Thirty years earlier it never would have occurred. In my day, boys and girls had separate hockey teams. However, the rules changed. Today every team must have at least six girls on the bench for the peewee and bantam age groups.
The game hasn’t suffered. Until hormones strike, the girls are just as fast, strong and aggressive. It does make things at the start different. Both teams share the change rooms. The girls dress in what used to be the visitors. We had to do that or build two more.
North of Coppercliff, the towns get smaller and hockey is close to a religion. The entire town comes out for the every game. On weekends the buses travel from Iroquis Falls to Cochrane to Kapuskasing, and Hearst along the Transcanada. They travel over the hill, around the lake, through the swamp and repeat it again. From Thanksgiving until blackfly season, they travel through the darkness with white snow and green black firs on either side of the road.
I know. I’m a coach and on one of those buses every weekend of the season. Well, we take a break for Christmas.
For the boys, it’s their dream or their cousin’s dream. You know the one. They work hard and become another Gretsky. Playing hockey in the NHL, with a movie-star blonde for a wife, and a home in Los Angeles. Not to mention the endorsements.
What drives the girls is different. In my time, we all played on a frozen pond, with whatever we could find: tins for goal posts and cut down sticks. We played for the fun of it. Today the girls play for the love of the sport.
The WHL never got anywhere. Most of them dream of college scholarships, and the Olympics. Afterwards, coaching more amateurs. That’s how it worked out for me.
The cost of the skates and the pads is more than you’d want to think about. I know families where they have a jar by the door for hockey pads. Everyone puts in what they can. I know a couple fellows who joined AA because they could drink or they could have a kid playing hockey, but not both.
My team is made up of nine and ten-year-olds. At that age, there’s not much difference between the girls and boys. If anything, the girls tend to be bigger.
It started at an ‘away’ game in White River, a town with a population of less than a thousand. The forest provides the jobs when the demand is good and the forest and the rivers provide the meat and fish when times are bad. It bills itself as the coldest place in Canada. When the temperature dips in winter you can believe it, especially if the bus’ heater starts acting wonky.
During the third period, with the score tied, 2-2. Mary Carter had the puck and was coming up along the boards, when Nat Owens took her out with a cross. She went down and didn’t get up. I rushed out. Gray with pain, she needed a hand to get back to the bench. Owens got a two-minute penalty but Mary was out for the game. They take their hockey like they take their homemade whiskey in White River, strong and hard. We won. Mary had recovered by the time we were boarding the bus for home and I didn’t think much about it. Penalties occur in every game and some players are rougher than others.
Monday, Mary dropped off the team. On Tuesday, her best friend Edna Lewis came to talk to me after practice. Edna was a skinny girl with dirty brown hair and possibly a touch of native in her blood which no one would mention. Her father was drunk, when he bothered to come around. Her mother was what my grandmother would have called a slantern. Slut would have been a step up. No, Edna didn’t have much going for her.
“I want to play,” she said, straight and simple. “I can skate, skate better than most of your players.”
“Takes more than skating,” I replied when out waiting her failed.
“I’ll have pads. You don’t have to worry about them.”
“I will. And a stick. You just have to show me what to do and I’ll do it.”
She stared me in the eyes, bold as a brass slug caught in the midst of the silver. I thought for a second. My job was coach, not social worker. “There’s a matter of fees for the season.”
“Did you refund Mary’s fees? So there. Ask her if you want.”
“What makes you think you can cut it? Other kids want a shot at it.”
“Watch me. I’ll be here at the next practice, suited up. Unless you say no.”
She showed up in Mary’s pads which were one size too large for her. She could skate but couldn’t do another damn thing. I took her aside, showed her how to hold the stick and shoot a wrist shot. At the next practice she had the shot. I didn’t want to think how much time she spent on her own, skating and shooting.
She drove into the corners without fear. In front of the goal she held her ground. I didn’t have to tell her anything more than once and she hustled every second she had on the ice.
During our first at home game, I let her dress and put her out there on right-wing. She persevered.
Aside from the games, I didn’t see her. I gathered none of the rest did either. Even in a small town there’s ‘them that have and them that don’t’, and the two don’t mix. What she and Mary had in common, I couldn’t have told you for playoff tickets to see the Leafs.
Mary came to the game and watched from the stands. Not that there’s much difference between the bleachers and the ice level, only safety glass. Just a world of difference, the one between watching and playing. Mary didn’t sit behind the bench but high up in the stands as if hiding. I noticed her because Edna did.
Curious, I asked my husband. He taught English in the high school but he knew the teachers at the grade school level. Teachers are their own clique.
“The two have been best buds since kindergarten,” he told me. “They sit side by side. They eat lunch together. They hang out. The only difference used to be Mary went in for hockey and Edna for figure skating.
Talk to Molly McCarthy if you must.”
I did. I knew Molly. We shared the same ice, an uneasy relationship. When she saw me at the rink during her time, without a hockey bag, she grimaced and ignored me. I waited. I needed to know what was going on. Edna bothered me.
“I need to talk to you. It’s about Edna.”
“So talk,” she said. Molly was angry and barely containing it.
“You were her figure skating coach?”
“How did she pay for the lessons?”
“Pay? She didn’t,” Molly said. She looked at me. “One day she turned up with some ratty old skates that were two sizes too large and asked me to take a look. She must have watched my classes from the nose bleed seats and gone on the lake to practice. Anyway she did the compulsory figures.”
Molly looked away for a second, trying to contain her anger. “Have you any idea how much pushing it takes to get most kids to do those? I’d rather pull stumps. Not only does she do them, she does them right. So I make her do all six, alternating right and left foot starts. I go down and examine the ice. Afterwards I coached her for free. She could be going somewhere, out of this town, before you and hockey came along.”
