Outside, it’s the snowiest day of winter. Inside, Wayne Burwell is working on his crossover turns.
Outside, people have popped their wipers off their windshields to keep them from freezing to the glass. Inside, Burwell wears three or four layers of clothing under his motorcycle jacket and a ski cap under his hockey helmet in the same vein.
Outside, someone is grumbling about having to clear the driveway. Inside, Burwell’s smile is so bright, it’s doubtful he’s ever grumbled about anything.
“I have never been so bad at something,” Burwell gushes during a break in a private ice skating lesson at Campion Rink, “and fell in love with it.”
This is Burwell the student getting the chance to take a break from being Burwell the teacher. This is Burwell taking on another challenge, perhaps as he’s never done before.
A physical trainer of nearly 20 years, Burwell — Dartmouth-educated, former football and track athlete — has had an itch to learn to skate. He’s just never scratched it until lately.
Autographed hockey jerseys from former Big Green defenseman Ben Lovejoy and former Hanover High forward Pat Doherty hang over photographs of Burwell’s grateful past clients in his Wayne’s World gym in Lebanon. He has a weekly weightlifting date with current Marauder hockey players. He’s been invited onto the ice with Hanover during a Campion practice.
What ultimately pushed Burwell’s learn-to-skate button was something Lovejoy said last summer while parading the Stanley Cup around the Upper Valley.
“I’m never star-struck; I’ve been training him for eight or 10 years,” Burwell recalled last week. “He’s so modest and humble, and he’s so hard-working. (I said), ‘I just want to play, like, one summer league game with you.’ And he’s like, ‘Nah, never gonna happen.’ ”
Uh oh. Wrong thing to say.
“I love being the killjoy for Wayne Burwell,” Lovejoy joked on Monday in a phone interview from New Jersey, where he’s in his first season with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. “When I’m in the gym with Wayne, he’s in his element. He is the most fit guy, the strongest guy, the best lifter, the best guy at working out, in his gym in New Hampshire, probably in New England.
“But I’m better at hockey than he is. I enjoy making sure he knows that.”
Be that as it may, Burwell retains a hope of winning Lovejoy over. It might take a couple of years. Until then, school’s in session.
A bunch of winters back, Jacki Smith invited Burwell to a skating party she and her husband, Eric, had scheduled at Campion. Burwell showed up, donned skates … and spent the night clutching the boards for dear life.
Having trained Smith at a previous job, Burwell was certain he wanted her to be his coach on the ice when he decided to act on Lovejoy’s remarks. She agreed in October. They’ve been twice-a-week Campion fixtures — sometimes more — ever since.
“Wayne is very eager to learn,” said Smith, the director of the Skating Club at Dartmouth and coach of the college’s figure skating team. “He’s really good about not jumping ahead of where he should be, which is nice. A lot of people want to go as fast as they can.”
Burwell’s approach to skating reflects how he’s chased knowledge in other aspects of his life.
When he wanted to learn drills he could employ with his basketball-playing daughter, Emma, Burwell enlisted the help of Jean Bain, a Dartmouth men’s basketball assistant coach at the time. When he wanted to learn how to ride a motorcycle, he took racing lessons at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. When he wanted to confront a fear of heights, Burwell went skydiving.
“I love being trained; I always have,” Burwell said. “I really know how good Jacki is. I appreciate her, and I appreciate her time. She’s the best part of my day, and I try to be the best part of her day.”
A half-hour on the ice with Smith and Burwell can go most anywhere (including downward when Burwell periodically loses his balance). During a skating session last week, Burwell’s interactions included references to fictional film supermodel Derek Zoolander and the one thing that separates them: “The more I learn and the more I know my limitations,” Burwell pointed out, “I can go really well to my left.”
As a former defensive back, Burwell has found skating backward easy because his football position required constant backpedaling. Other elements — turning right, backward cross-under turns, edge control, two-skate hockey stops — remain elusive.
Smith shows him the elements that make up each skill, then demonstrates. Burwell takes the instruction, visualizes it, attempts it. The rookie skater has made considerable strides in four months.
“I definitely think that it’s a little bit of a different torture,” Smith said, reflecting on once being a Burwell trainee. “It’s funny: He’s this great, in-shape guy. When you’re skating, you’re moving every muscle in your body to do what I’m asking you to do. Sometimes you don’t realize that.
“I definitely think that I don’t realize I might be torturing him, but in a good way. I’m just pushing him.”
Let’s be honest: Wayne Burwell just wants to skate fast.
He’s seen the little red dots that outline Campion’s speedskating oval. He wants to glide around them at a quick pace. He’s happy to challenge you to a race; he won’t tell you his age until you beat him. (Doherty is presumably in the dark: “Ben Lovejoy’s like, ‘You’re not beating Pat Doherty,’ ” Burwell said. “I beat him in a race.”)
Learning to skate has the potential to bring bigger things. Burwell could take what he’s learned on the ice to help his hockey athletes in the gym. He may also be able to apply them with Lovejoy when his longtime friend and client returns to the area next summer for his NHL offseason.
It has also deepened Burwell’s connection with the Hanover High hockey players he trains. Hanover coach Dick Dodds invites Burwell onto the ice for at least one practice a year. Burwell has become so interested in skating and hockey now that “everyone wants him to be their center.”
“When most adults want to learn to skate, they just want to skate; Wayne wants to take it to the next level,” Dodds said. “Not just skate, but skate well and play hockey. That’s what’s amazing to me. He’s got the drive to do that.”
Outside, the snow’s still coming down. Inside, Burwell’s hunched over his knees to catch a breath, still amazed at how much work skating requires.
Outside, plows clear the roads. Inside, Burwell loses an edge along Campion’s center circle, slides down to the ice and does a snow angel.
Outside, winter continues doing its thing. Inside, Burwell keeps doing his — listening, absorbing, learning, applying, improving, smiling.
“If it’s going to happen with Ben Lovejoy, I’ve got about two more summers.”
Burwell laughs. He knows he has some catching up to do.
Greg Fennell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3226.