An excerpt from Seeking the Center
The set-up: 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 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. Soon after she arrives, she runs into a former teammate, 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 some time off, she decides to go and watch the team practice.
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, curiously, porous.
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 twack 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 the whiteboard.
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.