Unlike my usual musings about food and travel, today I want to share a trip down memory lane…on skates. I played in the Virginia Tech Ice Hockey alumni game last weekend, and it was an experience that triggered some great memories for me (along with a few bruises).
It’s amazing what the Tech program has become, especially in light of its very humble beginnings. The team was started in 1984 with a few flyers tacked to bulletin boards around campus. There were also a couple of short articles in the Tech newspaper, the Collegiate Times, mostly intended as an appeal for players. A classmate from Boston, Dave Keery, was the visionary.
I was on Tech’s inaugural team, and it was a great group of guys with a decent skill level. We had a lot of fun, in spite of the fact that our games were late at night and an hour’s drive from campus–pretty much guaranteeing that the only people watching would be on our bench. But it was a heart and soul group of kids who really loved the game.
Our home games were at the LancerLot in Vinton (a Roanoke suburb) against the likes of Liberty, W&L, and Roanoke College. In those first years, there were just a handful of nearby colleges with teams—mostly schools with lacrosse programs that drew students from the northeast.
We took a few road trips, too, including a memorable one to the University of Tennessee. That trip was college budget travel at its finest; we fueled ourselves on camp stove hot dogs before sleeping on the floor of a friend’s fraternity house. We also brought back souvenirs in the form of oddly patterned bruises from the chain link fence at the Ice Chalet, the dusty old rink in Knoxville.
Not everything gets better with age, but Tech’s hockey club certainly has. Today’s team bears little resemblance to the ragtag bunch that skated in those first years. They (we?) now play in the Atlantic Coast Conference Hockey League against pretty stiff competition and they’ve won several championships. They also have a full-time coach with some highly skilled players, and are one of the strongest programs in the mid-south.
I came away very impressed with this year’s team–as both players and people. Those guys certainly had game, but they also showed a lot of class with the old-timers. They were curious about our stories, they took it easy on us in the corners, and they involved us in the play even when we routinely mishandled the puck (well, at least when I did). Thankfully, there was no checking, although I did accidentally crack helmets with one of the current players (it actually felt good to make a little contact, even by mistake).
For obvious reasons, jumping on the ice with the current players was a big leap over the boards for me. But it was great just to be on that sheet of ice again, some 35 years later. That rink is a place where I made great memories and lifelong friendships, and the current players seem to be doing the same thing now.
Just before the game started, I got a text from my friend Lara (also a Tech grad). She wished me luck…and then she followed with “I love that story about when you were like 24 and accidentally joined an over 50 league and checked someone. I hope that’s not you today.” Like so many of the best experiences in life, things in that moment were at once exactly the same and totally different.