I write a great deal about writing and hockey. My new love and my old one. And I've also been working on some personal essays for a possible vignette project. In one of them, I think I stumbled across the exact moment when writing became more important than hockey.
Here it is:
In March of 2007, I was at the tail end of my first and only year as a member of the Huntsville Havoc, a minor professional ice hockey team based in northern Alabama, living out a smaller version of my wildest childhood dreams. Picture Bull Durham on skates and that was us.
In one of my last games, we were playing at home against our biggest rival, the Knoxville (TN) IceBears. They were first in the standings and notorious for their physical style of play. We were leading by two or three goals toward the end of the first period, and our fans were rocking.
That's when it happened. One of their players wrapped the puck around the boards. It skittered into open space. I planted my feet from my defensive position and bolted for the puck, determined to beat my man, collect it, and transition to offense. I was so focused on my man I didn’t notice that Knoxville’s largest forward, #7 Rob Flynn, was
going to reach the puck first. I couldn’t turn back. I had already committed. It’s one of the first rules that young defensemen are taught at hockey clinics: “If you pinch up, get the puck or hit the man. Both cannot get by you!” The rule was part of me by that point. I couldn’t have ignored it even if I’d wanted to. I knew I wasn’t going to get the puck, so I had to hit the man.
Flynn didn’t see me, either. His head was down, making sure he had full control of the puck. I bent my knees low as I charged toward him, reaching top speed. He turned up ice, lifting his head to find me blocking his path. I exploded up into him, my shoulder connecting dead center with his chest, a perfectly formed bodycheck. Flynn flew backward, his legs ending up above my head as he sailed to the ice with a grunt and a thud.
The crowd erupted into cheer. I was not known as a hitter. I was all speed and finesse and technical passing. The check on Flynn was by far the biggest I had ever thrown in my hockey-playing life. In fact, it surprised me. I had no idea that I could hit with such force.
The play soon ended up back in my defensive zone. I regrouped and had just poked the puck off their centerman’s stick and passed it up to my left wing when I caught a flash of blue and orange in my peripheral vision. It was Rob Flynn’s giant gloved hand. He grabbed me by the side of my helmet. He gripped my whole head like I was nothing more than a beach ball. He tugged me toward him the slightest bit before shoving with all his might, sending my head crashing against the Plexiglas that circles the rink. I bounced off and hit the ice, my vision flashing red and gray, my mind moving in and out of slow motion. I lay on the ice, blurry. Flynn reached down and pounded my face against the cold sheet, laughing. I somehow managed to get up and hobble to the bench for a line change.
I don’t know if I decided right then, struggling in pain on the bench in front seven thousand spectators, trying to hide my glassy eyes from the training staff, or not. But if it wasn’t right then, it was very soon after. I was done playing competitive ice hockey. It was time to give up on my childhood dreams and live out ones I'd formed in college. It was time for me to start writing.