Earlier this week, I went to a hockey game. It was the first game I attended in as long as I can remember with my friend Tom. The University of Minnesota Gophers won over the University of Michigan Wolverines. The score: 3-1. At one time, the score would have been important to me. Former (and more so, current) goalies love a low score. But being long removed from the pads and the ice, I sat a little easier, knowing a goal was not the trigger of gut-wrenching trauma,, shame and yet another personal failure.
“Playing goalie seems to be the most interesting job on the ice,” Tom said.
“Playing goalie is the most anxiety-ridden job on the ice,” I told him.
One would think it odd that a nine-year-old who already lived a life full of more anxiety than a child should have to live with would choose to play goalie. Playing between the posts is an exercise in conspicuous failure. So, how—or WHY did I spend the next decade, including those preciously fragile adolescent years, as a hockey net-minder?
Anxiety is a great motivator. The possibility of humiliation in front of teammates, opponents, family, and whomever found them selves spectating, can go a long way toward spurring action. Anxiety helps one attempt the impossible task: keeping the puck out of the net. And action—that urgent physical activity—helps that anxiety from becoming a dis-abler and from making one sick.
Sick as in the physical and mental deterioration that comes from constant stress. Sick as in, “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Former Boston Bruin great, Gary Cheevers was known for several things besides his excellent play in the nets. He used to throw up before each game—a little more than your average nervous tummy. But the anxiety of a goalie can be that big. As a child, I found it convenient.
Playing goalie was a convenient distraction from the more pressing and less hopeful stressors of my childhood. That impossible task, to stop all the shots, seemed to be a more hopeful prospect than deflecting the negative attention I received whenever I stepped from the house. Better to have that attention, an ironically less conspicuous attention, than the attention I received as one of the few Black kids on my lonely childhood planet of ubermajority.
It was better to be conspicuous as a goalie, unlike the other skaters on the ice whose mistakes are jumbled in a the flurry of action. While playing goalie, everyone sees your lonely mistake; everyone knows who let the puck pass by.
Choose your anxiety. Or did I get to choose? I played goalie into college. Almost good enough. Good enough to dress for one Division III college game. Good enough to eek out All-Metro high school honors in a medium-sized town. Good enough to be loved by some and hated by others for my relative success.
Good enough to gain the enthusiastic and empathetic protection of teammates from especially hostile bigots. Good enough so that one angry referee was overheard in a bar telling his drinking buddies how, if I was going to be playing in an upcoming game, my team would be sure to find itself a few goals disadvantaged—or maybe that didn't have anything to do with how good, or not good, my 12-year-old self was.
I was “something” enough for something. Enough to have things yelled at me for which other players where not the target. (I actually didn't hear: I was selectively deaf to a lot of the taunts, but was told what had been said by naively shocked teammates.) I was enough of something to get pucks deliberately shot at my head by college teammates during practice (as I was told years later by one who felt the need to break his silence about his teammates). I was enough of something to have this anxiety available to me to push out the other anxiety created in a cauldron with pockets of hostility easily bred in a sheltered and homogeneous majority.
So, I was happy for ten years being unhappy at my work that masked a greater unhappiness. Tom was right: It is the most interesting job on the ice. (It even beats being the Zamboni driver.) Fighting anxiety with anxiety: maybe not such a novel idea, but interesting work, if you can get it.