Chapter 2: Chick With A Stick

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

Now that I’ve made public my passion for learning how to play the good ol’ hockey game, many people have asked me the same question: “Why would you take up a sport like hockey?”

And then the qualifier: “At YOUR age?”

To tell the truth, I started hockey as “cross-training” for my other sport – rowing. Which, by the way, I also started as a late bloomer already well into my 30’s. Ice skating became one more way to fill my winter training requirement of 12 cardio hours weekly. And much to my surprise, I discovered more than a great work-out in the process.

Hockey is something that most men do at some point in their lives and all young boys have an inherent knack for. Hockey can drive normally docile dads to rink rage and suburban moms to proudly don badges of offspring upon their chests. Hockey can turn wives into weekend widows and husbands into weeknight warriors.

Hockey can also turn this amateur athlete into a graceful gliding dynamo. Well, theoretically that is supposed to happen. But first, let’s digress, back to my humble beginnings…

As a kid on the Canadian prairies, life was steeped in hockey. I practically grew up in arenas watching my big brothers play. Living in the country, we even constructed our own bumpy ice rink out back beside the barn, framed in by old railroad ties. Without boards to help you stop, it was a skate-at-your-own risk situation.

Then there was Hockey Night in Canada on CBC every Saturday – no matter how bad the winter weather and how scratchy the screen, we could always adjust the rabbit ears enough to pick up the game. Even if it meant someone had to stand contorted and motionless beside the TV for three hours to aid reception.

Then of course, Stompin’ Tom Connors sang about the good ol’ game, and movies like Slapshot brought it to the forefront of the Canadian psyche. With all that, plus the Winnipeg Jets still in town, it was hard to escape hockey.

Despite a lifetime of exposure, never did I ever have the urge to actually play hockey myself. That is, until two years ago… While at a skating birthday party full of 5-year-olds, enjoying leisurely laps around a rink dodging dozens of falling-down kids, I became curious to see what would happen with a hockey stick in my hand.

Since sponge hockey (in shoes) was already part of my life, and stick-handling was growing more comfortable, the next logical progression would be REAL hockey. On REAL skates. With a REAL puck.

That unforgettable day found me giving into the long repressed (and unknown) urge to grab a stick and start chasing a puck around. That fateful day will forever go down in history as my very first time… And the day I realized that a hockey player was living inside of me, dormant for more than three decades, and raring to be unleashed.

So I did what any adventurous true-blooded Canadian girl would do – sign up for a power skating and hockey skills class, then call her big brother the night before and ask to borrow his hockey equipment.

“Sure thing,” he said. “When do you need it?”

“Ummmm, tomorrow morning at 6:30…”

“You’re playing hockey at 6:30 in the morning on a Friday???” he asked incredulously. “You really are crazy…”

Crazy perhaps, but that was eclipsed by excitement to launch my hockey career. Even if it meant getting up three hours before sunrise, driving across the city in the dead of winter on death-defying ice-covered roads, to put on a bunch of equipment I’ve never worn, attempt a game I’ve never played, with a bunch of people I’ve never met. And doing it all for the first time at an age when most hockey players begin to retire.

Hmmmm… Not crazy at all…

The next morning the alarm pierced the silent night just after 5:00am. Dragging myself out of a nice warm bed made me wonder “What the hell was I thinking?? Me play hockey? I can’t play hockey!”

Panic set in upon seeing that giant bag of unfamiliar gear sprawled across the living room floor. For a moment, backing out was a serious consideration. But since my 110 bucks for 10 classes was already paid, I set out to accept my self-imposed hockey fate, whatever it would be.

All the way to the arena my heart was racing, mind doubting, and anxiety building. Yet, a glimmer of anticipation lurked somewhere deep within my being, beneath brand new locker-room attire. I was sporting great long-johns with matching top and bottoms, and a sharp-looking pair of woolies. At the very least, I was determined to look good.

Much to my relief, there was another girl in the dressing room. She was versed in hockey and its equipment, and knew exactly how to put it on. As for me, I had a list from my brother telling what went first. Starting with the garter…

Garter?? Who knew they wore garters in hockey! My, how sexy… Next, socks up to knees (okay, not so sexy), shin pads in socks, snap socks to garter, hockey pants over all. I couldn’t help but wonder why there were no pockets in the pants – what if you had to carry something??

Then put your skates on. Lastly, upper body gear – shoulder pads, elbow pads, jersey, helmet, gloves, mouth-guard… Whew! What a production! With everything in place, I felt like a gladiator going off to battle. So long as I could still move.

Stepping onto the ice in full-gear was both scary and stimulating, as I slipped into the flow of a dozen other gladiators doing laps. My stride felt strong as the boards whizzed past. Bodies zipping around the rink, skates shearing the surface, sticks in hand pursuing pucks scattered about. The nerves were gone and the adrenaline kicked in. The speed picked up a little. Then, it happened.

My stick met a puck.

And in that very moment, nothing else existed in the world but the ice and those of us on it. For the first time I truly understood the thrill of the good ol’ hockey game. I finally knew why so many men were compelled to do it. I felt the rush, and wondered if the other gladiators felt it, too.

Later that day, after a challenging hour of skills and drills forwards, backwards and sideways, I reported back to my brother on a successful outing. Even though the co-ed class was mostly men, I held my own and did well. And I wasn’t even the slowest skater. But most importantly, I absolutely LOVED it!

The secret was out – hockey is FUN!! Now I know what Canadian guys have been selfishly enjoying for generations. I experienced the thrill of the chase, the lure of the ice, and the weight of the hockey bag.

Speaking of hockey bags, my brother’s needed some attention.

“By the way,” I asked him, “When was the last time you cleaned your hockey bag? It’s gross!”

“Clean my hockey bag???” he responded incredulously. “You really are a chick…”