(Above: It was an amazing mid-air catch by Lightning goalie Sebastien Carbon — now if I could just get the crowd to react on cue). ;-)

It Was Eight-Game Crash Course and I Loved Every Minute!
Regular readers of the blog will remember my post from February 3rd called “My First NHL Hockey Shoot…and It Sure Looked Like It” (link) and in that post I mentioned that I actually registered the domain “IsuckatshootingIceHockey.com” (you could tell I was new at this, since I didn’t know at that time you just call it “hockey” and not “Ice Hockey.” Noob!).

(Above: I was disappointed there weren’t more fights. I always figured there would be more fights than playing time, but as it turns out, they play quite a bit. Luckily, by the end of the season, the helmets were coming off, fists were flying more often —- the crowd loves it — I love it!!!!).

(Above: Ahhh, nothing like the smell of crushed ice in the morning. Well, that’s what time I got home after the game some nights).

After Shooting My First Game, I was Hooked
I wasn’t sure how I was going to like shooting hockey. Everybody had warned me that it was the hardest of all team sports to shoot, and I heard stories of shooting in very crowded conditions with a tiny hole in the glass (made even smaller recently by the NHL to protect fans and photographers), and the action moves so fast at ice level that it’s a real challenge to get anything decent. I agree with all of those statements for sure.

Plus, the other shooters at the arena had me good and freaked out about from the start about getting hit with the puck or getting knocked on my butt when two players crash against the boards in front of me (both of which almost happened on numerous occasions). But after I shot my first game — I was hooked. I stunk at it, but I felt like I could get better, so I really wanted to stick with it (which was lucky, because the wire service I was shooting for had already assigned me to two more games).

(Above: OK, it took me a bunch of games to finally get a decent shot with the puck just coming off the stick).

(Above: This shot, taken during my four game shooting, was a breakthrough for me as it was chosen by Zuma Press as one of their “Photos of the Day” and they look at images from tons of different wire services, so when I saw someone mention on Twitter that my shot was on there, I was just about doing backflips).

The Dance Continues
So I kept going back for more, which led to my post here called “My painful dance shooting Hockey continue.” Here’s the link. I only posted one static shot from the game. That’s how badly I felt I did. I still had to turn in at least 15 to 20 shots for the wire service, which I did, but I was not thrilled with my uploads (and I’m sure they weren’t either, but thankfully since they knew I was new, they let me keep shooting. After all — that’s the only way I was going to get any better, right?).

(Above: Depending on my shooting position [assigned by the team photographer], I could either just shoot at the goalie [up to the blue line], or that and down to the opposing goal, but you always had a pretty clear view of the goal in front of you).

Call for Help
After struggling for a few games, I realized it was time to call my buddy, and sports photography genius, Dave Black for some help, and man did he help. First, he told me to get decent shots you really need to understand the game, and until I got to that point, I was going to struggle along. Luckily, for the first time in my life, I was really starting to enjoy hockey. In fact, I was becoming a fan. I was learning who the players are, and I sat down and learned the rules of Ice Hockey, and I started to get a feel for where things were going a bit. I didn’t have it “down” by any means, but at least a little flame started to flicker.

Dave told me to spend the first period shooting from an upper deck with a 200-400mm lens — instead of down at ice level with closer glass — and this would do three things:

(1) It would give me a chance to get some decent shots, since you can shoot freely from up on the mezzanine without having to worry about a hole in the glass, since you’re shooting above it.

(2) You won’t miss any shots because it’s like shooting fish in a barrel up there. It’s actually easy because the game moves much slower from that vantage point. And…

(3) Then in the 2nd and 3rd periods, when I moved down to the ice level, it would actually seem slower to me and I’d be able to follow the action and puck better, and doggone if he wasn’t right.

The only problem? The shots from above the glass, from the mezzanine level, just aren’t dynamic. You cover the action, but that angle doesn’t give you the impact from shooting at ice level, which is why everybody wants to shoot from ice level. However, AP shooter Mike Carson gave me great advice that night. He said the mezzanine is great for shooting overtime  — when you have to get that game-winning goal — because up there — you WILL get it. It may not be as dynamic, but if they need the shot of the winning goal —- you’ll be the guy that has it.

I wrote about this (with some behind-the-scenes photo) in a post called “The Challenge of Shooting Hockey (and a Progress Report). Here’s the link. 

