TORONTO — The women’s locker room at Baycrest Arena in Toronto is crowded with hockey bags and sticks.
There’s a chatty excitement about as 13 women take off their street clothes, gear up in full hockey attire and hang their sheitels on hooks.
It’s a Tuesday morning in January, the temperature is -13 Celsius outside and not much warmer in the rink, but that doesn’t stop these determined women from coming out to learn to play hockey.
This is the third season for this all-women’s group, a gathering of frum (observant Jews) and non-frum women, along with a token non-Jewish participant, who come together each week to participate in a hockey skills class run by the Avenue Road Hockey Association.
Although most of the women are mothers ranging in age from their 20s to 40s and come from different religious backgrounds, they share a common passion for hockey, as well as a desire to learn new skills, meet new people and have fun.
Their coach, Paulina Jakarsezian, a 22-year-old non-Jewish student who plays hockey for Ryerson University, enjoys working with the group because of their non-competitive and supportive nature.
“Skate, skate, skate, “ she smiles in between blowing her whistle.
The puck passes back and forth between orange triangular cones. High fives can be heard above the swish of skates. One skater bumps into another, followed by a row of apologies. Someone falls on the ice, laughing as they hit the ground. Everyone cheers when they get up.
Frum women playing hockey in Toronto is not all that common. Channa Merkur, 40, and a mother of eight, first became interested in the sport while watching her boys play about four years ago.
Born and raised in England, Merkur didn’t even know how to skate when she first approached Stacy Toban, the registrar of the Avenue Road Hockey Association, who also plays with this group. Merkur wanted to join an all-women’s hockey group, but was disappointed when she learned that the coach was a man.
Merkur, however, is not one to give up easily and helped connect Toban with a female coach. Merkur also wanted to attract Orthodox Jewish women to the hockey program and sent out a message to an online social networking group (firstname.lastname@example.org) that caters to more than 1,000 observant Jewish women in Toronto.
Six women enthusiastically responded, and although the group has more than doubled in size since then, Merkur wishes more frum women would join in on the fun.
After their first hockey class, Merkur and a friend fondly described their experience as “the best thing they ever did.”
Merkur was especially happy to play hockey with people outside of her immediate community.
“It was fun, it was novel, it was outrageous. In my mind we introduced something new to the frum community, because we were breaking down negative frum stereotypes that I assume some secular people have,” she said.
Many of the other women interviewed echoed Merkur’s sentiment. They also talked about hockey being a much-needed break in their everyday lives.
Merkur agrees. “ I consider my hockey time [to be] my sanity saver, my untouchable time.”
Lindy Wolff, 31, one of the frum participants, her bandana peeking out of her helmet, proudly shows off her hockey outfit once she’s finished dressing. She is only in her third week of classes, but says her family is thrilled that she’s playing.
Carole Freeman, 47, originally signed up for the exercise, but she especially loves the camaraderie and the feeling of being part of a group.
She also enjoys going out for lunch with all the girls sometimes after hockey, sharing their common stories about children, families and life.
A woman lacing up her hockey skates nearby agrees that playing hockey in this mixed environment has given her the opportunity to break out of her insular social circle.
“Because I grew up in a sheltered community, it’s nice to know different people and learn about their different sides. When it comes to playing hockey, we talk about our kids, we talk about their schools, family vacations and kids that were up all night. We’re really all the same.”