January-February 2015 | Health

Our Turn

After years of shuttling kids to practice and freezing in the stands, these hockey moms were ready to get out on the ice.

Joyce Kammerman never considered herself an athlete. Growing up, she was the academic type who was chosen last—or not at all—when kids were picking sports teams at school. “I was so bad at sports that they would have me keep score,” Kammerman, 48, says of those long-ago classmates. “I was the world’s best spectator.”

Imagine the surprise of those classmates if they had happened by the Rockville Ice Arena on a Sunday evening last summer—and caught sight of the petite brunette decked out in full hockey gear and chasing a puck.   

Finding Kammerman sitting in the stands would have been much more likely. For years, the Rockville mom has watched her youngest son, Jonah, 8, or her husband, Larry Boles, charging around the rink, joining the ranks of spectator moms resigned to spending hours bundled up against the chilly air.

All that began to change two years ago after Kammerman’s eldest son, Jaimin, underwent surgery for a brain tumor, followed by months of radiation, chemotherapy and a trial drug. As she comforted her son, now 14 and in stable condition, through his ordeal, Kammerman couldn’t help thinking: Jaimin was so courageous, why was she always so scared to try something new?

“Given everything he had been through,” she says, “I realized there was nothing to be afraid of.”

So she began running and competing in local road races—and when the Montgomery Youth Hockey Association announced last spring that it was offering a program called Hockey for Hockey Moms, she signed up.

The idea of getting hockey moms onto the ice had been percolating for years, says hockey coach Steve Sprague, who helped organize and run the summer program. Though area rinks offer beginner training programs for men and women, none had targeted the moms who dedicate so many hours to driving their kids to practice and sitting in the stands. It was time, Sprague says, “to get the moms some satisfaction.”

Organizers charged $100 for a 13-week training program—a bargain rate—and further sweetened the deal by scoring the perfect ice time, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Sunday nights. Still, Hilary Murphy, one of the coaches and a former college player, says they were surprised when the idea caught on “sort of like wildfire.” Organizers, who had hoped at least 20 women would sign up, scrambled to close enrollment when the number climbed to 41.

The hockey moms, they discovered, wanted in on the action.

Just before 6 p.m. on a Sunday in mid-August, Kammerman and a dozen or so other women head into one of the locker rooms at the arena.

Sitting on a bench, Kammerman slips off a pair of black sandals that are sporting colorful fake jewels. She straps on shin guards, followed by heavy striped socks hiked up to mid-thigh. Then come bulky pants, pulled up over the socks and tied at the waist like a corset. Tory, 9, helps her mother adjust a chest protector with heavy padding before her mom straps protective pads onto her elbows and tugs an oversize jersey over her head and down to her waist. Next come skates with bright purple laces.

Around her, Kammerman’s fellow hockey players are slipping gear over summer shorts and tees, necklaces and earrings. “You’ll notice there are some pretty nice pedicures and manicures covered up,” Kammerman says.

It is Week 11 of the hockey program, and the women fall into a comfortable rhythm, helping each other adjust straps as they chat about a weekend that has flown by too quickly. Tired though they are from running errands and chauffeuring kids, the moms are eager to get back on the ice.

Everyone has their own motivations for coming out on a Sunday night—from the need to carve out some “me” time to a desire to discover why their family members so love to play hockey.

“I have been devoting my life to my kids for four years,” says Lisa Milofsky-Pinard, 48, of Bethesda. “It’s something they do, but I like to skate, so why not do something for me? It’s something I look forward to. This is my block of time.”

Jody Miller has spent countless hours watching her 14-year-old triplets—Ethan, Cameron and Shane—play hockey for Winston Churchill High School. Approaching 50, the Potomac mom wanted to “try something new, a little outside of the box.” If nothing else, she figured, learning to play would give her something to talk about with her teenage sons: “How else am I going to relate to them?”

Another mom, Erika Dickstein of Bethesda, says she was looking for a way to reignite a thirst for adventure that had been all but extinguished after her kids were born when she was in her 30s. Now 45, she became a hockey mom when her older daughter, Lily, began playing four years ago with the youth hockey association. Her younger daughter soon followed, and Dickstein has been helping to manage the team.

Growing tired of sitting in the stands, Dickstein had checked out training programs early last year, even briefly researching adult camps before dropping the idea. Then she learned about the hockey association’s program and decided it was time to try something new.

“I don’t do much new in my life, and it’s certainly something I’m not confident at,” says Dickstein, who has blogged about her experience, dubbed “Project Old Dog, New Tricks” on her website, www.erikadickstein.com.

As they finish dressing, Dickstein and the other women pull helmets over curls, bobs and ponytails, shuffle across the hallway to the rink, and step confidently onto the ice.

That first practice three months earlier? Not so much.

The women showed up that day hauling gear that reflected the old wedding adage: something borrowed, something blue, something old, something new. Nearly everyone had raided their children’s or husband’s equipment bags, and some had purchased new skates and helmets.

