I'm still unsure which pads went on first, but once I was in full ice hockey gear, I felt like a gladiator ready for battle. As a youngster growing up in New York state, I had no jock tendencies, preferring books to pucks. Thus, the only pads I was familiar with were the plastic shin guards hidden in my tube socks that one season I played under-12 girls soccer. I ran track in high school, but having chosen a sport that was void of any contact, I was indeed a newbie when it came to gear.
So nothing had prepared me for the head-to-toe armor I was encased in that summer afternoon at the Kingsgate Ice Arena in Kirkland, Washington, a suburb of Seattle.
On August 8, the Seattle Women's Hockey Club hosted a GHAT (Give Hockey A Try) session for women over 18. Each veteran paired up with a beginner, like myself, to help her put on her pads, lace skates, and provide encouragement. About 25 beginners showed up for the free event.
Admittedly, I was disappointed we had only an hour of ice time. Scheduled from 4 to 5 pm, we started with basic drills followed by 3-on-3 half-ice scrimmages. I knew it would go quick and wished for another hour.
Within 20 minutes, however, fully engaged in a passing drill and taking shots on goal, I was close to exhausted and dripping with sweat. Thankfully, I had heeded someone's advice to tie a bandana around my forehead before putting on my helmet. I wasn't so fortunate in the hydration department though. They told us to bring water, which I did. However, with a full cage covering my face, my bike water bottle wasn't cutting it. I needed to buy one of those adult sippy cups with the long stretchy straw.
I was paired with Josie, who was super nice and friendly. She snapped the three straps on my helmet and adjusted the size for a secure fit. At 5'4" and 145 lbs., I was one of smaller players but Josie worked some magic with athletic tape on my kneepads and ill-fitting pants. Once you're on the ice, skating is all that matters.
One of the experienced players, a tall, athletic woman on skates with no pads or helmet, welcomed us to gather around for instructions. A few of us were first timers. Others had skated a bit but had not played hockey and some seemed like they were just rusty. I had been skating on hockey skates for about a year but it was my first time in full gear and playing with puck and stick.
The white shirts were us newbies; the blue shirts the experienced players. The remaining veterans, sitting the sidelines unable to join since we were in their gear, cheered and took photos.
For the first ten minutes, we all bobbled around the ice with sticks poking at random pucks. Playing southpaw, I reached for a puck and dribbled down the ice until I lost control and picked up another puck around the next turn. Surprisingly, I got used to the helmet right away and felt comfortable in the pads. In fact after a few wipeouts, landing on my knees, my behind and tummy, I felt uninhibited and not afraid of falling. It was a different story when we scrimmaged and I flailed out of control trying to gain possession of the puck.
We did a drill practicing getting up after falling, one of the most important skills. After I got the hang of it, I just went for it. You’ll only become a better skater by skating, I thought. You can watch YouTube videos and talk about it all day, but it’s all about ice time. Unlike men's hockey, women's hockey has no checking, but the sport inherently has contact, falling and wipeouts. Even the best players lose footing, catch an edge and land on their face, or another player.
I didn’t score any goals and the next day all of my muscles including those in my neck were sore. I was grateful experienced players took us newcomers under their wing. Where else could I get this kind of specialized attention, for free? I’ve seen sign-ups at my local rink for Stick n Puck sessions but without the right gear you’re not allowed on the ice. This was a chance not only to get familiar with the pads but also get the encouragement I needed. An ‘old’ dog can learn new tricks.
In fact, at the end of the session as we were peeling off our sweaty layers, we had some banter in the locker room about the oldest player. At 45, I thought I might be close until someone chimed in: “There’s that older lady. I think she’s like in her 50s.”
Advice for beginners, from a beginner
Wear a polypro wicking layer. No cotton or you’ll be drenched.
Ramp up your water intake a few days beforehand to stay hydrated and invest in a water bottle with extended straw.
For your first time, try playing with your non-dominant hand. You may surprise yourself.
Fall, a lot, and practice getting up quickly. Once you master that, you will be fearless and skate with more confidence.
Keep your knees bent and chin up. Beginners make the mistake of looking down at the ice or the puck. Remember, your body goes where your head goes.
Avoid saying "sorry" on the ice. Errant passes and wipeouts are part of the game.