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Alero Eribo | Turning hardship into empowering others

About 10 months ago, while doing a research project for school, I stumbled across a Pittsburgh Penguins game and in that instant, I fell in love in hockey. The next day, I found a rink near my house and went for the free skate. I rented skates for six dollars and I wobbled my way onto the ice. I remember holding onto the boards for dear life. “This is crazy!” I thought, “I’m walking on ice!!”

After many falls, semi-falls and mini heart attacks, I finally started to move a bit with the boards. When I got home that day, my mum said that there was something different about me. I smiled differently, I walked differently (you know, with that hockey player swagger?) and I just looked happy. I was happy… I had found my calling.

LEARNING TO PLAY HOCKEY

For the next few weeks, I rented skates everyday for two hours to practice. It was difficult, but I finally got the hang of it. The impact of that on my bank account on the other hand? Let’s just say that I didn’t have much allowance left haha! After about a month, I was able to move freely on the ice without any aid.

My mum had bought me my very own skates and I was ecstatic. I was very fortunate to have wonderful strangers on the ice with me who gave me advice and tips to help me improve. It was there I met a lady named Litta, who liked hockey, and offered to teach me some things. Our goal was to help me pass tryouts and get on a team. So, we met 2-3 times a week for four hours to practice.

On the other days she wasn’t there, I would go by myself to practice. On those days I was alone, I didn’t like it much because those were the days that the men would come to play pick up hockey and some seemed bothered by my being there. I remember once, while I was practicing during the free hockey time, a guy skated over to me and told me to get off the ice. There were other people there, so I wondered why he specifically told me. Being a calm person, I ignored him and kept going. It was going to take more than that to make me drop hockey.

The rink was just five minutes from my school, so during my lunch times, I would take my stick and skates to the rink and skate around and practice my shots. I looked crazy bringing my stick and small hockey bag to school. As I walked through the corridor to my class, I would see people stare at me and whisper to each other. No one else did this, so it was really bizarre to them. People gave me lots of weird looks, but I didn’t care, I loved hockey too much, and I wanted to play at any chance I got.

One day, Litta suggested I sign up for a hockey camp so I could improve my skills. I was very excited and I signed up. The next day, they called me and told me that they couldn’t accept me because I was too old. I was only 15! How is that too old? After a long discussion, they called me back and told me that they had changed their mind and would take me, but I would be the oldest player.

For the few weeks leading up to the camp, I upped my practice from four hours to about seven hours a day, everyday. I wanted to show them that despite being too “old” I could still keep up. I began to lean out because I would miss my lunches, and I had less time to sleep, because after my practices which would end at 10pm I would get home to start my homework which would be done around 12pm—sleep and I weren’t the best of friends.

FACING ADVERSITY

I knew that day that I had to do something for all those girls like me, who didn’t feel welcome or wanted and that my not giving up, would motivate and inspire those girls to keep going.

The first day of camp finally arrived, a camp I will never forget for the amount of tears I shed and the heartbreak. I had fallen in love with hockey, but this love hurt me. To be fair, the staff were great and the training was top notch. But the students? Not so much. I was one of three people of colour and the only girl of colour. I was also the oldest player, and some would say the worst.

There were four other girls in my group who were about 13-14 years old . They were star players who played AA and AAA. They made it clear that I was not on their level. I remember instances when they would switch jerseys so they wouldn’t be on the same team as me. When I made mistakes (as those games were my first ever) they would angrily “scold” me.

I was the newbie, who no one wanted to play with.

The camp really almost killed my love for hockey. I was brought to the verge of tears countless times and I found myself waiting in anticipation for the bell to ring so we could go home. I began to dread the next day of camp. I was also very upset with myself, that after all the hours of work, I was still that bad. Everyone knew, and even the smaller kids began to call me “madam”. It was embarrassing and I made up my mind never to play again.

TURNING ADVERSITY INTO EMPOWERMENT

I went home that day really upset. I thought to myself, “This sport is really not for me. I can’t keep up. I’m too late”, but that night, while I sat up In bed replaying the day in my head, I realized that if I quit, they would have won. They would have succeeded in taking away the feeling of euphoria I got while I skated, the exhilaration I felt when I got a goal into the net, the feeling of pride when I had mastered a new skill and the overall joy and satisfaction hockey gave me. So, I decided that I would keep going, keep pushing until I succeeded.

I also realized that day that there must have been so many people going through the same thing I was. People being discouraged out of hockey. I knew that day that I had to do something for all those girls like me, who didn’t feel welcome or wanted and that my not giving up, would motivate and inspire those girls to keep going.

It was this experience that drove me to create the HockeyGirlz organization and website, which I founded in the hopes that it would help girls learn and express their love for hockey in a safe and welcoming environment. It is also this experience that pushes me to create a place for girls of all ages and backgrounds to learn hockey without feeling bad or unsupported.

This year, in the 2020-2021 season, I hope to have a different experience—a better one, where I can join a team and play the greatest sport in the world with supportive people who love it as much as I do. I also hope to train and be at the peak of my ability so that I can give 100% to the game.

To end it all, I would just like to say that hockey is an amazing sport, a sport that has the power to bring people of all backgrounds together. It is also one that I hope to build my life on. It is my dream that after all is said and done, I will be able to play at the collegiate level, professionally and to serve this great country in the Olympics.

But, the most important achievement I will hope to have, is to have inspired girls all over the world, to play hockey and feel great while doing so and also change this game positively for all those coming after me.

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