Google+ Two-Wheeled Tourist: Life, love, and the privilege to play hockey.

2.10.2012

Life, love, and the privilege to play hockey.

Since I'm at the hockey rink several times a week, I often see younger hockey players practice while their parents watch. Some of them are quite enthusiastic and even cheer for their kids during mundane scrimmages or drills.

Sometimes I'd even hear a positive comment or two directed at their kid, something like "You did a great job out there." or "I like how you fought for that puck and didn't give up on the play."

When I think about my own childhood experiences in hockey (or anything else for that matter), I find that interaction between parent and child to be quite strange and awkward. All I remember was the lack of compliments despite my successes, the non-existence of affection that was usually replaced with a surplus of insults and discouragement. This pattern continued throughout my younger years and it has only been by my move across the country a couple years ago that their nagging and complaining has finally diminished to just very deep and painful memories.

Now, besides the motorcycles that are obviously one of the loves of my life, I've enjoyed watching and reading about hockey for as long as I could remember, which was pretty strange for a young Asian girl growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Perhaps it was the equipment, the cool uniforms, or the finesse of the players as they would glide across the ice with ease. Or maybe it was that damn Disney movie. Regardless, it was a sport that hooked me once I scraped up the $15 to buy myself a street hockey stick and ball and strapped on those rollerblades nearly a decade and a half ago.

After I played roller hockey casually on an empty cement slab surface next to the roller hockey rink at Wilson Park in Torrance for a short period of time, I felt ready enough to give organized play a shot. I begged my parents to let me give roller hockey a try at that same rink. Of course they refused, because "girls shouldn't play dangerous sports," a very ironic statement since I was forced to take martial arts at the time. I harassed them until they buckled, mentioning it at every moment I could, even getting to the point in which I filled out the waiver form myself and put it on the table for them to sign. After I finally got through the paperwork after a couple weeks, it continued to be an uphill struggle just to get ready to play. My father griped and complained while we were at Sport Chalet choosing my first shin pads, gloves, helmet, and elbow pads while my mother stayed in the other corner of the store staring at fitness clothes, trying her hardest to not have anything to do with this new, unconventional endeavor.

Even at the age of 11 I was wondering why it was so difficult to do something fun. I had lots of friends that played all sorts of sports and did all kinds of extracurricular activities during the school year and throughout the summer, going to art classes, summer camps, and fun vacations out-of-town. However, they were all boys. So it was really because of my lack of male parts that I was steered into some level of complacency. Although coming to that obvious conclusion was simply too simplistic for such a traditional family, because wanting to be a part of Girl Scouts was out of the question too - just way too "white" and "American" for their tastes. They emphatically over-justified their paranoia by saying that they were "restricting me for my own good." I was convinced that if I didn't continue to fight them, I would be nothing more a dazzling star locked inside a box.

Strangely enough, they did stick around to watch my very first roller hockey game in 1996 (I think my father was too lazy to go out and do something else in the meantime), and it would be one of the last ones that I played in that they would ever choose to see. I played defense, a familiar position from my only season playing soccer (which was a sport I was forced to play because I was "fat" to their standards). I managed an assist, a tripping penalty, and countless falls in that game. Tired and sore, I was pretty thrilled afterward and looked forward to the next week. Not my parents, though; they were quite disappointed that I couldn't skate as fast as most of the kids out there who had been playing for years.

So in the car on the way home, my father berated me for "even trying to play" and my mother continued laughing at the fact that I fell down at least once a shift, naming her particular favorites from memory. For a woman who couldn't ride a bicycle or drive a car, she certainly had some choice words for my lack of skating ability.

I replied to them proudly, "I'm proud of what I did today and I'm going to keep playing hockey."

That earned me a slap in the face from my father once we got home. At least his hand didn't have dish soap because that stung the eyes, much worse than the giant gaudy gold ring on his finger. But I continued to play and improve my skills season after season. I think they kept signing my papers every season in hopes that one day I would eventually quit, so at least I can be grateful for that.

I took the first opportunity I could to switch to goalie from defense in 1999, and thanks to a very understanding hockey coach, I was able to practice playing the position despite pleas from my mother to stop "for the health of my growing breasts" and from my father to "do something else that I was actually good at." Goaltending made me enjoy hockey even more, and I continued to work at perfecting my craft from week to week, taking advantage of every possible opportunity to play on evenings and weekends.

Because of my consistent level of play and quick improvement, I was invited to play goalie in a roller hockey tournament in Hawaii. However, I was denied the chance to go because I was the only female player on the all-boys' team and, according to my parents, traveling with that many males (and staying in the same hotel rooms as all the moms) in a single group was "dangerous" and "corrupting." In ironic fashion, my team proceeded to win the tournament championship without me. At that moment, I knew it was the final straw. I was even more determined to leave this absurd environment of fabricated limitations, work hard at improving myself in the sport, and prove that hockey was going to take me places.

So I continued to play roller (and eventually ice) hockey throughout high school and my nine months of community college, accepting invites to local tournaments and even getting the chance to play with some of the most skilled players in the area. My parents would begrudgingly drive me to these tournaments, drop me off, drive away, and not return until I called them. After they picked me up I would have to smash my hockey bag in between the loads of clothing that my mother purchased at the nearby mall/outlet store while I was winning a series championship, having an awesome tournament run, or besting a personal goaltending record. It wouldn't have been a good idea to ask them to help me pay for some of those tourneys; the entire budget went toward the car's gas and filling up my mom's closet with new wardrobe.

Once I was finally accepted to USC, I jumped at the chance to play goalie for the university's women's hockey and men's roller hockey teams. It wasn't a D1 NCAA scholarship school (or even ACHA-level for that matter), but I reached that dream of finally playing hockey in college. And I proved that I was able to play at the club level throughout my entire three-year tenure at USC despite a knee injury, a couple major ankle sprains, and a few other issues. While I was still there, I also continued playing for other tournament teams and staying active on the ice.

The honor of wearing this jersey was many years in the making, and the lack of support from my "family" just made the reward even sweeter.
My college career has long been over, but what matters in the end is that I'm still playing the sport I love after all these years. I have had the opportunity and honor to play with ex-pros and Olympians, play against international teams, end up on a morning television segment about women's hockey, land in USA Hockey Magazine, and even interviewed for a radio segment among other things.

Every time I lace up the skates, throw that goalie cut jersey over my head, slide my helmet on, and step out onto the ice to guard my net for any team, whether it's a high-level tournament or just another weekly recreational league game, I will be always reminded of my triumph over the unnecessary adversities that were the definition of my childhood. Regardless of the score on the board, I have won the right to play this wonderful sport and will continue to cherish this privilege for as long as I am physically able to do so.

If I had to regret anything from the past, it would be not being able to fight back from this adversity any sooner and doing what I could to find others who believed in my dreams. I did what I could to excel within the parameters that I had, but I am thoroughly convinced that a proper support system would have been of great benefit. I feel sorry for my parents, as to this day that they are unable to identify my talents and encourage them to grow, but it's all their loss as they'll never know what I have accomplished.

If you're a young person reading this blog post, I personally encourage you to follow your passions, even if your worst enemies toward your goal are the people you think "love" you. You only have one shot at this life, and the pain of regret can carry on for years on end. Don't let it happen to you. If you have dreams, reach for them. The people who matter in your life will be the ones that stick around throughout your entire journey and beyond.