"Wait, you're going to do what? It's a program for what?"
To be fair, I can understand my brother's surprise. For someone who's been playing hockey his entire life, it must sound very strange to hear your 27-year-old sister tell you, apropos of nothing, that she's going to learn to play hockey for the first time. In a coed beginner program for adults. A year after major jaw surgery. None of that would make sense to me either.
Maybe it's the Canadian in me (OK, it's definitely the Canadian in me), but I've always loved hockey. I've cheered for my local team my entire life; I cried when they lost the Stanley Cup in 2006 and when my favourite player was traded a few years later over contract details. I watch games regularly, and follow the Stanley Cup playoffs every year regardless of how my team fares.
My little brother started in minor hockey early on and played right through until he aged out of community leagues. He now plays ball hockey on and off. Growing up, I had softball, diving, gymnastics, swimming, and a variety of other sports. Hockey didn't seem possible for me for so many reasons: I was always a smaller kid compared to my peers, I'm a girl and I didn't know of any girl teams, it would have been prohibitively expensive for my parents to have two kids playing hockey, and I would probably end up hurt.
But when I learned that there was a program to teach adults how to play, I knew I wanted to give it a try. That urge to participate in what I'd only observed for so many years was very, very strong, despite my brother's initial laughter.
The real physical danger to my body was the first and most important thing to address. Luckily, most adult league rule books don't allow hitting at all, and the learn-to-play programs don't teach you how to throw hip or body checks either. There can be various levels of disciplinary actions for players who don't abide by this, varying from league to league. But there seems to be a general consensus among adult players that there's no longer a place for that in the game we want to participate in.
I also currently and will always play with a full cage on my helmet. Wayward sticks and pucks are still a hazard, and after full dental reconstruction, I have no desire to repeat any of that work.
It's worth noting that while there's no intentional contact allowed in most leagues, that doesn't prevent incidental contact from happening. True, it's possible for this small loophole to be taken advantage of, but most of the collisions I've seen were the result of players not quite having their skating legs yet. And each time I've been part of a crash, the player involved has always made sure that I was OK; conversely, I do the same for anyone I might have accidentally side-swiped or bumped. I can only think of one incident where contact felt intentional, and not only was my team hopping on the bench calling for a whistle from the referee, players on the other team also skated up to see if I was OK. Now that's some serious sportsmanship!
My first few strides into the game quelled all fears for my safety. As it turns out, despite the violence portrayed as inherent to the sport, it's possible to play this game for fun and be safe at the same time. I've been playing since October 2015, and I haven't had a major injury or accident outside of sore muscles from not stretching properly (which, let's face it, is on me).
Outside of game play, I was initially very, very nervous about the locker-room situation. I was worried that there would be nowhere for me to change comfortably (and preferably separately), and that would lead to lewd looks or comments made in my general direction. For my first on-ice session, I showed up already wearing my base layer and kept my eyes on the floor. There was one other woman in the room who also showed up in her base layer, and we briefly smiled at each other before we clambered into our gear. I had a sense she had some of the same reservations I did. But because I showed up mostly dressed and didn't see any signage indicating otherwise, I never looked into a separate change room.
I did a quick poll of the room the first time to see if my presence made anyone uncomfortable, and every player in there said something to the effect that if I was comfortable, they weren't bothered by my sharing the space. The locker room has never been an issue since, and I've found that attitude with every player I've encountered. No one stares, no one makes inappropriate comments about my body, and no one seems disturbed by the presence of a woman.
In a game like hockey where both the professional league and the players can appear to have little regard for women (remember the Patrick Kane story?), I've never once found that to be the case with my teammates or opponents. I've always been treated with respect, and as an equal member of the team.
What I found most surprising of all was the immediate feeling of belonging I had with my teammates. Learning a new skill is an incredible bonding experience, and even participating with total strangers can evolve into a strong sense of cohesion at the end.
The group of us that graduated the program together opted to move into the league as a team to continue playing together. We added some friends to the roster to replace those who couldn't commit to the schedule, but we formed a solid group not long into the season. I invited my cousin, he brought his roommate, and my brother even came down from Edmonton to play a weekend game with us. When I moved from Calgary back to Edmonton with only a handful of games left in our season, I was genuinely upset that I wouldn't get to finish the season and chase the playoffs with my guys. It was strange to realize that I'd miss our weekly skates just as much as I'd miss my favourite places and people in Calgary.
The experience was also incredibly cathartic. During one of the first few ice sessions of the learn-to-play program, I was in the midst in one of the most personally and professionally difficult times I've ever faced. There were days I couldn't fathom getting off the couch, never mind out the door with a heavy hockey bag in tow. I remember one specific evening where playing felt impossible, and curling up with a glass (or bottle) of wine while re-watching depressing Grey's Anatomy episodes seemed the most appropriate response to the crap I was dealing with. I remember welling up that particular night as I realized I committed to a hockey game and needed to show or my team would be playing short with no notice.
I arrived at the rink subdued and grumpy, and I did my best to speak as little as possible as I changed into my gear (by this point I was comfortable enough to get into my base layer in the change room with everyone else). No one mentioned anything, and the pre-game chatter in the dressing room wasn't affected by my sour mood.
But after an hour and a half on the ice, I felt like a completely different person. Exercise and sports have always been my preferred way to manage my emotional health, but I don't know if there's ever been such a drastic 180 turn-around in such a short amount of time. Were any of the issues causing me distress fixed? No. But I was in a much better mental space after that game than I was at the beginning of the night when I had Netflix cued up. I came home with a huge smile on my face and celebrated a win instead of mourning all of my losses.
Participating in something completely new is scary. Stressful, even. And there's a very real possibility of failure or discomfort. But I can't advocate strongly enough for giving these things a shot anyways. Whatever it is that's been sitting in the back of your mind as a "one day, maybe" possibility, — take this as a chance to get out there and try it. It's worth taking the risk to try something new, foreign and scary. Find a way to do it that makes you most comfortable, where you can feel safe. But don't let the idea that you don't belong in that space stop you at all. If you're lucky, you'll find a teammate behind you ready for your pass.