Sports columnist Brian Dzenis spent his Tuesday night practicing with the club roller hockey team.
At The Temple News, I’ve done my fair share of watching and analyzing Temple sports teams, but last week, I became a participant when I spent a practice with the club roller hockey team.
I have a bit of a hockey background, and as far as skills are concerned, here’s what I bring as an amateur hockey player: Most of my experience comes from playing Dek hockey, that is, hockey played wearing sneakers instead of skates.
I first donned roller blades this past summer, and while I am not a complete fish-out-of-water on them, there are two major flaws in my game.
One, I cannot stop. If I’m skating and want to stop, I explore two options. The first is to crash into the boards, which can be painful. The second is to spin around in a circle until I stop moving, which can take a little bit of time, but at least I don’t run into anything.
Two, I cannot skate backward. This immediately rules out playing defense, and it would make navigating around the rink easier.
Senior defenseman Mike Peterson generously offered me a ride to Sportsplex in Bucks County, where the team practices once a week. I arrived and talked with coaching team Jamie Babcock and Steve Siliani, plus a few players, whom I warned about my limited skills.
Before I could hit the rink, I had two minor equipment issues to work out. I showed up in shorts and a T-shirt, thinking that would go with my skates, helmet and other protective equipment. It turned out I needed roller-hockey pants and a jersey. Babcock lent me both.
The jersey, which was bright yellow and from a team called “Lethal Bananas,” made me laugh. Its nameplate on the back read “Bananarama.”
Both the jersey and pants carried what some players call the “hockey smell,” a polite euphemism for body odor.
“I don’t think I’ve washed that jersey for a few months,” Babcock said, “same thing with the pants.”
No big deal. In my opinion, if you’re playing hockey and you don’t smell bad afterward, you’re doing it wrong.
Then, it was time to hit the rink.
The first drill involved skating in a single-file S-pattern up and down the rink. I was the last guy in line because of my lack of speed, but I turned OK.
At the recommendation of Babcock, I stood aside for the second drill, when the team practiced breakouts. A breakout occurs every time the team gains possession of the puck in a game. A defenseman carries the puck around the back of the net while the forwards spread out and move up the rink. During this drill, I realized roller hockey is a four-on-four sport, as opposed to five-on-five in ice hockey, which completely changes the game’s philosophy.
“The biggest difference between roller hockey and ice hockey is that the game is a lot more open. With there only being four guys out there, there is a lot more room on the rink to operate,” Siliani said. “There is also no icing and offsides in roller hockey, so in roller hockey, you can have guys set up on two opposite ends of the rink.”
In an ironic turn of events, the one drill I didn’t participate in happens to be the one during which I fell down during the entire practice.
As I stood next to Siliani and watched the team’s breakouts, which end with the team shooting the puck against the goalie, senior forward Mark Diviny skated backward toward me to get into position to shoot. He didn’t notice me, and I didn’t realize how close I was to the action until it was too late. He backed into me, and I went down.
“I was just in total confusion, and I didn’t realize you were behind me, so I tried to receive it on the backhand, didn’t look, and then I crashed into you, and we plummeted to the ground,” he said. “I was counting on no one being there. The thing about hockey is you have to have awareness out there on the rink.”
For the next drill, the coaches split up the team into two groups, the A team and B team, in a varsity/junior varsity setup. They assigned me to the B team. The drill involved one-on-one matchups between a defender and a forward. I was a forward, and I matched up against sophomore defenseman Evan O’Connell. I struggled mightily at first. I lost control of the puck and turned it over the way redshirt junior quarterback Vaughn Charlton turns the ball over on the football field. Eventually, I adjusted the way I was holding my stick and was able to move with the puck without losing it.
“You shot on me a few times and beat me a couple times,” O’Connell said.
Well, that depends on your definition of a shot. My shots look as though I’m scooting the puck in the general direction of the net. I don’t have much experience shooting a puck, as Dek hockey uses a ball.
The last drill involved one-on-one, two-on-two or three-on-three battles between the forwards and defense for a puck dumped in one of the corners. The forwards would have to shoot the puck, and the defense would have to carry it to Babcock. I did my best not to be a liability. By the time I reached the action, it had moved elsewhere.
And just like that, practice ended.
I’m glad I got the opportunity to practice with the team, and I’ll say this: Club sports are a serious business. Everyone involved is very skilled and committed to their craft. The roller hockey guys, who are responsible for keeping up with their own conditioning apart from practice, do this on their own time and without scholarship money.
Before I left practice, I had one last question for Babcock – would I make the roster?
“At this point, no, but if you keep skating and you get your legs under you and move out there, it’s all about skating,” he said. “If you can skate, you can play.”
Brian Dzenis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.