“My Hockey Story” by Dermot McNally

A hockey story from our very own #42 Dermot McNally.
This is a story from the heart and well worth the read!

“My Hockey Story:

It is now around three years since I started playing ice hockey and as the Point Village rink melts down, once again leaving players with no option but to get back onto wheels, I have decided to write this story, the story of how I became a hockey player and of what it has come to mean to me. I’ve wanted to write this for a long time now, because it is a happy story full of heroes and because I think that a lot of players will find it familiar. Most of all, this is a story of appreciation to my hockey family, and it’s always better to appreciate people loudly and publicly then to do it quietly in secret.

I first skated in and around the age of 10 in Dolphin’s Barn. I skated a few times there, usually with long gaps. I retain a strong memory of the hockey markings on the ice pad, but had at the time only a dim awareness of the sport. Later, when Silver Skate in Phibsborough opened, I skated there too, again, not as a very frequent thing (as it happens, the State Cinema, whose premises had been taken over by Silver Skate, was where I saw my first film, Star Wars). It would be nice to say that I was a natural and quickly became an expert skater. The truth is a bit more humble – I was quickly impressed by what you can do on skates and I found that I had good balance and was a quick learner, but without making a commitment to improving, I remained a better-than-average leisure skater.

Time passed, and I found myself living in Germany. Germany, as many Irish skaters will appreciate, is a lot better equipped for skating than Ireland is. Rinks are abundant, even in pretty modest-sized towns and cities. They are cheap, clean and well-maintained, a novelty for me, coming from the aforementioned premises). Even the rental skates were a cut above anything I had experienced in Ireland. In Germany I took to skating a lot and I bought my own skates. It never occurred to me to play hockey – a childhood of being terrible at football had soured me on team sports and I certainly wasn’t about to put myself in the way of the kind of fearsome body checks that most non-hockey people think of when they picture the sport. I’m neither a big lad nor suicidal. Violence in sport has never been my thing. So instead I just skated for fun, in rinks or on frozen ponds, and I felt happy to be getting some exercise and gaining a fun skill.

After returning to Ireland in 2000 I had my first close call with hockey, which sadly turned into a near miss. Among the belongings I took back with me were my prized skates. A fat lot of good they were, though, because Dublin was by then devoid of any ice rinks. My skates quickly took up residence in a storage cupboard and began the slow process of rusting away. But by a stroke of luck, and I can no longer remember whether this was in 2000 or 2001, Smithfield on Ice came along. Once I heard that we would once again have ice in Dublin, I realised that I had a new challenge – where to get my blunt skates sharpened in a city where nobody skated. This was surely a job for Google.

Google quickly gave me what turned out to be the perfect lead in the shape of the website of the Irish Ice Hockey Association. Although I found out on the first day in Dolphin’s Barn that there were players here, it had never occurred to me that we would have a whole national association. But realising that we did, I quickly emailed the feedback address to find out where IIHA members went for sharpening, explaining that I wanted to skate in Smithfield. I got a very quick and useful response from Kevin Kelly – essentially, that the IIHA had its own sharpening facilities, that these were for the use of members, but that the IIHA was also providing volunteer ice marshals for Smithfield and needed more. So long story short, if I would volunteer, they would sharpen my skates for me. This was the perfect arrangement for me – not only would I get my skates done, I would be doing a lot more skating and not paying for it. Brilliant!

Smithfield was to be my first real contact with hockey and with hockey players. I got to know a lot of the players of the time, many of whom I would meet again years later once I actually took up the sport. In the evening after the last public skate, a load of players in mysterious gear would typically emerge and train. Mostly I would drift off home. But on one evening, my hockey story moved on, if only by a tiny amount. Kevin, who, having roped me into being an ice marshal, was my bridge to all thing hockey, had chatted to me about the sport and how much fun it was. In response to my concerns about being injured he made what at the time seemed an odd suggestion, to be a goalie. His reasoning was that goalies have the best padding and can’t be assaulted like skaters can. I remained sceptical, but it was hard to argue with the logic. Either way, on this one evening I was stepping off the ice at closing time as the hockey players jumped on, and I still had my skates on. Kevin, before I even knew he was doing it, thrust a stick into my hand and said, “here, come and knock a puck around with us for a bit”. No gear, no helmet, I don’t even know whether it was a lefty or righty stick. Thinking back, he must have asked which I needed, because I was actually able to use it.

For the five minutes we spent chasing the puck, which for the guys was basically a warm-up, I had a blast. I was immediately impressed by two things – the balance you gain by holding a stick and the freedom to skate backwards without worrying about flattening a paying punter (this wasn’t something I would have been able to do during public hours). After this taster of hockey I left the ice enthused, but still adamant that I wasn’t going to play a sport with that amount of contact.

