Walking into the arena on a cold Sunday morning in November is like going from the sandy beaches of Hawaii to the frozen tundra of Antarctica in one step. I should be going to church right now, but God understands. It's hockey season. This is what I live for.
As I walk through the lobby, I notice just how homely this place really is. The white wall paint is chipping, the lights flicker, and the the roof leaks. That's just the lobby. The boards are duct taped, the glass falls out with a hard check, and the ice can barely be called ice. It's unsafe, but I owe my life to this crap hole. I learned to ice skate here. I played my first hockey game in this arena. I scored my first goal right there when I was only four years old. Now, I'm a college prospect; and it's all because this junky ice rink gave me a place to play the sport I love.
Not only am I a college prospect, but I'm the only girl in my league. That means every week I have to mentally prepare myself for the bashing of arrogant boys who clearly cannot think of anything clever. I get the same insults every single week, "Sorry princess, figure skating isn't for another hour," "Oh cupcake, shouldn't you be in the kitchen," and the famous, "Honey are you sure you can play with the big boys, we wouldn't want you to break a nail." I'm an easy target for boys whose egos are as big as their mouths and their intelligence as big as their you know what. It doesn't matter though because as soon as that whistle blows, they are eating my dust. The one benefit of being the only girl is I get my own locker room. No sharing my personal space with gross guys who smell like a mixture of sweat, Gatorade, and pizza for me.
I toss my bag onto the floor of the locker room and begin to suit up. Under Armor, pants, shoulder pads, shin guards, socks, elbow pads, and so on. As I dress, I can hear the boys in the room beside mine carrying on. Their music blares so loud it shakes the wall separating us, and I can feel the ground below me shake. They scream and I can hear them smack each other against what I can only assume is the metal benches. Some times I feel left out, like I'm missing the bonding moments they share before every game. Then I realize, I really don't want to be apart of that.
There's a knot in my stomach. I never get nervous, but my breakfast is still threatening to make a reappearance. I have a lot of pressure on me I guess. My mom tells me about it everyday. "Brooklyn, you do not need that stress. Hockey is no place for a little girl like you." Apparently she hasn't realized that I am not a little girl any more. I'm seventeen. I'm about to head off to college, move away from home, and start my own life. But my mother says that I'm a little girl.
I push it out of my mind. I belong here. I don't care what anybody says, the ice is my home, it belongs to me. I grew up here, it's been my life for over twelve years; yet people still don't think I belong. I think it's always going to be that way though. Somebody's always going to try to put me down. I'm a girl living in a boy's world.
I step out of the safety of the locker room and meet my teammates. Before entering our bench, we lock hands and bow our heads. Coach Sam begins, his voice booming like usual despite the delicateness of his action. "Heavenly Father," he starts, "we thank you for the many blessings you have bestowed upon us and the talent you have given to these players. We thank you for the opportunity to play this sport and we ask you for your protection today and that each of these kids comes out unharmed. In Jesus name, Amen." "Amen," follows our team as we unlock hands and say our own silent prayers.
The bench smells like crap, I can't lie. My team doesn't believe in washing machines, and Mitch hasn't washed his equipment since he got it two seasons ago! Jake's white jersey is now yellow. I think that's called Rock Bottom. Sweaty hockey equipment is a wretched odor to begin with, let it simmer in a sealed bag for a few weeks and it is just nasty. Boys are gross.
I play with the hair bow I tied into my ponytail as we listen to the National Anthem. The green silk feels good against the bare skin of my fingers, my gloves sit at my feet. I hear someone call out, "get the girl off the ice," but I don't flinch. They'll get it when the game starts. I'm not crumbling under anything.
Standing at center ice before the puck drops is nerve-wracking. Forget about hearing a pin drop, you can hear Coach Sam's wife sip her latte, like a lady, all the way out in the lobby. As I lean forward, my hands resting on my upper thighs, my opponent skates up. He sounds like a fire breathing dragon inside his cage. His deep breaths blow puffs of smoke out of the metal bars and somewhere in his throat comes a soft growl. If he thinks he's scaring me, he better think again; the kid who barked at me last week scared me more.
The whistle blows, the puck drops, and I win. The typical routine. I fly to the boards, calling for the pass with my stick smacking against the ice. Nate dekes once, twice, and the puck comes gliding right to my blade where I quick fire. Ting. Thirteen seconds in and it's one to nothing me.
It's the rush. That's why most of us play. It's the thrill of gliding on the ice with the puck on your stick, just waiting to get that perfect shot. It's the pain of being slammed against the board, the cage the only thing keeping you from licking glass, and the joy of dishing it back out. Some call it crazy, we call it life.
By the final minutes, it's hard to breathe. Every time I push off my skates, the frosty air rushes into my lungs like an icy cold breeze on a scorching hot summer day---not refreshing, but painful. My mouth guard hurts my teeth and rubs at my gums. At some point, I bit my cheek and the taste of blood lingers on my tongue. I feel trapped inside my cage; I pull at it every whistle trying to get a breath. My ankles scream in pain as I continue to push even harder, my knees wobble when I go back to my bench.
Man, my equipment smells so bad now. Do I have febreeze in my bag? Is that blood on my jersey? I wonder where that came from. Oh well, it's not the first time; nothing a little Tide can't fix.
I'm so tired though. My legs feel like noodles and walking in shoes just isn't working for me. I zip up my warm-up jacket and throw my bag onto my shoulder, almost toppling over from the extra weight. Dang, my equipment must've gained five pounds of sweat during the game. My back is killing me, it feels like someone keeps shoving at my spine. My head pounds, obviously I took one too many hits today, and my stomach has tied itself in a nice little knot. Ugh...is my rib broken? Nah, just a bruise.
I walk through the dimly lit lobby, throwing out "thank yous" for every "good game". I'm given a much warmer personality from the fans than at pre-game. Even my opponent's parents are smiling and telling me how well I played. It's nice to know I have a fan base behind me, even if it takes a good butt-whooping to get them.
Tossing my bag into the trunk and laying my stick on the back seat, I climb into the driver's seat and turn the heat up. I bow my head and pray, thanking God for the win, for the talent he has blessed me with, and the opportunities he has given me. Most of all, I thank God for his protection and letting me play another day. Amen.
Finally, I can breathe...