- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

District resident Andy Sonin never got the hang of hockey as a child.

“My parents would bring me to the rink and throw me out there, but I’d cling to the wall the whole time,” the 26-year-old says.

His younger brother, who began playing at age 4 and now is active in league play, was a different story.

“It would be cool one day to, maybe not play in a game with him, but hit the puck around on the ice with him,” the proud older brother says.

Today, Mr. Sonin is knee deep in his third ice hockey class to help him build a brotherly bond on the ice.

He isn’t alone; between the existing hockey fan base and interest goosed by February’s Olympics, plenty of people young and older are sharpening their skates to prep for their next lesson.

It doesn’t hurt that a new ice rink in Arlington is nearing completion. It will host the Washington Capitals’ practice sessions come fall.

Area skating rinks such as Rockville’s Cabin John Ice Rink and the Garden Ice House in Laurel offer a variety of courses for beginning skaters up to those who have been stickhandling for years.

Should those classes prove too costly, or too regimented, budding Gretzkys can opt for “stick and puck” sessions, where skaters can practice stick handling, passing and other integral skills without a structured program.

Ed Slusher, hockey director at Ice World in Abingdon, Md., says his rink teaches students as young as 3. The youngest are schooled in basic drills like simple passing, but older pupils are thrust into gamelike scenarios.

Older players, from 11 years old and up, get lessons in one of hockey’s more delicate assignments — the power of a clean “check.”

Ice hockey is an inherently physical sport, and it often calls for players to check, or collide with, opponents during the course of play. Beginners often are either too aggressive or not aggressive enough with their checking, Mr. Slusher says.

Players learn how to safely check into their opponents during the lessons, and they also are taught to keep their heads up so they can see a check coming.

Mike Hendrix, owner of the Garden Ice House’s pro shop and a longtime hockey coach, says beginners need to find a sense of balance before they can start worrying about developing a stinging slap shot.

One of the earliest drills Mr. Hendrix teaches is balancing on one skate and moving in a straight line.

Getting to that point is easier with a set of quality skates.

Expect to pay around $200 for a solid adult-size pair, says Mr. Hendrix, whose students’ average age hovers in the low- to mid-30s.

“The stiffer the boot, the better it fits your foot. You want a skate to be an extension of your body,” he says, adding that a skater should choose a boot that’s one size smaller than his or her shoe size . “If it’s not as tight as a glove, you’ll be fighting your skates.”

Often, frustrated ice hockey students approach him for advice, and many times he points to their inexpensive skates as a key reason their play isn’t improving.

Beyond the skates, he recommends investing in shin pads, gloves and a good helmet before picking up a hockey stick.

Real Turcotte, owner of Daytona Beach, Fla.-based Turcotte Hockey School, says some of his better students have spent precious little time on the ice before signing up for his classes.

“Nonskaters are more willing to pay attention and learn exactly how to do it,” Mr. Turcotte says. They also tend to be less cocky in game situations.

“If you’re a good skater, you try to go around people using your speed,” Mr. Turcotte says, which can be less effective than using the deceptive moves and fakes learned in the classes.

One of the biggest problems Mr. Turcotte sees with inexperienced players is the way they carry their bodies.

“They want to straighten up more. They don’t want to bend those knees,” he says.

Bending the knees ensures a better sense of balance, but it also prepares skaters for impromptu bursts of speed. When the skater is in a crouch-like position, they’re better able to push off for more powerful strides.

“Every time you want to go forward, you have to bend that knee to push off,” he says. By staying upright, “you’re wasting that extra second.”

Budding players don’t have to be on a rink to improve their game. Mr. Turcotte highly recommends practicing stick handling at home with a round ball in place of a puck.

“Just dribble the ball back and forth without looking at it. All you need is five minutes each day. After a couple of weeks it’s incredible how much you can improve,” he says.

Keeping one’s eye on the ice, not the puck, makes a huge difference in quality of play.

“If you tend to look at the puck, you miss the play you could be making because your teammates are wide open,” he says.

Mr. Slusher, who says skating backward is the “Achilles’ heel to 90 percent of the players” he teaches, says ice hockey provides unbeatable cardiovascular exercise for the players. The sport also addresses the muscles in the lower body.

“From the legs to the glutes, you’re getting a full workout,” he says.

Mr. Sonin says he sees some progress with his own game.

“I seem to be getting better on the crossovers,” he says, a movement where one foot crosses over the other during turns. He still has plenty to learn. “Once you throw the stick and puck out there I start thinking about everything [too much].”

He says having padding on gives him an extra sense of confidence during his lessons. “You know you’re gonna fall a couple of times so it’s no big deal,” he says.

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