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  • Writer's pictureErika Nichols-Frazer

How Hockey Helps My Mental Health (Go Growlers!)

As a depressed teenager, hockey was one part of my life that (almost) always brought me joy. Even if I'd spent most of the day reading in bed, despondent and teary-eyed, I knew that I'd feel better after getting on the ice with my friends. Now I know the importance of exercise in managing my bipolar disorder, and, although all exercise is beneficial to one's mental health, team sports are particularly critical to my mental health recovery. The camaradie, teamwork, and the fun of working together toward a common goal is a balm for my moods. It gives me something positive to focus on; cheering on my teammates and getting lost in the competition shuts down all other thoughts. And even if I make a bad play and feel frustrated with myself, I have to shake it off and get back out there for the next shift, so the negative thought loops don't last long. The intensity of a hockey game also boosts my endorphins and gives me a natural high. Plus, it's really fucking fun.

Hockey had been a big part of my middle and high school years--my dad even turned our small backyard pond into a rink complete with wooden boards and floodlights for evening games--but I went to a college where hockey was not a thing, so I didn't play for four years. After college, I was struggling to find my purpose and identity and felt like I was falling. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, a worry most of my friends didn't seem to fret much over. I was working in a corporate atmosphere that really wasn't my scene; I didn't feel in control of my life. But one of the other paralegals in my firm had asked me on my first day, "You played hockey in high school, right? I remember you." We'd been on rival teams. She had a friend organizing a team for a tournament in my home town, about forty-five minutes away, and asked if I wanted to play. How had I forgotten how much joy this sport and the act of being part of a team could bring me? I didn't know I was signing myself up for the next decade of tournaments with this team, which I named The Growlers (we snagged a sponsorship from a brewery) and some of the most supportive friendships in my life. Most of these players live an hour or two away from me, so we don't see each other often, but when that puck drops every spring, it's like we haven't missed a minute. Then the pandemic hit and team sports disappeared. The Growlers were scheduled for the biggest women's tournament of the year in April 2020, which, of course, did not happen. And then it didn't happen the next year, either.

When I was asked if I'd play in this year's tournament, I hesitated. COVID continued to surge and I wasn't sure I felt comfortable breathing hard in a locker room full of people. I regretted it as I typed my response: I'm not ready yet. And then players cancelled and COVID seemed to ease up again and I got another email: Are you sure you don't want to play? I relented. After all, at some point we have to get on with our lives and do the things that bring us joy, right? I'm so grateful I did.

It wasn't just the game I'd missed, or the feeling of my whole body being sore and satisfied; it was that supportive team mindset that I don't get from a Peloton ride (even when Cody Rigsby tells me I'm killing it). It felt a bit privileged to lament missing team sports over the last two years, of all the things that have impacted people's lives in this time. Mostly, my life wasn't upended in the ways so many people's were: I didn't lose my job/income or place to live during the pandemic. My husband was with me the whole time; I wasn't alone or homebound. We live in a beautiful place where we could take long walks with the dogs or cross-country ski in the woods. Team sports seemed like a pretty small thing to mourn. And yet, I realized this weekend as The Growlers played four games over three days together, that it wasn't such a small thing after all. That the power of a team to make you feel less alone is actually quite a significant thing. And that team sports--for me, hockey in particular--are a big part of my recovery plan. I'm grateful to all the women I got to skate alongside this past weekend. My heart is full and my body is sore, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

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