The purity of sport: Shinny hockey

It was a cold winter Tuesday evening in Ottawa and I was eager to get a bit of exercise – It was too soon since my last workout to hit the gym, maybe skiing? I have a night season pass and the hill is only 20 minutes away, but we’ve had a few days of rain followed by a deep freeze – not exactly ideal conditions. Maybe a skate on the canal (Ottawa has a 7km long canal that turns into the World’s largest skating rink each winter)? And then suddenly I remembered the boards at the Plant Recreation Centre. Shinny hockey. The gem of winter. I headed down to the basement and was amazed to see that my skates seemed to be sharp even though the white trim around the edge had yellowed. I looked up and was surprised to see a few pucks in a pile on top of the shelf. This was going so smoothly. Hockey stick…where…are my…oh crap…I couldn’t have got rid of all of them, could I? I did have one left – I kept it because it was a true classic: a wooden Wayne Gretzky. Since I couldn’t find anything else, I grabbed it.

I drove to the rink. It’s only a few blocks away, but I figured I’d keep going to the canal if it didn’t look good. I’m always nervous about just going to group activities by myself. I guess that’s the first great thing about Shinny. It’s all inclusive. No questions. No judgement.

I stopped next to the rink and watched, and counted – five…six…seven skaters – not including the kids skating around the ice outside the boards. That seemed reasonable to play. I grabbed my skates and stick from the trunk and headed to the change room. Yup, that’s the beauty of the rink outside the recreation center: a nice heated place to put on my skates!

I was a little nervous as I half walked, half skated across the bumpy ice from the change room to the rink; and remained so for my first few strides. It had been almost two years since I had donned skates.

One stride, then two, three, four. All good! I still knew how to skate. Ok, now pull a puck out of my jacket pocket, and try a little stick-handling…nice…ok, how about a shot…a little shaky, but not bad.

Meanwhile, a couple of the young hotshot players are pushing shovels to clear some of the snow off the rink (despite the indoor change room, there is no zamboni here); an older guy (40s) is standing near the boards, and a couple of younger kids – 12 maybe – are skating around like me. Soon the surface is clean – or as clean as it is going to be – and the beginning of the ritual starts. One of the hotshots gets rid of his shovel and grabs his and his friend’s sticks and proceeds to drop them at center ice – not that it’s marked – I circled tentatively. I know the ritual, but it had been a while and I needed confirmation. Someone else skated past, left their stick and continued to skate around. I took the opportunity to drop my stick into the pile as I skated past.

I shouldn’t have been nervous at all actually, because I know how shinny works. Nobody cares how talented you are. I have played with ex Junior A players; current university players; ankle skaters who need their stick for balance more than manoeuvring the puck; and eager young kids who don’t quite have the legs to keep up with the big kids. All are equally welcome at shinny. In fact what typically happens in shinny games is that the best players on the team take it upon themselves to make sure the worst players on the team score. Shinny hockey is truly fun for everyone.

Once I reached the end of the rink, I turned and saw that all the sticks were now in the pile. Someone else noticed that all sticks were in, so he went to work picking teams: He pushed one stick toward one net; and another towards the other, continuing along this manner until there were two piles of sticks. Nothing like gym class: no captains; no picking best friends, or best players; and nobody being picked last. Just two piles of sticks. I saw that my stick was in the far pile, meaning that was my team. My new team mates and I introduced ourselves, and thus ended the formalities.

No positions, no rules, no tactics, no strategy, no faceoff for the puck. The other team skated tentatively toward us with the puck. “Ready?”. I looked at our players. “Yup”. And the game began. It was an absolute rush. Once we got the puck, I was able to skate up the ice with it and feather a pass up to the 10 year old on our team who was waiting in front of the net (there’s no offside in shinny), and he made no mistake about sending the puck home.

There is actually one rule of shinny: do your best not to raise the puck. That means shots along the ice wherever possible. While some players wear hockey gloves, generally speaking, equipment comprises skates and a stick. And of course toques. It is Canada, after all. I was sporting my red and white roots Olympic toque and a pair of ski gloves.

On the next rush we managed to prevent a goal and then take it up the ice again, this time I was able to make a nifty move and then put it in the net. I was beaming. It was not about having scored, it was about rediscovering something great. Hockey in it’s purest form.

I also got an extra rush from the looks the other players were giving me. I am certain that they have all seen women play hockey before, but women hockey players are definitely uncommon in shinny. And even more uncommon are 30 something women playing shinny, sporting childish grins.

After less than an hour, the clear night passed, and the ice rain began. One by one, the players left, until we were down to four, at which point I also left. We chatted briefly in the change room, and then went on our way. It is now more than 2 hours since I got home, and I still have the remnants of that big grin on my face. It truly is a marvel.

What was the score? Who won? I have no idea. I doubt anyone who was playing knows what the score was, or who won. Nobody cares about the score. Yet another piece of the greatness of shinny hockey.

And now I look forward to the next time – only then I won’t bother with the car; won’t bother having a backup plan, because I’ll just know to expect a great time. And I won’t be disappointed.

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