Kammerman says her uniform came together through gifts for her birthday and wedding anniversary. The family of another player, Laurie Jacobs of Potomac, gave her gear for Mother’s Day.

Struggling to put on the equipment that first time, several mothers swore they would never again admonish their children for taking so long in the locker room—or for forgetting a piece of equipment at home.

Nearly all of the women were beginners, though a few had played hockey or were good at figure skating. About a dozen had never stepped onto the ice. Kammerman had skated before, but didn’t enjoy it. Donning all that protective gear helped her feel braver. “The first time I fell down, it didn’t hurt,” she says.

Dickstein says she stepped tentatively onto the ice that first time with one thought in her head: “What the hell was I thinking?” Later, she’d write in her blog: “Getting the equipment on felt like work enough for the day. But it wasn’t! They actually expected us to skate as well!”

Coaches targeted the basics in the first few sessions: teaching how to move in hockey skates, how to stop, how to avoid each other, and how to not bounce off the sides of the rink. Part of each session focused on skill development, and then the players divided into two teams for a scrimmage to finish out the night.

Boles, a veteran kids hockey coach and Kammerman’s husband, winced a bit when recalling those early sessions. “You couldn’t really call it hockey,” he says good-naturedly.

“It was kind of scary.”

Still, the experience was rewarding when compared to coaching kids, he says. “The women listen to everything you say when you give a demonstration, and then they do it.”

And the moms themselves soon realized that watching from the stands didn’t actually teach them the finer points of the game being played on the ice.

“The coaches [were] awesome in explaining positions,” says Julia Kennedy, 50, of Silver Spring. “I’ve been watching hockey for so long, I thought I knew what my son was supposed to be doing.”

As the weeks passed, the coaches began to see progress. And on that Sunday night in August, they agree that the hockey moms are well on their way to being hockey players.

The women gather around Sprague as he explains a practice drill: “I want you to power skate, I want you to stride. I want you to get down low.”

The women stride down the ice—confident skaters quickly outpacing those who are more tentative—and skid to a stop. Jacobs wobbles a bit as she plants her skates, throws a hand into the air in triumph and exclaims, “Wahoo!”

The players move through several drills, with pairs fighting for pucks before taking shots on goal. Occasionally, one of the moms loses her balance and ends up splayed on the ice. The rest of the women immediately stop skating and tap their sticks on the ice in solidarity until the player gets back on her feet.

Sprague, whose wife, Donna, is among the hockey moms, often breaks into a wide smile as he coaches the women. He is pleasantly taken aback when they apologize after bumping into one another, knowing that men react quite differently. “That cracks me up,” he says.  

The players begin to scrimmage, each team fighting for the puck and racing down the ice. Sprague and Murphy stop play often so they can talk to the women about their positions and explain where they are supposed to be. Then the players are back at it; an occasional bump into another player or complete miss on a pass eliciting smiles and laughter.

“I was telling my wife, ‘You could never do this with the dads because the competitiveness would get to be too much,’ ” says Ken Pilpel of Germantown, who was monitoring the game clock while watching the women, including his children’s nanny, Michelle Robinson, 28.

When the scrimmage ends, the women shuffle back to the locker room to strip off their gear, comb their hair and touch up their lipstick. Then they head to their cars to pull out bags of chips and small coolers of cold wine and Flying Dog beer. Just as their husbands often do after playing, the women gather around the open back of an SUV and set up their coolers. It’s time to party in the parking lot.

Two weeks later, 29 women arrive for the final session, which is to be an actual hockey game complete with a referee—Jacobs’ 15-year-old son, Zach—substitutions and penalties. The players are looking forward to testing their new skills, knowing that their time on the ice is coming to an end. There are no firm plans to hold another program, so that means the hockey moms will be headed back to the stands.

The women change into game jerseys colored either gray or powdery blue—which most moms found prettier than the dull gray—and head onto the ice.

With family and friends cheering them on from the stands, the players rotate on and off the ice every minute or so. The more confident skaters zip around their opponents, charging toward the goal; others fall and quickly get back up. One player is sent to the penalty box for hooking, or using her stick to restrain another player.

Hockey mom Jennifer Martella, 46, of Rockville, stands outside the rink, her arm in a cast. Injured in a bicycle accident while on vacation in Maine, she has to sit out the final session.

“I came out as a very reluctant hockey mom,” says Martella, whose sons, ages 14 and 10, play hockey. “I’m always there with my Starbucks, freezing in the stands, waiting for the game to be over.”

Now, after a summer on the ice, she has a new perspective on the game that her sons love. Like the other players, Martella knows she will return to the stands as more than just a hockey mom trying to make it through to the final buzzer.

“I have completely changed my view about hockey. I love being out there,” she says. “I totally get hockey.”

Julie Rasicot is a senior editor at Bethesda Magazine. To comment on this story, email comments@bethesdamagazine.com.