Three years ago, as we played our final game of the fall field hockey season in freezing November rain, a few of the women on my team talked about getting ready for the next hockey season--ice hockey. They asked if I would play, and assured me that not knowing how to skate would not be a liability.
"But... I can rollerblade," I offered hopefully, thinking of my mornings in grad school pushing the kids in a double jogger as I hack-hacked along the Santa Monica beach path in rental blades.
"You'll be fine!"
I mentioned it to J that night and he said that it might save our housebound sanity over the long Northeastern winters to take up hockey as a family. We live close enough to the town's outdoor rink that we can hear the horn between periods and the crash of players against boards on still winter nights.
So we did it. We suited up Hayden, then six, for a Mites team--so tiny as a goalie that when he played Mites on Ice between periods at a Flyers game, the announcer marveled that the goalie actually fit under the crossbar of the net. J, a natural athlete from Buffalo signed up to play Old Mens B-league hockey a few night's a week. I joined the embryonic, newly-formed womens team and we named ourselves the Blizzards (but only because 'Chix with Stix' was taken.)
My first night, J dressed me in borrowed, cobbled together equipment left over from a high school boy, cutting the heavy, old school wooden stick down to size on the basement saw. He used black electrical tape to wrap my gear and because I had no jersey, I put on an XL Cornell sweatshirt. I checked myself in the front hall mirror while butterflies fluttered in my stomach: I looked huge and armored, like a padded Transformer. Before putting on my gloves, I left my wedding ring on the windowsill with the instructions to pass it down to our infant daughter if I didn't come home. The truth: ice skating terrified me. The spring-fed pond next to our house growing up was the town's original rink and I still remember the day someone fell, and another accidentally skated across his eyes, and the four-year-old shock of opening our door to this startling Halloween-horror image as they carried him into the kitchen to call 911. I skated once or twice with my classmates growing up, clutching the edges of the rink and picturing the man bleeding from his eyes.
The first night out with the Blizzards, I stepped through the rink door clutching my stick. Everything in my body tensed with the warning of "whoa, this is slippery! You could fall!" My toes inside the rusty borrowed skates curled and cramped my arches. I considered backing out--I was in my thirties! What was I thinking taking up a new sport?
"Okay," the coach called, tossing pucks out on to the ice, "grab a puck and skate around!" And one of the pucks skittered in front of me. Drawing on my rollerblade skills, I took a few shaky strides and tapped it with my stick. It sailed in front of me across the nightlit pearly ice. I chased it like a cat after a windblown leaf and batted at it again. Chased it. Tapped it. Tried a longer stride to get there more quickly and kept my stick on the ice like a third leg, leaning on it like a balancing tripod. Tap-chase. Winter wind breezed in through the cage in my helmet--it felt good to be outside in the dark, icy air. Tap-chase-wobble-whoa. I imagined at home there was the usual drama of bedtime going on, dinner dishes soaking in the sink, naked children dripping the suds from their bath down the hallway as J chased them with pajamas. Tap-chase-whack. I passed to myself off the boards. The other players who had come straight from field hockey wobbled by and we gave each other shaky smiles.
We went straight to scrimmaging and I scrambled to keep up with the rules--there is no off-sides in field hockey, no play that happens behind the net, but offensive triangles were familiar and I could feel where I needed to be--it was just a matter of getting there. The play was so much faster than field hockey, with the added benefit of using the boards and your feet to your advantage. As my competitive juices surged, I found it easier to drop low and draw on skiing and rollerblading muscle memory to propel me to the puck or the position--I just couldn't stop. I used a skiier's snowplow, the wall and frequently, my teammates. An hour and fifteen breathless minutes passed in a moment, and I was startled to see the lights of the Zamboni, to skate on my exhausted, shaky, sewing-machine legs to the door, and crash into the wall to stop.
In the locker room, the moms talked about whether or not their husbands would have the kids in bed, about how sore we were going to be in the morning, about how bad the locker rooms smelled, about how if women designed hockey equipment, we could surely come up with something more efficient and about how good it felt to get out of the house and sweat on a cold winter night. Already I could feel muscles that would hurt in the morning, not the least of which would be my abs from laughing at myself as I skidded around the ice like a baby giraffe. I was hooked.
Three years later, I am so happy I decided to try something new. Ice hockey shapes our winter now. On any given week, with the five of us playing on various teams, we can have up to fifteen events. J coaches Hayden's Squirt team, Max is defining himself as the Mites goalie and even little Pip is dreaming of the day when she turns 5 and can play as an official Atom.
On nights when there is no practice, we watch the Flyers with new interest--they are not just our hometown team, for our boys they are inspirations, they are models for positioning and play.
Last year J built an ice rink in our backyard and we had early morning husband-wife skating sessions and neighborhood games where I brewed cauldrons of hot cocoa and the boys' teammates gathered for winter hockey as it is meant to be: outside, friendly, windy, ruddy-cheeked fun.
I look forward to hockey season, to slipping into pants that make my ass look three times its normal size. I love getting out of the house on a starry winter night and exercising in the brisk air, getting better at skating, at stopping and passing and finding I am sometimes even where I am supposed to be, at the right place and the right time.
Last night, my seven-year-old Mite goalie Max came out to play for the women's team Thursday night practice. On the short drive home he leaned against my shoulder and recapped the game--who were the good players, what I could be doing to put more heat on my wrist shot, how sweet was his one glove save. When we got home, it was late, almost 9:45. We lugged our sweaty gear bags to the porch and left the zippers open to air them out. The house was quiet and dark, the dishwasher chugging and the other two tucked in bed, J reading my latest manuscript. I heard Max slip, sweaty and tired, into bed next to his big brother. Hayden used to play for the women, but after a summer season of playing offense last year, he has mostly traded his goalie pads for the pursuit of a hat trick. I heard Max yawn and tell him, "It was a good game. And Mom only scored on me once!"
* *** *