Growing up in Anchorage there were three things I held to be true. Firstly, you always help your neighbor, even if it meant climbing in a snow filled ditch to help dislodge their car. Secondly, summers were made for exploring the great outdoors and 8 p.m. bedtimes were the cruelest of inventions. Thirdly, the hometown heroes where a ragtag bunch of men who wore red, white and blue hockey jerseys.
Although watching the Alaska Aces play was not the catalyst for my professional hockey career, it was the Aces that taught me the most important life lessons. Not unlike when a parent measures their child’s growth on a bedroom wall, I can measure my own hockey career by my relationships with the Aces.
When I was, 8 I had fully developed my competitive spirit and love of winning and when these two things combined, they made me one of the fiercest Sullivan Arena knee hockey players around. While the Aces played on the ice below, my friends and I would take on rival teams in epic battles played out with mini hockey sticks and a wadded tin foil hamburger wrapper. Our home turf was in the nosebleeds between Section 214 and 210. Inevitably, someone would always end up getting hurt but winning meant bragging rights the next week at school, so we soldiered on.
By age 10, the Anchorage Aces had joined the West Coast Hockey League (WCHL) and were full-fledged professional athletes. For my part, I joined a competitive hockey team and took my hockey very seriously. There were no more knee hockey games but there were real games that took place in full gear during the first intermission. In spirit, these were exhibitions and a chance for youth players to experience what it would feel like to be a professional player, but for me, these were opportunities to get scouted by the big leagues. In the off chance I played a bad intermission, I made sure to be first in line for post-game “Skate with the Aces” so I could explain to the players what happened in the big game. For their part, the players always listened intently and offered advice: “I bet you’ll get them next time!”
At age 11, an unexpected strip show by wild man George “of the Jungle” Wilcox during a jersey auction, showed me that hockey should be fun and that there is a time for showmanship. Wilcox himself might not even remember it, but I can tell you that there wasn’t a woman in the stands that night who didn’t swoon as he ripped his jersey off and swung it above his head.
When I turned 13, I met Aces legend Dean Larson who became a foil for my own desire to play professionally. The vertically challenged forward was a prolific scorer and a tenacious pit bull in the corners. It didn’t seem to matter who he was squaring off against, he would always come away with the puck. I figured if Larson could overcome his height to be successful, I could overcome being a woman and play men’s professional hockey. That same year I also met another Aces legend, Steve MacSwain, who taught me that being a woman wasn’t a handicap. He treated me like a hockey player and went to bat for me when few others did.
Once I reached high-school, I left Alaska to attend a prep school and play for the premier competitive ice hockey club in Massachusetts. My first year we won a national championship and I returned to Alaska with an air of superiority. That’s when I met former Aces player Bobby Cunningham. Although he had only played one season with the Aces, he returned to Anchorage to train before shipping off to his new team in the United Hockey League. I was lucky enough to be invited to suit up as his training goalie one day and it was then that he gave me two pieces of advice that guided my career. He told me: “never read your own press clippings, or you might just start to believe them. Also, always remember that the best things can always be broken down and made better. You always have to strive for better.”
As the Aces enter into their final weekend of at least regular season play as a franchise, I am reminded again that even the best things have to be broken down, but with a little hard work, they can be made even better.
*Originally published by the Anchorage Press