Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Woman's Place is in the Corners

“Hockey isn’t about skating from here to there…,” she lifts her stick and waves it vaguely at the far end of the rink. “… it’s about skating from here to there.” She points to the near boards. “Three strides. There’s never more than three strides between you and any puck you need to get to.” She demonstrates. The instructor has a most enviable three strides: low, wide-legged, quick and vicious. Like me, she’s a tiny woman; unlike me, she manages to take up a lot of space. I’m still not quite sure how she does it, what mysterious combination of muscle, positioning, and reflexes makes her play so forceful and mine so ineffectual. I can imitate her motions, sort of, but whereas she can control the ice five feet in any direction from her, I can barely hold the territory beneath my own skates. I have no idea why this is, but it is.

My class is full of intangible women. We’re there, you can see us standing around dressed up like hockey players, but we’re so unphysical as to be nearly insubstantial. In shinny, we go past each other so easily we might as well be going through each other like ghosts through mist. We get in front of the puck carrier and then stand, dead still, as she breaks right around us. We race for the puck and then pull up at the last minute, hesitant. What contact does happen is accidental- a thoughtless stick left sprawling to the left, or chopped up to cage-height on an overenthusiastic backswing. Once, in a poke-checking drill, a girl gave me a thoughtless backwards shove as I was trying to steal the puck from her, and then immediately turned, eyes full of regret, puck forgotten: “Oh God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to…” Someone falls during shinny and the game stops in a flurry of sympathy and concern. “Are you alright?!?”

It’s not that we’re afraid of contact, exactly. It’s more like we’re embarrassed by it. It’s like an unnecessary rudeness or a breach of collegiality. This is a class, a practice, we’re all here to learn, etc etc, and anyway, women’s hockey never features hitting, so there’s something vaguely too aggressive, too competitive about a collision. And, of course, the more painfully gentle we are with each other, the more painfully gentle we feel obligated to be, because nobody wants to be the one lady cross-checking wingers when everyone else is all, “Oh, you first,” “No, no, you first.”

It’s a terrible self-parody of women’s hockey. Hell, it’s a terrible self-parody of womanhood, and I wonder how we got to be this way. I know there are in the world tough, athletic women from tough, athletic families who grow up muscular and aggressive and unafraid of violence or confrontation, but those women seem to be, still, even with all the progress of the past fifty years, a small minority among their sex. Physicality is still one of the areas of the sharpest divide in gender roles, one of the few places where girls and boys are still raised according to happily variant standards.

I don’t know how many men actually get into fights anymore, real fights in the real world without skates on their feet, but it is still a feature of masculinity the world over. As much as boys are increasingly told not to fight, they are also taught not to run from fights. They are expected to be comfortable with the notion of physical confrontation, or at the very least, to be able to fake comfort with it. And, of course, they are actively encouraged to participate in contact sports. Hitting and shoving are hardly curiosities in the world of men, and are in fact common enough to become friendly and even enjoyable. Guys play life with body contact.

Girls, though, we’re taught to run. Literally, run away screaming for help. I certainly was. I have distinct memories of this warning at different stages of life, of teachers and friends and relatives, with the same message, if someone tries to hit you, if someone tries to hold you, you RUN. Hell, in high school we had a whole class for it. “Girls Self-Defense”, mandatory for every female student, and aside from a few tips on testicle-mangling and the various Macgyverish ways ordinary purse objects might be used to blind an attacker, the entire message of the class was RUN. (Actually, there was also one session on the theme of DO NOT CARRY DRUGS FOR YOUR BOYFRIEND, which is great advice for all you young women out there, but I digress). There is a sense that, as a woman, if you ever get into any kind of aggressive conflict with anyone, it will be very serious and you will probably lose. We are never taught to stand and fight, or even to fake the willingness to stand and fight, because no one will ever fight us honorably. If someone is hitting us, they mean to do the kind of damage we might never survive. So we run. That’s how it has to be, I guess, but as a consequence female life never develops the casual, playful aggression so characteristic of the male version.

