There’s nothing quite like Sunday afternoon during a weekend hockey tournament.
Your thighs burn every time you take a step, and your hands feel a little tender as you grab that ice cold (and most welcome) beer. Muscles in your neck that you didn’t realize you had hurt for reasons you can’t quite explain. You hope the swelling and bruising go down soon, and you wish you spent a little more time washing the smell of hockey gloves off of your fingers. The water in the shower took too long to warm up, didn’t it?
The final horn sounds, and champions are crowned in their respective divisions. Some friends and family brought blankets and gloves and shared in the fun. Even the losers are smiling; no one wants to go to work tomorrow.
You curse the heavens as you swing your heavy, wet hockey bag onto your back, wincing as the weight of drenched pads strains your aching muscles. It felt a lot lighter on Friday, and the scale at the airport check-in counter will later confirm your suspicions. Your sticks clank in the bag as you tear it from its comfortable recline against the cold wall, and you reassure everyone you’ll be back next year. You wouldn’t miss it for the world, you say, and you mean it. You hug friends both new and old.
You leave the rink and creatively stuff your bags and sticks in the back of the rental car, suddenly grateful for the hours spent playing Tetris on your graphing calculator. How do people with sedans play this game, you wonder. You climb behind the wheel and map your route back to the airport. Hopefully you’ll pass a gas station on the way. You put your sunglasses on and smile, knowing you could die right then and there and somehow be alright with it. You’re filled with an inexplicable mix of happiness, gratitude, and sorrow, wondering how it’s possible.
It’s just a game.
Hockey and I go way back to when I was a kid, but I didn’t actually get to play until 2008 at the Chelsea Challenge in New York. It’s crazy to think how much of my life can be traced back to what, in the end, is really just a game. Like all relationships, the one I’ve got with hockey has transformed and matured and endured its rough patches, and I’d like to think we’re both better off for it. No matter how I envision my life going forward, hockey always figures in somewhere. It might not have quite the starring role it did in my earlier days, but it’s always there, however indirectly, donning what I imagine is a knowing smile once I put 2 and 2 together in my occasionally scattered brain.
In some ways, this past year has been one of my most varied when it comes to this beloved game. Pittsburgh Gay and Lesbian Hockey, which (mainly) Mike and I founded when we moved here in 2011, has continued to grow and now fosters a true community environment. The people that I’ve met on the team have become friends, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to see how happy playing on the team makes us. Sure, my work travels make me miss more games than I’d like for this and my ‘straight’ teams. Yes, we’ve got a wide gap in talent levels, and most games see victory in the form of keeping the opponents’ goal totals in the single digits. But that doesn’t bother me the way it would have when I was 25 because I’ve learned that the gold is found in the experience itself and not the result. It’s a terribly basic lesson, and I’m somewhat ashamed that it took me this long to fully understand and accept it. But when I look up and down the bench, full of players eager for the next shift or with a single soul gasping for breath, I know I’m home. All thanks to a game.
On the other hand, I’ve found myself less at home as a hockey fan. Rather, I think my lease is up and I need to find a new place in hockey fandom that better suits my needs and current situation. Social media can be a wonderful thing, but in the past 12 months or so, I’ve learned that it can also chip away at the joy you once took in being a spectator around 140 characters at a time. Granted, I shoulder a lot of the blame here, and I recognize this. No one’s forcing me to tune into what other folks are saying about this team or that, their analysis (or lack thereof, most often), or their “hot takes,” as the cool kids call ‘em.
What I will say is that social media really has an uncanny ability to bring out the ugliest in us, and it’s taken a toll on my ability to enjoy hockey as a fan. I’ve been a participant in the mess, and the more I see it happening, the more I feel like a complete and utter idiot for getting sucked into it as much as I did. Hell, there are times when I still slip right on up, but I recognize it and make a conscious effort not to do it. At the very least, I aim to grow the time between slip-ups, and I think that’s a fair goal on my end.
I’ve taken breaks from Twitter because of hockey, and the temptation comes back every now and again, especially come spring. Sometimes it’s hard not to take things personally when so much of your energy over the span of years has been channeled into a single pursuit. Then again, why take it personally in the first place at all? Why on earth would it even cross your mind to feel a little sting and lash out in response out of weakness and poor judgment? Why do I even entertain the debates in my head about whether or not I’m being a fan in the ‘right’ way, if such a thing even exists?
It’s just a game.
I took the time to write this guest post on PuckBuddys because playing this past weekend in the Madison Gay Hockey Association’s MGHA Classic brought a lot of these feelings to the forefront. I wanted to wonder and think out loud.
At the MGHA classic, everything I just wrote about came together. My boyfriend that I met through hockey played on my team, as did a close friend from New York and another who now lives in Madison. We were able to reconnect through the game that brought us together in the first place, and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of the past several years.
I also got to meet Tony (@jovenitti), the nice fellow who stepped up to take over covering the Pittsburgh Penguins when I scaled back due to work and the general fandom malaise mentioned above. If this tournament was any indication, I see hockey bringing him the same elation and comfort that it brought me when I started playing.
There’s something beautiful about that.
I’m still walking a little funny, and I entertained the idea of not going to the rink tonight due to my physical condition*. But the more my head told me that I’d be justified in skipping, the more my heart tugged and reminded me I’d regret it if I did. For once, I think I’ll give the heart what it wants without much of a fight. Even if it’s just a game.
*Update: I guess it’s a good thing I decided to play after all. Notched the game-winning goal in the shootout. You’re welcome, straights.