Next time you’re at a hockey game — at any level — and see the goalie miss the puck, don’t get down on him or her.
I’m sure most people think, “How could he or she have missed that?” Or that, “No doubt, I could do better.”
Well, you couldn’t. And neither could I.
Last week, I put on a pair of hockey skates for the first time in 35 years to skate with the Wisconsin Rapids boys team during their captains’ practice. For years, I had been invited by Raiders coach Pat McDonald to come in and skate with his team.
Finally, I took him up on it, and I didn’t want to just skate — I wanted to see what it was like to be a goalie for a day.
Simply getting dressed poses its own set of obstacles. Skates, breezers — the padded “shorts” — and shoulder pads that are more like medieval armor than something athletes would wear, all take time to put on, more than you may think.
All of this gear must be put on in a certain order so that it all fits together to protect the goalie.
First — and for guys, likely most important — is to put on the “undercarriage” protection. Next is breezers, then skates.
Putting on leg pads was a completely different process than I had thought. Whereas the skaters can just hold them against their shin and buckle them in place sitting at their locker, goalies must put them on the floor, kneel into them, then buckle six straps to secure them. The bottom strap actually goes through the skate and the rest are buckled around the legs, tighter at the bottom and looser at the top. This is the most time-consuming part of a goalie dressing, at least for me.
Standing up with two pads that are 11 inches wide, the maximum width, is easier said than done, but I did it without help.
Once on my feet I put on the shoulder pads, which covered my entire torso and arms down to the wrists. I put on the helmet next, then grabbed the gloves, putting the catcher on my left hand; blocker on the right. I was handed a stick and ready for the ice.
All of that took me approximately 15 minutes. It takes Wisconsin Rapids junior goalie Tyler Werne, who was gracious enough to help me dress, just five.
With all my gear on and the GoPro camera rolling, it was time to get on the ice.
Stepping on the ice and taking those first few strides was like riding a bike. It was comforting to know I had the muscle memory to glide across frozen water and not feel like I would be fighting to stay upright. After a couple laps around the rink, I caught up with Tyler, who gave me a few pointers.
The most useful was how to correctly hold the stick. Gripping it right at the base of where it widens is the trick. Tyler used his index finger to direct the stick, something that clearly comes easy to him after eight years in the net. It wasn’t so easy for me.
As I took my turn between the pipes, a group of six players lined up 15 to 20 feet in front of me with a bunch of pucks. They were gracious enough to shoot maybe half as hard as they could — maybe even a little less.
They shot one at a time, and I knew the puck was coming, but it was like an open net. Puck after puck started going in. I kicked a few away with my skates, but the stick was useless, at least for me. The force from their shots pushed the stick between my pads — and into the goal.
So I told them to shoot high. That was much better. I was able to catch and block their shots, for the most part. When they started to shoot harder, it became more difficult. It didn’t help that my feet were getting sore because I wasn’t used to skates.
I always thought that goalies sweat because they’re buried under all that gear. Well, that was the wrong assumption. Goalies work their tails off. I got worn out during a short practice. It must be exhausting for a 51-minute game.
Once warmed up, the boys had me stay on for their scrimmage. Lucky for me, most of the action was at the other end of the ice. When it came my way, it was a sure goal.
Here’s my takeaway from the experience:
First, goaltending is harder than I could have imagined. From getting dressed to actually stopping a puck, it’s not easy.
I saw mabye 100 pucks come my way, but it seemed like 1,000, and when a few of them buzzed the tower, it sounded like a 747 flying by my head.
Aside from my feet being sore for the next 48 hours, I made it through the short practice unscathed, except for my ego.
Lastly, the next time hockey fans feel the urge to chant, “Sieve, sieve sieve,” don’t do it. Instead, after the game, tell the goalies how great they played, win or lose. Heck, give a goalie a hug if you want. They deserve it.
Mark Massoglia can be reached at 715-423-7200, ext. 6736. Follow him on Twitter @markmazzy.