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Winter Sports: Ice Ice Baby

Hockey Is Not Just For Kids And Canadians

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As a boy, my passions were UFOs, mythical monsters and Star Wars. In high school, I worked on the stage crew and played Dungeons & Dragons. My college work-study job was movie projectionist, and I hung out with wanna-be filmmakers and played drinking games based on David Lynch movies. Today, solidly middle-aged, I get as excited as my young sons do about movies like The Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight and Watchmen (the trailer gave me chills).

Say it loud, I'm geek and I'm proud. So if anyone had told me a few years ago that in my late 30s my life would begin to revolve around ice hockey - and not just watching, but playing - I would have used some obscure sci-fi movie quote to mock the prediction: "Much bullshit I sense in you," something like that.

And yet here I am, driving to rinks four, five, sometimes six days out of seven, between my kids' games and practices and my own. The hobby has become so consuming that it's tempered my criticisms of born-again types who can't shut up about the "Good News." I can get like that too. Lord Stanley is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.

And that's why I write about it - not to brag (my teammates can confirm, aside from punctuality, I have nothing to brag about), but to assure anyone who's ever thought about trying the sport that if a skinny geek like me can learn to play, anyone can.

The biggest obstacles to starting are the misconceptions like "I didn't learn to skate as a kid, so I couldn't start now."

Right, and you'll never play guitar like Eric Clapton, so why bother with lessons? True, most college and pro players started skating around the time they learned to walk, but don't worry, there won't be any scouts in the stands where you'll be playing.

I roller-skated as a kid and had inline skated a few times as an adult, but I had only skated on ice a couple of times before beginning lessons five years ago. (Most municipal rinks offer adults-only classes). At times it sucked; the process can be painful - figuratively and literally. I fell a lot, sometimes hard. To this day there are spots on my knees and elbows that, when pressed against a hard surface, remind me with a jolt of pain of the times I rammed them into the ice. Only later did it occur to me I could have borrowed or bought knee and elbow pads even though I wasn't ready to play. Live and learn.

Your progress will depend on how much you practice. Lessons alone won't be enough; you'll need to get reps whenever you can, even if it's at public sessions where you'll be surrounded by kids whose fearlessness makes you jealous. Deal with it. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

When you can stop, turn, skate backward a little and generally stay on your feet, you can start looking around for adult beginner hockey clinics. These are usually offered in the summer (ArenaMaps.com can help you find phone numbers for rinks in your area), but some women-only programs have sessions for newbies during the regular season. Visit the Northeast Ohio Women's Hockey Association website, eteamz.com/nowho, for info.

Hockey North America is a national program with a Cleveland branch that offers a beginner school, no experience necessary. Details are available at hna.com.

Another common excuse: "It's too expensive."

Hockey will set you back more than softball or soccer. But smart shopping can make a huge difference. You can find surprisingly good deals on used gear at Play It Again Sports stores (multiple locations,

playitagainsports.com). New gear comes in a wide range of prices, and end-of-season sales are like Christmas and your birthday at once. My favorite places for new stuff are Perani's Hockey World (24126 Lorain Rd., North Olmsted, 440.979.9700); Logos on Lee (2491 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216.371.5734) and Cleveland Sport Goods (1463 SOM Center Rd., Mayfield Heights, 440.684.9910).

In my admittedly limited experience, adult-league fees generally run $250-$400 for a season of 20 or so games. But look at it this way: That's less than $20 per game on average and an hour of ice time can cost 10 times that.

Another common excuse: "I'll get hurt."

Unlikely, though it depends on what you mean by "hurt."

Most adult leagues that take beginners do not allow body checking. Inadvertent (and semi-inadvertent) collisions do occur, but hockey gear is surprisingly good at absorbing impacts. I'm a skinny guy, and I've bounced off players who could easily bench more than I weigh and have gotten up under my own power every time.

Still, as I write this, my left hand is sore from using it to knock down a slapshot (not the smartest thing I've ever tried), and I'm working on a nice bruise from falling backward and crashing down on what I think is a pelvic bone. Some mornings when the alarm goes off six or so hours after a game has ended, everything seems to creak or hurt, and I'd give a limb to stay in bed. But that's what coffee and Advil are for.

I don't know how long this love affair will last, especially now that my wife has started playing too. "Hockey is where we live," legendary coach Fred Shero once said. And even gangly, unathletic nerds are welcome. - Frank Lewis

flewis@clevescene.com

LET IT SLIDE

BEGINNER OR EXPERT, THERE'S A CLEVELAND METRO SKI COUNCIL CLUB FOR YOU

Chagrin Valley Ski Club: Couples, families and singles.Meeting times and locations vary. Contact: Steve DaCosta, 440.221.9373.

Cleveland Ski Club: Owns and operates Big Creek Ski Area in Concord Township, for members and guests.Couples, families and singles welcome. Meetings: Big Creek Ski Area, 12721 Concord-Hamben Rd., check Web site (bigcreekski.org) for times. Contact: Joe at info@bigcreekski.org or leave a message at 440-352-2121.

Edelweiss Ski Club: Families and some singles. Meetings: Donauschwaben's German-American Cultural Center (Lenau Park), 7370 Columbia Rd., Olmsted Falls, second Mondays.Contact: Bob Gutwein, 440.734.3495 or 216.621.7538.

Erie Shore Ski Club: Singles, couples, families all welcome. Meetings: Donauschwaben's (see above), second Thursdays, 7 p.m. Contact: Bob Griffin, 440.356.2571,Êgriffin_b@juno.com. Euclid Ski Club: Mixed group, 18 and older. Contact: Leigh Garama at 440-201-6118 or Kitty DiLauro at 216.381.4150.

Fagowees Ski Club: Singles and couples. Meetings: Ampol Hall, 4737 Pearl Rd., first and third Tuesdays, 7 p.m. Contact: Nancy Sullivan, 216-272-2200, membership@fagowees.org.

Ford Ski & Snowboard Club: All welcome, including beginners. Meetings: Arturos Restaurant, 26679 Sparky Ln., North Olmsted, third Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m. Contact: Jerry Toich at 440.327.3025. Hi Rise Ski and Sports Club: Meetings: American Legion Hall, 32702 Vine St., Willowick, second and fourth Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Contact: Bob Maclauchlan, 440.382.5590, hiriseskiclub.com.

Inner City Ski Club: The oldest African-American ski club in Ohio. Families and singles. Meetings: Shaker Heights Library, 16500 Van Aken Blvd., second Mondays, 6 p.m. Contact: Ray Robinson, raybob2skis@hotmail.com; ISCS Hotline, 216.556.0752; innercityskiclub.org.

 NASA Lewis Ski Club: Open to non-NASA employees. Meetings: Buffalo Wild Wings, 20412 Center Ridge Rd., Rocky River, near the New Westgate, first Tuesdays, 5 p.m. Contact: Gene Addy, 216.977.7467; lewisskiclub.org.

Suburban Ski Club: Singles, couples. Meetings: Hilton Cleveland East, 3663 Park East Dr. (near 271 and Chagrin) Beachwood, second Thursdays (except December). Contact: Chris Wolf, president@suburbanskiclub.org.

Three Trackers of Ohio Inc.: A volunteer organization dedicated to the promotion of adaptive recreational sports to persons with physical disabilities. Meetings: Brooklyn Heights Public Hall, 345 Tuxedo, second Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. Contact: Mark Dietz, md1053@aol.com, 216.556.0787; 3trackers.org.

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