“It wasn’t my doing,” I replied.
“What was it?”
“I don’t know.”
Our next game was an out-of-town, a three-hour bus ride each way, which made it as close as they come. Things went good and bad, until the third period. Edna turned after a bad check and slashed the opposing player. Next thing, before you could shout, the two were going at it like palookas. The girl had a mean left hook. Two minutes for slashing, five minutes for fighting, and a game misconduct.
On the bus home, I motioned her back to where I sat. I chased the other kids away. They knew what that meant and I wasn’t particularly concerned either way.
“Have anything to say for yourself?”
“He fouled me. He deserved what he got.”
“Did your team deserve what they got? You cost us the game. Shut up. Next time you’re on the ice, you’re going to be fouled. Why? Because now everyone knows you’re a hot head. They’ll foul you to make you react and screw up again. This is a team sport. You’ll take it and smile. If you can’t do it, you’re toast. Do you understand me?”
I waited for the explosion. Tell a nine-year-old they are wrong and you’ll get the biggest argument in the world. Tell one they screwed up and they spew words of self-defense for hours, usually. I could see it building up. Her head went up, her shoulders too. The deep breath. She stopped and sagged like a deflating balloon.
Not a word. Just a nod. I sent her back to her seat.
We had three games in the next two weeks and I silently gave her points. She held her temper, despite the elbows, hooks and spears.
Playoffs. Hockey is 90 percent nothing games followed by the important playoffs. It came down to a five game series against White River. Two there, two at home and another if needed.
Half the town drove up with us for the first two games. They segregated the stands, to keep the parents from fighting. Did I mention how serious hockey was? We lost the first and won the second. I might not have to leave town after hockey season. OK. It wasn’t quite that intense.
Back at home, the next weekend, half their town drove down with their team. The referee was from Coppercliff and he warned the parents he would toss everyone out of the arena if he had to. He would have.
The game was damn close and everyone was playing it hard. In the third, Edna took a check and went down.
I was out of the bench and running to her on the ice when she didn’t get up. She tried. Damn she tried. Got to one knee, looked up and me and said, “Sorry, Coach.” Then she folded like a towel.
It took a few minutes. The St. John’s Ambulance guys put her in a gurney and took her off the ice. I pulled my team together and gave them my speech. No, I didn’t give the ‘Win one for the Gipper’ type. I told them to keep their tempers and do their best. “No foolish penalties. Hear me?” They did.
After the game I drove over to the infirmary. I found her there, a mix of hockey equipment and bandages, surrounded by white linen. Neither of her parents were there. Come to think of it, I never saw them at a game. However, Mary was.
“You have to,” Edna said to Mary. “I can’t play tomorrow, not with this shoulder.”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re better than me and we both know it. If it hadn’t been for your help, I never would have made the team,” Edna continued.
“Have you seen what Janice is like? I want us to win tomorrow, so you have to suit up.”
She saw me. “Coach. Help me, please.”
That was the only time I ever heard Edna use that word.
Mary turned. I had intruded on a private moment. I smiled. “I wondered how Edna improved so quickly. You did some coaching yourself?”
“She wanted me to. When I quit, she asked for the pads. Said she could never afford them any other way.
She needed some help with shooting and checking and stuff. Nagged me into it.”
“You did a good job,” I said. “She’s become a pretty fair player.” I caught Edna’s reaction. She had stopped breathing. I knew what she wanted. “Of course, she isn’t as good as you were. I’m going to have a hole in my line tomorrow.”
“If you won’t do it for the Coach, and you won’t do it for the team,” Edna said, “then do it for me. Win the game tomorrow.”
Mary looked at her. Edna shifted slightly in the bed and gave a grimace of pain. Mary looked at me. I wasn’t saying anything. Finally, she nodded.
“Ok,” I said briskly. “You’ll need those pads. I’ll call your parents and tell them. Now let’s get you moving.
You’ll have a big day tomorrow. Don’t worry. I’ll drive Edna home.”
It took a few minutes to gather the pads, the clothes and this and that. Mary finally trudged out with a hockey bag about as big as she was. I saw her to her parent’s car and came back for Edna.
“I think Molly will be happy,” I said.
“Molly? Oh Mrs. McCarthy. Why?”
“You’ll be back to her figure skating shortly. So how bad is the shoulder, really?”
Edna smiled the guilty smile kids give when you catch them in a lie. It’s not difficult. I was young once and I remember.
“So what was all this about?” I asked. “If I’m going to keep my mouth shut, I need to know.”
“When she quit the team, I tried to talk her out of it. She loves hockey. Personally, I can’t stand it. Nothing about you Coach, just all the hitting, banging and grunting. She wouldn’t budge. I think she got scared. So I had to keep her coming to the games. I thought if I got on the team, she’d come and remember how much she liked it.”
“And the hit? You faked it?”
“No. The hit did take the wind out of me. I just sort of played it up a bit.”
“OK. I won’t say a word. However, I want you behind the bench, so wrapped up in bandages that you look like a mummy. We don’t want Mary ever to catch on to this.”
“Thanks, Coach.” She stopped and hiccuped. I looked and saw tears in her eyes.
“There, there. It’s ok, Edna,” I said.
“It’s just you and Mrs. McCarthy are the closest thing to what I’ve always dreamt a mother should be, ever. I’ll miss you.”
“No, you won’t,” I replied. “You’ll be back next year as our good luck mascot.”
Edward McDermott, born in Toronto, has a professional day job but spends his spare time pursuing a writing career. Aside from taking writing courses and participating in writers’ groups, Edward takes time for sailing, fencing, and working as a movie extra. http://www.edwardmcdermott.net/