5 min

Fiercely competitive-and fun

Lesbians bring new intensity to ball hockey

Credit: Wendy D

“I’m a centreman. Centrewoman? Centreperson? What’s politically correct now? …I’m centre,” says Linda Milani of her position on the Hawks, a team vying for the top spot in the Vancouver Women’s Ball Hockey League.

Unsure of the proper language, but confident on the rink, Milani has been involved in the nine-team league for more than 12 years, and served as its president for six. Today, she is off the rink and relaxed, looking lithe and oddly tanned considering spring has just begun.

Milani immediately thinks of the hard workout when asked to describe the game. “Ball hockey is a challenge in itself,” she says. “The exercise is so intense. Most people play softball but you don’t quite get the same workout.”

Players are decked out in full gear and, instead of skating, they run on the hard concrete of a dry rink. “The sweat’s just dripping off of you and you run in and take a shower and head outside in the summer,” she says.

Created in 1989, the women’s ball hockey league now hosts more than 120 players-both lesbian and straight-in a fiercely competitive setting.

In what is usually a tough, hard-hitting game, Milani is proud of her clean playing style. “My own skill is more finesse than anything,” she says. “I don’t use any brute force.”

The same can’t be said of everybody in the league.

Nicole Dalum, right wing for last year’s national champions, the Sharks, accepts the brutality on the rink as standard. “It can get pretty intense,” she acknowledges. “You can get hurt. Everyone has big welty bruises after every game. That’s just the way it goes.”

But it’s not all brutal.

The league is as well known for its fierce competition on the rink as it is for its strong friendships off. Milani should know. She stayed with her first team, the Vikings, for 10 years. “We really grew together,” she says. “We retired as a team about two years ago and it was really sad because not a lot of sports teams stay together for 10 years.”

She still has many fond memories of her old team. “We saw people get married, people get divorced and same-sex relationships. We saw births of kids and we’ve seen injuries.”

Dalum’s cherished memories are more playful. “One of the most fun things we did last year was our fundraiser. We did jello wrestling,” she laughs. “I think we made about 1600 bucks that night and it’s the most fun I ever had. We’re doing it again in June probably.”

Caroline Gatchalian, who plays goalie for the Falcons, also emphasizes the game’s casual, off-rink fun over its brutality.

She especially loves the tailgate parties. “Everybody brings their music and their drinks and we stay out there, especially if it’s a beautiful, warm night. We can sometimes be out there ’til midnight at the tailgate party. Those are my fondest memories,” reflects Gatchalian.

But not all of Gatchalian’s memories are as warm. She tells a much different story of her life as a goalie for the last five years, where she has faced many different challenges and the brunt of much of the league’s brutality.

In the ball hockey league, Gatchalian explains, she does not have any protective space in front of the goal, whereas in other leagues there is a crease that players cannot cross. “Usually if anyone goes over that crease it’s a penalty,” she notes. “[Here] the only thing that protects me is my defence.

“A lot of the goalies, we get injured a lot. They don’t usually have backup goalies,” she adds.

Gatchalian actually met her partner while injured and off for a season. “I was waiting for my team in the parking lot. She was also injured and had been off for the year; we just started to relate due to our injuries.”

That was three years ago. They’ve been dating ever since.

“During the first three weeks I didn’t know she was gay,” Gatchalian laughs. Their relationship facilitated her partner’s coming out to her family and later to her team.

“I have dated,” Milani also shyly admits, “You have the same interests and you can get to know people from afar and it is a nice opportunity to meet them.

“You know they’re somewhat healthy because of their involvement,” she adds.

Tracy Wells also met her spouse while playing ball hockey, sort of. “We played on different ball hockey teams and we ended up on the same baseball team. She played third and I played second and the shortstop in-between thought I was flirting with him,” she laughs.

Wells got involved in the Vancouver athletic scene after breaking off a 10-year relationship with a man. After placing ads in the Province looking for a team, she received a lot of phone calls and has been playing in various leagues including hockey, football and softball ever since.

Now she plays defence for the Storm and is also president of the less competitive sister of the ball hockey league, the Vancouver Women’s Floor Hockey League, which is often a stepping stone to ball hockey.

Wells has nothing but respect for Milani, who is a top scorer in both leagues. “She’s like, you know, a Gretzky.”

Milani is modest about her ability. “I have a lot of luck and the ball seems to bounce to where I am often,” she says.

But those who have played against her attest to her amazing skill.

“As a goalie, we get lots of hard shots and she makes astounding shots that I can’t reach and it forces me to get better,” says Gatchalian. “She’s definitely a role model for a lot of us, and a lot of us aspire to play as well as she does.”

The statistics laud Milani’s skill, too. She has been one of the highest scorers in the league every year she has played. She is heavily involved in sports regardless of the season, and plays on two ice hockey teams, a floor hockey team, a ball hockey team and a soccer team. And she goes to the gym, too.

Milani touches on lessons deeper than learning how to shoot a harder slapshot. “Sports teaches you how to win, but it teaches you how to lose, too. And that might be more important,” she says.

But she does smile when she remembers winning the national championship in Newfoundland in 1994. “It was a real accomplishment. No matter what, no one can take that away from you. You can say you’re the best team in Canada at something, and not a lot of people can say that.”

Comparing men’s and women’s leagues, Milani believes the players work just as hard at their sport-and their accomplishments are just as great. “While we’re at different skill levels, the effort, hustle, determination and the love for the sport are just the same,” she says.

Wells believes that any woman can get involved in sports. “I’m 39 years old and 50 pounds overweight and if I can do it, you can do it,” she says. “You can try floor hockey first,” she adds. “There are 50-year-old women [there] who have never played sports in their lives.”

Milani agrees. “A lot of girls walk away from the season thinking, ‘Wow, I can hardly wait until the season starts again next year. I didn’t know it existed and now that I’ve found out you can’t keep me away.'”

This year’s floor hockey season has just wrapped up, but the ball hockey players are just warming up. Their season usually runs from late April to August.