I was never a big fan of college or professional sports. My dad and mom preferred the nightly news to the Stanley Cup playoffs, “The Carol Burnett Show” to the Super Bowl. There were no Sunday dinners planned around “game time”, no “football pools at my dad’s work”, not even a sibling or two who participated in school sports. We were the “pseudo-intellectual family of nerds” who would sit around the dining room table playing cut-throat games of Scrabble, “Fictionary”, or Boggle.
I know the exact moment, however, when it all changed. It was my first date with the man who would become my husband. Unlike our family, he was a sports junkie. His two favorite sports were ice hockey and college football – in that particular order. After what has come to be known as our first “hot date” (a story best saved for later), we moseyed over to the Chicago Stadium – home of the Chicago Bulls and the Chicago Blackhawks. That night, my future husband would introduce me to the sport of ice hockey. Little did I realize at that time how influential or profound an impact that would have on my adult life.
I didn’t know a thing about the sport – and honestly didn’t really care at the time – I was on a date with a cute guy I was crazy about. I could have spent the evening sipping Coke and eating sliders from White Castle and had been perfectly content. But, as I sat there in the stadium, listening to the crowd’s collective voices bloom as the national anthem was sung, something began to stir inside me. The sound of the crowd was cacophonous – decibels louder than anything I had ever heard. It became obvious something magical was going to occur.
The teams made their way from their locker rooms and out onto the ice to the sound of the crowd’s roar. Glass panels undulated as the fans pounded on them again, and again. The concrete flooring in the stands pulsed to life as the audience stomped their collective feet in thunderous approval. All because of the six gladiators squaring off at center ice.
The crowd went silent, the organist stopped, and the puck fell. A mad scramble began to gain control of the puck and begin the dance towards the opponents’ goals. Metal blades shredded the fresh, slick, shiny surface of ice – and at each shift of the player’s weight, snow cones sprayed the air and spread like Japanese fans. I watched in awe – and wondered how a fully grown man could shift his well-muscled body and fifteen pounds of protective gear all the while standing on 1/8th an inch of finely sharpened steel, and manipulating a frozen, rubber disk with a long, wooden stick. I was witnessing true athleticism, and it was intoxicating.
When the first fight broke out around the goalie’s net, I wasn’t sure how to interpret it. I wondered, “Isn’t anyone gonna stop this?” but my then-boyfriend leaned over and nudged me knowingly, adding “Eh, the official will stop it when one of ‘em falls down. That’s just part of the sport.”
Hockey continued to permeate my life, making another appearance when our son was eighteen months old. My husband and I, being native Chicagoans, would talk about how we used to remember Chicago winters cold enough to skate outdoors. We shared our favorite skating rinks – the ones where the frozen pond was smooth, instead of rippled by the wind. We talked about “warming houses” and “cold benches” and how the snow would inch its way down our skates, freezing our feet until we could no longer feel them inside our now frozen-solid skate boots. We spoke of lips that turned blue from being exposed to the bitter cold far too long, rosy, wind-nipped cheeks, and how we knew it was time to go home when the floodlights came on.
Shortly after moving to Columbus, Ohio, it just so happened there was an indoor ice rink within a thirty-minute drive from home. Of course, we had to go over and check it out. We bundled our son up, put him in his car seat and headed over to the rink. I remember the smell – fresh paint over concrete walls. It smelled “untouched” and “unspoiled”. Even the cold air smelled appealing. We paid our admission, rented skates – torture devices for those with bad feet – and tucked our son into his first pair of hockey skates. Being eighteen months old, he stood up, toppled over, then burst into gales of tears – screaming, “No! No! No!” loud enough for everyone to hear. Undeterred, my husband picked him up in his arms and lugged him over to the fresh sheet of ice, our son kicking and bucking the entire time.
At first, it was a difficult concept for our son to accept. Hunched over, spine nearly snapping, my husband stood behind our son and inched forward slowly, stopping only to reposition our son’s tiny feet so he wouldn’t collapse under himself. After what seemed like an hour, they made one complete revolution around the rink and met me back at the starting position. I asked, “How’d it go?” and looked down at our son. He was not impressed. Determined to try again another day, my husband and I left shortly thereafter – all the while telling our son “What a great job you did! We’ll try again another time, okay?” We were going to have a son who played hockey, regardless of what it took.
The light bulb moment came when we purchased our son his first pair of rollerblades. They were cheap, plastic, blue, Little Tykes roller skates that snapped on over his shoes. The Velcro strap held them closed, and they were extendable. Removing the fear of the ice, we would spend hours outside trailing behind him as he shuffled his little feet down the sidewalk outside our house. At first, he would stand stock straight – knees locked out of fear of falling, and move forward in a herky-jerky motion, much like a newborn colt learning to walk shortly after its birth. But soon enough, he began to glide – slowly and surely over the concrete sidewalk, bending his little body while he found his center of balance.
By age three, he was ready to give ice skating another chance. At age four, we signed him up at the local ice rink, purchased his very own hockey skates (size 1, I believe), and let him go. We weren’t aware that, during his skating lessons, he was being “scouted” for the new youth hockey league opening up at that rink. When we signed him up, he was just entering kindergarten. I’ll never forget that first year, because we received a letter from his elementary school physical education teacher talking about the importance of “physical activity” and “major muscle coordination”. The teacher was encouraging us to work with our son on hops, skips and jumps. I can only imagine the look on this teacher’s face when we wrote back that our son was “working on his hand/eye coordination while skating several times a week, manipulating a rubber disk over frozen ice by way of a long, thin, wooden stick.”
We have been personally involved with ice hockey ever since. My husband coached our son from age five until age fourteen – until he was no longer certified to teach that age level. I was the official “team mom”. Rarely did I miss a game – even the ones that would begin at 6 am. I’ve often said there are only two things that would get me up and out of the house at 5 am on a cold winter’s day – a house fire and a hockey game.
That same toddler who was scared to death of the skates, and the ice, is now sixteen and playing for his high school’s hockey team. He eats, breathes and sleeps hockey. Thankfully, we’ve never had to watch him fight another player on the ice, or get bloodied and battered himself. We’ve steeled ourselves against the inevitable – hockey is a sport of blood, sweat and tears. And of course, we still watch the game on television, but we no longer root for the Chicago Blackhawks. We’re Columbus Blue Jackets fans now – we’ve earned that title through honest means.