It’s hard to recall my first encounter with hockey. I have memories of watching the game when I was young. It was background noise then but in a comforting sort of way. My dad would lean forward, eyes focused on the screen, and I would glance up occasionally from my book to catch sight of the tiny figures darting back and forth from one end of the rink to the other. The rules were irrelevant to me (in other words, I didn’t understand them). I simply tried to follow the progress of the puck, though sometimes a black speck on the surface of the screen looked so convincingly puck-like that it prevented my fulfillment of this goal.
When my older brother started playing hockey, I became his number one fan. For the ten years that he played, I don’t think I missed a single game. In the early seasons, I was admittedly oblivious to much of the action on the ice. I arrived at the arena with my fully stocked bag of books. But even then, something about the rink was so alluring. I don’t know what it was about the cold hard bench or the loud echo of the boards, or the angry buzzer that announced each period’s end. I don’t know why I felt such joy as my voice blended with the other fans to give a rousing cheer, or why I waited so proudly for my brother to emerge from the dressing room after each game, his hockey bag draped over his shoulder. As my family walked to the parking lot, I had the honour of holding the hockey stick, and it was like a waving flag. I don’t know what it was, but somehow each little detail melded together until the rink felt like home and the game- the game was ingrained in my nature.
As I grew older, I began to feel regret. Why hadn’t I ever played hockey? My passion for the sport was swelling, and yet I was always on the sidelines. I knew how it looked and how it sounded; I learned the rules and knew the players and the ups and down of each game. But something was missing, and its absence was increasingly clear. I didn’t know how it felt. I wanted to experience the game for myself, to emerge from the stands and the shadows.
My desire to play hockey seemed like the definition of a pipe dream. I never met with any external obstacles: my parents both encouraged me to try it out if it was something I wanted. The hesitation was all mine and the most formidable impediment my own fear. I was 12 years old and had only ever worn figure skates. I was shy and unsure of myself. But at some point I abandoned my reluctance to risk and stepped out onto the ice in new skates that looked strangely foreign and imposing on my feet.
I could barely stand. But that was only at first. With time and effort, my movements became smoother and more practiced. I could feel my confidence rising. There were times, of course, when I wished I could reverse my leap of faith. There were times when I felt slow and sluggish on the ice, when I was aware of my inferiority to other players, when I sat silently in the dressing room wishing desperately I could think of something interesting to say. There were times. But then, there are always times: times of defeat and times of triumph. There are games when the victory comes easily and others when the loss fiercely stings.
The feeling was worth all the little losses along the way. There is nothing quite the same. It is like being able to fly: soaring across the smooth glassy surface, legs pumping, cold air rushing to your face, the muffled sound of cheering coming from some other world, because you exist only in each confident stride and each deep breath. It is a feeling of limitless possibilities, of unbounded potential. It is a feeling I had felt before that was much augmented by my participation. I belonged. I was a part of something, and it was a part of me, and somehow together we were both bigger than ourselves.
I don’t play hockey in a league anymore, but I recapture that feeling at outdoor rinks and family games and skates along the canal. I recapture that feeling anytime I flick on my television screen and see my team playing and hear the sounds of the rink filter into my living room. Once experienced it is impossible to forget, a part of myself that cannot be erased.
I have no memory of the first time I heard the word “hockey,” or when I first saw jersey-clad players fly across the ice. But it doesn’t really matter when it started or how it came to mean so much. I am a hockey fan, a hockey player, a lover of the sport. Perhaps the thrill of the game has always been in my blood. Then again, it’s more than a game to me.