New Year's Day is ripe for establishing new rituals. This Jan. 1, my seven-year-old buddy Leo (the son of friends) invited me to his neighbour's backyard rink while I was visiting his family in Ottawa.
A moment of childhood Canadiana ensued.
We trudged over packed snow under a heavy grey sky, and our fingers froze lacing up our skates. Leo's dad handed me shin guards, gloves, a lefty stick and a jersey. Before even stepping onto the ice, I felt that something important was about to unfold.
I had never played hockey before, never taken a skating lesson, and always stopped by merely slowing into the boards. Suddenly – though always a spectator and a fan – I was a player, and instinctively I knew I could never return to be exclusively the former.
The homemade rink was only large enough for a couple of consecutive crossovers, but the clouds parted that game and the sun shone on our little patch. In my 33 years of skating, I had only ever followed the monotonous circle of a public skate. Hockey was too much fun.
I was shooting, passing and blocking. I was offence, defence and goalie. I was the late Maurice Richard in my borrowed Habs jersey. Of course Leo was Gretzky, Orr and Lemieux rolled into one, while his parents cheered and drank hot chocolate on the sidelines.
With two years of lessons under his belt, Leo was my mentor and he executed the majority of the shooting, scoring and stick-waving victory dances.
There was only one way to resolve this. I signed up for lessons – women's learn-to-play hockey – the very next day when I returned to Toronto.
To my surprise, I discovered that with equipment, being on the ice was easier. The focus of the game also took away my self-consciousness about my skating ability, and the stick became a stabilizer in shaky moments. It turns out I didn't need to become a better skater to play hockey – I needed to play hockey to become a better skater. How's that for John Fitzgerald Kennedy logic?
So there I stood on the ice, never an athlete but always a game lover, one of four students at an outdoor rink on Monday and Wednesday nights. The skyscrapers and CN Tower were our sparkling backdrop.
I was a little intimidated – two other players had house-league experience, and the fourth was the great-niece of NHL-er Syd Howe. But the ladies and our coach were patient and encouraging. I learned to stop the hockey player way, skate backward, crossover (both ways) and, after drills, do that cool slow skate toward the bench with my helmet under my arm.
I also learned to "bunny hop." The latter drill still makes little sense, but I chalk it up to a type of "wax on, wax off" exercise akin to Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid. At first glance bunny hops seem absurd, but some day the bunny hop, I suspect, will come through in the final seconds to win me the game.
After hockey practice (a male friend quickly reprimanded me for calling them "lessons"), I carried my equipment home unaware of the attention it would garner. I got thumbs-up from women drivers at intersections, waves from streetcar operators and was asked, "How was the game?" from an unknown neighbour down the street.
"Wasn't a game. Practice," I answered. The neighbour nodded knowingly, lighting a cigarette.
These "lessons," I realized, weren't just about hockey. They were an acceptance into a new tribe. Donning my jersey and picking up my stick gave me an automatic connection to a community. Even the men in front of the sports bar stepped aside to give me room on the sidewalk as I walked by. In those after-practice moments, we were one.
Returning to the rink each week was always filled with anticipation. What new skills would we learn? Could I finally skate backward and take a pass? I never wanted our 45-minute ice time to end.
Cue the rom-com soundtrack. That was when the neighbourhood men entered the scene – the romantic interests, if you will. There they were, in abundance, ready at the sidelines for their game of shinny as soon as our time ended.
At 8:30 p.m. sharp, dozens of them slid onto the ice like eloquent dancers (remember, this was my rom-com moment). It was beautiful. There is nothing more seductive than seeing someone who has developed a skill you only aspire toward, and watching them execute it effortlessly and with a certain je ne sais quoi of hockey grace.
One night, after a series of shooting drills, a rom-com leading man asked me if I wanted to stay and play.
"I'm not that good," I said.
"That doesn't matter," he said with a smile.
Terrified, I accepted the invitation. He had been so gallant.
Initially, I hid by the net in my Habs jersey, summoning the spirit of Maurice, and watched. It was amazing. I could finally appreciate the beauty of the play and the passes.
Then, forgetting about what I couldn't do, and focusing on what I could, I slowly skated forward.
Mary B. Valencia lives in Toronto.