Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Expect the unexpected

Expectations., at one point or another we all have them, be it “high” ones or “low” ones. Going on blind date? Promotion you’ve been slaving for? Your taste buds waiting for the special of the day. Recently, my expectations went for a roller coaster ride.

It was rainy day July, one of those, ”I wish I brought an extra pair of socks”, kind of days, I was swiveling in my desk chair timing the rain drops to the second hand of my office clock. I had seventeen minutes to go before I could make a break for it. While working here in the land that originated from five drops of water from the tip of a Katana (刀), I have had the uncomfortable pleasure of witnessing sales people coming in droves into the teachers room to solicit their wears. So when a Prudential salesmen came in hocking insurance, it was just a regular day at the office.

Usually one look at my wide brown eyes and a glimpse at my café latte skin is enough for them to ignore and move on. Yet, this guy sat next to me, gave me his card and started chatting.

“Japanese, ok?”

“Where are you from?”
“I am from Puerto Rico.”
“I like hockey”.

Now, normally Puerto Rico is associated with baseball or for that matter basketball, but never hockey. Although my uncle had taken me to a couple of New Jersey Devil’s hockey games during my brief stints in NJ as a kid, I didn’t start pl
aying hockey until I was fifteen and in the continental US to stay. But there was no way of him knowing that, making the question even more peculiar. I told him that I was a huge fan and I loved hockey with a passion. He told me he was a goalie and invited me to play on his team. I was on cloud nine. Haven't not played in years, I was starved for hockey and pleasantly surprised to find such a league in Japan.

A couple of weeks later I show up to my first practice with in-line skates over my shoulder and graphite stick in hand. Everyone else was in quad r
oller skates and totting sticks that look more like field hockey lumber rather than something that could hit a 90mph slap shot. My heart sank. On top of that, I was asked to use a borrowed pair of quads rather than my shiny new, begging to shred Tours I had brought with me. I had never roller skated in my life. My instincts would tell me to cross over, C-cut, back skates, turn on a dime, but my skates felt glued to the floor. After 30 minutes, I had enough, and sat dejected. One of the league supervisors approached me after practice and told me next time I could use my in-lines, as long as I made an effort to learn to use quads in the future. I was a bit relieved, but that was just the first step in the process.

The next few practices were a series of hard lessons
, for me and others who were opposing me, on the rule differences between Hardball/Roller Hockey and In-line/Ice hockey. Hitting and contact is not allowed, so imagine the shock and horror in others faces when I threw a couple of hip checks and shoulder charges. Phrases like, "Luis, no!", and "Foul!!!", were things I got used to hearing on a regular basis. No kicking of the puck, so any of my "soccer passes" or fancy stick/skate trickery was quickly whistled down. Now, although pressure is not illegal, the Japanese take a very technical and fundamental approach to the game. Either team watches the other make their passes and waits for a mistake happen before they take possession of the puck. Also, fore-checking is virtually non-existent. Then I show up skating and chasing every play my stamina allows, and well at that moment they had to adjust to my game. I spent the month of August practicing and training with the team from Kinki University in Osaka and learned a lot from them.

After a couple of months, I adjusted quite well. I still committed some fouls, but now they are in the single digits. A couple of weeks ago my team was in a tournament. I had been learning and practicing the quads, but was nowhere near ready to play on them, so I was allowed to use my in-lines. Growing up I idolized Claude Lemieux {photo} and if my presence on in-line skates wasn't annoyance enough, I tried emulating him in the rink. I taunted in English, Spanish, and Japanese. I put a couple of shoulders in to chests when the referees weren't looking and also kept talking trash during face-offs. I fore-checked which led to getting hooked and/or being picked by players not carrying the puck, which lead to me yelling at the referee, which subsequently lead to my first yellow card. A yellow card in hockey!?! Another first for me. Still, my mouth kept going. Yet un-like Sean Avery, I was able to back-up my constant jabbering with 6 points (2g, 4pa). Granted, not the most sportsman-like way to play but...
Overall, it was a fun day. I made some new friends and some new enemies (not everyone was entertained by my mouth), and my first foray into organized Hardball Hockey was a fruitful experience.