A pilot, a vet tech and an elementary school teacher walk into a cold, fluorescent-lit locker room.
No joke: This is adult women’s recreational ice hockey. In Florida.
Adult team sports attract a human spectrum, and the 13-year-old nonprofit Florida Women’s Hockey League, which hosts weekend tournaments and other hockey events for grownup rink rats like me, is no exception. We make for a fantastic assortment: police officers, programmers, printers, artists, executives, scientists, firefighters, servers, students, PAs, Ph.D.s and stay-at-home moms, comprising teams from Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Fort Myers.
This month, April 27-30, some of us, along with a few hundred other players from around the country, will compete in the 2017 USA Hockey Adult Women’s Rec Nationals at Manatee County’s Ellenton Ice & Sports Complex.
I joined the FWHL 12 years ago when I signed up for Ellenton’s Gulf Coast Ms Conduct team. Since then, my hockey peers have never ceased to astound me, both on the ice and off. Our defense is led by a no-nonsense Canadian-expat veterinary technician well versed in ovariohysterectomies and mastiff wrestling. A retired Air Force pilot who flew KC-135 Stratotankers lines up opposite me at right wing. Our net minder, a wry third-grade teacher, believes her hockey-warped instincts have given her superhuman calm. She once stood unflinching as a rogue pencil hit her square in the eye, saying, “What do you expect? I’m a goalie.”
Out there in the real world we double as responsible grownups in suits, skirts, scrubs or coveralls. But come Friday night of a tournament weekend, we strut into the rink wearing track pants and hoodies, taking our spots in a locker room full of nervous energy. We suit up for battle in skates, pads, jerseys, gloves and helmets. Sticks in hand, we trade fist bumps and shin taps as we file out to the ice.
Hockey is a game of nonstop adjustments and mistakes, stops and starts, punctuated every few moments by possibility—a perfect pass, a lucky bounce, an open angle. And when everything is just right, that swelling excitement evolves into sheer joy: quick stride, puck flat on the ice and right on your stick, deke, backhand, bar-down, goal. That two-second memory instantly burns into your life’s mental highlight reel.
All the rest is just grinding and laughter. Minds miles away from budgets and board rooms, we clear the crease, battle in the corner, block shots, chase down deflections, shout at teammates or the other team or referees, and guffaw like hyenas when someone trips on the blue line or beefs it going over the boards.
We could be down 5-0, up 3-2, or tied 0-0 late in the third; most in-game moments feel equally significant. Our goalie, the unflappable elementary school teacher, slides across the crease to make a ridiculous pad save, and from the bench, sticks pound in appreciation. Another teammate, mother of three, fights for the puck along the boards, digs and kicks and finally gets it out of the zone. Our bench roars its approval, “There you go, Rachel!” A marketing manager gathers the puck in the neutral zone and gains speed, only to lose it to an opponent’s well-timed poke-check. The team gasps, then groans.
My Air Force linemate, hustling to the bench, stumbles and slides up to the doorway on her belly as jokes rain down from the peanut gallery of teammates: “You’re a bit short of the runway, there, Captain.”
Four games a tournament, three long periods apiece, and all of them end with the two teams gliding past one another in the handshake line. It’s a chance to look your foes in the eyes, exchange knowing grins and acknowledge hard-fought respect—or, at the very least, forge a grudging agreement to postpone the fight until next time.
The post-game locker room is our hockey heaven, our pirate ship of cinderblock walls, dank rubber flooring and faulty fluorescence—“the best bar in the world,” I like to call it. This is where all that on-ice effort soaks back into everyday consciousness. In the steam of showers and hockey stink, to a soundtrack of separating Velcro and still-adrenalized chatter, we pelt each other with praise and potshots and discarded balls of tape.
Our camaraderie manifests as coarse and delightful discourse.
“Dude, way to knock that puck down at the end there. You pulled it right out of the air.”
“Oh, man, did you like that? I was psyched.”
“It was amazing. Of course it would’ve been more amazing if you could hit the net.”
“Says the [expletive] with the sand-wedge slap shot. Jerk.”
Eventually, beers in hand, butts on benches and feet propped up on stuffed, zippered gear bags, we wind down our locker room ceremony. Thoughts turn to the week ahead, to offices and classrooms and kitchens, where we’ll go back to waiting tables, fiddling with spreadsheets, mending animals and shaping young minds. All the things we do while dreaming of hockey.
USA Hockey 2017 Women’s Rec Nationals
30+, 40+, 50+ age groups
Ellenton Ice & Sports Complex
5309 29th St. E., Ellenton