. . .she falls down.
As someone who'd never even touched a pair of hockey skates before, I knew that suiting up for this past Monday's practice with the Seattle Women's Hockey Club would involve some serious slippage. What I didn't know is that it would also showcase encouragement, camaraderie and smiles all around.
From my first email contact with SWHC board members Lisa Bouchard and Jocelyn Ritchie, I realized I was dealing with a class act organization. Jocelyn has been skating for 12 years with both men's and women's teams, while Lisa is finishing her fourth year on blades. Their openness and welcoming attitude towards this little sports journalism experience almost melted my nervousness completely away.
Note the almost.
Hockey, as I discover immediately after arriving at Olympic Ice Arena in Mountlake Terrace, is the safe sex of sports: it's all about protection. Thanks to Angela Brastad I have an enormous bag of gear ready and waiting to be put on incorrectly. As Lisa leads me down the arena stairs and into the locker room, I catch the first of many overwhelming sensory experiences: the sound and smell of the ice. Come on, it seems to whisper nastily. Try not to look like a dumbass. I dare ya.
Upon entering the small locker room (read: two benches and a shower), the big ol' bag and I get acquainted. Hockey is the first women's sport I've encountered that provides pelvic protection for women, comprised of something that looks like softball sliding shorts with a kind of spiderweb-panties-triangle thingie in the middle. "We call them Jills," says Jocelyn with a grin.
After pullin' on my breezers (hockey pants), I next don the knee pads and long socks, which momentarily take me back to my mom's legwarmers circa 1985. These are thicker and of cooler colors though. More sets of slipping pads are applied to other various parts of my body, including elbows and shoulders. And then the skates! They're comfier than I'd expected and allow for rather easy standing. My helmet goes on without too much fuss (thank you Vanessa!) and then finally the gloves complete the picture. I'm as ready as I'll ever be!
I feel kind of like a cross between a Stormtrooper and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, though.
The sounds one hears upon skating onto a hockey practice rink for the first time are initially arresting, but then they relax into sort of a violent beauty. From the aforementioned thwack of shots into the boards to the goalie calling for yet another save opportunity, the arena resounds with noise. Yet it's productive noise. Determined noise. Noise that indicates dedication.
It's 7:30 PM--an incredibly early practice time for these definitely dedicated Seattle Women. Most nights their sessions commence around 8:30 or 9, although they've started as late as 11. This is all due to the incredible cost of ice time; as both Lisa and Jocelyn explain it to me, "We're kind of on the low end of the totem pole, after the kids and everything." One might think this would dampen enthusiasm, but the 67 players comprising the 4 SWHC teams prove them damn wrong.
Tonight there are about 20 women present with skates and sticks. Coach Skip, a bespectacled man of animated eyes and voice, calls for practice to begin. Jocelyn explains that this is Skip's 5th year as one part of the Club's coaching triumvirate, and over the next hour and a half I see why. "I know it's a lot of skating, ladies." he says at one point, "but there could be glory at the end!"
I tentatively wobble on my skates over towards the end line, where the rest of the gals are gathered. As it was in 9th grade basketball, I pull an MJ and stick my tongue out. Concentrating, wanting to get it right. And desperately wanting to stay on my feet.
Jocelyn encourages me to skate with her, slowly at first and then picking up speed. She patiently teaches me to stop. . .successfully for the most part. Immediately after learning the ski plow technique I am filled with admiration for the arches, ankles and shins of each woman surrounding me. Never mind thinking on my feet--I gotta make sure I can still walk on them at the end of the night!
My personal coach then takes me through the basics of passing, and when I touch my stick to the puck for the first time there is a spark of connection that I don't want to break. I realize then that it doesn't matter if you're in cleats, skates, Air Jordans or Sambas. If you wanna score, you're gonna learn how to score. Whatever it takes.
A turning point comes for me not long after, when I transition from being fearful to being fierce. As the Seattle Women skate as one from end line to end line, the sound of their blades glossing over the ice is almost oceanic--the roar of thunderous waves. It fills up the rink and suddenly this is more than a club hockey practice. It is a testament, a call back to all that have played this sport before. Suddenly I don't care how stupid I look. All that matters is throwing my body and mind into understanding the intricacies of the ice.
