The Long and Winding Road to Hockey

Sean HaleContributor IFebruary 4, 2009

Over the past two decades, America has been host to hockey players from the world over.  In 2007, the NHL boasted 261 players from countries other than Canada and America, and yet their stories have been remarkably similar. 

Growing up, they learned to skate at a very young age under the tutelage of their father and they took up the sport naturally. At a local frozen pond, their talent was put on display, but their hard work was seen by few. Their days were spent getting to the rink early, staying late, and fending off criticism for being too good, or worse—too lucky.

Lauren Fenton’s story is different.

It wasn’t until she was 12 years old that her love affair with hockey even began.  Raised in a home that didn’t thrive on sports, she would go to her best friend’s house to sit and watch the New York Rangers with her friend and her friend’s father. 

Cheering on John Vanbiesbrouck, Tomas Sandstrom, Ulf Dahlen, and the rest of the Blueshirts, she never imagined taking to the ice herself. 

“Our high school didn’t even have its own hockey team. It was a town recreational team that some people that I knew played on. There was one girl in my school who played hockey and I totally looked up to her. She was a couple of years older than me and I used to think, ‘Wow. That’s so cool.’ But it never even entered my mind to pursue attempting to play. [I] never thought of it as a possibility. I was just a fan,” she said.

The fandom soon developed into athlete, as she would suit up for hockey of a different kind in her teen years.

“Yeah, I played field hockey in high school.  My mom wanted me to do something after school, some kind of extra-curricular activity, so I figured, I like hockey—I’ll try field hockey! And it was not the same (laugh) not at all. I played a defensive position called left back.  I really didn’t know what I was doing and I wasn’t very good. (laugh)

The group of girls that were on the team we’re not the best environment … It was very catty. They would be yelling at each other on the field in the middle of a game.  We actually never won a game.  We tied once and that was all we ever managed to do.”

Following high school, Lauren’s interest in both ice and field hockey waned.  Attending college, she branched out in new directions, but surely she didn’t forsake the Rangers Stanley Cup run?

“I actually was not paying attention to hockey at that point (laugh) so now I have to wait!”

What also would have to wait was her hockey debut that wouldn’t come for 12 more years.

“Right around the time that [I] got married in 2003 … a bunch of [my husband’s] friends started getting together to play roller hockey and it became a really regular thing.  They started playing a couple of times a week and he really enjoyed it because he had been wanting to get back into hockey.  …One time he mentioned to me before Christmas one year, ‘Do you want me to get you goalie equipment for Christmas?’ And I said no…

It was only about two months after that, that I went to watch him and my friends play and I was just standing there on the bench and just got infected—it was something about the atmosphere … it was freezing cold and here are these fifteen, twenty guys all out there in the morning and just having a great time, working hard, and something about it just flipped a switch in my brain.  After that I told him that I really did feel I wanted to try.”

Lauren and her husband immediately went out to purchase a set of goalie pads and gear and she spent the next few days learning from the best in the world. 

“I actually strapped the pads on while I was watching the Olympic games, and I was trying to mimic in my living room what the goalies were doing on TV.”

Mimicry in front of the TV soon gave way to practicing with friends on the roller hockey rink, and then to conquering her fear.

“I really didn’t think I had the mental capacity to be a goalie. I tend to be very hard on myself and if I can’t get something right immediately, I get frustrated very easily, so I thought with those qualities it just wouldn’t work out for me.”

Her husband and their friends wouldn’t let her have time to worry though as she was soon thrown into pick up games. Within a month, she was playing twice a week. Within two months she laid claim to a net and would be agitated if the rest of her life interfered with her time backstopping the open hockey games.

For a year, Lauren played on the outdoor rink in weather that rose above 90 and dropped below 10, her playing revolving more around the times players could get together than around her own schedule. At the end of her first year though, she felt she was ready for the next step, moving from roller hockey to ice hockey.

In the spring of 2007, Lauren, and a number of other players from the roller hockey games, joined an adult instructional league and committed herself to the sport, and to a goalie technique.

“When I first started watching hockey (in 1986), the butterfly style wasn’t around, but when I started watching again in 2001, by then of course everybody was playing that style, so that’s what I saw so that’s just how I started playing. Eventually after I had gone to ice, I started working with a coach and he is definitely very much a coach of the butterfly style so that just reinforced [it].”

The commitment Lauren has shown to the game does not just end with her style, but with her loyalty to being as odd as all other goalies are.

“I listen to certain songs to get myself pumped up for a game.  I also have songs running through my head while I play—it kind of keeps my, what I call my ‘thinking brain’ distracted.  If you start thinking while you’re out there, it takes away from your ability to react. … It just started one day when I was really mad because I just wasn’t playing well. I was just getting really frustrated and a line from [VNV Nation’s ‘Rubicon’] popped into my head. The song just started going through my head, and became a mantra of sorts to keep my brain occupied while I’m on the ice—that’s where my brain just goes.  I actually find myself whispering the words—my mouth is moving sometimes—I can’t explain it but it’s a tool I use to focus, and focus is such a big thing. The moment you lose your focus, you’re done.”

While Lauren’s journey to playing hockey has been different than the large majority of players out there, there is a common root within every player: love and determination.

“[Hockey] is just exhilarating. Its so much fun and its such a challenge every time you go out there.  You never know what you’re going to face and being able to come up with the response that you need to react to the shooters… the situations that arise, you can never assume that a play is going to go a certain way. 

Its just an absolute drive and desire to keep getting better and keep playing... Obviously if I have a bad game, I’m upset and usually that night is not a good night, but by the next day I feel better—I’m just determined. I just have a determination to keep getting better.”

While Lauren isn’t bound for the Olympic games in Vancouver, she will be found at the local ice rink, sometimes before everyone else gets there, sometimes after everyone else leaves, being thankful and feeling lucky to have this wonderful game in her life.