Chapter 1: Enter The Dragon Lady

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

For one week in April 2007 my city was on the international hockey map. People around the globe tuned into television sets for the World Women’s Hockey tournament at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg.

Yes, Canada’s favourite pastime was indeed talk of the town, and opening night of play found me where I knew I’d eventually end up – not watching the game and cheering for the pros. Rather, on the ice myself. Rooting for my own team. All of whom are under the age of 14.

Dynamic Power at River Heights Community Club kicked-off the same date as World Women’s Hockey. Had I discovered power-skating thirty years ago, I might have actually been playing on Canada’s national hockey team that night. Instead, there I was, taking my first power-skating class with 15 other students young enough to be my children.

Call me crazy, but I’ve been searching for a power-skating class. Having taken up hockey just last winter, I have a lot to learn, and long way to go in terms of skills development. So it’s become a mission to sharpen up my skating in order to make the rest of the learning a little bit easier. At least that’s what I tell people.

Don’t tell anyone, but my real reason for taking up hockey at the age of 30-something is to keep up with my 12-year-old niece Brittani. She started playing hockey last winter, too, and shows great promise for the game after a successful ringette career from which she retired at the age of 11.

One fateful day while watching one of her first hockey games, an epiphany happened. I was so impressed and mesmerized with her ability and agility on skates – how she could stop and start and turn and pivot and stuff like that – right then and there I decided I wanted to skate just like that. Just like her. In that moment, the hockey seed was planted.

The very next week I signed up for hockey classes and spent too much money on enough equipment to fill a gigantic hockey bag. Thankfully an ex-boyfriend gave me one of those things a few years ago, and it has been lying around my basement ever since. I’ve often wondered why in the world he gave me a hockey bag. Come to think of it, he also gave me a jersey, skates, and hockey stick. Perhaps he was trying to tell me something.

Next, I figured out how to dress myself using a “put-your-stuff-on-in-this-order” cheat-sheet provided by my brother. The first time I put all that gear on I felt like a gladiator dressing for battle. Slipping the helmet on and snapping the face cage into place, I truly felt invincible. And it felt truly amazing! In that moment, the hockey seed began to grow.

Since then, I haven’t looked back. And the more hockey lessons I take, the more it becomes my delusion to think I will be able to keep up with Brittani. After all, I’m athletic and fit, and in the best shape I’ve ever been in. And actually not half-bad at staying upright on skates while stick-handling. So long as I’m going forwards. And not too fast. Otherwise it’s kind of hard to stop. Even on my good side.

Okay, so what I’m learning most is that if I want to be a good hockey player, I’ve got a lot to learn. Which means finding the best coaches out there – starting with someone who can whip my skating into shape.

Enter the Dragon Lady.

I’d first heard of her during a ‘skate date’ on the river. The guy who told me wasn’t much of an ice-skater, but heard she was the best power-skating instructor in Winnipeg. Even though I never saw him again, that valuable nugget of information remained in my psyche.

By that time, I’d already taken three sessions of Hockey Level 1 and was ready to get serious. I made a few phone calls and was able to track her down quite easily, since everyone seemed to know who she was. After a few sessions of phone tag, we finally connected.

The mysterious voice that came on the line resonated at a low pitch and spoke in an unhurried manner. She had an ease about her, a reserved sense of enthusiasm, sprinkled with a hint of sarcasm. She sounded exactly how you’d expect someone called “the Dragon Lady” to sound. I secretly wondered if she was fond of that nickname. Considering that I’d already called her Dragon Lady, I was hoping she was.

I told her what I was looking for – a class that offered just power-skating. With full gladiator gear, but no sticks, no pucks. I wanted to skate really hard for 60-minutes and get a real work-out, while practicing stops and hops and glides and turns. She confirmed that yes indeed, she offers such a class. For kids.

Apparently no one offers power-skating for adults. Because apparently, there are no other people in the entire city of Winnipeg who want to subject themselves to a punishing hour-long work-out on ice. Except me. And a bunch of kids.

Contrary to her name, the Dragon Lady is really nice. She invited me to try the first class and see if I liked it. I agreed, curious to know why no adults wanted to take power-skating. But even more, I was curious to know if I was good enough to keep up. With a bunch of kids.

