Earlier this month, I had the chance to see a bunch of my hockey friends, ladies mostly in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, display the wide-eyed joy and excitement of 10 year olds. The night was one that I will never forget, and I don’t think any of my teammates will either.
Our recreational women’s league, the Kitchener-Waterloo Women’s Recreational Hockey League (KWWRHL), plays on Saturday nights at an arena in Kitchener, Ontario, that is relatively new, has large change rooms, but is otherwise unremarkable. We usually average around 8 spectators; husbands playing on their smartphones, children climbing on the seating, and one or two gals waiting around for the next ice time.
For whatever reason, this season, the City of Kitchener moved two of our Saturday game locations from the aforementioned unremarkable arena to the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, known locally as The Aud. What at first seemed to be a scheduling hassle—requiring the league to notify players, referees, and timekeepers of the unusual change—turned out to be an unforgettable hockey experience for some of the women in the league.
The Kitchener Memorial Auditorium was built in 1950. There are currently three ice pads, and the main ice, the Cardillo ice pad, has a seating capacity of almost 8000, and almost all of those 8000 seats are filled on the nights when the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers take the ice. The Rangers consistently have an average of over 97% capacity attendance annually, one of the top two teams in attendance figures in the OHL. Many of those regularly attending Rangers games are players from the KWWRHL.
When the schedule came out showing that our team was playing at The Aud, we excitedly realized that we were playing on the main rink where the Rangers play. Some of the players in the women’s league had played on this ice before in tournaments, but most of us had only seen this ice as spectators at Rangers games or other historic hockey events such as the women’s 4 Nations Cup, which has been held in Kitchener.
I arrived at the arena on the Saturday night a little anxious as to how I would find the change room. After all, the change rooms for the big ice were down below the concourse in an area of the arena closed off to the public during Rangers games. I walked in the arena and through the doors to the ground level of the big ice, and was a bit stunned to see the huge arena with all the seats empty, and two of the teams in my league playing on the ice. I hadn’t expected the awestruck feeling that came over me.
I had arrived a bit early for my own game, and when I did find the change room, I went in expecting it to be empty as I was so early. To my surprise, there were already several sticks in the corner by the door and I could hear buzzing and excited conversation. The majority of my team, the Jenni Does Designs Red Dragons, were there and were chattering away as if they’d each consumed a can or two of energy drinks!
“I can’t believe we get to play here!” remarked one player. Another said, “I know! My kids are so excited to see me play on this ice!” A third added, “My kids were very excited and asked if they could sit wherever they wanted, even right behind the bench!”
Another player noted that her parents were coming to watch. I told everyone that our team sponsor was coming. It was starting to sound like we might draw a huge crowd—at least huge in relation to the number of people who usually came to watch us.
Yet another player mentioned that she had been asked by her family to score a goal so that she could say she scored at The Aud. Others wondered if the JumboTron would be on and functioning, showing replays of any controversial calls. I said sarcastically that with all the people who were coming to watch, I wondered if the arena staff would have the concessions up and running. Another player hoped her kids would be there to high-five us as we came through the tunnel to the bench.
As the game time approached, one of our blueliners declared: “We should get out to the bench and be ready to go on the ice! The Zambonis here clear the ice very quickly!” Someone else retorted that there likely would not be two Zambonis in use for our women’s rec games, and we all laughed. We headed out to the bench and were first so overwhelmed at being on ice level and looking up to see the seating all around us. No one could stand still on the bench while we were waiting for the Zamboni doors to close—everyone was, probably without realizing it, rapidly weaving from side to side or bouncing up and down on the bench, and someone even asked if we REALLY had to wait for the Zamboni doors to close before we could go on the ice. Finally those doors did close and we couldn’t get the sticky door handle to open. Once we did, we clumsily piled out the door and onto the ice.
