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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.
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 now.")
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.
"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.
Eventually their rink offered an adult hockey clinic and Friday-night pickup games where Lea and Carol could play. And slowly Houston began to resemble a real hockey town. The Houston Aeros started playing in '94, and soon after, the Sugar Land Aerodrome launched a coed novice league for adults; Lea and Carol played in its first, stupefyingly clumsy game. But the league grew, and so did the number of women playing in it. Lea subscribed to a women-in-hockey mailing list, and when it mentioned a women's hockey tournament in Las Vegas, she printed a flyer and began recruiting teammates.
Someone in a locker room suggested calling the team the Houston Harpies. Women's hockey teams often appropriate their names from ugly, man-hating stereotypes -- the Iron Maidens, the Black Widows, the Valkyries -- as a kind of joke. And besides, someone found a definition of "harpy" that included "arbitrary," "aggressive," "tormented men," "bludgeoned their prey with sticks" and "stank." What could fit better?
In that first tournament, the Harpies lost all their games. They hadn't expected to play so hard that their hands bled. They hadn't expected to need their husbands and boyfriends to tie on their skates. They hadn't had any idea the tournament would be so fun.
Lea decided that she wanted to keep the Harpies alive, and she recruited Trevin Baker to coach the team. Trevin had played hockey for the University of Wisconsin, and he'd taught Lea in the adult clinic. Except for hockey, Lea and Trevin have next to nothing in common. She's the capable get-things-done type, a civil engineer for the Port of Houston ("I like to pave things," she says). Trevin's easygoing, laid-back, a puppyish guy who looks cute in baggy jeans and is reliably late for practice. Lea jokes that he's a "true blond," but still, she spent hours on the phone with him, trying to figure out where to start: How do you reserve ice? How do you pay for everything? Where do you find players?
In retrospect, it's not surprising that women joined the Harpies. Lea was at the leading edge of a trend. By some estimates, the number of American women playing hockey quadrupled in the '90s; women's hockey became an Olympic sport in '98. The Harpies offered would-be players the things newbies need: loaner equipment, experience, and a coach and teammates who didn't mind if you skated badly or asked stupid questions.
The surprising thing is this: The Harpies developed male groupies. Or, more accurately, a gentlemen's auxiliary.
At first, the guys were organized as a team to play against the Harpies. Dick Lockwood, Deborah's husband, learned to skate along with her, and he began rounding up a group of handpicked men -- boyfriends and husbands, mostly -- to play against the Harpies. The team called itself Dick's Friends.
Dick's Friends was perhaps the sweetest, most nurturing hockey team in history. The Harpies set definite limits (no body-checking, no fighting, none of the crap you see on cable), but the Friends held themselves to a higher standard of good behavior. The Friends would go easy on a new Harpie; they'd boo their own teammate if he accidentally knocked over a female player.
The men, in fact, were much gentler than the Harpies. Occasionally more men than women would show up for a practice, and a man would fill out the Harpies' roster. One man told Lea that the experience had shaken him to the core. He'd played against the Harpies before, and he'd chatted with them after practice: sweet, normal-seeming women. But sitting on their bench, he could see how they were transmogrified by the hockey gear, how they turned evil and showed no mercy. His benchmates yelled, "KILL HIM! KILL HIM!" to the other Harpies, and they seemed to mean it. Playing on the women's team, he said, was the scariest thing he'd ever done in his life.
Dick's Friends seem content with their second-class status, happy to be the Harpies' sparring partners and support staff. Their names don't appear on the Harpies Web page; when the Harpies travel to tournaments, the men merely accompany them, cheerleaders instead of participants. Lately, for scrimmage games like tonight's, the Harpies and the Friends have intermingled, with Trevin shuffling any given night's participants into two coed teams. The men are still expected to play nice; overly rowdy newcomers are subtly encouraged to play elsewhere.
Some of the Harpies' male groupies continue to play with the Harpies even after breaking up with the girlfriend who introduced them to hockey. Some have dated more than one member of the team. Some of the men have skated with Dick's Friends so long that nobody can quite remember where they came from, what girlfriend brought them in the first place. On average, the Harpies' men have stuck with the team longer than the Harpies' women.
Almost as soon as the scrimmage game starts, one of the male players blatantly trips a male player on the opposing team. Lea, watching from the stands, can't believe it: The Harpies' men don't play like that.
The ref awards the wounded party, Steve Santini, a penalty shot. Steve gets into position, facing Pam Berry, a relatively new Harpie. Tonight's her first game at goalie, and a half-dozen of her relatives are watching from the stands.
But instead of shooting, Santini skates toward Pam. He pulls a ring out of his pants. He proposes. She accepts.
The spectators cheer. The players can't cheer -- their mouth guards prevent it -- but they thump their sticks as if the Harpies had scored a winning goal in a tournament.
Lea says it's the first time she has ever seen a proposal at a Harpies game. She's surprised, but only a little; she didn't know the couple was that serious. Founding a relationship on hockey seems perfectly reasonable to her. "Some of our men might end up marrying a woman who doesn't play, or isn't seriously into hockey," she says. "But I can't imagine any of our women doing that."
E-mail Lisa Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org.