Take Me Out To The Ice Rink

by Chris Noonan Sturm

Women aren't supposed to like ice hockey.

It's a rough sport with a reputation for blue-collar appeal and, in the North American version, violence. On ice the players are virtually anonymous. You can't see much of a handsome face, if there is one beneath the helmet, except for a rugged or bruised jawline. Baggy uniforms and bulky padding cover any physical attributes that might draw female attention.

But hockey was a formative part of my girlhood. I grew up in Philadelphia, where the National Hockey League's (NHL) Flyers were adored as if they were rock stars. Classmates at my Catholic girls' high school wore huge pins with photos of their favorite hulking player on their school uniforms -- dress-code regulations and nun enforcers be damned.

Living in the Czech Republic, home of some of the best hockey in the world, offered an opportunity to introduce our children to this old passion. We packed them up for a trip to Sparta's home ice next door to the Vystaviste fairgrounds. En route, we discussed the intricacies of icing, the blue and red lines and the penalty box -- the grownup version of the "time out" chair.

We discovered that the rituals of sporting events cross nations and cultures. We found ticket scalpers, greasy food, big containers of beer, cheesy bathrooms, rowdies, dancing scoreboards, earsplitting horns, even The Wave.

But the old joke -- "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out" -- wouldn't get a snicker here. Compared to the NHL, Czech hockey is played cleanly and by the rules. There were few penalties and stoppages for infractions. Even body checks were administered sparsely.

Powerful skating, fast breaks, elegant playmaking -- Sparta controlled the game in a classic and classy style reminiscent of the best days of the Montreal Candaiens.

If the fine points of centering passes were lost on our kids, the between-periods festivities were not. They would have paid for a ride on one of the two Zambonies that cleared the ice. We all admired the remote-controlled blimp that flew around the arena -- and agreed it was one toy we'd demand if any of us were a decadent rich kid.

Then a midget hockey team took the ice. They were so small the rink seemed to swallw them up -- they looked like flies buzzing around a tablecloth. But they played with gusto and must have been thrilled to the tips of their skates to be in the "big leagues" for one night.

Hockey doesn't have cheerleaders. But Sparta did have a lion mascot and two lovely assistants. They skated around the ice with a giant slingshot, which they loaded with candy and fired into the crowd.

Free candy at hockey games? Our children are already pestering us for season tickets.

(Originally appeared in the Prague Post English-language weekly.)

(c) 1994-2001 David and Chris Sturm
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