by Baylyn S. (Grade 8)
THURSDAY, APRIL 4, 2019: USA HOCKEY GIRLS NATIONALS, AMHERST, NY
I shoved in my mouth guard and plopped down on the rickety wooden bench, adrenaline racing through my veins. Electronic music was vibrating up through my feet and charging across my body. This game would be a great game; I could feel it. I even recognized the scent of our impending victory: garbage, sweat, and the light fumes of 16 various fruity and flowery body mists. The New Jersey Colonials were playing the North Shore Vipers. I was more than ready to play my heart out. I had a sound night’s sleep and a wholesome breakfast, eggs and toast, washed down with a glass of bitter orange juice. I turned to my goalie partner and best friend on the team, Gracie, and silently jutted my chin out. She jutted back with her signature smile. Some friends have a handshake, but we had our chin jutting. Unlike most goalie-teammate relationships, Gracie and I got along nicely, even though we were competing against each other for the top goaltending spot.
“You totally got this, Bay,” she said, hyping me up, positive energy pouring into me through her words. I took a cleansing breath, expelling negative energy. I was ready to face the best team in the nation.
“You too, Gracie,” I said.
4 MONTHS EARLIER
“Mom. Dad. We need to talk.” I groaned, out of breath, as I burst through the front door. It was a Wednesday at 9:45 P.M., and I had just arrived home from an exhausting hockey training session, complete with off-ice exercising. I hauled my monstrosity of a bag, at three feet tall, my thirty-one-inch goalie pads, and my two bulky sticks, into the house.
“What’s up, Bay?” Mom asked, coming out of the kitchen. My fat, gray cat, Comet, came to greet me, rubbing his cheeks against my legs. Dad put his backpack down next to the ancient wooden buffet where he keeps his wallet, phone, and other personal items. They looked at me. I thought about what I was going to tell them. Is this really what I want? Am I really going to give up everything? And for what? But it was too late. The words erupted out of my mouth, like the uncorking of a pop bottle of emotions.
“I’m sick of hockey, guys. I’m sick of barely being able to wake up for school and being nearly paralyzed with soreness every day. I’m sick of the pressure. The pressure to be the best, the pressure to win, the pressure to get into a prep school or one of those colleges we’ve played at. I’m sick of all of it. I want to quit!” I cried, salty, sweaty tears threatening to slide out of my droopy eyelids. I felt like a volcano after its first huge explosion. My parents stared at me, dumbfounded.
“I thought you loved hockey,” Mom cautiously commented. I willed my shaking hands to stop. Nervousness would not help this campaign. I reached down to pet Comet. Oblivious to the momentous exchange going on above him, he nuzzled his face into my hand. I focused on channeling his tranquil demeanor.
“I don’t want to play professionally, and staying on such a high-level team is taking away the opportunity for someone else to get discovered.” I tried, grabbing Comet into my lap as I sat on the stairs. Mom brought out a bowl of turkey meatballs and penne pasta, topped with thick, red marinara sauce and handed it to Dad.
“Thanks,” he said to my mom. He turned back to me. “If that’s the only reason why you want to quit, then you shouldn’t because it’s not your fault that you’re better than some other girl.”
“Well, it’s not only that. All these girls are applying to private schools and boarding schools now, but I only want to play for fun. And my teammates are getting snippy with each other, what with all the competition to qualify for a scholarship and to get the most ice time.”
“But what if you change your mind, and you do want to play for a school?” Dad remarked.
“Okay, good point,” I replied, knowing full well that I would not change my mind, but deciding not to get into an argument at that moment. I was too exhausted to debate any longer. “How about we finish this discussion tomorrow? I need to shower and air out my equipment.”
“Good idea. Let’s all have a good night’s rest and see how we feel in the morning, and then we can re-discuss.” The meeting dispersed, reminding me of the ripples the water makes when I hurl a large stone into a still, blue sheet of liquid.
We talked the next day. And the day after. And the day after. But it was all in vain. We still could not come to a conclusion. What was I going to do? I didn’t want to live this way anymore! It was like deciding if I should end my life. Actually, it wasn’t like deciding, it was deciding. Hockey is my life. There was no going back once the decision was made. I could not rejoin the team halfway through the year, and the other goalies would be so developed that I would not be able to catch up to them, anyway. My parents and I decided I should finish off the season, and I would think it over again and decide if I really wanted to quit.