Three things struck me as I skated around for the warmup. First, the size of the place—it looked so much bigger from ice level than it ever had to me as a spectator. Second, the lack of fans. . .as usual there were a couple of husbands thumbing their smart phones and children climbing and jumping on the seating. But in an arena of this capacity and size, they looked like little specks scattered randomly around the arena. They were so far away from us that most of us couldn’t even see them well enough to recognize our friends and family members. Most noticeable though, was the silence. Silence in a large space is more eerie than silence in a small space because it is so unnatural in a place designed to be loud.
Soon the puck was dropped on the opening faceoff, and the jitters gradually dissipated. The occasional shouts of the players, the infrequent ref whistles, and the crack of the puck hitting sticks and boards did not do much to counter the haunting quiet that hung over us. Suddenly, our opponents scored and our timekeeper buzzed the goal horn! With the blaring of the horn, we snapped back into the reality of the big ice!
A couple of minutes later, I had my own big ice moment. I was near the opposing goal unmarked, and my winger made a great pass across to me, and I put it in the net. Before I realized what was happening, the goal horn was sounding again, and my teammates were swarming me! We had decided in advance that since we were playing on the grand stage of hockey, if we scored, the line on the ice would skate along the bench for the high-fives. Our attempt at that failed miserably because as we got to the bench, the other line was already coming onto the ice, and we ended up in a bottleneck traffic jam. Clearly we were not ready to celebrate like the OHLers!
For someone like me, who scores maybe three goals in a season, scoring at The Aud was something that I just couldn’t fully process at the time. Back on the bench, my line decided that we were going to try to set each other up to score so that we would each be able to say we’d scored in this game. And that’s what we did do, which led to numerous scoring chances and goals. There was lots of hugging and excitement when any of our teammates would score and when our goalie made great saves, and the smiles on the faces of the gals never faded.
The scoring was back and forth and back and forth between my team and our opponents throughout all three periods. We were winning 4-3 with less than a minute left in the game. By now the fervor of both teams was reaching high levels from the excitement of the game itself coupled with the setting. I swear I could hear the cheers of the ghosts of six decades of fans urging us on to victory. At this point, the crowd noise was overwhelming my ears. I think that watching high-level hockey games for so many years had trained my brain to know that in a one-goal game with less than a minute remaining, the decibel levels in an arena are off the charts. And this is truly what I was hearing in my head.
Then suddenly, the other team scored. We were now tied 4-4 with only about 40 seconds left in the game. My team wanted to win so badly, for our few fans, for ourselves, and also for the bragging rights of the experience. My line went off the ice, and I said to the oncoming centre, “Go score!” Sure enough, she complied, and with only a few seconds left, she put one past the opposing goalie and we were up 5-4. That ended up being the final score in our historic win.
Our team went back to the changeroom still filled with adrenaline. Everyone expressed a desire to play more games at The Aud, something that really isn’t practical or possible considering the Rangers’ schedule. We energetically verbally relived each goal, each save, each defensive goal line clearance, each blocked shot. . .everyone on the team played a crucial part in the win.
Next was the inevitable injury show-and-tell. I had brusied my knee badly in a fall. Another player had taken an errant stick to the calf. One of our ace defenders had blocked a shot with her arm, and the puck happened to hit in one of the very small spaces not covered by her equipment—the inside of her elbow. She was grimacing a bit about the pain until her defense partner reminded her that she would have a great bruise to show off as a souvenir of our glorious win at the Aud, and her grimace turned immediately to a grin.
In that space of a few hours that one evening, we were all kids again. We were all real hockey players playing in a real arena. We scored real goals, got real bruises, and made real saves. So many boys and men get to play in a big forum with lots of fans and the big-crowd ambiance. For us, this was our big time. Over time, I might forget that I scored a goal or that I bruised my knee. What I won’t forget is the pure exhilaration and childlike joy we experienced as a team, and what I will definitely remember most is the roaring of the crowd as we scored our final game-winning goal.