This is a picture of a little girl wearing double-bladed skates strapped over her shoes, being held up by her older brothers who both played hockey. Every winter this girl was taken from a warm bed at 5:00 am to accompany her brothers to before-school hockey practice, which was frequently held at the outdoor rink where this picture was taken. Her reward for wrapping herself in a blanket and making an effort to fall asleep on an icy wooden bleacher was a little cup of tepid hot chocolate from a hot drinks machine.
Like many people, this little girl saw herself as more talented and agile than she actually was (or had the work ethic to become). Nevertheless, she had a horse-faced, red-haired, easygoing skating coach named Martha Mogel with whom she trained twice a week wearing girly-girl pointy-toe skates. She did 45 minutes of “patch” (precise figure eights and such), and 45 minutes of “freestyle,” where she practiced jumps and spins. For her first competition she performed a routine choreographed by Martha and set to a specially cut record full of typical skating music (very Camelot). She wore an acid green skating dress made by her mother. More athletic than balletic, she skated like a well-trained chimp. When she was done the applause was scant, her mother noncommittal. Despite her love of Peggy Fleming, she quit soon after. Dorothy Hamill came along and her passion revived itself for another six months, and then she quit again.
Several seasons of forced attendance at University of Denver hockey games did not turn our little girl into a hockey lover. She dodged pucks that flew up into the stands during the warm-up, shrunk from the sound of players’ pre-helmet-era heads being slammed into plexiglass, and once threw up her dinner into a 32 oz. Coke cup held out by the guy in the row ahead of her. She was thrilled to finally be old enough to stay home by herself on hockey nights and watch that newfangled Saturday Night Live show instead.
Though her dad and brothers made the pilgrimage to see Slap Shot in the theater when it came out, and came home chuckling in that girls-wouldn’t-understand-it way that made her want to see it, too, as she grew older she usually switched away from it when it came on TV, not wanting to absorb another joule of hockey culture. Plus, she’d never been a big Paul Newman fan, though she once interviewed his terrific daughter Nell for a story about the organic division of Newman’s Own. So when, the other night, her husband Jack rented Slap Shot because he’d never seen it without commercials and dubbed-over profanity, she grudgingly cued it up in the DVD.
Turns out, watching that movie was like coming home to a rink full of drunk, foulmouthed, sweet-but-stupid-yet-still-really-funny cousins whom she hadn’t seen for twenty years. It was Bull Durham crossed with M*A*S*H. But most astonishing of all, it was written by a woman, and this woman must have had brothers who had 5:00 a.m. hockey practice in the dead of winter because how else could a movie script turn a shivering little girl’s tepid misery into mocha, and a not-so-young-anymore woman into a hockey movie lover?
So the next time she goes back home she’s going to dig up that autographed photo of Bobby Hull that she got when her dad drove everyone to the car dealership on South Broadway to meet the famous hockey player who came to the town that, at the time, didn’t even have a pro team. Sure, now that the Avalanche has won the Stanley Cup, everyone’s a hockey fan in Colorado. But back before that, there was a little hard core of hockey fans in Littleton, and at the sticky soft center of the hard core was a nauseated little girl wearing pointy-toe skates.