SUNDAY, JANUARY 13, 2019: TWIN OAKS ARENA, MORRISTOWN, NJ
I still dreaded the commitment of hockey. Quitting was inevitable, but I savored every moment because I knew that I would still miss playing hockey. That day’s game was a “must-win”; our stats were not satisfactory, and we had to get more points to stay in the running for the playoffs. The league playoff champion would advance to the district level competition, and the district champion would advance to USA Hockey Nationals. Nervousness buzzed in my head, perturbing the usually quiet and thoughtful mentality I have before games. My teammates danced and screeched to the bass-boosted Eminem song in the background of my mind. I awkwardly turned myself into a pretzel trying to squeeze through all the other girls and their equipment, which was strewn haphazardly across the damp, rubbery, porous floor. When I finally got outside, I took a huge breath of the cold air that enveloped me. Poing, poing, poing. My bubble-gum pink racquetball bounced back and forth from the wall and into my hand. I prided myself on my exceptional hand-eye coordination and always will. With fifteen minutes until puck drop, I headed back to the locker room and slid on my tremendously expensive, bulletproof helmet. It was imported from Finland. The coaches came in, quickly went over plays on their whiteboards, and then left our team to our thoughts as we mentally prepared ourselves for this imminent showdown.
FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER
My blades sliced deep gashes into the wet ice, leaving a trail of slim lines from the door to the Colonials bench on the other side of the ice. I dropped off my water bottle and glided over to my net. As my teammates skated laps around our defensive zone, I shredded the wet, slippery top layer of my crease off, which would facilitate my quick moving and sliding in the game. The satisfying crunching sound of the ice under my feet soothed my tension. Ever so slightly, so that nobody would see, I twisted my glance to my right. My mother, standing pressed against the glass in suspense, nodded her head. ‘You can do it, Bay,’ I could practically hear her say. Much-needed confidence zapped through me. I finally felt totally ready to face anything that could possibly stand in the way of my triumph.
The buzzer sounded, ending warm-ups. My teammates circled around me. “KK,” the most spirited team member brought us into a huddle and counted us off. “Colonials on three! One, two, three!”
“COLONIALS!” Everyone screamed. We skated back to the bench, banging our sticks, our parents cheering.
“Let’s go Baylyn! Come on, you got this!” Coach Bonner fist-bumped me. I skated back to my crease and crouched in anticipation of the puck drop.
DURING THE SECOND PERIOD
‘I don’t know what I was so worried about,’ I sighed to myself in the peaceful solitude of my crease. The Colonials were up 4-0, and we weren’t even halfway through the game yet! The Titans had only taken one shot on me! This game was in the bag. The Colonials parents were going nuts already. All was well, until our defense coughed up the puck in the neutral zone. Two red Titans, the biggest ones on the team, scooped it up and charged down the ice, whipping it back and forth between themselves. My teammates were nowhere to be found. ‘Oh well,’ I thought. ‘Then I’ll just look like a hero when I save it.’ And I did, of course. It was an easy shot, from out at the top of the left faceoff circle. I quickly covered up the puck to extinguish the rebound and looked up to see my teammates banging on the boards. ‘Ha,’ I thought. ‘Take that, Titan.’ And then it hit me. It was a sixteen-wheeler. It all happened in slow motion. The puck squeaked out from under my glove. I collapsed back into the goal post from the impact, then forward. The Titan landed on top of me, on my arm, while I was attempting to dodge her, while the rest of my body was still moving. My arm disconnected from my body. At first, I felt nothing, only a slight twinge. But then the immeasurable pain hit me like a ten-foot wave in a hurricane. I wailed in anguish, and the girl finally rolled off me. The pain didn’t cease. I laid on the ice, flailed out like a starfish. In my mind, I saw an X-ray-like image of a dislocated shoulder. ‘Great, just great,’ I thought. ‘I didn’t want to finish the season before, but now I probably can’t.’
“What happened, Baylyn? Hurt your leg?” Coach Bonner shuffled across the ice to my net.
“No, my shoulder popped out,” I wheezed.
“Oh, is it back in yet?” He asked in his usual, frank dialect.
“No, not yet.”
