There was no place she would rather be, the soothing sounds of blades cutting through the fresh ice, a small piece of rubber quietly dancing back and forth on the blade of her stick. An hour had passed since a ten year old Zoe had stepped off the school bus, grabbed her skates and her stick, and headed for quiet hidden pond in the woods behind her home. It was a place just like this that the game began, and it was here that Zoe loved it the most.
“Zoe come and get some dinner, it is almost time!”
Her Mother’s voice carried through the trees like a northern breeze, and it made Zoe shiver. She came to a quick stop, firing one more puck towards a large piece of wood she had dragged out there, the chalk hockey net outline now barely visible through the countless black marks. She took a deep breath and admired the low sunset as it showered the ice with its bit of light. She didn’t want to go.
“Come on Zoe, it’s a big game get your head into it” Her Father could tell she was distracted. “Eat up; this is the exact same meals the Pros eat before the Playoffs”
“Yes Dad” She responded trying to force food into a stomach full of butterflies.
Zoe wasn’t nervous about playing the game, that part she loved; it was everything that happened before and after that troubled her, the playoff game for that night was against a rival team from a neighboring town. The very thought of playing this particular team made Zoe cringe, not because they were tough or aggressive, that challenge made the game worth playing, but rather it was because ultimately the team would be accompanied by their parents.
To Zoe, hockey was about the game, it was about being with her teammates and together doing something they all felt so passionately about. However the noise that came pouring down from the stands made Zoe feel small and it created great sadness in her heart. Every game was the same, each time a whistle blew on the ice there would be a deafening racket filling the seats, most of it Zoe could only describe as “those words”, the kind she knew she was never to use. She felt bad for her little brother because she knew he was sitting right beside her Mom and Dad, whose voices she could plainly make out.
As she stood outside the circle at the next faceoff, Zoe closed her eyes and pictured the pond, she felt the winter sun on her rosy cheeks, she pictured the way the trees stood tall and silently supported her every stick handle. It was at that moment Zoe realized she had missed the drop of the puck and an opposing player had taken off with it right next to her. She tried to react and skated hard back, but as her arms pumped faster her stick got caught in the player’s skates causing her to fall. As the referee’s arm went up her heart sank, and she realized they were getting a penalty shot.
As she sat in the middle of the bench with her head down she heard the crowd erupt, the other team had scored and there was no time left on the clock, slowly Zoe got up and went to the ice to shake hands, her teammates patting her on the back in support as her eyes scanned the ice. As the line of players moved together they suddenly stopped, all heads quickly turned towards the crowd as the angry shouts got louder. Zoe could plainly make out two separate groups of people pointing and shouting at each other, some of them even pushing each other. All of a sudden someone who her Father was shouting at shoved him, knocking him over. As her Dad fell, in what appeared to be slow motion, Zoe saw the small figure of her brother; he was crouched over in his seat his hands raised to his ears to try and block the noise. When her Father landed at her brother’s feet, his arms gently spilled the boy’s popcorn and a can of grape soda.
Zoe could take no more and quickly made a tearful retreat to the sanctuary of the locker room, the coaches quickly shuffling all of the girls in and closing the door. But the heavy metal door was no match for the loud screams and horrific language that had spilled from the rink into the lobby. As Coach opened his mouth to address the team he was interrupted by the heartbreaking sound of seventeen young girls crying in unison. Not one teammate had removed her helmet, most likely to help hide the fears and the tears that were written all over their faces. The sobbing only got louder when the distant sound of sirens could be heard as police cars came screeching into the parking lot.
When she gently closed her damp eyes to escape the moment, Zoe was struck with an idea. Slowly she stood up and removed her helmet and set it gently on a hook. She looked up and down the room at each and every girl there, she loved each and every one of them and she knew this was not what any of them signed up for.
“This is not hockey” She started, he voice quivering only for a second. “This is not the game we love, this is not why we are here.”
The room paused, and one by one every girl looked up, every girl took off their helmet, and every girl turned their swollen eyes to Zoe who now stood defiant in the middle of the room. Looking towards her Coach Zoe was encouraged by his head motion to continue as he took a spot in one of the stalls.
“My name is Zoe and I am a Hockey Player, and I play this game because it is something I love, I play it for you and I play it for me, but because of our parents we are losing our game, and I am here to take it back”
“But Zoe…. How?” came the small squeaky voice of the Goalie. “How can we stop our parents?”
Over the next several minutes Zoe outlined her plans to her team, and with her Coach in full support they all agreed to do their part to make it happen. When she was finished speaking she was joined in the middle of the room by each of her teammates, she was right in the center of a giant group hug.
The ride home was as unpleasant as Zoe expected, her Father was very quiet but visibly angry, muttering questionable words under his breath. Her Mother was just as angry but she certainly wasn’t as quiet.
“Just what were you thinking on that faceoff? Where was your head?” Her Mother started. “Zoe, how much money have we spent on training, you know better.”
Zoe sat silently in the backseat knowing that any response she gave would not be well received and would be simply shrugged off as an excuse. But as she sat there arms folded, her brother reached out to hold her hand offering her simple comfort.
