When I was 20 years old, I was a working as a waitress in Jacksonville, Florida next to a sports arena that housed the Barracudas, a semi-pro hockey team belonging to the Southern Professional Hockey League.
The eventual 2004 SPHL champs would make appearances at our restaurant after each game to meet fans and sign some autographs with the added bonus of a free bar tab. That was how I met him.
My then-star-defensemen began a whirlwind of a relationship filled with moving all across the country for five years before I decided to settle back home in Jacksonville.
After nearly seven years together, we called it quits in 2010. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have years of stories about the wild, passionate and difficult challenges of being a WAG, otherwise known as wives and girlfriends.
Since I didn’t have Twitter or Instagram back then, here are some of my favorite stories as a WAG in the wonderful world of semi-pro hockey.
You Learn to Love the Zamboni Song
As a WAG, you’re at the rink several times a week and you begin to become friends with the entire staff. After all, you don’t know many people when you move to a new town so you make friends where you can.
Considering most minor league teams don’t have limitless budgets, the Zamboni driver will usually have 17 other jobs at the rink. He’s your go-to for locker room access, updates on player health, sneaking your friends into games, and anything else you can think of.
Therefore, you learn to love the Zamboni song because it reminds you of one of your favorite people you regularly see.
The first time you hear the song you think to yourself, “This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” But every time you visit a rink after your first time, you learn to love the in-game ritual.
The players are gentle giants
For guys that are usually toothless, over six feet tall and 200 pounds, hockey players are some of the nicest, most caring individuals you will ever meet.
If you’re broken down on the side of the road, they’ll leave in 30-seconds to drive two hours to pick you up. If a guy is giving you a hard time at the bar, they’ll step right in and take care of him with just a look. They’ll help you move. Help you unpack. And give up the big room in the house to the couple. All true stories, by the way.
99 percent of players and staff I’ve ever met were some of the coolest guys to talk with because it was always a diverse group.
You had Americans, Canadians, Russians, Slovakians, and even Japanese players! The stories I could tell deserve a post of their own. But with the exception of a couple locker room cancers, I was lucky to be around some great guys, some of which I still keep in touch with to this day.
But with that said, they can get crazy AF
There was one season where my roommate (also a player) invited the team over for a game of “Throw raw eggs at a goalie while he’s wearing a mattress.” Don’t ask me how they thought of this idea, just know it ended badly by setting off fireworks from our third-story balcony.
On one particular holiday, another teammate got so drunk, he ran and jumped into a Christmas tree, knocking it over and then rolled around in the broken ornaments. We told him he was bleeding, but he just kept laughing and rolling around the broken shards of glass. Eventually he took his ass to bed and woke up the next morning in zero pain because, well, he’s a hockey player.
Speaking of injuries, I couldn’t possibly document all the times I saw players on the ice that should not be playing. My ex once played an entire season at least 30-minutes per game on a ripped groin. He also tore his MCL in both knees and got hit in the face with a puck twice in two weeks. Still. Played.
There was also an instance where my old roommate was sucker punched in the middle of a game. Not a Geno Smith sucker punch, but a legit not-looking sucker punch where he lost both front teeth. After the incident, my roommate was rushed to the trainer’s room when a few minutes later, he stormed out and banged on the glass to let him back on the ice. He was the team’s enforcer and so infuriated at the thought of someone not fighting with proper etiquette he wanted to settle the score. He was screaming at the refs, spitting blood all over the glass and I watched as the refs picked his teeth up off the ice and scraped away the blood.
After the sucker punch incident, my roommate got a retainer with a couple false teeth and would routinely (and disgustingly) leave it lying around the house.
The equipment smells like a nightmare
I’m not kidding. Hockey equipment is one of the most distinct smells on the planet and it never really goes away.
The stench is so bad, you can still smell it on their hands long after they’ve showered and the game is over. And it’s routine that during the summer skates and practices that said players will choose to air out their equipment in the same home you share, which is lovely to explain to your guests.
I will never ever forget that stench and would probably vomit if I ever smelled it again. But I will add that hockey tape is one of the best things ever invented and is the solution for most household issues.
Game days become a ritual of habit
As a woman who comes from a traditional southern family, I enjoyed being able to take care of my guy on game days. This meant planning a meal that won’t give him heartburn and was ready by 2pm so he could eat, nap, and then get ready to throw on a suit for a game.
Yes, even the semi-pro guys have to wear a suit to every single game. Which was a great excuse for me to get regularly dolled up. After the games, you wait for them to shower, come out to sign some autographs, visit with fans and boosters, and then we would all hit the bar or hit the hay.
When the team was on an away trip, it forced me to become super independent. You’re usually home alone in a strange new town and if something goes wrong, it’s me, myself, and I that has to handle it. This learned independence in my early 20’s is a trait I’m incredibly thankful for to this day.
You learn how to play poker really well
Many of the towns we lived in were very small and the nightlife was nonexistent. So we spent many evenings with a case of beer and a deck of cards.
One season in particular, the team’s official “home” for its players was a bed and breakfast in the small town of Black Mountain, North Carolina. They had one grocery store, one McDonald’s, one Huddle House and we were 45 minutes from the nearest Walmart.
What I’m trying to say is all we had was the nightly poker game.
Looking back, we got to sit in the lobby of this beautiful-but-haunted bed and breakfast, next to a fire, surrounded by snow covered mountains and drink cold beer while telling stories and playing cards.
We didn’t have social media and most didn’t have a laptop with internet access. But we did have our nightly poker games.
For my 30th birthday, I made a pit stop to visit the same bed and breakfast I lived in when I was just 20 years old. I paid for a beer in the lobby using money from a coin jar I had saved up during that entire 10-years in between. For some reason spending that specific money at that specific place was really symbolic for me. The Monte Vista was the first place I had ever lived not located in Jacksonville and I got to reflect on how much I’ve changed since then.
