I’ll admit it. I had a tear in my eye when the Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team won the gold medal.
I am not ashamed to tell anyone I spent a good portion of the Canada-US women’s game on my knees in the living room in front of my television, that I spilled my Diet Coke on myself when we were killing a penalty, and that I didn’t miss a single game the whole series.
I am a hockey fan, like so many Canadians are. We take our hockey pretty seriously. But I also take women’s hockey personally.
I started playing hockey in the boys’ leagues in the Yukon when I was six. I had played a couple of months of ringette, which is kind of like hockey but “for girls.” You play with a rubber ring and a sawed-off hockey stick without a blade, usually in your figure skates. Ringette is kind of… well, not quite hockey.
The coach of my ringette team happened to be shacked up with the coach of a boys’ team, and when he happened to see me play, he realized I was better than a couple of the boys on his team, and my career in the boys’ league was born.
I was the only girl (for lack of a more appropriate word) in the entire Whitehorse Minor Hockey League until I was 16. I was a decent player, not a star but quick on my feet and a good passer. Foreshadowing for a future life of passing? Perhaps.
The locker room situation was always an issue, especially on game nights when both change rooms were occupied by my team and the opposition. Game nights I changed alone in the janitor’s room, lacing up my skates by myself in the tiny, too-quiet closet, usually next to a stinky mop bucket, in between a stack of puck-smeared pylons and a pallet of cardboard boxes full of plastic beer cups for the concession stand.
When all the boys on my team were suited up, someone would come and knock on my door, and I was then permitted to join my team in the locker room for our pre-game pep talk. I always felt like I wasn’t quite invited in, like my presence was just being tolerated.
One of my coaches nicknamed me Token. I did not play hockey on a boys’ team because I wanted to be a boy. I played hockey on a boys’ team because I loved to play hockey. There were no other options available.
When I turned 16, I was forced to quit playing with the young men. The guys my age were now substantially bigger and heavier than me, and due to the threat of serious injuries from body checking and liability issues, the minor hockey league decreed that I go play on Whitehorse’s fledgling and only women’s team.
This would have been in the mid-1980s, and although there were several excellent women players, there were also some who were just learning to skate. There was only the one team in town and we had to travel to Alaska for an actual game.
Coming from the competition and speed of the boys’ games I had left behind, women’s hockey was no comparison. I played ice hockey for a total of 11 years, and never once did I truly get a chance to really play with my own peers.
Now when I watch the Canadian women’s team play, it somehow soothes an old slapshot sting left on my soul. I watch a full team of world champion–calibre women playing my beloved game in front of a capacity crowd of screaming fans, and truly, it makes my heart pound new possibility.
What I am witnessing now simply did not exist at all when I was a young player. I hear a little girl in a huge Olympic crowd being interviewed on the CBC. What does she want to be when she grows up? A women’s hockey player, she answers, without a heartbeat of hesitation. This is no longer a crazy dream of a lonely kid in a northern town. This is now a good answer.
My Grandma Pat turned 90 years old the day we won that gold medal. I called her that night. She had been glued to the television for the entire Olympics, she told me, which I found surprising. She confessed that she had been a speed skater when she was a little girl, which I had not known, and that even now she remembers how much she liked the feel of having strong leg muscles.
I told her I knew exactly how she felt, that one of the things I liked about sports was that it was one arena where women were rewarded for speed and strength and even muscle.
She turned down the television in the background so we could really talk. “When I watched those girls win that hockey game today, I sat here and felt a remarkable thing. I have always thought life would have been better if I had been born a male. I could have made more money, done more things. I could have had more sexual freedom, or at least not have been judged so harshly for the sexual freedoms I took. I turned 90 years old today, and for the first time in my life, I felt proud to be a woman. I watched them take their helmets off and they were ladies underneath, and I felt so proud of us.”
I agreed with her. I didn’t tell her that I suspected the US team in particular had been directed to wear makeup (my femme friends tell me the eyeliner jobs were obviously amateur work, performed by beginners) and grow their hair to straighten up a little.
I didn’t comment on how the American coach could barely bring himself to shake hands with the unflinchingly butch coach of the Canadian team.
I did not bring up the fact that one of the American players had made the international lesbian sign with both hands directly into the camera shortly before begrudgingly bending her neck to accept her silver medal.
I agreed with my grandmother, and revelled in my own remarkable sensation. Saying the words women, hockey and myself in the same sentence, and for the first time in my life feeling included. Like I could belong there.