Monday, June 30, 2014

The power of pink.

Cars spill out onto aptly named Vimy Avenue. Many a war has been fought here, and as we wander through the familiar door, I sense the fight against mould and memory is a losing battle. 

I choke up on so many levels.

I was six when this ol’ barn in Halifax was christened Centennial Arena, and this is where it all began. “It” being my life as a hockey mom. My launch into a foreign society that would become family — albeit dysfunctional — with a cousin or two you would happily run over in the rink parking lot.

In 1967, hockey was the only religion in our Chicago home. My dad dragged us to Blackhawks games, silencing us with cotton candy that I would throw up, faithfully, on the way home. Little girls didn’t play hockey in my world. I wonder what my life would have been like if they had.

Tonight though, we are spectators. My boy is beside me, wishing he wasn’t, and we have come to cheer on the Halifax Hawks midget double-A team — for no other reason than love and support — a little something I picked up along with rink-fry ass.

Tonight, things look like any other hockey game — except for the ponytails, and the provincial championship on the line.

From what I understand, the Halifax girls have their hands full with this corn-fed Annapolis Valley team. And, as fate would have it, this game had a history before it began. Two weeks ago, in double overtime, with a score of 0-0, the power went out.

The hockey community is notoriously quick to point fingers (just ask James Reimer). Crappy officiating. The goalie. The coach. The list is endless. But Nova Scotia Power?

Hockey rules dictated that the entire game had to be replayed. In the ensuing weeks, Halifax used their blackout momentum to upset the Valley in the league championship. But could they keep the sparks flying?

There’s a familiar face behind the Halifax bench. From my perch, I see a tiny patch of bald in what was a full head of hair when he began coaching my child a decade ago. Graham Burgess is a legend in this community. He is the encouraging word to the defenceman who turned over the puck. He is unwavering post-game praise.

While other coaches lead with the grace of Mayor Rob Ford, Burgess guides his troops with civility. Tonight, eyeing my son in the bleachers, Burgess’s smile induces my second wave of nostalgia.

Afterward, I asked Burgess how coaching girls is different. “Girls comprehend a system quicker,” he said. “And their egos aren’t as big.” He believes that “you can push girls, but you have to keep it positive.”

“This is a good thing for any coach to do — with girls and boys." He believes. "We’re managing positive thoughts and feelings to enable your athletes to perform better.”

I now understand why the jump from bantam to major midget was so hard for some boys. It wasn’t the step up in speed and strength. It was the leap from Coach Burgess.

The first documented women’s hockey game was in 1892, but enthusiasm has been skyrocketing since 1998. Last year, 87,230 girls enrolled in hockey across Canada — thanks, in part, to role models such as Hayley Wickenheiser.

I used to love watching Halifax’s Jillian Saulnier outskate the boys, until her career took a successful NCAA turn. Once, while stacking wood at a neighbour’s, Jillian was the first to put down her road-hockey stick and pitch in, working long after the boys quit.

It is that kind of feisty spirit that brings me to the rink.

Tonight, I'm cheering on a kid who “stands out,” according to Burgess, because she’s a “fierce competitor who plays as hard as she possibly can every shift.”

Sophie Kinley also has a smile that could light up a darkened arena.

As fate would have it, Sophie’s efforts weren’t enough to help stave off the vengeful Valley team. Or the ensuing tears.

For a few, tonight would be their last hockey game. The lucky ones will play varsity. Others may coach, referee or join a “wine” league. Some will simply “hang ’em up.”

What these players will never hang up are the life skills and memories gained from hockey. Teamwork. Respect. And a few stories to tell their granddaughters.

Burgess says the “power outage” game was one he will “cherish forever.” A game that exemplified “determination, emotional control and amazing sacrifice.”

Bitter, and lacking those fine qualities, I chirp, silently, “Screw you, Nova Scotia Power.” 

There’s enough sparkle in these players to illuminate the world.

Originally published in the Chronicle Herald. Cindy Schultz is a natural-born cynic who owns her own advertising and branding agency. Her son plays in the OHL.