(Above: Where’ the puck? Read below).

Making Slow but Steady Progress
Luckily, the guys who shoot this stuff all the time, including Team Photographer Scott Audette, were really friendly and they actually tried to help me along. They knew I was “the new guy” and although they teased me for it, they were also helpful and tried to find me decent shooting positions, and they gave me tips along the way that helped a lot.

One night, between periods, I went over to Scott Audette and just straight up asked him for some shooting tips. He is an absolutely incredible hockey photographer (he’s been at it for years, and I know a lot of guys have been at it for years, but his stuff in just insane). He was happy to help, and he had some really great tips for me about what type of shots to be looking out for, and he told me to look at the NHL shots that get published, and to look at how many don’t have the puck in the shot. He was right. That really surprised me, but it also helped me improve what I was sending to the wire service (in most other sports, if the “ball” isn’t in the shot, it’s generally not a good shot).

(Above: After talking to Scott I realized that you can only have so many shots of the puck in the back of the goal, so I started going for the player’s reaction after the goal. Not just the celebration (upper left), but the anguish as well (far right), and sometimes you get all three — puck, celebration and anguish all-in-one).

It was a dark and stormy night….
OK, it was neither, on the way home I always call my wife and give her progress report on how it went that night, and God bless her you know she probably couldn’t really give a rat’s butt, but she listens dutifully, and gives me lots of encouragement, and that night, after my sixth game, I told her, “Honey, tonight I made a big leap. I didn’t get any spectacular shots or anything, but it was the first time I actually felt comfortable shooting hockey. I felt like I was finally moving in the right direction, and I was comfortable with my settings, and my white balance, and my lens selection, and my shooting position, and by golly it was starting to come together at least a bit for me.” She seemed genuinely happy for me (which is just one of the thousand things that make her the woman of my dreams, but that’s for a different post).

Only Two Games Left In The Season
Time was running out on the season, and with Photoshop World and some other commitments, I had to miss a number of home games, so I was only able to shoot the final two home games of the season. But, I had very good shooting positions for both games (to me, that means a position where I can shoot “down ice” to the other goal with my 300mm with a f/1.4 tele-extender on it, and being able to shoot the goal I’m in front of as well).

Now that I was starting to get comfortable, I have to say that during those last two games I had the most fun I’d had since the first game, and I was enjoying the sport itself (and getting to know the players) more than I ever expected to, as I moved from shooter to hockey fan. I was screaming and cheering a few times when I should have been shooting, which is a peril of being a fan at the game you’re shooting. It happens to me a Bucs and Bears NFL games all the time.

(Above: Nice save off the stick….but I’m a Lightning fan, so….)

I Didn’t Realize What I Had
One thing I realized after four or five games was that the Scott Audette, the team photographer) pretty much shoots from the same shooting position for every game, so it must be a really good location, and of course, it is. The thing I didn’t realize was how good it was when he gave me that position the very first time I shot hockey. Here I was on my blog, complaining about shooting in this little hole, and how restricted my movement was, not knowing that the team photographer had given up his shooting position for me. Thanks Scott, and I’m sorry I whined at all (you don’t know, what you don’t know, right?).

(Above: I’d be praying too — but I think it was a thankful prayer, because Lightning Goalie Dwayne Roloson had an amazing night, and was MVP of the game. It was an amazing thing to watch, and he was right in front of my shooting position).

In the end…
I have a LONG way to go with shooting hockey. Eight games just begin to scratch the surface of what it takes to get really good at shooting hockey, and that is driven home right after every game, when I go into the office where the shooters hang out before and after the game. It’s Scott Audette’s office, and his assistant (also named Scott), is already uploading Scott Audette’s images to the league, and I see them nice and big on Scott’s 30″ display, and it always sends me out of there knowing how far I have yet to go.

There’s a lot to learn about shooting this sport
Everything they warned me about was true, and everything they promised (that I would love it), was right on the money. I got help along the way from Dave Black, Bob Dechiara (who regularly shoots the Boston Bruins, and helped me out quite a bit from the start), and of course to Scott Audette and his crew (Scott and Vinny). I’m very thankful to them for “letting me live” and for giving me great opportunities to learn.

I hope to get some hockey assignments next season, so my somewhat less painful dance with shooting hockey can continue. GO BOLTS!!!!! :)