Moreover, women do not play contact sports, and in many cases are discouraged from even trying the non-contact lady version of any rough game. Asking women I’ve met who came to hockey late, both in and out of the class, the number one reason that they didn’t start as kids was because you’ll get hurt. A great many parents can handle the notion of their little boys coming home bruised and scraped, broken bones, split lips. It seems like a natural part of boyness. Many fewer are comfortable with a girl bringing home the same sort of injuries. And thirty, forty, fifty years ago, when the women in my class were little girls, it was still utterly unthinkable for many families. Many generations of sporty girls have gone into swimming and soccer and tennis, games that don’t bruise or break so much, especially not at the lower levels. Sports you can look cute playing.

Enough armchair sociology. The fact is that we have a classful of princesses who are obviously, profoundly, almost comically afraid of getting their noses dirty, and even for girl-hockey, this is not an acceptable state of affairs. The instructor, clearly a woman of some vision, is not going to put up with any more of this “I’m so sorry,” and “Oh, dear, are you okay?” anymore. How will she hold her head high in hockey instructor circles, should it become known that she turned out a class such as this? How will she show her face at the annual convention without suffering the jeers and snarls of contemptuous peers? This is not just a matter of hockey anymore, this is a matter of honor. Hers, maybe. Ours, definitely.

She tosses a puck into the corner. “Go.”

We stare at her blankly. I expect the effect was especially bovine, because for the first time in seven classes she seems genuinely irritated. “GO.”

Nobody is going.

She sighs, and then goes herself. One, two, three quick strides and she’s on the puck. “See? Three strides. Get there first, you win.” We nod, silently, seriously. “Okay, you and you now.” She points. “GO.” The two women, both mid-young, both shy, go, to the best of their stiff-kneed ability. Both pull back slightly before the boards. One recovers a second earlier, and taps the puck with her stick. Winner.

“What was that? You gave up on it. Don’t give up on it. Get there, get on the boards. Like this.” The instructor plants one skate along the dasher, kicking with the other. “Okay, try again. You and you. GO.” Two other girls make a race for it, a little faster this time. They make it, one on each side of the rubber, and kick ineffectually. The instructor laughs. “PUSH. You want that puck. Your team is counting on you to get that puck out to them. PUSH HER.” The two women look at her, look at each other, and then, you know, push. A bit.

“Okay okay okay. Good. Listen. This is hockey. It’s about getting the puck. You can’t score goals if you don’t get the puck. You can’t get the puck if you don’t get there fast. And you can’t get the puck if you don’t fight for it.”

“Pair off, every pair take one. Put it on the boards, go back three strides, count down and go for it. Whoever gets it out wins.” She smiles. “No sticks.”

I am paired with another small woman, maybe four or five years older, in perfectly homogenous black gear. She smiles nervously through the cage and points to the goal line. “Here, I guess?”

“Sure.” I toss the puck in. “Ready?”


“Three… two… one… GO.”

The first time I beat her easily on speed, the second time she beats me, and the third we fuck up the timing and have to abort. It takes perhaps four more tries before we actually get there at the same moment, resulting in a period of ineffectual kicking before she finally pops it through my five-hole. Winner.

Behind us, the instructor is rotating among the pairings shouting encouragement. “Use your shoulder. HARDER. Look, do you want the puck or not? HARDER.” My partner glances back at her, and then looks at me, and the next time we go in, she uses her shoulder, and I end up on my ass and unjustifiably shocked.


Something cracked then, between me and her, some reticence, some reserve, some code of chilly etiquette we’d been conforming to without thinking or choosing. It cracked and it broke and the next time we tried we laid into each other with our full weight. It must have looked hilarious, the two of us together weighing less than an average NHL defenseman, grunting weird little noises as we tried to knock each other down, but it was wonderful. I haven’t really tried to shove anyone with all my strength since junior high, and although that strength is hardly anything at all, it’s amazing to actually try to use it for something for once. To fight for something, even if that something is nothing more than a little bit of rubber.

When she’s content that we’ve all begun to actually push each other without apologizing after, the instructor directs us to the faceoff circles, where we are to practice the third kind of facing-off, where you don’t actually go for the puck and just try to tie up the opponent. The resulting exercise is, essentially, women’s ice sumo, stick shafts and shoulders and elbows into solar plexi, trying to keep each other off the puck. And for once, instead of the usual bland courtesies, we’re talking to each other. Trash-talking, actually, and laughing. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the inherent comedy of falling down a lot, but I prefer to think we’re discovering the fun of shoving people around.

