On the Ice with the Hershey Bears

Skating backward is easier than skating forward, Hershey Bears left wing Derek Whitmore told me.

Famous last words.

Adventure Chick has three distinct ice-skating memories. One, as a kid, skating on the frozen Reflecting Pool on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Two, Friday nights in junior high school, at the Crystal City, Va., outdoor rink, immersed in intrigue over how to approach that dreamy boy from French class for ladies’ choice. And three, the time my younger sister convinced me and our older sister, by now thoroughly full-grown adults, to go ice skating. Long story short – spunky older sister Carol tried to show off for a rink employee who, shall we say, doubted our ability to survive, and wound up splatting out like Bambi on the ice. As for me, I ended the outing with a contusion, looking as if somebody flattened an eggplant on my right thigh.

Skating is not my thing. But when the Hershey Bears offered a personal skating lesson with a player on the rink at Giant Center, how could I resist?

I’ll admit – it’s exhilarating to step onto the ice laced up in hockey skates. That moment when you step into the bowl and the cold hits you, and you see the seats rising overhead to the Bears’ abundant championship banners – pure rush.

This is post-practice, in an empty rink. My first steps are baby steps, mincing prances doing nothing more than keeping me upright. Then I graduate to Frankenstein’s monster-like lurches with outstretched arms. I’m saying profound things like, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.”

The Bears’ proud history is told in the banners overhead – an AHL-record 11 Calder Cup championships, plus oodles of conference and division titles. This team is well-resourced and supported by a committed fan base. I met some devoted and knowledgeable fans when I attended Hockey in Heels, an annual event that brings women in to meet players and coaches, tour the facility and learn passing and shooting the puck on the ice (but not on skates).

During a Hockey in Heels session with Coach Mike Haviland, I was flummoxed by the arrows and dotted lines he drew on a whiteboard. “If their D’s over here, F2, you’re gonna come over and take that option away,” he said, “and I’ll go, F3, you’re gonna come down on the strong side, so if they rim the puck up here, you’re gonna go into there.”

Does anyone here talk baseball? At least I’m learning. Judging from the questions and quick comments around the room, I was the only woman among 50 who didn’t know her hockey.

“What is the point of the goalie going behind the goal? To me, it just opens up the goal.”

“How do you determine on away games who you take-with? I know the veteran rule plays into that, but when you’re talking about penalties…”

And finally, as Haviland described the advantages of the American Hockey League and his efforts to convince players that they’re not playing to be called up to the Washington Capitals but to, perhaps someday, any team in the NHL, a woman said, “But the Bears take care of their own.”

“This is the best spot in the league,” Haviland agreed. “A lot of guys want to come to play here.

There’s no other building that gets 10,000 people a night.”

Would those 10,000 people cheer on a wobbly ankled Adventure Chick learning something resembling skating on the Bears’ rink? Well, no. But I suspect they’d have loved to be in my skates.

My instructor was Derek Whitmore, No. 11.

“How long have you been skating?” I ask.

“Twenty-six years,” he says.

“And you are now 27, 28?”

“Since I was 2 years old, yeah,” he says. The Rochester, N.Y., native saw his brother skating and threw “the biggest temper tantrum” because he wanted to be on the ice.

“Hockey teaches you how to become a good team player,” he says. “Life lessons – having integrity, having good character on and off the ice. You’re with a group of guys as long as you are throughout the season, you go through the peaks and valleys. You learn how to face adversity as a group.”

This is Whitmore’s sixth year as a pro but his first season with the Bears. “It’s a great place to play, and every time you come to Hershey, you’re gonna be part of a team that wants to win a championship.”

We chat some more – he lives in Maine with his wife, a figure skater, and their “big kid,” a Great Dane with the Hawaiian name of Kona. Then, Whitmore says, “Let’s skate.”

“I’ve been ice walking,” I admit.

“That’s a good way to start,” he counsels. “You’ve gotta learn how to walk before you learn how to run.”

Push off the steel blade, he says. “Once you get the rhythm of it, you can push a little bit farther.”

I’m glad the ice got carved up by the practicing players – it gives my feet something to grab. But for Whitmore, a fresh sheet of ice is pure heaven.

“When I was a kid, my dad would have a rink in the backyard, and that was something I looked forward to every night. He’d go out and flood the rink, and we’d go out there and rip around.”

As we’re talking, I realize that I’m gliding around the rink with some ease. I’m pushing off comfortably and getting my stride.

“Oh yeah. You’ve got it,” Whitmore says. This is a truly nice guy. “A lot of hockey players are really strong from the waist down. That’s where you get all your power, your speed, your quickness, when you’re using your legs so much.”

What about skating backward, I ask? You do that a lot, right?

And then came Whitmore’s famous last words (well, last words for me).

“Backward skating, I think, is actually easier.” Go out with your right foot, and let the other come back, he explains. “When you kind of get behind yourself, you want to go out with your left.”

Whitmore takes my hands and pushes gently as I try to carve an hourglass figure in the ice. “You’re getting yourself going and trying to keep your momentum, instead of stopping and going again.”

My hourglass is getting wide and wider, and wider still. I say, “It’s almost…”

And then, boom. I’m down. Chin first, on the ice.

For once, the skating gods take pity – no contusion, no lost teeth, no blood on the ice. I’m laughing. This is what I get for trying to skate after 10 years off the ice. “OK,” I say as Whitmore’s helping me up. “Enough of the backward.”

We circle the rink again, Whitmore explaining the power push that elongates the stride. I’m getting lower to the ice with each push.

“You got the forward part down now,” he says.

But I’m never getting the backward part down.

“You’d be surprised.”

Maybe. Maybe not. This hockey thing might have a future here in Hershey, but not with me on the ice. Especially not if I have to skate backward.