the only ponytail

Sunday morning was Caroline's first tryout of any kind. We didn't call it a tryout. We knew that would elicit the kind of panic and anxiety that might result in her absolute refusal to get out of the car. We told her this was just a different kind of hockey practice, with some new kids and new drills. I gave her a simple pep talk on our ride to the rink, stressing that it was "no big deal, have fun, do your best, be a good listener." This was a required tryout for Mites, the lowest level of organized youth hockey. They were picking for the full ice team. Everyone else would be put on a cross ice team. It's a smaller space with fewer players and this new method of play has helped them to develop the kids' skills in a way that full ice play cannot. (That's the kool aid they fed me anyway) We snagged her gold numbered pinnie at the door, good ol' number 2, and as she looked around while we helped get her dressed, I could see the dread start building on her face.

The kids were bigger, they skated faster, stronger, and there was just one other girl out there. She started crying and telling us she didn't want to go out. Normally, when things elevate with her she is better in Steve's hands than mine. This was not one of those times. We were in very different places in that moment. Steve wanted her to power on out there and I wanted her to calm down, breathe, relax. She told me "I can't stop my tears." (my mama bear fur was up) I knew if we pushed her out there like that she would not recover and as far as we have come with her on this, I wasn't going to force her to do anything. Both Steve and I knew she could hold her own, that this would be a good experience for her, but I didn't want it to be damaging in anyway.

A friend, the only other girl who had been in the cross ice program this year, came over to her to offer support. Caroline was in an entirely different space and couldn't even make eye contact. I walked her away from the ice, I held her close and over my shoulder I watched those boys skate. I'll admit I had a pit in my stomach and I wasn't even going out there. This was mites, not the Olympics, everyone was going to make a team. It didn't feel that way. I think it is more than fair to say that Steve and I have no hopes of her making the full ice team, but we wanted her to have a good experience, not one that left her in tears or made her feel bad about herself.

I gave her a minute to stop crying and wiped her tears off through the holes in her helmet. I told her to take a deep breath and go for it. I reminded her I would be right there with her, watching every second, making sure she was ok. The coaches, who she had never met, helped her get onto the ice, walked her through the first drill. They instructed the goalie to let her score on her first time through. In the moment, I was happy about that. In reflection I am not so sure.

She did fine, she did better than fine because she stayed out there. We followed her through the three stations and her confidence never reached a good spot that I felt I could let out the breath I had been holding this whole time. They brought the kids all to center ice and broke them up into white and gold by pinnie and they went flying to the benches. Everyone went flying, except Caroline. She watched these boys hurl their bodies over the boards and onto the benches like lemmings. She didn't know how to do that and we could see her fall apart. This is when the tears started again and it took every fiber of my being not to find some way to reach her over there, to tell her it was okay, and even leave if she wanted to. They were about to play a full ice game and she had never done that and I couldn't even imagine how she was feeling. We watched across the ice as a coach calmed her down, offered assurances and sent her out for the next shift. Again, they helped and brought her out to center to do the face off on her turn. At the time, I smiled. Now I am not so sure.

We found refuge with another group of parents whose kids were in way over their heads too. I felt an instant relief because for the last 30 minutes I had been questioning if we were even in the right place. Was this really the mites session? They had been questioning it too. One had a son who had only worn equipment four other times and the other had completed his first learn to hockey program just a couple weeks ago. All three held their own and before long we noticed something; she was smiling. She was serious, determined, following man to man a kid taking the puck around the net and meeting him on the other side. She even asked if they "needed her to stay out" and her endurance rivaled even the most seasoned of the kids out there. We made car pool plans with our newfound Mite Cross Ice friends and breathed easier in knowing that she wasn't scared out there anymore.

Afterwards, rosy cheeked and exhausted, she announced she would rather not go to her usual Learn to Hockey program that night. The same coach who had rallied her into the game from the bench came over to her and told her what a great job she had done, that she had been fierce, that the best player on his team is a girl, that girls are taller and sometimes smarter than the boys. I mouthed thank you to him, touched at his generosity and support of her, the only ponytail on the ice.

Later, when Steve and I were debating in code about that night's hockey session, I took her into her room for a chat. She relayed how scary it had been to be out there, that she didn't want to play with the boys. Seeking inspiration or answers, I looked across her room towards her desk where she has those cutouts from the women's game we attended and the signed photo of BC's Olympic Women and I asked her to look at them. I reminded her that all of them had to play with boys when they were her age, that teams for girls didn't really exist the way they do now, and how brave they had to be to get through that. I didn't want her to feel like we were forcing her to go to that night's hockey, but I also didn't want her exhaustion from the day to make her lazy or her attention to wander because she had enough hockey today. Wouldn't that just have been the cherry on the whole day. I reassured her the only way I could, I promised her I would do anything in my power to get her on a girls team. I told perhaps more importantly, that even if she HAD to play with the boys, she proved to them today she was just as tough.

It's hard. So. Hard. I was emotionally spent from the day and when we talked about it later, I started to almost resent that special attention she had gotten, the kudos afterwards even. "Did they mean it or do they just want a ponytail out there?" I asked. Steve wasn't sure.

I knew he understood when he sent me this video:

We watched it together as a family tonight after dinner. The message was a little over her head, but she seemed to get that these girls had played with boys and she could too.

I'm not sure I want her involved in something where she gets credit just for being the girl. I want her to feel as fierce as those boys because I know she is. Part of me thinks the best thing in the world would be for her to play with the boys and part of me wants to shelter her from spending three hours a week with them. I'm not sure yet how this will work out, but it was eye opening, difficult, amazing, and boy, was she courageous. These are life lessons, not just hockey, and as she gets older it is tougher to muddle through.


  1. Just maybe another girl will see Caroline playing with the boys and then also feel brave enough to play! She is a leader!

  2. Aww, That would be AWESOME Jodi!!