Hell Just Froze Over

Houston's first female hockey team gives new meaning to the term "body check"

The Houston Harpies play hockey year-round, a fact that surprises Canadians and other northern immigrants. Canadians believe that hockey is a winter sport. They don't yet understand life in the subtropics. They cling to the belief that freezing is something that occurs naturally, without human intervention. They haven't yet learned that winter never arrives in Houston, and summer is when your soul cries out for ice.

Lea Sanford smiles as she talks about summer hockey. She says that in August the rink's ice gets mushy, and it's like skating on a snow cone. She says that Janet Sanders, one of the Canadian Harpies, was deeply shocked to remove her duffel bag from the car and find her hockey gear hot -- hot! -- to the touch; Janet thought something was seriously wrong with the universe. Lea smiles a lot, and she's eight months pregnant, which means that you don't dare complain to her about the heat.

Lea won't be playing tonight -- she hasn't played since she found out she was pregnant -- but she's hanging out in the Sharpstown rink's women's locker room, watching enviously as her teammates Velcro themselves into their protective armor. The players' duffel bags are humongous, big enough to conceal dead bodies, but each bag can barely contain all the gear a player needs: the shoulder pad/chest plate that makes her look like a football player; the elbow guards; the knee guards; the pelvic protector; the jersey; the pants; the skates; the socks; and the world's least sexy garter belt, to hold up those socks. The players leave their helmets off until they're ready to leave the locker room. They sit on the benches, gossiping and joking, their tiny naked heads protruding above gigantic padded bodies. They look like a kid's Transformer toys, only with female faces.

Hockey mom-to-be: Lea Sanford converted her jersey to maternity wear.
Deron Neblett
Hockey mom-to-be: Lea Sanford converted her jersey to maternity wear.
Waiting for ice: Harpies gear up.
Deron Neblett
Waiting for ice: Harpies gear up.

Lea knows all those faces. There's Lainie Huffstutler, an aggressive forward universally described as "awesome." And there's Tracy Kaneshiro, a computer programmer so small that on the ice she looks like a child. ("I could totally kick her ass when she started," says Lea, "but nowŠ.")

There's Rachel Winczewski, a 15-year-old cellist. The older Harpies are always nagging Rachel to wear her mouth guard, to remember her throat guard, not to get hurt. On the ice, she's fearless. Lea thinks it's because she's never been hurt, that she's not yet aware of her body's fragility.

There's Charlotte Jones, the scheduler, who's planning to celebrate her 50th birthday by throwing a hockey tournament in January. Charlotte had already survived open-heart surgery before she ever learned to skate.

There's Malinda Jenkins, who grew up in Peru, where girls didn't play sports of any kind. Three years ago Malinda was a thirtysomething couch potato looking for a way to lose weight. She tried roller hockey, then upgraded to ice, and to her surprise found that she could be passionate about a sport. Now she plays six nights a week, almost anywhere she can find a game. Her boyfriend plays, too. She has even found a way to incorporate hockey into her professional life: When the Aeros called the Harpies, asking if they knew someone who could sell tickets, Malinda took the job.

The Harpies are mostly professional women, and a high percentage of them work in testosterone-saturated fields such as computer programming and engineering. In general, they talk trash more than most women, are more aggressive and are harder to intimidate. The locker room, though, is as sweet and giggly as a 13-year-old's pajama party, but in a tough-gal jock way.

Mary Kidd shows off the bruises she picked up playing in another women's hockey league, the one in Sugar Land.

"Girl," purrs a teammate, "we know you're in an abusive relationship."

"You ought to leave," says another.

"I've tried to leave," says Mary. "But I can't leave myself." They all laugh; they all know that if Mary has an abusive relationship, it's with hockey.

Lea basks in the chatter. For the last few months she has missed Harpies practice because she and her husband, Robert, had a Lamaze birthing class on Wednesday nights. Some men hate Lamaze, hate being relegated to a bit part while their wives occupy the starring role. But Robert loved it and asked the teacher so many questions that he embarrassed Lea. Still, he's not sorry the class is over; tonight he'll enjoy playing goalie in the Harpies' coed scrimmage game. Lea can't wait to get back on the ice herself. She says that she wants to be a "hockey mom" -- that is, the kind of mom who plays, not the kind who watches her kid from the stands.

It's almost six-thirty, time for the game to start. The players, in their skates and heavy gear, waddle toward the ice. Lea waddles toward the stands.

About six years ago Lea, Robert and their friend Carol Ellinger were watching an NHL game on cable. Lea said, offhand, that hockey was the one game she'd get in shape to play. Two days later Carol signed them both up for beginners' skating lessons.

Once they could handle themselves on ice, they began trying to learn hockey. Since no one in Houston offered hockey lessons for adults, they took lessons with kids. Since nobody in Houston sold women's hockey gear, they guessed at their sizes and ordered by mail. They found two other women who played hockey -- the only two women in town, Lea thinks -- and they studied the way those women put on their gear.

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