They're no Wayne Gretzkys, but at least they won't complain about the icing

February 11, 1993|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

First the long johns. Then the shin pads, followed by the garter belt, which holds up the huge socks that cover the shin pads. Next the pants, stiff and so well-padded they stand up on their own. These pants a player more or less has to shake into. Next add the shoulder pads and elbow pads, a jersey and the skates.

Now, if possible, lace the skates, put on the gloves, grab a stick and, as Jackie Gleason used to say, "Awaaay we go."

"Get dressed and be on the ice in 30 minutes," says Yvon Labre, the Washington Capitals director of community relations, who runs this show. "If you're late, get out of town."

This is the start of Labre's beginners hockey class at Tucker Road Ice Rink in Fort Washington. It is held Thursday nights through February. For most of the 27 men and women who have paid $95, getting dressed is part of the ritual.

Men, of course, know how all this equipment works. If they don't, they sneak a look out of the corners of their eyes and do what the others do. The women, dressing in a makeshift locker room that subs as an office during the day, simply ask each other for help.

And then it's on to the ice.

The ice is slick. Some skaters wobble. Some topple. Some go slip-sliding away.

Some think this is going to be like figure skating and attempt to push off with the toe of their skate only to find hockey skates are not figure skates. They stumble forward as if trying out for a Laurel and Hardy routine.

But there are those who have skated before. People like Bill Smith, 57. He's a pilot who played a little hockey back in 1967 when he came home from Vietnam. He has skated his whole life and thought he'd like to try hockey again.

"I loved every minute of this," he said at the end of his first evening. "It wore me out, it's such hard work. But it's really a lot of fun."

And there are people in these classes who simply are here for a refresher course, like Mary Nash, 30, a bilingual secretary at the World Bank in Washington. She has been playing six years and is trying to put together a women's team. She is also here because she has decided to try goaltending and this is a good place to get some practice "because most of these people are beginners, they skate slower and I have more time to think and adjust to the angles of the shots."

These ringers, and others, make the pure rookies feel inadequate. But Labre takes care of the speed skaters with a simple command.

"Now, skate backward," he says with an evil smile.

Suddenly the rabbits have turned into turtles. Some of them are crawling on their well-padded knees.

"I knew once I made them go backward I'd have a lot less talent," Labre said.

Labre is the only Washington Capitals player to have his number retired. He, of course, has a lot of talent, and everything he does is with an effortless grace. As the eve

ning wears on, it is obvious that besides skill, he also has a very good sense of humor and a great deal of patience.

He does not expect to find a Mighty Duck he can turn into Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky. But that's OK, because, as Charlie Ader, a 42-year-old engineer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said, "all I want out of this is to survive and have some fun."

Labre starts with basics -- skating, learning edges. He says no one is going to learn this overnight, that it takes practice.

"But the people in this class are trying," Labre says. "They listened, and they tried, and by the end of the night, I did see some improvement."

His students come in thinking it will be kind of easy but find being able to skate and handle the stick and the puck at the same time isn't easy at all. Labre says maybe that will make them more intelligent hockey fans.

"Oh, they're going to sit in the stands and yell no matter what," he says. "But maybe they won't be so quick to boo the next time one of our guys misses a pass or the net."

The Bondra experience

Peter Bondra of the Washington Capitals experienced his first NHL All-Star Game and loved every minute of it.

"All weekend, people simply took care of us," said Bondra, who had a goal and an assist in the game won by the Wales Conference, 16-6. "My seat in the locker room was close to Alexander Mogilny [of the Buffalo Sabres], so we got to talk, and Jaromir Jagr [of the Pittsburgh Penguins] and I went to dinner one night. You know during the season, you don't really get to talk to opposing players. This was nice."

At the post-game party, Bondra happily signed autographs and posed for pictures, and on the flight home, he never tired of signing everything from the bills of caps to the backs of airline tickets for the children on his flight. Bondra smiled, asked each one if he or she had enjoyed the game and if they would be going back to school Monday.

"When they ask for my autograph, I always think that when I was a little boy, I would have liked to have some hockey players' autographs and pictures," he said. "I think I would have liked having them and I don't mind. It's nice for a young player like me."

All-Star gripes

The complaints keep coming about the lack of competitiveness in the All-Star Game on Saturday. No checking. No defense. But that's not the way the game's MVP Mike Gartner saw it.

"It's meaningful to the guys who participate," he said. "The guys have a lot fun. It's an entertainment event. That's what it's supposed to be. There were 22 goals. That's a lot of entertainment.

"As far as the lack of hard checking goes, no one wants to be hurt or hurt someone in this game. It's kind of an unwritten rule. I don't think it would be a wise thing to hurt Wayne Gretzky in an All-Star Game."

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