Smithfield closed for that year. I returned as a marshal the next year, the year after, I think the arrangements changed. I returned to being an occasional leisure skater. I skated in Dundonald quite a lot, since my company had an office in Belfast that I often visited. But to keep the story shorter, a good few years passed without advancing my hockey career any further.

If finding the IIHA had been an omen, the opening of a rink in Castleknock, five minutes down the road from my house, certainly was. I began to use the rink as often as weekly, but often with longish gaps. The thing about leisure skating is that there are limits to the appeal of going round in circles. The other challenge is doing it on your own. I was about to find a solution to both of these problems.

One day, while minding my own business, skating round in circles on my own in Castleknock, I was, to my great surprise, talent scouted by a hockey team. Others might say that I was approached by some bloke, but I will insist on describing it as talent scouting. A stranger, whom I now know as teammate John Behan, saw me skate with my own skates and an above average level of skill, something that, in Castleknock, wasn’t all that hard. John asked me if I had ever played hockey (“not really, no”) and whether I would be interested in doing so (“are you mad, too violent”).

Thankfully, John was above to convince me to come down and experience a training session with what I learned to be the Celtic Clovers. He didn’t really have to do a lot of convincing. I had two main thoughts in my head – firstly, that a part of hockey training was skating and that this was a great opportunity to improve my technique. Secondly, I figured that I could stop any time I wanted to (sound like an addict mentality to you?) if the violence level got too high. So I agreed to come along the next Thursday. I came down to the rink, paid Darren for my ice time, took a deep breath and pulled open the door to the rink proper, not sure what kind of violent, macho hockey players I’d find on the far side. The first thing I saw was a group of girls. I relaxed immediately.

The early weeks and months with the team were habit-forming. The drills were very valuable. These were B-team training sessions, participation levels were high and the ability rate very mixed. I felt neither inadequate nor bored. Importantly, the coaching regime, driven by Ger Duffy, was deliberately tolerant of imperfection. This was important, and is something for which I will always honour Ger – too many sports, especially team sports, prize fully-formed ability and simply focus their efforts on the top talents, ignoring keen novices. The Clovers took the opposite approach, either due to Ger’s generosity of spirit or because of a recognition that, in a developing sport, you can’t expect people to already know how to play.

Either way, I and my fellow novice players were given the space we needed to develop. Later, we would be given ice time in important games against talented opposition, even before we were quite good enough and often at the expense of better players on our own team. This stretched us and helped us understand how we needed to develop. We were given opportunities to prove and improve ourselves that I feel sure would not have been given to us in many other teams, whether in hockey or any other sport. This is, for me, the key reason that the Clovers are a special team.

The three years are a bit of a blur in certain things – at some point we lost our ice in Castleknock. Each Christmas we briefly got some back again. We all got better. Our numbers suffered once we had to transfer over to inline for training. There were key moments of magic. The first sessions on full-size ice in Belfast. My first real match against the Belfast Foxes. Getting to train in the Odyssey Arena, then returning that same evening and watching the Belfast Giants play on the same ice we had trained on. As Kevin Robert put it, “See that bench? I farted on that bench!”.

A further magical experience was travelling to Strasbourg to participate in a real tournament. The first year we were beaten by superior opposition, but we won the beer cup and captured the hearts of many of those we played against. People were impressed that a team with no ice could come over and put up as good a show that we did – because although we didn’t win a single match, the scorelines did not disgrace us. The second year we participated, one of the teams went as far as to become our unofficial fan club, singing and cheering for us during our matches. They too had realised that the Clovers are a special team. That second year we won three of our matches. Not because we had become ruthless and insisted on fielding only our fiercest players – line 3, in which I was honoured to play, continued to get ice time and we rose to the challenge, doing a damn good job.

I started by saying that this is the story of what hockey has meant to me. Although I have hinted strongly at some of the important details, let’s break it down. Like many people, I had not been getting as much exercise as I should. Hockey helped greatly. As I mentioned, I had never participated in a team sport. As a Clover I have met a collection of wonderful people, from inside and outside the team. Sports are a very good way of mixing up your social life and meeting people you otherwise might not. In normal life you may know people from your area, from work or school or college. A sports team, especially a hockey team, which draws people from a wide area, will introduce you to all kinds of new people. I want to register my appreciation now for my teammates. It is a privilege to have been accepted into a team where the talented players are so patient with the newbies and with those of us who have not yet perfected our game.

Our team grew from nothing to a position of strong significance because of this openness. Treasure it. Be proud of your skills. I’m hugely proud of the player I have become even though I have a long way to go. But never forget the importance of the next new player to come through the door. I’m proud to belong to a club that isn’t cliquish. A club where everybody gets a chance to shine. The kind of club, basically, that can make hockey a bigger sport in this country instead of a smaller one. To my teammates: you are the ones that made the Clovers special. To my coach: you are the one who created that culture. Thanks to all of you for this and keep doing it!”

#42 Dermot McNally