Because it is fun. Whatever your mommy told you about how nobody likes to get pushed and nobody likes to get hit, it’s bullshit, because we do, actually. Sure, nobody likes an unfair attack and most people don’t like too much pain, but there’s a real pleasure in jostling for its own sake. Win or lose, there’s something thrilling about a battle of muscle on muscle and bone on bone. It’s the joy of being real and tangible, a physical thing in a physical world. It’s the joy of taking up space.

It’s a whole new way of using my body.

Now, when the shinny comes at then end, we can’t fucking wait to go into the boards. Hell, there’s some moms in the class hardly seem to care about getting the puck off the boards, so great is their enthusiasm for mucking and grinding. And, I have to say, I relish a good puck battle nearly as much as I relish scoring, which is saying rather a lot. Four years in high school gym classes I took women’s self-defense, which I suppose was ostensibly supposed to make me feel safe and empowered, and all it ever did was make me feel more fragile, more weak, more perpetually imperiled, and although I’ve done all sorts of physical things since then, I’ve never felt anything more than delicate. It took going into the corners after a puck to make me feel, for the first time in ten years, strong.


Teebz said...

Great article, E. Loved it! It's this kind of article that really makes me love hockey so much. It shows the discovery of what makes the game so good - somewhat violent, but purposeful contact. Great writing!

Hawerchuk said...

hey, great stuff. I guess you didn't do the hitting drill we used to do when we were 12? Coach throws the puck behind the net and you just beat the shit out of each other for 30 seconds while trying to keep possession of the puck?

The thing is...The kind of guy who still does stuff like that in shinny or pickup hockey as an adult - we're talking actual bodychecks, not just muscling along the boards - is an asshole. People don't want him on their teams; he gets into fights, he gets kicked out of leagues. So it's ironic that adult women would be going in the other direction. On the other hand, if you had your competitive physical streak suppressed for so long, I can understand wanting to get a few shots in!

Sort of on-topic...Maybe you can explain this to me...Why do the modifications to women's sports persist when there no longer enforced by men? What I mean - ringette was developed to prevent women from playing hockey; softball to keep women from playing baseball, etc. And women's softball players wore shorts for so long (preventing sliding?), women's baseball basically doesn't exist, women's golf uses tees that are imperceptibly closer to the pin, women's tennis is three sets instead of five, and women's hockey and lacrosse have no hitting.

Those are big modifications but they're not true of every sport - soccer and basketball seem to have way less (smaller balls, but everything else basically the same) and rugby not all.

Rugby shows that women have no issues with hitting :) Should expand that to hockey...

Black Dog said...

Great read Ellen/

Anonymous said...

What a terrific piece.

There's a special pleasure to be found in post-hockey aches and pains. A strange delight in the mysterious bruises that develop days after a game. My wife will often point in horror (or maybe it's disgust) at the yellowing ribbon and welt left from a crosscheck or the perfect purple sphere from a blocked shot.

Can't say I take the same pleasure from any injuries, bumps and bruise acquired from (just about) any other undertaking.

Narya said...

Loved this--can't wait to rummage through the archives and read the rest of it. I played field hockey a million years ago, in high school, but, as an adult, I played handball for 15 years. Technically, it's a non-contact sport, but taking up space is nevertheless important. And I played almost exclusively with/against men, because that's who was around--which means I really liked a lot of what you were saying about body contact.

Krafty said...

This is wonderful. I love your articles about you on the ice. You certainly have a way with words E

Anonymous said...

Great writing! I have played & coached hockey since well... the late 60's... all my life and this is so true for female athletes. Hockey is so physical and so fun. Favourite drill is "bear pit" !

Mihaela said...

"It took going into the corners after a puck to make me feel, for the first time in ten years, strong."

my favourite part :) awesome piece, E.

feel strong! you are strong.

Caroline said...

That was gorgeous. This was my favorite line: "It’s the joy of taking up space."

more green said...

I like this a lot too.