I was a competitive figure skater for 11 years, so I've been watching skating events closely in Beijing. I've also been tracking women's ice hockey as Team USA and Canada headed toward the gold medal game. After I quit figure skating, at age 19, I had the opportunity to try hockey. What I discovered surprised me.
If you've never gone ice skating in a piece of fabric equivalent in square inches and thickness to a bikini, I can tell you that when you fall, it does hurt. Conversely, if you've never gone ice skating wearing a suit of armor and butt pillows, I can confirm that it doesn't hurt nearly as much. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what I learned.
I didn't expect to play hockey. Though I grew up training and performing in rinks across the country, I'd never even watched a game and didn't know the rules. Two years after I quit competing in figure skating, I'd just finished teaching some beginner skating lessons at my campus rink when I noticed that the women's ice hockey team was practicing. I stood on the other side of that plexiglass, mesmerized.
I had been ambivalent about figure skating. I liked some parts of it, but it was my older brother who was more enthusiastic. Our involvement snowballed; it became a family thing, and I was mostly just along for the ride. I liked performing, all the applause and missing school to compete, but I wasn't a fan of all that training and getting injured pretty much every week.
What I witnessed on the ice that day was simultaneously familiar (the skating) and foreign (everything else).
I wondered if I could do it.
I approached the coaches. They said it was a club team, and, sure, I could give it a try, even though the season was already underway. I borrowed some hockey skates from a fellow skating teacher. At my first practice, they pointed me toward a musty storage closet piled high with used equipment. I sifted through it, then snuck glances at the other women in the locker room to try to figure out how to put it all on.
On the ice, the first drills thankfully did not include a puck. They were sprints, or races, across the rink. When we were instructed to do them backward, my shin guards, which I hadn't put on correctly, started slipping down over my skates. Even though I was bending down and adjusting them while I skated, I got across to the other side first.
The two coaches were suddenly by my side. "Want to play defense?" they asked. I learned that this was the position for people who could skate backward well.
I wish I could say I was a quick study and that I had a steep learning curve, but this was not the case. In the following weeks and months, I discovered there was a wide range of players on that team, from beginners to seasoned athletes. What they all had in common was that they had better stick-handling skills and better game instinct than I did, and they seemed to easily avoid going "offside," in other words, not crossing the blue line before the puck, a concept that eluded me.
Whenever the puck came near me, I wasn't sure if I should slap it away like a hot potato or try to do something productive with it (the latter rarely worked). My teammates, the coaches and our goalie were quick to yell out suggestions for me, usually simultaneously, so I couldn't hear any of them. I did understand that my primary mission was to help make sure the puck didn't get into our goal. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, it slid right past my stick or, worse, right between my own two skates.
I was pretty horrible, especially that first year, but I was having a blast trying something new with my skating skills. Often, when I was fighting for the puck in the corner, or getting pushed around in front of the net, I couldn't help but laugh at myself. This probably sounded diabolical to my opponents. Sometimes they (and my teammates) started laughing, too.
I loved how we got on the ice to change shifts mid-play: not by using the door as I always had, but by hurdling over the side barriers and jumping onto the ice.
I loved how it didn't matter one iota how I looked. I'd worked all those years to have an upright posture, and now I was hunched over the stick, banging it on the ice to let my teammates know I was (kind of) ready for a pass. I'd designed all of my skating costumes, and my mother had spent hours sewing beads onto them. Now, I was wearing a wrinkled jersey and used equipment that reeked faintly of someone else's sweat.
Yes, I loved that padding. Sometimes, in practice, I got up as much speed as I could and fell on purpose just to revel in all that protection.
I also appreciated the camaraderie. My experience in figure skating wasn't vicious or anything, but it was a thrill to be working with my friends instead of against them. We clonked each other's helmets with our stiff gloves after good plays, we cheered each other on from the bench, and we sometimes piled on top of each other after our team got a goal.
I found ice hockey relatively late, but fortunately, more and more young girls are getting involved in the sport. According to USA Hockey, in the last 10 years, the participation of girls and women has grown by 34 percent. More girls and women participated in the 2018-2019 season than ever: almost 83,000 laced up.
As I played through the rest of my junior and senior years in college, then went on to play on women's league teams in both Colorado and New York for a few years, I did slowly improve. I blocked lots of goals and even made some of my own. In this time, I gradually realized that what I enjoyed most about ice hockey wasn't so obvious: the creativity.
In figure skating, my training had been repetitive. During a performance, my mission was to replicate exactly what I'd learned in practice all year. Of course, there was the music, the costumes and the choreography (usually developed and set by a coach), all of which made it seem like a highly creative endeavor, but the actual performance was almost robotic. Even some of the emotions were choreographed. Figure skaters have about four minutes to prove what they can do. An entire year of training culminates in those moments. The pressure of that replication, of trying to be perfect in front of the audience and the judges was restrictive, to say the least.
But ice hockey training taught me to act, react and be ready for a million different possibilities. Once in a game, each moment morphed into the next in unpredictable ways. I could make mistakes and rectify them on the rebound (as long as the puck didn't go into our net). Even when a prescribed play was in motion, it was a matter of improvisation.
Women's hockey doesn't allow the full-out "body-checking" we often see in men's games, which in my observation and experience ensures that players rely more on skill than brute force. My teammates had such quick reflexes. They could make snap decisions while being blocked or chased. I marveled at their grace and intricate footwork and stick work as they nabbed the puck away from opponents. I noted how my defensive line-mates helped, not hindered, the goalie during chaos in front of the net. They were aggressive and fierce one moment and reserved and patient the next.
I came to see that hockey is almost like its own form of dance. There is freedom of movement, collaboration and symbiosis between players amid the mayhem. These parts are not choreographed but are perhaps all the more beautiful for it.
I haven't played in several years, and I miss being part of that. Yes, I miss my ability to perform all those spins and jumps as a figure skater, too.
Sometimes I wish I'd found ice hockey sooner, that I'd grown up with padding instead of spandex and an oversized jersey decorated with my lucky number instead of sequins. Mostly, I'm grateful I had the chance to try a second sport somewhat similar to and so different from my first. It was a joy to participate, however briefly and imperfectly.
I tip my hat to both the figure skaters and the hockey players in these Olympic Games. The magic they are creating with their muscles, brains and all their years of dedication is beautiful, no matter how they take the ice.