Friday, January 8, 2010

Indulging Childish Fancies

When I was eleven or twelve, I learned that our city, Waltham, had a girls’ youth hockey team, the Lady Hawks. I was intrigued. Both of my brothers were hockey players, and my parents had made sure that all of us were skating by the age of two or three. Ponds still froze in those days, I mean really froze, and we would spend entire days on the ice, stopping only for lunch or snacks (and, on rare occasions, for freezing hands and toes). I had figure skates, not hockey skates, and to be honest, I spent more time working on twirls than on dribbling pucks, but still, the idea of hockey excited me. I read my brothers’ Hockey Digests. I knew the lingo (“Ray Bourque had a hat trick last night!”) And every Christmas, Santa would put Bruins tickets in our stockings, and as I went to sleep on Christmas Eve, I would cross my fingers and hope for a game against the Canadiens, Boston’s rival. In the morning, when I pulled the ticket out of my stocking, I would scan it right away for the red “C,” Montreal’s logo.

I’m not sure how I found out about the Lady Hawks, because we had no internet access back then, and we weren’t inundated with hockey flyers at school, as kids are today. I think I saw a picture in our newspaper. I showed it to my Dad. “Dad!” I yelled, nearly giddy. “There’s a girls’ team! I can to play hockey!”

My dad chuckled, pushing the paper away. “You’re not playing hockey,” he said, quietly but with obvious resolve.

I frowned. “Yes, I am. See? There’s a team!”

He was adamant. I wasn’t going to play. It wasn’t a girls’ game. “But you let me play baseball,” I argued. “Why can’t I play hockey?”

He was growing frustrated. “You just can’t, that’s all!”

I remember the conversation ending with me declaring that I was going to play hockey “every chance I get,” to which my father replied with a bemused half-smile.

Some time during my college years I lost interest in hockey, mostly because I was occupied with Shakespeare and Fielding and French camp, but also because the game, at least in the NHL, had lost its purpose. Hockey seemed to occur between brawls, and after the departure of players like Wayne Gretzky, the emphasis seemed to be on punching rather than passing, on fists rather than finesse. Skill was incidental. Moreover, despite the fact that they were making shameful salaries for playing a game they loved, the players often went on strike, and consequently, so did I: I was done, I stated flatly, with the NHL.

I never actually played ice hockey. I joined a girls’ floor hockey league in college, and every now and then I would play street hockey with my brothers, but mostly, I came to consider hockey a game for kids—kids and men who played at the crack of dawn or after bedtime. After I had earned my master’s degree and started teaching, it was comical to imagine donning shoulder pads, knee pads, a helmet, hockey jersey, et cetera, et cetera, although Bryan, who played pick-up hockey at a rink in Cromwell, often encouraged me to give it a try. I laughed.

But this winter, the pond has frozen! Two days ago, Brooksvale Park in Hamden officially opened its pond for skating. And Dylan, who has been playing hockey informally for the last year, really needed someone to play with. So, as his main source of entertainment, I felt it my duty to oblige. “I’ve never played ice hockey, Dylan,” I said sheepishly, "but I’ll give it a try." (Lexi offered to play “coach.”). Several years ago, Bryan bought me a pair of hockey skates, and I had complained that they were much harder to skate in than the white boot skates on which I had learned. But now they have a purpose. And my old stick, which was lost for many years behind skis, snowshoes, and mountaineering gear, was overjoyed to come out and play.

The ice was surprisingly smooth for pond ice (Brooksvale Park, in Hamden, has a fantastic crew, and they plow and clean the ice themselves). Once we made it past the downward slope of the bank and the bumps that invariably sprout up around the edges, I slid the puck out to center ice. And then, twenty-something years after my declaration, I was playing ice hockey, and what a rush it was. Dylan was a tenacious defender, and fortunately for us, Alexa, who believes all the world is a stage, was perfectly happy to pretend there was an adoring audience for her “tricks.” We played until there was no more light, and as I skated across the pond for one last slapshot, I felt, for a moment, the presence of Dad. “Take that, Dad!” I said as I got into position, and I could hear him laughing.

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