When I arrived for class my nerves were on edge. The first challenge was finding a dressing room in the busy community club containing no boys or their daddies. I soon found the “girls” room, and proceeded to put on my gear. (For the record, I no longer use a cheat-sheet.)

The young girls eyed me up curiously, no doubt wondering where my daughter was. When she never showed up, certainly wondering why I was putting on her hockey equipment. When I declared it was me taking the power-skating class, they looked surprised. Their mothers smiled and exclaimed “Good for you!” No doubt thinking “Ha ha! Good luck…”

Suddenly realizing what I was doing, I began to wonder, what was I thinking?? My heart pounded and my legs felt weak as I walked towards the ice – now filling up with a flurry of boys and girls who could all skate really really good.

Panic started to rise in my chest, and I truly wanted to flee. In fact, I almost did, but the Dragon Lady saw me coming and started towards me. Which made me want to flee even more. Until a big smile lit up her face, as she beckoned me onto the ice.

Her welcome made me feel better. But only a little bit. Because it still didn’t change the fact these kids could all skate really really good. And I would have to keep up. I hoped I wouldn’t make a fool of myself – not only in front of the Dragon Lady, and all those kids, but also the gallery of parents waiting. And watching.

And so the class began. It was fast-paced, one drill after the next. We started with a few easy laps, skating forwards and backwards, stopping and starting. We worked on two-legged stops, which tend to work very well one way, but the other way, not so much. For me, the other way became more of a two-legged stutter-drag-glide instead of an actual stop. I’d have to work on that.

Next we did forward cross-cuts around the circles, around and around and around. And around and around some more. These I could do okay, until it came time for backwards. I gotta say, whole different ballgame, doing anything backwards. The Dragon Lady came over and took my hands in order to guide me, while giving instruction.

“Keep your head up, bend your knees, put your weight over your hips, and cross… cross… cross… cross…” With my legs almost instinctively doing what she told them to do, we began picking up speed. With me still going backwards.

“I’m not very confident on my skates,” I blurted out fearfully, in my backwards state of frenzy.

“Well you should be,” she piped back. “If you were going to kill yourself you would have already done that by now.” Good point.

Score one for the Dragon Lady.

Next we did turns, pivots, took dives, practiced two-legged hops, and even ran (ran!!) the length of the ice. Heck, who knew skates were for more than just gliding?? Everything we did was incredibly fun. Difficult, but fun. And even though every single one of those kids was faster than me (including the slow ones) I managed to keep up respectably well without any injury or much embarrassment.

So by the time we got to the toughest drill of all – shoot the duck – my confidence was waaaay up. Which was good, because for shoot the duck you have to crouch waaaay down, glide on one skate, and stick one leg straight out in front of you.

This may sound easy, but considering it’s something I’ve never done in regular shoes, I wasn’t eager to try it with blades on my feet. But seeing as you have to do what the Dragon Lady says or potentially suffer public ridicule in front of your peers (and their parents), I took a deep breath, crouched waaaay down low, glided on one skate, and stuck one leg straight out in front of me.

Miraculously, I kept gliding forward! Suddenly, it was like I had balance and form both at the same time. While all around me, others were falling over. I smiled to myself, holding the glide as long as I could before tucking my foot back under and standing up once again, secretly feeling vindicated. In that moment, the hockey seed began to blossom.

So maybe I wasn’t the fastest skater, best stopper, or highest hopper. And maybe I was three times the age of most of my new friends, and twice the size as some of them. Maybe I needed the Dragon Lady to hold my hands while skating backwards and crossing one foot over the other.

On the same night the world was tuning in to Women’s World Hockey at MTS Centre, perhaps River Heights arena wasn’t as prestigious a place. But there I was out there on the ice, working my butt off, sweating buckets, giving my all, and skating with talented young hockey players – maybe even some girls who might try out for the national team someday. That alone was inspiring, and filled me with hope.

As I came off the ice, a little girl about five-years-old came up to me who had been watching with her father. “Good job out there!” she said, with a big smile on her face. She had no idea just how much she made my day. I smiled back, gushing with pride.

I realized I did do a good job out there. And who knows, maybe down the road I’ll actually be trying out for the national team, too, along with the young girls from power-skating. And my niece Brittani.

But for now, in this moment, I’m happy enough knowing that I no longer need a list to dress myself, and can almost keep up with the slowest kid in my class.

And for the record, I shoot a pretty damn good duck, too.