You’re the designated best friend to visiting women
Because not many women at the semi-pro level live with their significant others, many WAGs would occasionally visit throughout the season. During these visits, it was usually my job to entertain the women while the guys were at practice and during the games.
Most of the women I would meet were a lot of fun. One girlfriend in particular flew down to visit her boyfriend and we played a drinking game while watching the boys play. The goalie for the night had an annoying habit of looking back at the net every few minutes and while we weren’t sure why he did this we decided to make a game of it by taking a drink each time. We ended up getting shit-canned at the game and I spent the night apologizing to her boyfriend when he had to carry his girl out of the rink because she started vomiting in the bathroom. Every time we played that goalie during the season I refused to drink because of the flashbacks. Good times.
But then there were occasions I had to entertain visiting women who would question the faithfulness of their significant other.
“Do they ever have girls over?” is what I’ve been asked on numerous occasions and it would kill me to lie to them because frankly half of the guys weren’t faithful. But I’m a firm believer in minding my own business when it comes to relationships because A) I had only known these ladies a couple days and B) the messenger always gets shot.
However, some of the ladies you meet along the journey become lifelong friends. I still talk regularly with two hockey couples in particular and while distance separates us, we have kept long-lasting relationships.
Because even after all these years and many of the guys already retired, no one will ever be able to understand our experiences except for us.
You’re Always Broke
When you accept this lifestyle, you learn to live with always being broke.
We saved our money all summer long to await a team’s call in August to have an idea of where we were moving to. A lot of the time, the team didn’t pay for travel reimbursement unless you were already on contract so it wasn’t unusual for us to foot the moving bill to a new city. Keep in mind we had to travel light, so only essentials were strategically packed in the car. This meant whenever we arrived in the new city, we had to purchase cheap cooking essentials, stock food items and spices to eat for a couple weeks until the paychecks started coming in.
I became a master at coupons and only shopped at Aldi, a budget grocery store, because Walmart was almost always too expensive.
But nothing compared to living at the bed and breakfast where we didn’t have a kitchen. We saved up money to buy a single electric burner, a flat top griddle and a cheap microwave. We washed dishes in the bathtub, flushed leftovers into the toilet, and had a system of using their ice machine to keep items such as milk and cheese cold in a couple of coolers stored in the room.
It wasn’t easy and damn sure wasn’t glamorous but at the time we really did love each other and that got us through the BS. At least until we skipped exchanging Christmas presents to have enough funds for a mini-fridge.
You accept the cruel ‘move at a moment’s notice’ lifestyle
The most I ever moved was six times in one calendar year. As someone who had never moved out of Jacksonville before I started that lifestyle, it became something you dealt with until you couldn’t deal anymore.
One situation in particular involved a losing team that was still upset over my ex getting called up the season prior. In the previous season, the team in question ranked dead last in the league when he got a call from the UHL’s Quad City Mallards to join them for a final playoff push.
He was fiercely loyal to the current team (I believe he was also the assistant captain that season) but the UHL was a great opportunity for him to play in a higher-up league so he hesitantly agreed. After making the 17-and-a-half hour drive to the border of Iowa and Illinois, he played lights out with nine points in 11 games and was +3 overall as a defensemen. When the playoffs started, I dropped him off at the team bus only to get a call 30 minutes later to come pick him back up.
“I got cut.”
To which I responded, “WHAT. THE. F*CK?!”
“I got on the bus with all my stuff, coach pulled me off and told me I was cut. I don’t wanna talk about it here, just please come me.”
I’ve never felt worse for someone in my life. He played so well and here he was on the biggest stage of his career, heading to the playoffs and they pull him off the playoff bus to make room for a demoted NHLer. We had to go back home, pack up all of our stuff, and move. Again.
The next season, the still-bitter SPHL team held on to his contract rights, which prevented him from signing with any other team. But they also refused to sign him as some sort of a punishment for leaving. A couple of weeks into the season, they called and wanted him to sign a contract. So we packed up all of our stuff and moved back to South Carolina. A week later, they traded him to the Orlando Seals.
It was a sucky move on the organization’s part to dangle his contract like a carrot and force us to use our moving fund, but we were so happy to get out of there I packed up our stuff in record time and we hit the road for Orlando.
Finally, we were in a big city. I got a dream job at Disney World almost immediately but it wouldn’t start until after Christmas. We were living at these beautiful villas in Kissimmee and the rink was just down the road. It was perfect.
Until it wasn’t.
On New Year’s Eve, the entire team was kicked out of those villas due to non payment of rent by the team’s brand new owner who decided to skip town and has been MIA ever since.
A final round of checks were cut to the players and it was a mad dash straight out of the Wild West to the nearest bank to see which lucky person got their check to clear. The boosters scraped up enough money to pay for a few rooms at a nearby hotel but after the team sold all of the hockey equipment to the visiting away team, it was over. The Orlando Seals folded later that week and it remains one of the biggest life challenges I’ve ever faced.
While I loved the aspect of living in a new town and experiencing its culture, I decided to give Disney the sad news and move back to Jacksonville to do something with my life. I was so angry at this POS “owner” and vowed no one would ever control my future like that again.
While I was intent on giving Disney everything I had, a few months after I moved back to Jacksonville, I started nighttime business classes and launched GuysGirl. So you could say it all worked out well in the end.
While my time as a semi-pro hockey WAG only lasted five years, I spent my early 20’s unlike any of my friends away at college. I saw some of the most beautiful parts of this country you only witness by driving through it and it really gives you a sense of how much opportunity is out there.
I’ve never dated an athlete since and probably never will again. But man, it was one hell of a ride while it lasted.
Featured image via We Heart It’s @Pacmaga