Chapter 11: Victory Is Bittersweet

(The Hockey Bag series was previously published on NHL.com)

Winter in Winnipeg brings about habits of hibernation, with darkness falling at five pm. After that, the later it gets, the greater the temptation to stay inside where it’s warm and cozy. And warm. And cozy.

Yet, strangely enough, as the clock nears midnight, many (typically of the male persuasion) embark upon the tradition of bundling up, lugging a large bag full of gear, and venturing outside into minus-whatever. It’s a strange ritual, sacrificing indoor comfort and joy for outdoor icy cold and icier roads, at an hour when most of the rest of the city is hunkering down for a long winter’s nap. All warm. And cozy.

Welcome to late night ice time.

That dreaded shift that nobody really wants but somebody has to take. I remember various men throughout my life – boyfriends, brothers, colleagues – who over the years succumbed to the late night lure of pick-up hockey. They’d get late night ice because it was cheaper, and then take up the cause like warriors. Come hell or high water, or blustery blizzards, they’d make it out, never wanting to be the one to let their team down. It was like the later the game and worse the weather, the bigger the invisible badge of honour.

Tell you the truth, I never understood it – trading in your jammies and nice warm abode at bedtime for a cool arena, where you have to strip down, gear up, put on some skates, and chase a little black puck around. It never made sense to me. Until now. Until I found myself doing it for the first time – swapping my residence for a rink on Sunday night.

While the Hockey Bags have a pretty favourable schedule, we are not immune to late night ice. So it was only a matter of time before duty called. When it came our turn to emerge into the dark night and take up the cause, fortunately it wasn’t very cold. Even though this diminished the badge of honour status right off the top, it made it a little easier to leave the warm and cozy comforts of home behind.

Slipping and sliding on the drive across town, the streets appeared virtually empty through the frost encircled windshield. There were just a handful of other cars out, scurrying here and there. No doubt they couldn’t let their teams down either. I wondered which rink they were going to. Maybe some of them were on their way to play us.

Traveling to the game that night felt like another rite of passage in the life of a hockey player. Come hell or high water, taking up the cause. Seeing a full contingent of Hockey Bags who courageously answered the call of late night ice made me proud to be part of a real hockey team. I couldn’t help but feel like a real hockey player. Until I started to play.

And then I remembered that I suck. Ahhhhhhh yes of course. There’s still that little bit of obstacle to contend with. Even though it’s a New Year, and I’ve made a resolution to be a good hockey player, it appears that I still suck. Day or night, it doesn’t seem to matter.

While the rest of my team was out there getting it together, I was out there getting out-skated, out-passed, and out-played. Tell you the truth, it’s tough to suck it up when you suck so badly. Just once I want to skate around somebody while carrying the puck. Anybody. Or poke the puck past someone else, maneuver around them, and pick it up again. Or actually have a pass from behind connect with my stick, and keep going with it. Honestly, I’m really not that hard to please. I just want to be a good player. Heck, I just want to make a good play.

There are so many scenarios in my mind that have yet to become reality. I’d love to skate out there with my head held high and confidence in my stride, boldly chasing down the puck and contributing talent and skill to my line. Because my cute smile and sense of humour will only get me so far. If I want to be a hockey player, eventually, I’m going to have to know how to play hockey.

On the flip side… My team is really coming together and playing well. So well, that we actually won the late night game. Indeed, we won by a score of 4 to 0. Did you hear that?? FOUR for us and ZERO for them! Against a team that has kicked our asses in previous games. This time it was our turn to do some kicking, play like we know we can, and actually win a game. So there you have it – my first hockey victory.

And I had nothing to do with it.

Tell you the truth, the win resounded a little hollow in my heart. I realized this as I was driving home after midnight, feeling down and dismal. I should have been excited – I mean, WE WON! FINALLY! Victory was ours, and it’s been a long time coming. It should have felt sweet. I should have felt happy. Yet, I felt sad. And even though I ventured out for the late night ice time and took up the cause, I still felt like I let the team down. Even more disappointing, I let myself down.

Because at the end of the day my playing still sucked, and it doesn’t feel like I did anything to earn the win. Had I actually contributed something on the ice, the victory would have felt truly satisfying. And I would have felt like a real hockey player.

Come hell or high water, that’s one rite of passage that can’t come soon enough.