Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"Hockey: It's MY Game Too"

Hockey: It’s MY Game Too.

When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, nice Jewish girls did not play hockey. They figure skated in pink body suits with little skirts and matching furry skate covers and had coaches who were extras on Stars on Ice. As I suffered through endless practices for competitions I had no desire to win, I would stare at the boys lacing up their black sharp skates without their wimpy toe picks and fight back the desire to grab their equipment and pad up with them. Sidney Crosby and I had something in common in those days: we both got up at 4:00am and headed to the rink. There the similarities between us ended. He learned how to skate, shoot and score. I learned the far less exciting figure eights.

I talked axels but dreamed slapshots. At the age of 10, I got a Borje Salming Leafs jersey for Chanukah. On Saturday nights, I watched Hockey Night in Canada religiously. After my parents were asleep, I grabbed the sports section and retired to my walk-in closet to study statistics by flashlight. That was as close as I got to hockey.

Sure it was Canada’s game, but only half its population could access it. None of my gal pals were living Roch Carrierre’s The Hockey Sweater . Even if we secretly wanted to, no one was ‘fessing up.

I lived vicariously through men who played pick-up on Sunday afternoons or in informal leagues across Toronto. I was jealous of their bruised knees and aching quads and the occasional cut on the face from being too cool to wear a helmet.

“Yeah, it was a tough game last night. I got slammed into the boards and my neck is killing me.” I would hear a group of middle-aged Jewish guys kvetching on Monday mornings at the JCC in downtown Toronto.

“You coming out tonight? We’re short on D.”

“Can I come?” I once asked. “I’ve never played before but I used to figure skate. And I’ve watched a lot of hockey. I bet I could pick it up pretty quickly.”

“Sorry. This is intermediate level. No women.”

In my mid-30s, I had the privilege of interviewing the multi-medal winning captain of the Canadian Women’s Olympic Hockey Team, Hayley Wickenheiser, for an article in The Women’s Post. Wickenheiser told me—and the rest of the Canadian female population- that hockey was our game too. “You have the right to play this game,” said the greatest female Canadian hockey player.

In the winter of my 39th year, I walked into Newsome’s Bikes and Skates and traded in my white figure skates for a new pair of Bauer black hockey skates, a helmet, and hockey gloves. Soon after, I stood in the equipment room at Dufferin Grove Rink for my 10:00pm Learn to Play Shinny class. Coach Dan, an actor in his real life, selected a hockey stick from the pile.

“What side to you shoot from?”
“Uhhhh...I dunno. I’ve never held a stick before.”
He held the stick out in front of mine. “Grab it.”
I instinctively took it with my right hand and put my left hand half way down.
“You shoot left.” He winked.

I’d like to say that I got onto the ice that night and scored a natural hat trick, but this did not happen. Instead, I fell on my knee (which I happily complained about for weeks after) after attempting the same backward crosscuts I had done endlessly as a kid.

“When you fall, it’s because you are trying something new,” said Dan.
“It’s not really new. I used to figure skate...”
“This is not figure skating. This is hockey.” He helped me up.
“You’re doing fine. What is most important is that you are not afraid of the puck. You go after it instead of going away from it. Not all new players do that.”

Dan was right. I pursued that puck relentlessly not caring which of the eighteen male or four female players was in my way-although after being smacked around a few times, I figured out which gender was responsible for a given hit by how much it hurt the next morning. Determined to make up for all those years of watching men chase pucks, I skated and fell for four months.

Who cared that I was a black and blue mess . Who cared that I had to crawl on all fours up the stairs to shower after games? Who cared that a U of T law student had to help me across Queen’s Park en route to Women’s College hospital to have my knee x-rayed after one of my male teammates tripped me. Who cared that after a late game, I needed to drink at least two shots of vodka to get my adrenaline low enough to sleep.

Finally, it was MY game too.