Column: Playing Hockey with the Pros

Sports columnist survives practice with the Detroit Vipers – barely
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

A few years ago – okay, a bunch of years ago – I bit on a bet I never should have touched.

I was writing for the Detroit News, and a top minor league hockey team called the Detroit Vipers played at the Palace. So, I got to thinking: just how big is the gap, really, between the pros, and beer league players like me?

Good question. And even better if I didn’t try to answer it. But, being the hard-hitting investigative journalist that I am, I had to go down to the Palace and find out. Bad idea.

I called the Vipers, and they said, sure, come on down to practice. Now, I couldn’t hear them laughing themselves silly when they hung up – but I bet they were. I should’ve known I was biting off more than I could throw up.

But I actually had reason to believe I might survive. Okay, so my hockey career on the Ann Arbor Huron varsity squad consisted of two phases: the first – “This kid’s got a lot of potential” – and the second – “This kid had a lot of potential.” I sort of skipped the middle part, where I was supposed to realize all that potential. My career was like Rudy’s, minus the game-ending sack.

But hockey is a war of attrition, and I was still standing. I even played on the best men’s team in Ann Arbor. I had gotten a little smarter, and a little better, but I was still slow, short and weak.

To get ready for Monday’s practice, I bought a new pair of pants – the kind with padding. I went to the weight room a few times, I played in a couple pick-up games and I even replaced my usual dinner of pepperoni pizza and Stroh’s with mushroom pizza and Pepsi. I know it sounds extreme, but my attitude was, “Hey, whatever it takes, baby.”  I was playing to win. Or at least survive. When I showed up in the Vipers’ locker room, I was a lean, mean 160 pounds of blue, twisted steel.

I’d be replacing John Craighead, because his fists were too banged up from a fight he won the night before. He bet me lunch I wouldn’t survive practice. With more brass than brains, I said, “You got it.”

Coach Rick Dudley, as tough as they come, ran through the drills we’d be doing that day. Then he looked at me and added, with a sinister grin, “And don’t forget, we’ve got laps at the end.” Fifteen laps one way, then 15 the other.

On the first few drills, I actually managed to score three times. And yes, I was counting. The key was my change-of-pace.  While everybody was ripping slap shots, I was baffling the goalies with my off-speed wrist shots – which were, of course, intended to be full-speed.

But it wasn’t long before my lungs were working so hard, I felt like I was trying to breathe peanut butter. I was dying, and I knew it. I think my new teammates did, too. I was so spent, I couldn’t even do simple things correctly, like I was drunk.  And my new pants felt like I was wearing an oak barrel. After 30 minutes, I could no longer even lift the puck. Hey, the goalie wants the damn puck, he can get it on the ice, just like the rest of us.

I lathered sweat like a stallion, and started looking for a place to puke. Right when I thought I was about to lose it, Coach Dudley blew the whistle. Relief! Mercy! I had made it!

No! I hadn’t. Time for laps: 15 one way, then 15 the other. All timed.

But, amazingly, something magical happened. I got my second wind, my legs back, and I finished. A few laps behind everyone else, but so what?

Back in the locker room, I sat, sweating, while the guys played ping-pong. I would have joined them, if I could have raised my hands above my waist.

Okay, I survived, but I’m not gloating. I lost six pounds that day – the hard way. Any weekend athlete who thinks he can do what the pros can do, had better have another think or two.

When Craighead saw me in his stall, frozen like a prizefighter who’d just gone 15 rounds and lost, he laughed, then said the words I longed to hear.

“How ’bout lunch?”

We went dutch.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” – both national bestsellers. His upcoming book, “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013. You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

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