Sitting here at the kitchen table this morning, I’ve been watching some of the grandkids playing out back in the field. At first they were just running around wildly chasing each other, but now it looks like they are organizing some soccer drills and what eventually will become a game I am guessing. Watching the older kids with their 6 year old little brother brought me back to when I was a kid. I am the youngest of three kids. I have two older brothers by a few years. I followed them everywhere I was allowed when I was younger. And the great thing was that they would usually let me tag along with them. They taught me how to throw a ball, catch a ball, get hit by a ball, how to skate, how to use a hockey stick, how to ride a two wheeled bike and crash gracefully into trees and not cry or tell mom. All the important things in life of a kid growing up in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. I idolized and adored my two brothers back then. And still do to some extent now that we are older. But they are a little more geeky now that we are all adults.
We were raised in the city where playgrounds existed about every mile away, but they were rarely used by the kids in our neighborhood unless they were on a rec team. We had the back alley which literally was an old wagon trail that moved the military troops west in the 1800’s. It was a wide and crooked tarred perfect place to play baseball. At least as long as we only had 1st and 3rd base and home plate, which were pieces of old cardboard boxes cut in the shape of the bases and home plate.
The neighborhood was full of large Catholic families which all averaged about 5-7 kids per family, basically always enough for 2 teams. Most of the kids were boys that were my brother’s ages, at least it always seemed that way from my kid sister point of view. While I didn’t get to go with my brothers every time they went out to play, they did let me tag along often times to go to the alley and play baseball. I’d take my hand-me-down right-handed glove (even though I was left handed) and chase after them with all the other boys from the neighborhood to the middle of the alley where we would play baseball a good part of the day.
There all the wooden bats, and cardboard for bases and the one ball would be dropped in Mr. Hanson’s parking spot. The bases would be set out after discussion about the precise distance and then teams would be picked. I never was picked for a team, because as I was always told, I was going to be ever-lasting catcher. So in a way, I was on both teams.
As awful as ever-lasting catcher may sound, it thrilled me to get to be included. I was about 6years old and the only little kid allowed, and the only girl. Being ever-lasting catcher meant that for hours I would stand behind home plate and another bigger kid that was playing catcher and not let the ball get past me if it got past the real catcher. It was hard work, I mean really hard work. Behind home plate, in that crooked alley was a pretty good slope down to the street a half block away. And the street was sloped down to the corner where the sewer hole was. If a pitch came in hard and fast and the catcher missed and then I missed, I would have to scramble down the alley, in hopes of getting the ball, or it would be to the street, to the sewer hole and get the ball before it went down the sewer! After a few times of chasing the ball and everyone annoyed at having to stop the game, I learned to catch that ball often. And my brothers would practice throwing balls at me to dive for when we weren’t playing in the alley. A lot of ball was played in that winding crooked alley.
When winter came all of the boys were hockey players on school teams and rec teams. Girls weren’t allowed to play hockey on teams back then. But we were pretty fortunate, because we had a neighborhood rink that took up the two backyards of the neighbors next door to us. The neighborhood dads would get together and flood their yards every winter and in the spring others would get together and repair any yard that was hacked up. I was a little older when I was finally allowed to play hockey with the boys at the rink. When it was Winter in the neighborhood, we lived and breathed hockey. When they weren’t at their games, the neighbor boys would all skate and play at the neighbors rink.Everyone was welcome to skate at the rink, even if the kid who lived there wasn’t home. We would just knock on their back door and ask if they could turn on the floodlights so we could play. Imagine 15 or more kids in your yard and not one of them is your own. But that was how it was back then. No worries of injuries and lawsuits. No concerns of destruction. And if you messed up, any parent was free to give you a talking to as your own mom or dad would do.
I would come home from school, get a quick snack, and strap on my white figure skates. My dad drew the line at his daughter wanting hockey skates back then. This was decades before girls hockey teams came into existence, so I once again was the only girl out there with a rink full of boys older and bigger than me. And once again there was a catch to me being able to play hockey with the boys.
Because I had girls figure skates with the jagged front edges, I was only allowed to play... you guessed it...ever-lasting goalie. They insisted my skates chopped up the ice too bad. Try as I did, I couldn’t convince them that I didn’t skate or stop on my jagged toes. My big brothers would have been appalled if I did. But I wanted to play hockey so bad, that I resigned myself to ever-lasting goalie every day all the time. The boys were really good skaters, and players. They skated so well and dribbled that puck so fast it was hard to see it sometimes. But that isn’t too incredible, afterall, all of us were on skates about the time we could walk. We were from MInnesota where hockey was a big thing.
While I was happy to not have to chase a ball down the alley to the street and catch it right before it went down the sewer, being goalie had its own challenges. Mainly it was how to keep taking hit after hit from the puck to my shins. The boys didn’t cut me any slack and they would fire their slap shots at me all night long. I had welts and bruises the size of a hockey puck all over my shins. If it was nowadays and I was in school, there would be someone asking me if I felt safe at home. I looked pretty beat up. It was pretty painful, but I wasn’t going to say anything so I could keep playing. Then I got a great idea.
I was sitting at home and looking through my dad’s Field and Stream magazine and it came to me. I knew since I wasn’t allowed hockey skates, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be allowed shin guards either. So I grabbed a couple of National Geographic magazines and black tape we used to tape our hockey sticks with and taped the magazines around my legs as shin gaurds. I took my goalie stick and started hitting my shins, and it worked! I put on my snowpants and skates and went to the rink next door to take my spot as ever-lasting goalie.
I became fearless with my new protection. Let those slap shots nail me over and over again, it didn’t hurt. And then it happened. One of the older boys who was really, really good started skating in to shoot at me. I followed him, I moved right and then left to protect the net and then he took his shoot. It was the hardest slap shot ever and I got my stick out in front of me, but forgot in all the excitement to hold my stick straight up and down like my big brothers taught me. And it happened...the puck hit the stick and slid right up in the air into my mouth. While I had a moment of excitement that he didn’t score the goal, I then immediately saw blood all over the rink and my jacket. It was mine. No one ever thought of mouth guards back then for backyard hockey. The neighbor kid grabbed some snow and put it on my mouth. He commented that it was a good save but I had slanted my stick and that’s why it went into my mouth. I just nodded my head.
We sat there for a few minutes and the bleeding didn’t seem to be stopping. My lip had swollen to the point where it looked like the puck was lodged in my mouth. I tried talking and it sounded like the puck was in my mouth. Luckily my teeth were all still properly located and not loose. I had to run to the house to get the bleeding to stop. By the time I walked across the two yards and was coming in the back door, the bleeding had pretty much stopped. I was met at the door by my Dad who had just gotten home from work. He took one look at my lip and said it was time to hang up my skates for the night. In my swollen lip, hockey puck still in the mouth sort of way, I begged him to let me finish out the game until supper time. He looked at my lip, checked my mouth and teeth and let me go back out for a little longer. And he told me not to slant my stick.
That night after I came in, as I was sipping some soup through a straw and watching the Minnesota North Stars play hockey. I thought about how cool it would be to play on a professional team...or any rec team or school team for that matter. I was disgusted that girls weren’t allowed to play hockey. Although I never got to live that dream because I was a girl, the one who slammed that puck in my mouth that day did go on to play for the University of Minnesota and then the Minnesota North Stars and the New York Rangers.ANd that is my only claim to sports fame. Yep, I knew him when I could stop his goals with my goalie stick...and my mouth.