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Hockey is for girls (or, Part 1 of how watching the Olympics changed me)

In February 2002, I received an education in lines.

“What’s the blue line for, dad?”

“What are those little lines behind the net?”

“Why is the red line red?”

I was 14 years old and I was suddenly hooked on Olympic hockey. Prior to the Salt Lake City Olympics, my hockey education consisted of knowing a) my aunt was a huge Detroit Red Wings Fan, b) the Calgary Flames often had to beg fans to buy season tickets and, c) every spring, the playoffs interrupted my desire to watch reruns of the Simpsons on CBC.

I'm in the centre of the image, in my first season of hockey, playing for the Simon's Valley XTREME. (Oh yes.)

I’m in the centre of the image, in my first season of hockey, playing for the Simon’s Valley XTREME. (Oh yes.)

But there was something about watching, along with the rest of Canada, the best skaters in the world in three intense, commercial-free periods that drew me in faster than Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had three years prior.

A few things combined to turn me into a rabid hockey fan after Olympic hockey was replaced on my television by smaller-rinked, rougher and commercial-laden NHL games. First, the Stanley Cup playoffs drew me in. With no Flames to cheer on in the spring, I became a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. I learned all the players’ names, bought bargain bin DVDs about the history of the Leafs and nurtured a crush on Doug Gilmour. (In a later playoff year, I was so distraught over the Vancouver Canucks being turfed, my mom let me take the next day off school. I’ve since become more loyal.)

More importantly, I had been inspired by the gold-medal winning Canadian women’s hockey team. I thought it was so cool that Hayley Wickenheiser and her teammates practiced a bus ride away from my house at the Olympic Oval. I was especially intrigued that women’s hockey, while a somewhat popular sport in Canada, was in its early stages of development and popularity worldwide. Yeah: I liked the fact that it was a little bit of a weird sport for a girl to play. That there were still some inroads to be made. Playing hockey as a girl was different from playing on volleyball team at school: it kind of made a statement. Like, you were tough enough to handle whatever vulcanized rubber came at you—metaphorical or otherwise.

We would shoot these hockey photos on the ice, but with a backdrop to make it look like it wasn't in a rink. This is from my second season, with McKnight. I believe our team name was "Vibe."

This is from my second season, with McKnight. We wanted to be the Flying Monkeys but we were told it was too sexual a name and were told to go with our second name choice, “Vibe.”

My best friend at the time had just finished her first season of girls minor hockey by that point. I think hearing her talk about her teammates, about learning to skate and about the resultant bruises on her knees is what sealed my belief (first stoked by those Olympic women) that oh, yeah, I could be a girl who plays hockey.

I was 14 by that point. A decade earlier, when I was the smallest kid in the playroom, I’d asked my mom if I could start playing soccer. Horrified at the idea of her diminutive daughter at the mercy of cleats, speeding soccer balls and fresh air, mom declined.

But when I told her I wanted to play hockey—that sport with the body checking, harder-than-concrete ice to fall on and expertly sharpened blades on everyone’s feet—mom was cool with it. Maybe it was because I was finally getting out of The Chubby Year and she wanted to encourage a healthy choice, or because she wanted to help me diversify my teenage CV, which then said only “computer geek” and “went to Disneyland once.”

And I don’t know at which point my mom learned that hockey is about the most expensive sport a kid can play (it falls just behind hot air ballooning, equestrian and space jumping). Logic tells me it was immediately after she supported my decision to play.

In late fall before my first season, my hockey friend helped me collect the essentials for tryouts: a stick (I learned I was a lefty), skates ($50 from dear departed Sport Swap), and a “jill” (to protect any future plans for reproduction or sitting down). Back at my house, she showed me how to tape on my shin guards and my stick. I made a pitiful noise while trying to rip hockey tape with my teeth.

“Oh, Zoey,” Vanessa said, a warning note in her voice, “Don’t do that in the locker room. Those girls will eat you alive.”

To be continued...

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