There are skaters – really good skaters carving up the ice. They float up and down, instantly flipping backwards and spraying ice in the air, as they stop on a dime. Their sticks seem like extensions of themselves, effortlessly moving the puck back and forth, before firing it into the net.
Then there is me. I use my stick more for balance than anything else. This is as close as I’ve ever been to the game. When I was a kid, there wasn’t much opportunity to play, especially for girls. And I’m not alone.
Hockey is part of Canadian culture, yet is something most of us have never experienced first-hand. Adults who never played as kids find themselves shut out of Canada’s favourite sport. Even if you own skates, you’d have a tough time getting the gear, ice time and enough teammates to shoot the puck around.
Yet a new program offered year-round in Canmore demonstrates it’s entirely possible get a shot on net. Pinnacle Hockey is a hands-on two-hour hockey experience where participants are taught the skills, secrets and superstitions of Canada’s favourite sport. Once geared up, you’ll get world-class coaching and hands-on training from one of Alberta’s best amateur teams: the Canmore Eagles, a Junior A hockey team.
“Our goal is to introduce people to hockey and hopefully foster a love of the game. We’re not just showcasing our Junior A club, but the entire hockey experience many Canadians have never had full exposure to. You see the game on TV, but we bring them to a place they never thought they’d go,” says Andrew Milne, managing director, Pinnacle Hockey, Eagles Head Coach and general manager.
The experience begins inside Canmore’s old Rec Centre. Sitting classroom style, we’re introduced to the players and coaches, notably former Boston Bruins player and now assistant Eagle’s coach Jeremy Reich. They explain the history of the sport, its lingo and lore. Some of the instruction is a little too obvious for Canadians, but you wouldn’t believe how many tourists don’t know what a Zamboni is, or gasp, have never heard of Wayne Gretzky. Still, I learn a few things like where the hat trick comes from (betcha didn’t know it was created by Canmore-born Alex Kaleta, who Canmore’s Recreation Centre is named after).
Then it’s off for a tour of the arena and a pep talk in the player’s dressing room, where we’re assaulted with an overwhelming ripe smell, making the experience oh-so authentic. Here, those superstitions we heard about come into play. The team’s jerseys are neatly hanging with the logo facing out. The team logo is also woven into the carpet. Ever the kltutz, I accidentally step on it while trying to get the perfect Instagram shot. I’m booed and hissed at, but fortunately not fined as the Eagles are.
Next, we enter the (stench-free) dressing room for Pinnacle participants, and suit up in full armour — all seven kilograms of it! We’re supposed to follow the superstitions, and put our gear on from left to right. Real players can get dressed in less than four minutes — it takes us 25. Reason enough to let a strapping young Eagle lace up my skates for me, I think.
Waddling onto the ice, it’s evident we’re going to need all the help we can get. Every move is effort, as I attempt to move the puck down the ice. Many in our group have never skated before, so there are some glorious wipe-outs and the skating aids see a lot of traction. When I think no one’s looking, I shoot the puck and it actually hits the net! OK, so it didn’t go in, but it’s a start.
Eagles players and the coaches are there to teach us newbies how to skate and handle the puck. If you know your way around the rink, they’ll rev it up with some drills, so you can get a taste of pro level. Participants have the opportunity to play on the same line as the Eagles to see first-hand how fast the pace is, how quick decisions need to be made and just how hard those shots really are. My group isn’t there yet.
I shudder as an Eagle whips the puck against the boards. The sounds you hear when you’re on the rink are intimidating.
“It’s a completely different game at ice level,” affirms Milne. It doesn’t take me long to develop a newfound respect for the game and its difficulty. Stepping off the ice after about 45 minutes, I feel sore and more Canadian than ever.
Follow Jody Robbins’ adventures on TravelswithBaggage.com or on Twitter @Jody_Robbins.
Photos by Craig Douce, Banff Photography
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