I walk into the rink with my stick balanced in my right hand and my unwieldy bag flung over my left shoulder. Despite my blue hockey jacket, Lee jeans, tuque and boots – which I think make me indistinguishable from my eight-year-old teammates at my home arena – I am met with turned heads, nods in my direction and even pointed fingers and stares.
Three older boys in gold jackets standing by the canteen turn to look at me, then put their heads together and giggle. My face reddens and my eyes drop to my boots. Hockey isn't something I do as a social statement or in an effort to move my gender closer to equality. But the only girl on a boys' hockey team is apt to get extra attention, like it or not.
I spent my childhood in Munster Hamlet, outside of Ottawa. From the age of 5, I felt fast and free and electrified on the ice, and I loved it. By 8, I was good enough to be chosen for the Richmond Royals Tyke A team.
The following season, the team was designated boys-only. I was good enough, I just wasn't boy enough. My coach fought for me, my parents fought for me, but we lost. Eventually, I ended up playing girls' hockey for the highly competitive Ottawa Nepean Raiders, then for an Ivy League university in the United States. Twenty years later I help coach my son's team in New Jersey, and reflect in wonder at how profoundly my life has been shaped by the game.
Back in those childhood days at the arena, all I know is that I just want to play.
Out on the ice against a new team it is always the same response, until they get used to having me there. In warm-ups there is more pointing at the uncharacteristic shock of blond hair coming out the back of my helmet. I witness an unusual amount of conversation and leering among the other players as they go through their drills at the far end of the ice.
Parents of the opposition, usually focused on their own children, are instead watching my every stride, every practice shot I take on my own goalie, passing judgment. They want to see if I can play the game, to see whether or not I'm better than their sons. That's what it's all about, in the end.
On my first shift I approach the faceoff with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The winger lined up across from me lifts his head and sneers through his mask, "Girls don't play hockey. Why aren't you figure skating, girlie?"
I grimace and blush and tears well in my eyes, but I keep my mouth shut. I am not angry, just embarrassed. I do figure skate, but it's boring and I stink at it. Now I feel like I'm trying to pass myself off as something that apparently I am not – a hockey player – and have been caught in my ruse.
We all have the same pads, skates and sweaters. Does it matter that I'm a girl? I want to tell him that if there were a girls' league around here I would play in it, but there isn't. So here I am. Later, much later, I will wish that I had had the guts to say something, anything, in response. But the moment has been lost for a long time.
The puck is dropped, tapped from the speedy player nicknamed Jet, my centre, to tenacious Buzz on his left side. My nickname is Squeak – for my voice, not my play.
I skate wide to open up for a pass, and Buzz slides it over. Once they get over the initial shock of having a girl on the team, my own players don't seem to have a problem with me being there. To them I am (almost) just another player.
The puck sails in front of me to the side boards, and I race over to retrieve it. The opposing defenceman gets there a second before me, but is faced with a dilemma: Does he play hockey, play hard and aggressive, or does he take it easy because this is not just any adversary but a girl? To him, a fragile, soft-spoken, doll-playing girl.
He's been taught to be nice to girls. Maybe he even has a little sister whom he is adamantly forbidden from hitting, bumping or pushing. Remembering his manners he goes in soft. He stops skating, stands up straight, handles the puck gently, as if it's not really his.
But I am not his little sister. I go in with speed, feet chopping at the ice, lifting his stick with mine and wedging my body between him and the puck to gain possession. I pass the puck to Jet, who crosses the blue line to start the attack. With one move I have surprised, frustrated and embarrassed the would-be gentleman. He was playing by the rules. I was not.
This changes everything. He races back to help defend his own goal, and when we meet again seconds later in the corner to fight for the puck he is there with a vengeance, his good manners usurped by his desire not to be shown up by a girl. I don't feel threatened or scared but relieved. In the heat of play there are no boys or girls, just blue sweaters and yellow ones.
My play doesn't stop the barbs, the sneers or the gawking eyes in the stands. But it tempers them. Every game I play I must go out and prove myself once again, prove that I deserve to be there and that I can play the game as well as any other eight-year-old, regardless of whether or not they pee standing up.
But an entire suite of degrading insults, repeated on rinks everywhere as a means of goading boys into better play, has been suddenly rendered inappropriate, unusable, by my game.
"You shoot like a girl!"
"You skate like a girl!"
"You play like a girl!"
Even the most chauvinistic of coaches is left only with the words, "You're getting beat by a girl!"
Linda Campbell Rehmann lives in Hammonton, N.J.