“Okay, hang in there,” he told me. “Call an ambulance!” He shouted across the arena to my mom, who was in a frenzy, clawing Gracie’s father’s arm. Mom fiddled with her phone, trying to dial with trembling hands. I couldn’t bear the sight of her in distress, and miraculously, I stood up as my shoulder popped back in.
“No wait,” I told him. “It’s back in now.” I breathed a sigh of relief, for myself, and for my mother. Both teams courteously banged their sticks on the boards, and the parents golf-clapped politely.
“Okay, good. How do you feel now? Do you want to stay in net, or should Gracie finish up?” Bonner inquired. I looked down the ice to see Gracie stepping off the bench.
“I think I’m good for now,” I replied. “I need to stay in and get the shutout.”
“Okay,” He laughed. “But come out of the net the second it gets worse.” He went back to the bench and play resumed.
We wound up winning the game 9-0. I got the shutout, and the Colonials got the victory. We were back in the running. The overall game was like a typical children’s story, complete with the “happily ever after.” My shoulder, however, was not so happy. Lucky for me, though, Dr. Willis, the assistant orthopedic surgeon for the New York Jets and my teammate Morgan’s father, happened to be in the stands that day. After the game, he examined my shoulder and did a quick assessment of the damage.
“Although this situation seems really bad, your shoulder popped in by itself, and there wasn’t excessive, unnecessary damage done hauling you off the ice to have someone else pop it back in. Now, does this hurt?” He asked, pulling and twisting my arm.
“Next time, don’t stay in net, Baylyn,” my mom, still jittery, warned. “What if someone else fell on you and this injury of yours became ten times worse?”
I couldn’t even respond to her because I was too focused on my own stressful thoughts.
A FEW WEEKS LATER
After an MRI, I learned that I partially tore my labrum when I dislocated my shoulder. Compared to other potential results of the accident, my injury was almost miniscule. Almost. I was unable to return to playing immediately. But I still went to all of our games and sat on the bench to help coach and encourage Gracie, who took on a heavy load, playing twice the amount of games she was supposed to. I was happy to help her, after all the support she gave me throughout the season. It was my turn. Instead of a surgery that would have ended my season indefinitely, I built my shoulder strength back up at physical therapy, in hopes that I could return before the end of the season. I trained three times a week for at least an hour and fifteen minutes each session. It was gruesome and strenuous, and most days I wanted to lay on the floor, pant in aggravation, and give up. But I never quit. Partially because I had to finish all my exercises before I left and partially because I had bigger plans in mind. Plans for me, my team, Dr. Willis, who was extremely generous in pulling strings for my family to speed up my recovery process, Johnathan, my physical therapist, who also put forth effort for my cause, and most of all, my parents, who had to indirectly cope with my injury, possibly even more than I had to, and in more ways than one.
My returning to the ice would be like a Thank You to all those people for their love and support. But most importantly to prove to myself that I still loved hockey. I didn’t really want to quit. Wow, I thought one day. I guess I really don’t want to give up. I’ve done nothing but train for hockey since I was injured. I’ve done nothing but think about hockey since I was injured. It’s not all that bad. It gives me something to do. It’s my life’s passion. Why should I give up something so important, just because it is tiring and there’s pressure? I need to get over myself! If I’m too tired it means I have to work harder and gain stamina to push through arduous drills! Being tired is never an excuse to give up or to feel bad for yourself.
I recovered just in time to lead my team through the district playoffs and later to Nationals. We didn’t take the gold, but I had won an even bigger, more important prize. I had won back my love of hockey from myself. I learned to appreciate the opportunities I have to play and to never take advantage of them. I learned to persevere, even when I hit rock bottom; I will always have a chance to succeed. I learned to recognize that there will always be bad times along with the good times, no matter what I am doing. I just need to remember that my love for what I do is stronger than any unpleasant experience I may have. When I first got injured, I was relieved because I had a break, a vacation. But then I was angry because I couldn’t play. It was at that moment that I realized the reason why I got injured in the first place: I needed to see what I would miss out on if I quit playing. Lastly, I learned that success does not come naturally, and I must work every single day to accomplish my goals. I need to give one hundred percent effort at every practice, game, clinic, lesson, whatever it may be, so that I can be the best possible version of myself. In the end, I’m grateful that I sustained such an injury because it brought back undying love for my life’s passion.