Friday, March 2, 2012

Thinking Outside The Box

Last week it was announced that Chantilly’s only exclusive inline hockey facility would be permanently shutting its doors.  For the space known colloquially as The Box, the bitter end will come sometime before the end of this month.  I am sad beyond words but thankful that it provided as much joy and competition and camaraderie as it did to myself and so many others for 6 too short years.

Hockey has been in my blood since the early 1970s.  It began when my brothers first handed me a leftie stick (I am right-handed in all things but hockey) and we scrimmaged on the backyard blacktop with our Mylec sticks and no bounce orange ball pucks.  What equipment we couldn’t afford we made.  Old sofa cushions were cut into goalie pads and secured with rope or belts we had outgrown.  A varsity jacket made an ideal chest protector.  In those heady days, we did quite a bit of damage to the back of the house with errant slapshots, and the soles of a new pair of sneakers could be worn through in a week or two.  We played early and often, and I have the photographs and scars to prove it.

Street hockey gave way to pond hockey in the winter, one of life’s greatest simple pleasures.  The Warinanco Park Lake (really a big pond) would only freeze to a sufficient depth for about 5 days each winter, and that free ice time needed to be maximized.  I have vivid memories of shoveling the snow on the ice in the shape of a makeshift rink and playing for hours, but I have absolutely no memory of eating any meals on those days.  Pond hockey has no intermission, no concession stands.  You play until the black puck and the sky are the same color.

From the free winter ice we moved on to the big time – renting out the main Warinanco Park rink.  For $100, we could secure private ice time from 1 AM until 3 AM, or 3:30 AM until 5:30 AM.  Two hours of hockey freestyle on a rink all to ourselves.  We would organize 2 teams of 10 skaters each, and for the paltry sum of $5 per player, we were N.Y. Rangers or N.Y. Islanders for a few hours.  My mother would marvel at my dedication.

“I can’t get you out of bed for school, but for hockey, you can wake yourself at 2:30 in the morning without a complaint.  I don’t get it.”

I got it, though.  I liked sleeping, but I loved playing hockey.  I was good at it.  On the rink, I was important.  On the rink, I was cool.  That’s all that really matters to a skinny kid with a big mouth.

After high school, life intervened and hockey playing became something I used to do as a kid.  Slowly but surely, with each subsequent move to another apartment, in another city, for another job, my personal hockey equipment supply starting thinning and my treasured tools of the game became outdated.  Kinda like I was becoming.  Nothing else seemed more important, but everything else was more pressing, and a year away from the game quickly grew to 22 years.

The thought of returning to the game was never far from consciousness, but I needed a push.  Sitting around is easier, but not nearly as fun.  In 2002, I started seeing a number of roadside signs for Potomac Inline Hockey, teams forming in your area now, check us out online.  The more I saw these signs, the more the idea took root.  I can play hockey again…I think I can, anyway.  I wasn’t really sure.

I kept the desire secretly in my heart for a year.  It took that long to overcome my self-doubts about my abilities, and to build up the nerve to tell my wife that I was ready to spend some of our money on my narcissistic desire to play a crazy kid’s game.
Did I mention that I had never been on inline skates for more than a few wobbly minutes in my life?  This fun fact would give any rational man pause, but as I have established, I was not rational about the game.  Over that year, my desire to play morphed into my need to play.  Maybe I could be important and cool all over again, riding the coattails of a deceptively strong wrist shot and a deft passing touch.

Those early seasons with Potomac Inline were played at Splash N’ Play (the N’ is text for “and”) at the intersection of Route 28 and Willard Road.  The lighting was dim, the rink not regulation size, but that seemed not to matter.  I picked the inline game up quickly, of course not before flying shoulder first into the boards because I couldn’t stop on wheels very well.  My left shoulder still sags slightly lower than the right, but it is a defect that I wear proudly.  It’s physical proof that yes, I am a hockey player.  We rink rats can be weird like that.

Splash N’ Play was sold to a church group, and our ouster by the faithful turned into a blessing for us devout puckheads.  A group of volunteers far more dedicated than me put together a plan to create an inline hockey-only facility within 10 minutes of my house, and without missing a season, they made it happen.  I will be forever grateful to them for their hard work.

The Box became my sanctuary.  It was my place to yell, push, shove, use foul language, laugh, and score (goals).  Where else is yelling, pushing, shoving and cursing so richly rewarded?  At The Box, I was Bizarro HR Guy, the complete opposite of my HR work persona.  I always got a chuckle when a fellow teammate would find out that I was in human resources, and stare incredulously.  “You?  After the sh*t I’ve heard come out of your mouth?”  Like I said it was a sanctuary, a politically correct-free zone with few rules except get back on defense and pass once in a while.  Mostly, though, when I was at The Box I felt important and cool for 44 minutes of running time twice a week (sometimes more) for 6 glorious years. 

I’ll play elsewhere next season, and it will be a new kind of fun.  But I will miss The Box and all the great friends I made there.  Keep in touch on FB, fellas.  We will face off again someday.  I must mention the one thing I won’t miss – the post-game locker room smell.  That’s nasty. 

RIP The Box, Chantilly’s Finest Inline Hockey Arena

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