By, Susie Lai
To fit in. That’s the only reason why 14-year-old me began watching hockey. Everyone in my classes were talking incessantly about the Tampa Bay Lightning making it to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history. I remember sleepovers at my friend’s house where there were Lightning magnets with schedules all over the fridge door. My family was one of the few Chinese families in my small town just north of Tampa, Florida, and the sport of hockey was something foreign to us, much like most of American culture. I knew soccer because my dad loved it, and I had periodically watched it with him growing up. But hockey? We had never even heard of it! However, while the concept of a sport on ice was pretty foreign to a place like Florida, the Lightning had somehow captured everyone’s attention.
So, to fit in with my classmates – none of whom looked like me – I started watching a sport where none of the players looked like me. But that’s not unusual. Despite the fact that AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) is one of the faster growing racial groups in the US, now at 35.5% as per the 2020 Census, there is still a severe lack of AAPI players in all major sports across the US, and hockey is no exception. When I started watching hockey the year Tampa Bay won it all, the list of AAPI players active within the NHL was so small you could count them on just one hand, with Paul Kariya (bet you didn’t know that!) being the most prolific of them all. But I didn’t know that back then. I just knew that hockey seemed like a fun sport, and it gave me something in common with everyone else. So I started watching.
I moved to upstate New York to go to Cornell for college. If there’s any sport that Cornell was good at (Ivy Leagues are usually atrocious at sports), it was hockey. I joined the pep band, so every Friday and Saturday night, I’d be right there cheering on our hockey team. I loved being a hockey fan at Cornell, and found a diverse community in the “Lynah Faithful,” the fans who spent weekend after weekend at Lynah Rink cheering on our men and women’s hockey teams. I loved that community and I started learning how to play, joining every intramural ball hockey league I could. I didn’t know what I was doing, yet relished every minute of it. (Shout out to my team “Rainbow Sunshine Lollipop Fairies.” We were the champions of the womens intramural ball hockey league 3 years running from my sophomore to senior year!)
When I moved to NYC right after grad school, I knew that the hockey community was one that I wanted to find. Joining a co-ed ball hockey league was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The team I joined was, at the time, made up of almost 40% AAPIs, which was rare! And while there still are not that many of us around the league, I’ve started seeing more and more AAPI players over the years. When I found this women’s hockey community, started by some of the AAPI women that I knew and admired, with its inaugural Hockaway Beach tournament, I jumped in head first. There was something about the energy of women’s hockey that felt different than playing in the co-ed league. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing co-ed ball hockey, but playing with women who actively included each other, helped teach each other, passed to each other, cheered each other on, and consoled each other when mistakes were made was so incredibly refreshing. This was a community filled with some of the most uplifting and inspiring women I’d ever met, all of whom had their own stories to tell.
I’ve never really shared my own experiences of being AAPI – I grew up immersed in two different cultures, and the reconciliation of that can be exhausting. However, because of the pandemic these past two years and the resulting uptick in violence against the AAPI community, I found myself seeking out the AAPI community within my own communities, in order to share stories and support each other. There was story after story in the news, but also story after story that didn’t make the news. Within the women in our hockey world, I was able to find understanding and, well, “community,” for lack of a better term. These women affirm, support, and validate my feelings.
There’s an unspoken joke that AAPIs tend to find each other, and in this community, I think we certainly did. I got to know quite a few of the AAPI women within ball hockey, and we all shared common experiences with each other in a way that felt cathartic. We sought each other out on the courts and it made the world feel a little bit friendlier.
There’s something really wonderful about belonging to a community, and there’s something about hockey that really embodies the phrase “hockey is for everyone”. I love the ball hockey community here in NYC, but really, it’s the women within it that have made playing hockey here one of the most joyful and fulfilling things in my life. I started watching hockey as a kid wanting to fit in in an unfamiliar environment, and I’m so happy where it has led me today: feeling like I’m in a community where I truly belong.
In the spirit of celebrating AAPI Heritage Month, I want to end with this joy: the town where I grew up in Florida has new ice rinks and new youth hockey programs. The next generation of AAPI kids (both boys and girls) now have the opportunity to learn how to play. I didn’t have that chance as a kid, and it warms my heart to know that my cousin’s kids who still live in Tampa now have that chance. The game is growing, and maybe one day soon it will be normal rather than noteworthy to see and root for AAPI players on our favorite teams and in our local hockey communities.
Now wouldn’t that be something?