This essay originally appreared on my blog, Boys, Dogs and Chaos , in May 2012. I was absolutely thrilled that the New York Rangers thought it was a “great read.” I figured it was worth a reprint here, now that hockey season is finally in full swing again…
My husband and I had a little disagreement the other night. It’s a disagreement that we’ve had many, many times over the course of our nineteen years together. “It’s boxing on ice,” he declared, referring to my beloved sport of hockey. “It’s kill the guy with the puck.”
“It is not boxing on ice,” I countered vehemently. “There’s finesse to it. It’s poetry in motion.”
“They count hits. What kind of sport is that?” he shot back. “Why are there even hits?”
“There are hits, because a clean hit gets the man off of the puck, allowing you to grab it and head back up ice. Clean hits are a part of the game – always have been, always will be,” I answered as calmly as I could manage.
My husband is a baseball and basketball guy. In fact, he coaches our kids in both. He loves everything about baseball and I still don’t know if he’s gotten over my convincing him to leave his Red Sox and move to New York – to Yankees territory, no less – twelve years ago. I’ll be honest, unless my kids are playing, watching baseball is about as exciting to me as watching paint dry. The World Series is an exception, but for the most part, I find baseball mind-numbingly dull.
Basketball is more exciting, of course, with the back and forth action, but it’s not the same as hockey. With hockey, you get two for the price of one – they’re not just running, anyone can do that; they’re skating with a speed that often defies the laws of physics. If you’ve never skated in a fast moving hockey game or even taken a “hockey skating” class, both of which I’ve had the pleasure of doing, you don’t know how completely exhilarating, adrenaline producing and hard it is.
Skating was my sport from middle school on and I spent every possible minute at the ice rink. I was even a volunteer at the rink, which was also the New York Islanders’ practice facility, teaching very young children to skate. I might not have gotten paid in money, but the greatest payment was ice time on an empty rink. Sometimes the Islanders would be skating at the same time and they’d tease me for my Rangers jerseys and t-shirts. A few times they pretended to check me into the boards. I used to follow Billy Smith – their goalie at the time – around and taunt him. Now that I look back, I guess they could have been really offended and done some damage to me, but they laughed me off. I was seventy five pounds soaking wet, skating with the big boys. But, as much as I enjoyed that, I loved nothing more than taking to the ice when it was empty and just zipping around as fast as I could. I even took early morning hockey classes in college and relished lacing my skates up while my roommates were still slumbering.
I still have dreams that I’m stepping onto a clean sheet of ice and just taking off. I can feel that slight breeze on my face as my hair flies behind me. My thighs burn as I go faster and faster and then I abruptly spin and head in the other direction. Those dreams break my heart, because I haven’t skated in almost two decades. In my early twenties, my time on the ice started leaving me with excruciating pain in my feet and hands. I couldn’t even unlace my skates; my fingers just didn’t work. I was diagnosed with Raynaud’s Phenomenon, as well as small vessel disease in my feet – both circulatory diseases made worse by cold. Raynaud’s is not serious – really the best treatment is avoiding cold, especially sudden cold, such as entering a skating rink.
I really tried to keep skating, but eventually I couldn’t walk for hours after pulling off my skates, thanks to the one two punch of both circulatory diseases, so I had to give it up. It was a cruel joke, because my apartment was on the same street as an ice rink (one of the things that sold me on it just months earlier) – and I could skate every night, only I couldn’t. My love of hockey never faltered, though. It was the one constant in my life. A few years earlier in college, I had been the only female referee for men’s intramural ice hockey. Some of the guys would try to pull me over the boards if they didn’t like a call, but I didn’t care. I loved pulling on the stripes, even if I did wear them over spandex skating pants. I loved being right in the middle of the action. My brother sent me his hockey helmet and pads because, as he pointed out, at five feet I was the exact height most intramural players carry their sticks.
Hockey made me feel free and powerful. I was never a fast runner, but in a pick-up game with a bunch of guys, I could skate circles around them and score. That was another bonus, being a hockey nut meant that I was never uncomfortable in the company of guys in high school and college. In fact, I was often more comfortable in their presence, because I could talk hockey – something I never tired of. One male friend in college declared that I was a “guy with boobs.” I took that as a huge compliment. It pretty much summed up my personality – I could scream, “Hit him!” as loudly as anyone when we’d watch games at a bar. Something I still do, much to my kids’ amusement.
