Agnes grew up playing hockey, she loves to play, and she was good enough and committed enough so that had she been male, she would have had some options for continuing to play at an appropriately high level. But she’s a girl, so she doesn’t. A friend gets her a job down in Wapahaska and she moves down there. Lo and behold, when she gets there she runs into a former teammate, a guy named Owen MacKenzie, who now plays for Wapahaska's professional hockey team, the Prairie Wolves. She goes to a couple of games, she starts getting interested, and when, one day, she has the day off, she decides to go and watch the team practice. And that’s where this scene takes place.
Agnes opened the door to the practice rink with anticipation
and, yes, even joy. The place was cavernous, cold, and unnaturally
white. There was no bright sky, there were no pale, winter
sunrays streaming from behind a fringe of dark trees to kiss
the tarnished ice, and there was no rough log where you could
sit while you pulled on your skates, surrounded by hand-me-down
snow boots and shovels and discarded layers of clothing.
Rather, the indoor rink was artificially, aggressively clean and
empty, the light even and undifferentiated, the space finite and
separated from the world outside by a hard membrane.
Though perhaps not beautiful, it seemed entirely right to
Agnes. For her, a game of hockey was a whole unto itself, a
complete entity encompassing desire, intent, action, and consequence.
But although separate from the everyday, it wasn’t
completely apart. The membrane between was occasionally,
Agnes appreciated the sensuous beauty of outdoor ice—
variable, uncharted, marked only by the elements—but she
also loved the clarity and the symmetry of the red lines and
blue lines, the circles and dots and hash marks. They lent their
own structure, delineated their own universe, in which order
could be born of chaos—bounded by certain laws, as was Nature
herself—and then be dissolved once more. The indoor hockey
rink was like a giant graph on which dramas would be plotted
and improvised, commenced and concluded, all in the perpetual-motion
aesthetic of the game that was, to Agnes, the most
beautiful game on the planet.
But before the game could begin, before the drama could
commence, there was practice, and that, for Agnes, was where it
all came together—or fell apart. Practice was where bodies and
minds learned to accommodate themselves to those laws, those
natural laws of hockey. For it was only after the players had absorbed
them, and had become secure in their positions and paths, their
orbits and trajectories, that the magic of creation could begin.
She stepped inside. A coach was taking shots at one of the
goaltenders, easy ones at first, aimed at the glove or the blocker,
to get him warmed up. Agnes loved the sound of the puck
popping into the glove or bouncing with a thud off the big, rectangular,
padded blocker into the corner. To her goalie self, these
sounds signified a save made, a puck steered to relative safety.
She felt a kinship with the guy behind that big, caged goalie
mask—whoever he was—and felt his saves as her own.
Agnes was so absorbed in the goalie’s practice that at first she
scarcely noticed when Owen and a couple of other guys hopped
onto the ice, arranged themselves in a sort of circle, and started
snapping a puck around. The clack of puck on stick was musical,
though, and she couldn’t resist it. Her hands itched for the feel
of it. These guys had hard shots, though: hard and fast. Even
Owen. Yeah—especially Owen. At the moment, his back was
to her, but the force of the guys’ passes and the subtle shuffle of
their skates to get in position for the next one pushed their circle
slowly clockwise, so that soon he’d be looking right at her. She
tried to stay out of sight, because she really wasn’t sure that she
wanted him to know she was there.
Meanwhile, more players emerged from the dressing room.
She could see them come trudging down the hall across the ice
from where she sat. Some started skating right away, some hit
the ice to stretch first, and others eased into the session leaning
against the boards, shooting the breeze with their teammates.
Little by little the noise increased. Each player added the slithering
of his skates, the resonance of his stick meeting a puck, and
the thwack of frozen rubber on the boards to the general racket.
After a few minutes of random activity, the boys started their
first, lazy, warm-up laps, some working with their sticks as they
sailed around the rink, loosening up their hands and wrists.
Their pads, helmets, and practice sweaters sheathed them
in exoskeletons of anonymity—even their facial features were
bleached out in the glaring light. But Agnes didn’t need to see
Owen’s face or name or number to recognize him on the ice.
She’d been secretly in awe of his clean, smooth skating since they
were kids, and she’d know it anywhere. He was deceptively fast,
and his turns were effortless. He was always square to the play.
There was never a flailing arm, never a misplaced motion, just one
unbroken, arching, curving line after another, perfectly paced,
perfectly balanced. She remembered skating with him when they
were younger, trying to match his stride and his movements. She
could come close then, but she wouldn’t be able to now.
Soon the coaches appeared, and at the whistle the players
gathered in a knot around them. Then they lined up to begin
the first drill. They worked on breakouts, east-west passing, drop
passing, and, finally, defending the two-on-one. With a D-corps
that virtually specializes in giveaways, thought Agnes, they’d
better pay particular attention to that one!
For an hour or so she lost herself in the rotating patterns and
ceaseless motion. The players shed the cool mien of guyhood
to reveal the open, hyper-aware faces of boys and the ferocious
abandon of men. They hurled themselves down the ice, an initial
giddyap catapulting them forward, skates splayed for maximum
bite, arms pumping. Frozen pucks thumped into gloves and
clattered along the boards, sticks smacked, bodies banged, men
cursed and hollered, the Coach’s whistle shrieked, and skates
whooshed like a firehose as they skidded to a stop in front of
Agnes remembered how intensity mounted during a good
practice, and how, even as it tired her, it psyched her up for the
coming contest. She knew that the boys got each other even
more revved up in the room, post-practice, and as ugly as their
little pranks and jokes and rituals no doubt were, she imagined
that they must also be, paradoxically, beautiful. Beautiful in
function, if not in form. But she’d never know for sure.
When the whistle blew for the last time, formal practice was
over. The polyphonic clatter thinned as the players started to leave
the ice. Agnes stood up and made her way out, too. In the lobby,
she glanced across the signs announcing classes and pickup
games, and the bulletin board where people posted notices about
used hockey gear, lost and found items, and teams forming. Then
she buttoned her coat and stepped out into the frozen afternoon.
The door closed behind her. All was still. Back when she used
to play, that stillness had been accompanied by a wonderfully
loose, post-workout buzz. Today she just felt stiff from sitting so
long in the cold air of the rink.