at last call, then shook hands, and retired to our beds.

Although I'd played hockey like this every winter since my adolescence, I lay awake for hours. My heart simply would not slow down. To make things worse, thanks to all the cold air I'd inhaled, I couldn't stop coughing. I managed to doze for three hours, but when the sun rose, I got up. My heart had not yet found its resting rate.

I took it as a sign of age, and concluded I'd best keep my hockey game restricted to the shinny league. If that's the sort of game you're inviting me to, I'm in. Otherwise, I'll keep holding out for soccer. I won't even complain if I get picked third.

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