What Hockey is Like in Guildford, United Kingdom - Sam Cheema
So, growing up in England with Irish and Indian parents hockey was always alien. The 5am practices, expensive equipment, lost weekends and the intensity of hockey parents - were all new phenomenon. Like most kids in non-traditional markets, during the 90's, we watched Mighty Ducks and were hooked. I was one of them. Pointing to my parents at the age of 3 and telling my parents, "I gotta do that".
Things were a little different back then. I call it the "proper" times. I was instructed to complete all my skating levels and certifications before I could join the team. So, every Saturday morning I would drive with my mum and take skating lessons from a figure skater named Stewart. Stewart taught me about edge control, stride length, balance, stance and endurance before I knew what any of those things were.
Fast forward to being seven years old and making the u10 team. We were called the Guildford Fireflies and we went to the National Finals. I was one of the youngest on my team and here I am playing on a full sized Olympic pad in a national final. The funniest thing that I remember from that game was having to carry my gear bag. It was like being in the pro's - our parents were instructed to leave us at the back door of the NIC Arena. Now with my player pass around my neck, shirt and tie to boot, I was made to carry my bag for the first time in my hockey career. Even though it had wheels, this was the goddamn finals, and I couldn't let Sheffield have any excuse to call us "Southern Softies". We get out onto the ice and being the Nationals weekend the place was rocking. Must of been 1500+ people in the stands. We had warm-ups on fresh ice and then we got off. I remembering being in the locker room in bemusement and in awe of what was going on. Then we go out and the light show was going on and they were introducing the teams guy by guy.
I was seven.
At Guildford we did things to win. Looking back now I understand the way things went and what the coaches were thinking in some moments. Fred Perlini, former NHL-er, was the head coach of the program and he had national champions in all age groups. He was present for all on-ice practices and he raised the tempo for everyone. But, he made it fun. I remember playing in the annual Perlini Roller Tourney and everyone would decorate their helmets or the times when we were in Holland and Vicki Perlini would be signing when we'd go out to eat - eventually getting everyone to chant/sing along with her. The Perlinis have two sons - Brett and Brendan. Both drafted into the NHL and both are testament to their parents love of the game.
Guildford was the creme de la creme. We probably had one of the nicest facilities in the country and we defiantly got the best locker room. We had carpet.
We also had a sign up in the room "It's amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit".
I played for Guildford until I was 14. Looking back I should never of left - but I did and a change of scenery gave me a great deal of perspective. I went to Romford, traveling two hours for practice and games and the year after I moved to Bracknell. Romford was in Essex and was a real barn burner (there was a fire there one time). It had no plexi but netting and before and after practice you would have to do the netting yourself. The dressing rooms were rife with damp and the benches had this weird step on them that I could never figure out why. Bracknell was also in need of repair. It's the hottest rink you ever play in...but it had plexi.
Being 16 and hating hockey I was all out of sorts. A good friend of mine's dad, Steve, saw me one time skating on a Saturday night session with my school friends. Told him what was up and he said 'why don't you come back here'. So, I did.
Mid-way through the season I left Bracknell and signed for Guildford. There were several burnt bridges and water to be pushed under them with the existing coaching staff. But, Milos Melicherick gave me a shot. "If you work hard, you'll play". So, I quietly worked hard in practice, the gym and studied the game as much as I could. We won the league and went to the playoffs that year. We had guys arriving over an hour for practice just to be with the guys. That really got my love for the game back.
The following year we went one step further. Winning the league, Cup and getting to the finals. That year I also split my time with two NIHL teams. These teams are regarded as semi-professional. I played for the Oxford City Stars and Streatham Redskins that year. My love for the game was at an all time high.
Leaving youth hockey there are four options. EPL/NIHL, Rec, coach or quit. Considering you are 18 and now in a market with guys up to 38 years old in some cases it's tough to find a place. I went on to play for the Invicta Dynamos and the Milton Keynes Thunder.
Late nights, early mornings, missed friendships and an uncountable number of sacrifices. The U.K. hockey market is growing. Not, fast. But, growing. If you ever visit the U.K. in the winter months I implore you to take in a game. You'll get 40 guys with their heart on their sleeve slugging it out over 60 minutes for the glory of the game. The relive what it's like to just play. To enjoy the process. The ebbs and flows. Before they step out of the rink come the end of the night and return to their daily lives.
Hockey isn't easy. Hockey certainly isn't easy in the U.K. But, it's hockey.