Every morning THEY made me wear a purple satin skating dress with green flowers
Every evening, I fished the sports pages out of the garbage can and read the Leafs game notes.
Every morning THEY made me practice moves with names like salchow, axel, and camel spins.
And every evening, I curled up to watch the Leafs or if they weren’t on, to watch news about the Leafs.
In the wilds of suburban Jewish Toronto, the girls did not play hockey. The girls figure skated. We wore white figure skates with purple guards. We wore little skirts with panties sewn into them. We did not eat because if you were thin, it was easier to jump. We got yelled at by Yasha Shmushkin for not doing enough strength training. We got yelled at by Diana Williams for not being graceful. We got yelled at by our parents for not practicing enough. And then finally, I turned 14, began smoking and drinking, and discovered punk rock, and that was the graceless ending of my figure skating career.
But it was not the end of my love for hockey.
Hockey has been a constant theme in a life that has seen periods of studying genocide, dressing up as a HeartSmart chicken in Brandon, Manitoba, writing computer manuals, and postering as a management consultant. It saw me though the early death of my father, my mother’s breast cancer, the birth of my kids (I credit surviving the labour of my daughter on being able to distract myself through a wild Leafs game against the Islanders), and the raising of my kids.
About five years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Hayley Wickenheiser, arguably the greatest hockey player to ever wear a Jill. During the course of speaking with her and appreciating what she had done for women’s hockey, I began the slow process of killing my inner figure skater. I watched Hayley and the girls win gold for Canada. I watched women practice slapshots at the local rink. And I said, “ I can do this.”
At the tender age of 39.5, I figured it was time to lace ‘em up.
I was the first one signed up for the Dufferin Grove Learn to Play shinny Wednesday nights at 10:00 pm. I showed up at 9:30 There was a scrappy game of women’s shinny already ongoing. I just stood there in the freezing cold watching them and wondering if I would ever be able to play with them.
When coach Dan arrived, he asked me if I needed a stick. I said: Oh my God, are you really going to let me have a STICK!! My own STICK!!
“Well, you really can’t play hockey without one.”
“No, you don’t get it. Holding a stick for me is like holding a Torah.”
“A whah...OK, never mind. What side do you shoot from.” He held out a stick.” I grabbed it with my right hand and put it on my left side holding it the way I had seen Salming and Sittler do it a million times.
“Looks good. Time to hit the ice.”
I gingerly got on the ice and took a few baby steps. “Oh spare me,” I thought to myself. “I can skate better than this.” And so I did. Long graceful strides, picking up speed, head up, knees bent. All of those thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of figure skating finally paying off.
“Grab a puck and try skating with it.”
There I was flying around the ice, stick handling as though I had been doing it for years.
“OK. Now stop.”
What do you mean stop. How do you stop. When you figure skate, you use your pick. But hockey skates don’t have picks. I thought I killed my inner figure skater but it is pulling a Lazarus.
“Dan....how do you.....CRASH.”
My father’s voice in my head: “Get up or you’re going to get cold.”
Dan looked at me and winked: “Good for you. When you fall, it means that you are trying something new.”
For two days, my left knee is one big bruise; my right elbow is a mess and I have checked the weather forecast obsessively to make sure that the weather will be OK for Sunday night’s drop-in class.
One of the last things Hayley Wickenheiser said to me was: “You have the right to play the game.”
Thanks Hayley. I will.