But, that conversation with my husband got me thinking – why do I love hockey so much and have loved it since I was old enough to cheer? At first glance, it’s a bunch of imposingly large men chasing around a little black disk, but it’s so much more. It takes concentration – even watching it takes concentration. Look away and you might miss something big. Nothing made me happier than when we got a DVR and I could rewind games, so I could see a play that I missed or just relive a great goal over (and sometimes over) again.
Hockey takes strategy – sure, there are those “ugly” goals where everyone is just jamming their sticks around the crease, hoping something squirts loose so it can be banged home, but equally often, there are those gorgeous tic-tac-toe plays or slappers from the circle or a spin and a rocket from the high slot. The beauty of the sport captured my imagination even more as I entered my teenage years. I possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Rangers. At my brother’s wedding when I was fourteen years old, I was a sort of party trick. His friends rattled off jersey numbers and I told them the players who wore them – “#2 – Tom Laidlaw; #3 – Barry Beck” and so on. No one could stump me.
In seventh grade I cut out newspaper pictures from all of the games and wrote articles to accompany them, keeping all of the pages in a neat blue binder with a Rangers sticker on the front. While other girls read Tiger Beat, I read The Hockey News. When I went to the mall, I would head first to the newsstand to see if there were any hockey magazines I could snap up, praying that my favorite player, Don Maloney, would be featured.
I thought I had died and gone to heaven when the Rangers were featured in a Sasson ad. That ad hung on my wall, along with a poster of Ron Duguay, his curls flying behind him, until I went to college. A button featuring Don Maloney was fastened to the cord of the air conditioner next to my bed, only because I couldn’t find a poster of him.
Don Maloney was my first crush. I figured a mere ten years between us meant nothing, even though I was only fourteen years old at the time. I got to meet him twice. The first time he handed me a puck over the glass at a Rangers’ practice at Rye Playland (I still have it) and the next time, he ran over my foot while I waited for his autograph. It’s not really as terrible as it sounds – his car kind of rolled over my foot. When someone alerted him and he apologized profusely, I simply said, “I love you!” Poor guy must have thought I was nuts. I don’t think I even felt the pain until I got in the car – the sheer thrill of Don Maloney actually speaking to me was a powerful anesthetic.
I still tell my husband that he should be thankful that I loved Don Maloney so much as a teenager, because his look – one of a fairly constant 5 o’clock shadow – formed the basis of what attracted me as I got older. I’ve always had a weakness for a stubble covered jaw, much to the happiness of my husband who hates to shave. I think that the boyfriend before my husband, my college sweetheart, appreciated my love of scruff too – my favorite gift from him was an authentic Don Maloney #12 jersey with a fighting strap. It didn’t matter that Don Maloney had long since left the Rangers and was finishing up a tenure with arch rival Islanders. I loved that jersey and still have it.
Any guy that I have ever been with needed to understand that hockey – and my fierce love of it – is as much a part of me as the blood flowing through my veins. They also needed to understand that they better not talk to me when the Rangers are on, because I likely won’t hear a word they say and I may even turn the TV up to drown them out. On the plus side, I’m always up for watching Sports Center.
I’ve imparted a love of hockey to my boys and when they get mad at me, I pull out the trump card. How many of your friends’ moms know what the difference between boarding and charging is? How many of them know the motions for a cross check penalty and a hold penalty? How many of them know all of the words to the Canadian National Anthem and can recognize John Amirante’s voice after a two second snippet of the Star Spangled Banner on the radio? I’m pretty sure the answer is, “None.”
I feel grateful that I have hockey to bond with my boys over. Unlike my husband, I don’t build rockets with them, coach them in baseball and basketball, collect baseball cards with them, ooh and ahh over baseball gloves and bats and basketballs with them. But, we have hockey and during the Rangers’ exhilarating Stanley Cup playoff run, even my teenage son, D, has given me big hugs when our boys score. My older boys are usually a bit more into baseball and basketball, but not at this time of year and my youngest, A, is always into hockey – as a toddler, he pulled out his “Sean Avery dance” whenever the Rangers scored. My boys and I watch the games together. We scream, cheer, give high fives and hug each other. I only wish that I could share with them what my dad and I shared – at least a few games a season throughout my teens, always sitting in section 314. I cherish those memories even more now that my dad is gone.
So, why do I love hockey so passionately? Is it because my brother dressed me up in hockey pads and shot pucks at me when I was merely four years old? Is it because I loved skating so much? Or did I love skating because of hockey? Is it the finesse or the adrenalin? Honestly, it doesn’t matter why I love it, just that I do. Just like it doesn’t matter that my husband thinks hockey is boxing on ice. He’s entitled to his opinion, as long as he doesn’t talk to me during a game.