“I thought you looked great Zoe, really” Her Brother whispered, holding back more tears. Zoe gently squeezed his hand and gave him a smile.
“You have no reason to smile” Catching her eye in the rear view mirror her Father finally spoke. “You need to think about what you did, and you better have it figured out before we play them again tomorrow.”
Zoe just closed her eyes and drifted off to her special place. “I have tomorrow figured out Dad” she thought to herself. “Just you wait and see.”
School couldn’t end fast enough for Zoe, as soon as she stepped off the bus she again ran straight for her skates and a stick. Again after an hour of warm up she was called in for dinner, and Zoe was hungry plowing right through her “Pro’s Dinner.” She knew her Mom and Dad were talking to her, probably going over tonight’s game plan, but her mind was elsewhere so she absently nodded in agreement.
Zoe was anxious during the ride to the arena, she could hear her Dad talking on and on about how the game should go and what he will do if that ‘other father’ gets out of line again. Her Mother in agreement simply feeding into the already high tension level that existed in the car. They just couldn’t get to the parking lot fast enough. When they arrived she was the first out of the car, quickly grabbed her gear and headed for the doors.
Once inside Zoe checked for her room and made her way down the hall towards it. She passed by some of the opposing players and gave them a knowing glance; they were in on this too. Never before had the teams dressed so quickly, and the moment they were ready out the back doors they went, the sight of the waiting school bus was welcome indeed to both teams. Zoe was sure that as the bus pulled out of the back of the lot, there were two groups of parents standing out front, huddled separately into two different gangs of needless hate.
When they pulled into the driveway the bus stopped and there was a squeal of excitement throughout. Zoe’s Coach stood at the front of the bus ready to address the crowd of thrilled hockey players.
“We all know why we are here” said her Coach “We are here because we all love this game, now let’s get out there and play it the way we want it played, Zoe why don’t you lead us down there.”
Zoe had never taken anyone down to the pond in the woods, but as she guided two teams of girls down the thin snow covered path her eyes welled up when she moved into the clearing. There in front of her was her little pond; on either side some quickly assemble boards stood strong, lights in all four corners. As she stepped out she felt a hand on her shoulder pads, looking up she saw it was Coach.
“Zoe this is for you, this is for your love of the game, this is for our love of the game.”
“Thanks Coach” she replied holding back tears long enough to wrap her arms around his waist.
Coach stepped onto the ice, turned and looked at the girls. “Ok Girls, you know how this is going to be played, now everybody get your sticks into center so we can make teams”
Zoe was given the honor of tossing sticks, she worked quickly to separate them into two even teams, Coach had even thought to bring bibs to separate the player’s into colors. Now the game could get started. As Zoe lined up on her wing to await the puck drop, she looked around; the trees stood where they always did but this time it appeared as though their branches reached a little higher to the sky as if holding their arms up in a collective silent celebration. The ref (Coach) dropped the puck, and it was game on.
The game went on forever, well that is up until in the distance Zoe could see a long stream of headlights headed up to her driveway. The loud shouts and noise that had haunted so many of these girls was now headed down the pathway towards the makeshift rink. As they stepped forward on to the rink, all the other girls froze in their place; they remained still and very silent.
“What is going on here Zoe!” yelled her Dad as he stepped out from the crown onto the frozen pond. “We were sitting in the cold rink forever…….” He never got the final words out.
Zoe’s Father was lying flat on his back on the ice, having slipped as he stepped forward in anger, his eyes rapidly blinking trying to figure out what had just occurred. As he tried to get up, he managed only to his knees before Zoe skated over to him, pushing snow up on his pants. Slowly undoing her helmet she never took her eyes off her Fathers. Zoe spoke first.
“Dad this is my game, it is hers and hers and hers” she said evenly while pointing out the girls around her. “This game is ours and we want it back, we are taking it back.”
Her father’s face went white, even more so than the snow in the trees, even paler than the moon that hung high above them. As he went to speak, she turned and skated back to the girls, turned and faced the awe struck crowd that had assemble along the boards.
“We are not here to find out whose daughter is better than whose, we are not here to compete for the affection of our parents, we are not here to make it to the pros” This new voice was coming from deep inside Zoe, from a place she had kept guarded for so long.
“The only thing we want to do is play the game we love, and for the reasons we love it and all we ask of you is support for our effort and respect for our game.” Then she broke down.
Zoe fell to her knees and pushed her face deep in her gloves, she openly wept in front of the stunned crowd. As she remained motionless on the ice she felt a small hand on her head lifting her face upwards. It was her brother, and as he bent forward he whispered in her ear. “Zoe, I love the way you play.”
Just then she heard a single stick tap on the ice, then another, then yet another until all the girls from both teams were tapping their sticks encouraging Zoe to her feet. As she rose, the parents started to clap in time with the players, their hands started to bang on the boards as they began to circle the rink. Zoe got to her feet and looked around; she saw her Mom and Dad and all the other Moms and Dads, their hands in the air like the trees standing quietly behind them. Slowly she reached for her bucket, slid it on her head and yelled. “Game On.”
With that a loud cheer rang out from everyone standing there in the cold. Zoe turned and skated back to the girls who opened their arms and took her in, and before she knew it, she was in the center of a giant group hug.