The cruelest thing about being born a girl is that you are immediately robbed of the dream of one day winning the Stanley Cup.
My love of hockey was so strong and pure growing up that it was torture watching the boys in my class chase that dream. None of them joined that negligible percentage of the population that gets to play in the NHL, or even play hockey professionally, of course, but they did get to at least try. The dream was a big part of their lives, and I felt left out.
When I was thirteen, the agony became too much. I needed to know what it felt like to wear the gear that I had long admired in Cleve's Sporting Goods, to have to make decisions about how much of a curve I wanted on my stick blade, and to know the unforgiving hour that coaches call a hockey practice. I wanted it all, from the bruises to the grueling schedule. I wanted to sit in a locker room, listening to my coach. I wanted to learn how to jump over the boards and onto the ice. I wanted to spit water through the holes in my face mask. I wanted to have a position on the ice, and a number on my back. I wanted to practice shooting pucks at a brick wall, and I wanted it to be for a reason. I wanted to experience the rush of the play-offs, and I wanted to win. More than anything I wanted teammates, camaraderie, and I wanted them to know that I was completely devoted to every minute of every game, just like my heroes in the NHL.
I signed up for Bedford minor hockey's house league that year. At that time, there was no girl's hockey league in the area. They were willing to let me play with the boys, but I had to play an age level below my own because I had to play in a no-contact league. It didn't bother me in the slightest. I would have played with anyone, anywhere. I was just thrilled that I could now go to a store and get my own set of real hockey gear. I knew what brands all my favourite players wore. I read The Hockey News religiously, and was familiar with all of their recommendations for gear. Of course, none of that mattered because my mother was just going to buy whatever gear at the second-hand sports equipment store fit me. Again, I didn't care. I was going to be a hockey player!
It never really occurred to me that hockey was something that couldn't be learned in a year.
In preparation for my rookie season, I had enrolled in a summer hockey camp, and had taken power skating lessons. My first obstacle had been becoming comfortable on skates again. At the age of ten my dreams of becoming an Olympic figure skater were shattered, along with my right leg, before they had even begun. If not for hockey, I may never have put on a pair of skates again. The men of the NHL quickly became my idols as I waited for my leg to heal. Those fearless gladiators would never let something as trivial as a broken leg keep them from returning to the game they lived for. Some, to my horror and delight, would even go so far as to freeze their injuries and play on fractured ankles and body check with broken ribs. I thought of them when I stepped back onto the ice for the first time, my legs wobbling and tears stinging my eyes. They would be disgusted by such a display of cowardice. It had been two years since that accident. In hockey time, that's an eternity.
I did overcome my fear, aided by the thirty or so pounds of hockey gear that now protected me. When September came, I was ready. At least mentally.
If I hadn't been so infatuated with the idea of being a hockey player, I may have been discouraged by the fact that I was terrible at it. It was to be expected, as there are very few star hockey players who first picked up a stick when they were a chubby teenage girl. I could barely skate, pass, or stick handle. No matter what I did, I could not figure out how to get the puck to raise off the ice when I took a shot on net. I had no speed and no grace. It turned out that the little things that looked so simple when I saw my heroes do them on Hockey Night In Canada, like vaulting over the boards onto the ice during a line change, were actually very difficult. I did, however, get very good at spitting.
I played every game that season, loving every aspect of it. I gleefully overlooked the fact that my coach referred to my line as the "donut line" when he played me at centre. I didn't care. Nicknames and harsh words from coaches were a part of the game. I knew that from the countless hockey biographies I devoured. Being mocked by my coach meant I was a part of the culture I had wanted so badly to be included in, even if that inclusion was different from what my male teammates experienced. I couldn't change in the dressing room with them, of course, but I was permitted in the room to hear the coach's pre-game speeches once everyone was decent. I had to bite my lip when the coach would ask if anyone in the dressing room didn't have the balls to win the game we were about to play. At school my teammates would make comments as they passed me in the hall, one even checking me into a wall and snarling "Girls can't play hockey." It was an unfair statement. Certainly I couldn't play hockey, but surely he was mistaken about all girls.
There was, in fact, one other girl on the team. Unlike me, she had been playing hockey for years; in Europe even. I was dazzled by her. She was the only other girl in the league, and she was, by a significant margin, the best player in the league. She, also, had no choice but to play house league below her age level.
That season would be my first and last playing the game I loved. My team won the championship, beating the other three Pee-Wee house league teams in Bedford. "And we even had the girls on the team!" my coach exclaimed during his congratulatory speech, impressed by the boys' ability to overcome such a handicap. I had scored four goals that year, which was four more than I, or anyone else, had expected. At the end of the year banquet, I was given one of the four medals that each team gives out: Most Sportsmanlike. I was thrilled, even though I knew the only reason I went the whole season without a single penalty minute was because I wasn't fast enough to catch another player, let alone trip or slash them. I think the coach just wanted to give me something because I was just so happy to be there. Most Sportsmanlike was the closest medal he had for that.
I still have the medal. It's far from being a Stanley Cup ring, but looking at the smiling face of the Esso Tiger declaring that I 'earned my stripes' reminds me that it's worth trying something, no matter how ridiculous it may seem, or how bad I will probably be at it. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the game of hockey, and that's mine. It's an unusual lesson, but I was an unusual player.