Friday nights at Vets
by Shelley Daily
I lug my heavy hockey bag into the locker room at Veterans Memorial Ice Arena on a Friday evening and join a few of my teammates who are already suiting up. Once I strap on my pads, lace up my skates, and secure my helmet, a glimpse in the mirror reveals a fierce masked competitor, but inside is a nervous novice. I just started chasing my hockey dreams at age forty-two, and tonight's my first game. If it weren't for my supportive teammates and MACRHL (Michelle and Camille's Recreational Hockey League)--a women-only learn-as-you-play league--I wouldn't have the guts to try.
Growing up in Minnesota, I longed to be an athlete. I had the height and the drive but not much skill. My hopes for sports glory were crushed freshman year of high school when I was cut from the volleyball team. Instead, I huffed and puffed through four years of cross-country. "You always tried so hard," my mom says. By my thirties I'd joined the masses of moms in yoga and Jazzercise classes. But something was missing: a real team, a new skill, a release for some midlife angst.
When my oldest son took up hockey, I was intrigued. I started going to open skates with him. Although I was never much of a skater, inhaling that icy air refreshed me and somehow connected me to my Nordic roots and winters spent cross-country skiing as a child. During a cardio-dance class at the Cube, I spied the USA women's hockey team on the ice practicing for a game against Canada. They whizzed by, controlling the puck with ease, a blur through the dance studio's window. I was transfixed. I yearned to be that strong, that confident, and that skilled.
After several months of adult skating lessons at Vets and a visit to a MACRHL game, I thought I was ready to give hockey a try--but I wimped out that first season. After some nudging from my fearless friend Marci,
we registered for the second season--and now, the first game has arrived (there are no practices).
I'm assigned to play winger. Within a couple minutes I careen into an opposing player and flatten her, I commit an off-side violation, and the ref skates over to the team manager to let her know I'm using the wrong stick (I have no idea that I "shoot left"). By the end of the game, I'm spitting out chunks of my plastic mouth guard, which I've chewed to pieces in a bad case of the nerves. When I exit the locker room after the game, a sweaty mess, my kids are sitting in a row on a bench in the lobby. All three are shaking their heads. "Oh well," my middle son says, "they say first is worst, right?"
But I don't give up easily--and I follow direction well. My manager instructs: "The puck is not a hot potato! Go out there and hold onto that puck for at least five seconds." And I do. "Both hands on the stick, lady!" she yells. And I listen. There are so many skills at work--skating, passing, shooting, and strategy. The learning curve is steep. I learn that taking risks pays off.
I practice at U-M's Yost Ice Arena and some guys ask me to join them for a three-on-three scrimmage. Mostly they skate circles around me, but the intensity of their game unleashes a new aggression in me, and I bring it to my next MACRHL game. In the locker room afterward, my teammates present me with the "Balls Out Award"--two street hockey balls. Although there's zero tolerance for checking--or rough play--in MACRHL, playing hard with a competitive spirit is encouraged. Skating hard and breathlessly after that puck becomes a form of therapy.
I may not be able to do a smooth crossover, and I can't skate backward well, but I'm an official hockey player! Look at me drinking a beer with my sweaty teammates at CUBS' AC. There I am getting my skates sharpened at Play It Again Sports. Here I am checking out a book on "How to Play Like the Pros" at the library. And that's me on the couch watching the NHL playoffs. Soon, my fan base expands from my family to some neighbors who come to watch a game.
And then, a month into the season, during an 11 p.m. game, I score my first goal. Jenny passes to me, and in slow motion I sink it into the net--and then fall backward over the goalie. When I look up, three of my teammates are pumping their fists in the air. In MACRHL, one's first goal is celebrated, and the game puck is autographed by teammates with a Sharpie. It's now on my dresser next to my two balls.
My husband is mostly silent about my newest venture, but he does notice one thing: the Advil is disappearing quickly from the medicine cabinet. When my doctor notices some black-and-blue marks during a routine checkup, I assure her I'm a hockey player and it comes with the job--the pads don't cover everything. She asks about joining, and I jot down the contact info for the league.
Marci and I are now well into our second season. This time we're members of the Orange Bellied Piranhas. We have grad students, middle-aged moms, and several highly skilled fifty-somethings on our team. Sure, we've already lost more games than we've won, but I don't care. I'm having fun. My kids still come to some of my games. When they're grown, I hope they remember Friday nights at Vets. They may giggle at the memory, but I hope they also remember a mother who wasn't afraid to fall, who tried to make each shift better than her last, and who never gave up on her dreams.
[Originally published in December, 2012.]