Team USA women’s Olympic ice hockey gold medal final makes me think of this moment

I was a competitive figure skater for 11 years, so I kept a close eye on the skating events in Beijing. I also followed women’s hockey as teams USA and Canada headed towards the gold medal game. After quitting figure skating at age 19, I had the opportunity to try ice hockey. What I discovered surprised me.

If you’ve never skated in a piece of fabric the square inch and thickness of a bikini, I can tell you that falling will hurt. Conversely, if you’ve never ice skated with armor and butt pads on, I can attest that it doesn’t hurt nearly as much. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what I’ve learned.

I’ve found that hockey is almost like a dance form in its own right.

I didn’t expect to play hockey. Although I grew up practicing and performing at ice rinks across the country, I had never seen a game and didn’t know the rules. Two years after I quit figure skating, I had just been teaching a few beginner skating lessons at my campus rink when I noticed that the women’s ice hockey team was coaching. I stood hypnotized on the other side of that plexiglass.

I was ambivalent about figure skating. I liked some parts of it, but my older brother was more enthusiastic. Our commitment grew like a snowball; it became a family thing and I was mostly just there. I loved performing, all the applause and not having the school to compete, but I wasn’t a fan of all the training and injuries I had every week.

What I experienced on the ice that day was simultaneously familiar (the skating) and strange (everything else).

I wondered if I could.

I contacted the coaches. They said it was a club team and of course I could try even though the season was already underway. I borrowed a pair of hockey skates from another skating instructor. On my first exercise, they directed me to a musty storage closet stacked with used equipment. I looked it over and then stole a glance at the other women in the dressing room to figure out how to put it on.

Luckily, the first practice sessions on the ice didn’t require a puck. It was sprints or races across the ice rink. When we were instructed to do them backwards, my shin pads, which I hadn’t put on properly, started slipping over my skates. Although I bent down and adjusted them while skating, I got to the other side first.

The two coaches were suddenly by my side. “Do you want to play defense?” They asked. I learned that this was the position for people who were good at skating backwards.

I wish I could say I’m a fast learner and have a steep learning curve, but that wasn’t the case. In the weeks and months that followed, I discovered that there was a wide range of players on this team, from beginners to experienced athletes. What they all had in common was that they had better racquet handling and playing instincts than I did, and they seemed to avoid going offside easily, meaning not crossing the blue line before the puck, a concept that suited me escaped.

Whenever the puck came near me, I wasn’t sure whether to smack it like a hot potato or try to do something productive with it (the latter rarely worked). My team-mates, the coaches and our goalkeeper were quick to shout suggestions to me, mostly at the same time, so I couldn’t hear any of them. I understood that my main job is to make sure the puck doesn’t go in our goal. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, it slipped right past my stick or, worse, right between my own two skates.

I was pretty terrible, especially the first year, but I had a great time trying something new with my skating skills. Many times when I was being fought for the puck in the corner or being pushed around in front of the net I had to laugh at myself. That probably sounded devilish to my opponents. Sometimes they (and my teammates) would start laughing too.

I loved how we got onto the ice mid-game to change shifts: not by using the door like we always do, but by hopping over the side barriers and jumping onto the ice.

Sometimes I wish I’d found hockey earlier, grew up with cotton instead of spandex and an oversized jersey with my lucky number instead of sequins.

I loved that it didn’t matter an iota how I looked. I’d been working on maintaining an upright posture for all these years, and now I was hunched over the stick and banging it on the ice to let my teammates know I was (sort of) ready for a pass. I had designed all my skating costumes and my mom had spent hours sewing beads on them. Now I was wearing a crumpled jersey and used gear that smelled faintly of someone else’s sweat.

Yes, I loved that padding. Sometimes in practice I rose as fast as I could and fell on purpose just to enjoy all that protection.

I also really appreciated the camaraderie. My figure skating experience wasn’t vicious or anything, but it was exciting to work with my friends instead of against them. We’d smash each other’s helmets with our stiff gloves after good games, we’d cheer for each other from the bench and we’d sometimes stack on top of each other after our team scored.

I discovered ice hockey relatively late, but fortunately more and more young girls are getting involved in the sport. According to USA Hockey, participation by girls and women has increased by 34 percent over the past 10 years. More girls and women took part in the 2018-2019 season than ever before: almost 83,000 turned up.

As I played through the rest of my junior and senior years in college, and then played on the women’s league teams in Colorado and New York for a few years, I slowly improved. I blocked a lot of goals and even made a few of my own. During this time, I gradually realized that what I enjoy most about ice hockey is not so obvious: the creativity.

I was pretty terrible, especially the first year, but I had a great time trying something new with my skating skills.

In figure skating, my training had been repetitive. During a performance, my mission was to repeat exactly what I had learned in practice all year. Of course, there was the music, costumes, and choreography (usually designed and set by a trainer) that made it all seem like an extremely creative endeavor, but the actual performance was almost robotic. Even some of the emotions were choreographed. Figure skaters have about four minutes to show what they can do. A whole year of training culminates in these moments. The pressure of this rerun, the attempt to be perfect in front of audience and jury, was restrictive to say the least.

But hockey practice taught me to act, react, and be prepared for a million different possibilities. Once in a game, each moment morphed into the next in unpredictable ways. I could make mistakes and correct them on the rebound (as long as the puck didn’t go in our goal). Even when a prescribed piece was in motion, it was a matter of improvisation.

Women’s hockey doesn’t allow for the full “body check” that we often see in men, which in my observation and experience makes players rely on skill rather than brute force. My teammates had such fast reflexes. They might make quick decisions while being blocked or tracked. I marveled at their grace and intricate footwork and stickwork as they snatched the puck away from opponents. I noticed how my defensive linemates supported, not hindered, the keeper in the chaos in front of the net. They were aggressive and wild one moment and reserved and patient the next.

I’ve found that hockey is almost like a dance form in its own right. There is freedom of movement, cooperation and symbiosis between players amidst the chaos. These parts are not choreographed, but maybe all the more beautiful for that.

I haven’t played in several years and I miss being a part of it. Yes, I miss my ability to do all those twists and jumps as a figure skater.

Sometimes I wish I’d found hockey earlier, grew up with cotton instead of spandex and an oversized jersey with my lucky number instead of sequins. Most of all, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to try a second sport that is somewhat similar and so different from my first. It was a pleasure to take part, albeit brief and imperfect.

I take my hat off to both the figure skaters and the ice hockey players at these Olympics. The magic they create with their brawn, their brains and all their years of dedication is beautiful no matter how they take the ice.

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