When I say that out loud, it makes me feel significant. I’m not a professional or semi professional player. I didn’t play hockey in college or even in high school. In fact I learned to play only six years ago when I turned forty.
I grew up in a family that played hockey, or at least the males did. I spent my youth at the rink watching them play. I like hockey rinks. Every time I walk into one I feel adrenaline seeping into my veins. I count the seconds until the cold still air fills my lungs and envelops my body. I listen for the familiar sound of people’s voices reverberating off the arena walls, the shouting of coaches from the bench, the flapping of sticks on the ice and the tremendous boom when a puck hits the boards.
I used to wonder why I loved a sport I did not play. There were no girl’s hockey teams when I was a child. Girls were figure skaters.
When I put hockey skates on for the first time, after accepting an invitation to join a group of women I had seen learning how to play at a local rink, my life on the ice as I knew it changed forever. My feet flew out in front of me and I landed on my seat. Very few figure skaters know that wearing hockey skates is like strapping cellophane to the bottom of your stocking feet and walking across a rink. Hockey blades curve up in the front and back into a hint of a half moon, unlike flat stable figure skates. There is nothing on a hockey blade that will save you once your body weight shifts past your center.
The women around me on the benches in the locker room laugh when they remember their first time on hockey skates. The humiliation of it is part of our rite of passage.
Our locker room is a sacred place. When we walk in, we leave our mundane lives at the door. While we dress to play, our obligations stay crouched outside waiting anxiously for us to go back to them. In here and out on the rink, we are not wives, mothers, bosses, sisters; we are hockey players.
The first time I came to hockey practice I was nervous. I lumbered in with an old duffle bag that I had found it in our luggage closet. It was filled with my husband’s smelly equipment. I bought my own gloves, helmet and skates but the shoulder pads, pants, shin guards and elbow pads were all his. I was not sure which order to put them on even though I had watched my brother do it for years. Inevitably I put the skates on before the pants and then I could not pull the skates through the pant legs. When I was finally dressed my outfit floated around my 5 foot, 4 inch frame, making me look like a pubescent male going through a growth spurt. The pants we so big I looked as if I had put on 100 lbs. I glanced around at the other women in the locker room. They too were struggling with the gear, some more than others. We all looked ridiculous.
Years of nurturing young children had just about taken the competition out of me, but once I started to play hockey it came back with a vengeance. We don’t check in women’s hockey, nor would we want to, though sometimes we unintentionally collide. I like being part of a team pushing the puck up the ice to the goal, shouting out encouragement to the others. When the coach described new plays, it took me awhile to figure out how to make my body do what my head understood. But the anxiety was good as it fed my resolve to get better.
The hardest part of learning to play hockey was overcoming the fear of falling. For 40 year old women who are just discovering that their bodies are not impervious, the fear of falling becomes a huge liability to improving.
There was a drill I hated. It involved doing turns on our outside edges. It looks easy enough as you leaned sideways, balancing on your right skate, with your left skate lifted behind you. The purpose of the drill was to learn how to use the power of your outside edge to propel you forward. I, however, was terrified that if I leaned too much into my outside edge, my skate would slip out from under me, sending me careening across the ice on my shoulder. Day after day, night after night I worked on it. I would laughingly say to my coaches that I was sure I bought skates that did not have outside edges because I could not do the drill, so would they mind excusing me from it. They were not amused.
But I knew that if I did fall on my shoulder, I had a shoulder pad to protect me. If I fell on my hip, I had those big pants to cushion my fall. So what was I really afraid of?
It took me until my third season to answer that. One day during practice, Coach noted my hesitation on the outside edges and stopped me.
“Come here,” he said. “This is what I want you to do now.”
He demonstrated a cross over start from a sideways position. Then to get himself facing straight down the ice he crossed his back foot over the front foot and pushed off with the outside edge of what became his back foot. Once on his way he took two strides, a sharp cut turn and repeated the same exercise coming back using the other outside edge.
“Now, you do it. Keep going until I blow the whistle for you to stop.”
Never, I thought to myself. I’ll fall. I’ll die.
I’ll die? What was I saying?
I looked at Coach. There was no leniency in his stare, no way out. There was no doubt in his eyes either.
So I got ready, skates parallel, took a breath and lifted the back skate to cross over the front one. Nothing happened. I went nowhere. The skate just came down pathetically on the ice.
“You didn’t push off with the outside edge,” said Coach. “Do it again.”
Of course I had not pushed off with my outside edge. I had no intention of using my outside edge. Didn’t he know that my skates didn’t have outside edges?
“Again!” he ordered.
I set up, bent my knees and lifted my skate. This time I tried a little. It was scary, a bit wiggly, but something definitely happened.
For thirty minutes he did not let up and each time I tried I got bolder. I practiced the step all week and when I returned to morning practice seven days later I was ready for the wrath of Coach. He was ready too.
If I tell experienced hockey players that it took me a season of hard work to gain my outside edge they would laugh, so I don’t. What I really gained though was not my edges, but courage. The hardest thing to overcome was not learning how to use that outside edge, Coach knew that, it was overcoming my fear of failing. Fear of failing had stopped me from trying.
Despite my love for hockey arenas, I know that the best place to play the game is outdoors. When the sunlight filters through the lead colored branches of the hibernating trees and casts a lavender glow on the snow, I pick up my duffle bag and head out to the neighborhood rink. It sits quietly nestled in between a primary school and a lonely frozen baseball diamond. Low in the sky the winter sun glistens off the ice and warms my back with a light touch as I lace up my skates.
I often come here to practice on my own. It’s a never ending quest to get better even though for a 46 year old mother there is no recognized end game. There are no Olympics and no National Hockey League to qualify for, no trophies or awards in sight.
I’m not so afraid of falling anymore. If I land on the ice it is because I am working hard at something. I am, after all, a hockey player.
A shortened version of this essay aired on Chicago Public Radio on February 22, 2010. To listen click here: http://www.wbez.org/Content.aspx?audioID=40182