During each drill that follows, all of the ladies pay rapt attention. They encourage each other and cheer for every player. Every time I think I look like an idiot and should step (um, skate?) aside, they commend me for my latest shot. They teach me to fall forward, not on my back. "Hitting your head on the ice hurts."
"I hate falling," says another.
"Why?" I query. "Because it hurts? Because it's embarrassing?"
"It's embarrassing," she replies. "But like Skip says, 'if you don't fall down at least once a practice you're not trying hard enough.'"
The average age of a Club player is 37, and as my presence on the ice evidences, a wide range of abilities comprises the four teams as well. One woman played as a kid and has spent a decade away from hockey, while another speedy teammate was off the ice for twenty years. "I really wish I hadn't taken that twenty year break," she says, shaking her head. "But that's life."
In addition to Lisa and Jocelyn, some of my other compatriots are happy to offer advice on everything from blade basics to rink etitquette. I hit the boards after one drill and a woman clad in green skates up to me, saying, "I know you're new and you're getting a lot of info and it's none of my business. . . ."
"Of course it's your business!" I say, laughing.
"Well, I tell everyone don't stand behind the net, even at this level."
"Are you speaking from experience? Did you get hurt that way?"
"No, but a friend of mine refs men. . .she stood back there once and fractured her orbital bone."
I also discover that there's some debate in the hockey world as to the best way to grip your stick: the one I'm using is right-handed, so my dominant hand is placed on the shaft and my weak one on top. (I found this out only after sending a panicked text to my good friend Ian the night before practice. . .thanks Tink!) Yet after a weird backhand attempt, Beth takes me aside and shows me another tactic: get a lefty stick and put your strong hand on top. Sensing a camogie parallel I try it for a bit, but the jury's still out.
In some drills I control and shoot the puck real well--others find me missing completely. But I'm proud of my rapid progression thanks to the tutelage of Jocelyn and the work ethic of the ladies around me. I suppose it's like many other things in life. . .once I put my fear behind me, my options unfold!
I stop early so I can hang back and watch the Seattle women in action. They are not figure skaters; they do not sail across the ice. Instead they glide powerfully, their legs churning as they run through the drill for the umpteenth time. They focus, they push, they shoot and then readjust if the puck doesn't hit net. The goalie in her black and pink-flamed mask takes every possession seriously, hitting the deck over and over again in pursuit of the biscuit.
Skip asks if the ladies want to keep doing drills or bag it for the night. They rap their sticks on the ice and vote to keep going, which is utterly unsurprising. These are women who come to play in the few hours before midnight--women that maximize every precious second of ice time they get--women that take one last cut across the hash marks before the zamboni must wipe all evidence of their skates away.
After hitting the bench for her final slug of water, one player tells me: "Just a year ago, I was scared shitless. . .but Jocelyn taught me how to skate and here I am."
"Why do it? What made you want to play so bad?"
"I've watched it all my life. . .but I'm really a participator."
It's back into the locker room now, to easily undo what was so hard to put together only an hour and a half before. It feels unnatural for my feet to return to the floor as I have come to stand steadily upon skates in this short period of time. Undressing is not without difficulty, though--now I have to fit all of my sweaty gear back in the bag. I was never very good at Tetris, unfortunately, and so it takes me a bit to persuade the zippers to close.
I truck the gear up the stairs and relinquish possession of it once more. As the crisp, clean smell of the ice fades from my senses I relive in my mind an earlier scene: one of the physically impressive but kind-faced players is addressing me after I miss the puck yet again. Clad in a Penguins jersey, she utters words that I believe this strong, capable group of women has taken to heart. Has adopted as they practice late at night, play for sparsely populated crowds, return after 3-month concussion hiatuses and balance their family lives with the sport they love.
"Don't stretch for it," she says. "Just keep skating."
* * * * * *
Go watch the Seattle Women's Hockey Club THIS WEEKEND in the Everett Ravens' Fools on Ice Tournament. . .or April 14th and 15th in the SWHC Mini-Tourney!