Sunday night's hockey game got off to a stellar start, for Yours Truly. After four scoreless years of playing with the same group of guys, I managed to get past the goalie twice, within the first ten minutes.
The first was the direct result of a terrific pass, from a guy who loves to play the game and not just launch a personal showboat every few minutes. I'd say it was almost impossible to fail that quality of pass, but the truth is I've messed up plenty of passes just like it. But not Sunday.
The second goal, however, occurred on one of my exceedingly rare break-aways. I doubt anyone, besides the goalie, was more surprised than I was to see the puck reach the back of the net.
After that, things deteriorated to my usual level of play. At one point I took the puck away from a guy -- he's a year or two older, an accomplished player who was, I imagine, a scrappy defence in his youth. Anyway, it clearly pissed him off to have someone who plays so pitifully make a monkey out of him. He got grabby and threw everything he had to get the puck back, or at least mess up my break. It was the latter, and we both wheezed off to our respective benches. I could tell, then, that I'd strained my lower back, and it would hurt a lot worse the next morning.
Then I stopped a slap-shot with my right shin.
So, yeah, I woke up in sad shape. As I made the morning coffee, I told my wife that playing poorly and having fun was preferable to playing well and getting hurt.
It's been a curious experience watching my game (slooooowly) improve. Right from the start, it was evident there was nowhere for me to go but up. The first few times I attempted a break-away, some young whipper-snapper would swan in from behind me, gently pluck the puck away from me and take the action to the other end of the rink. Eventually, that stopped -- not out of any personal resourcefulness I'd developed, but out of pity from the other guys. "Catch your breath, fellas, let 'im go. He just shoots at the goalie's chest, anyway."
So I concentrated on shooting where the goalie was not. That resulted in shots spectacularly wide of the net. But gradually I collected more and more ringers -- off either post, or the crossbar. It was only a matter of time before I hit net. Sunday night was the night.
I've improved in other aspects of play, also. No point exploring any of that any further, as it's been so incremental as to be unnoticeable to anyone but myself. But I do notice it, and it's one element that keeps me coming out on Sunday nights when the wood-stove and a dram of whisky ought to have the deeper appeal to a guy my age.
For most of the rest of the guys, these games are just the opposite: a determined fight against decline. Professional athletes die twice, but amateurs die thousands of times as the years wear on. Sunday night's goals, the clutch -- and the inevitable change-room drubbing that followed -- felt like an initiation into a rather morbid fraternity.
I'm not sure how I feel about that -- besides really, really sore, of course.