How To Be A Gubbe
I talked to dad about trying ice hockey after a suggestion from my classmate Tommy. There were two clubs to choose from, Östervalla and Aspå. Aspå was the smaller one with the worse men’s team, they played in the fourth division, while Östervalla was in the division right below the top league. Östervalla also had a different attitude to the game. If you weren’t good enough, you were booted out by the time you were sixteen.
The culture of winning had led to most of their junior players quitting as they couldn’t handle the pressure. It just wasn’t fun anymore. There had even been a documentary made about it since Sweden as a country mostly saw itself as inclusive and not one that would weed out the weaklings. But in this case, it was so obvious that that was exactly what had happened.
Aspå on the other hand, well, let me put it like this if you ever saw an Aspå player with red hockey socks instead of black ones, he was most likely a “failed” Östervalla player. Here, you could play until you were at least 20 when the youth administration came to an end. You could probably continue after that as well since you had to really suck in order to not make it onto the men’s team.
I mean, if you had played hockey for at least 10-15 years, you had to have learned something. The first time I came to the sports ground, we had a changing room at the end of the main corridor in the ice hall. I had my own skates, stick, and helmet, but had to borrow pants and shin guards. I was a bit nervous about meeting all the guys on the team, but people trying out seemed like a regular occurrence since nothing seemed to change when I came in.
The dynamic didn’t change, and I wasn’t asked too many questions. They just got on with it. You could see whose fathers had played, they were the kids who had been taught how to skate before they could walk. They were already experienced. They talked the talk and had their own corner in every single one of the twenty or so changing rooms.
I decided to wear a hat under my helmet during my first practice. This was a big mistake. It might have been colder on the ice than in a polar bear’s anal cavity, but that did not warrant the headache the pressure on my head caused me. I finally gave in after about 20 minutes and took off my hat. It was like being released from Robben Island after 27 years of hard labor. Apparently, my stick was not for kids. It was just a sawed-off adult stick. I had got it from my cousins to the north.
“If you skate into the boards with that, you’ll take out one of your lungs, it won’t break,” said Mikael-the-supplies-guy. He was big (fat), wearing a cap (balding), and had a horseshoe-mustache (fantastic). It was one of those mustaches that go around your mouth like a goatee but his chin was shaven. If he had opened his mouth and started to shout in German, I wouldn’t have been surprised at all. Mikael was a supporter of AIK, Allmänna Idrottsklubben, or “The Public Sports Club.”
He had a massive tattoo of a rat wearing the shirt of AIK, as AIK-fans were referred to as rodents. Their colors were black and yellow, which was why the group of their most loyal supporters was called Black Army. They were one of the most feared supporter groups in Sweden since they had the tendency to be a bit racist, for instance, they once threw bananas at the opposing team’s goalkeeper during a soccer game just because he happened to be black. Despite this, they call themselves black army, apparently, they never quite made the connection. Mikael was nice though, at least I never saw him throw bananas at black people.
Mikael’s point about my stick possibly taking my lung out was that you were supposed to have a thinner stick that would break instead of ripping out your guts when you skated straight into something and had your own stick shoved up your esophagus. Mikael-the-supplies-guy was a no-nonsense kind of guy.
“Hey Mikael, do you have any tape?”
“Do they eat rice in China?” Okay, maybe he was a bit xenophobic. When we all got a bit older, we would get a storage unit where we could keep our pads so we didn’t have to lug them back and forth from home all the time. If my pads only, yellow not from piss but from sweat, and probably some piss, made our car smell like a homeless dog, what do you think the storage unit with 25 guys’ worth of sweat-stained equipment smelled like?
“It smells like love,” Mikael said. For him, it probably did. And for a while, it did for me too.
There were several coaches, at least four of them. And they were all dads of someone on the team, always one of the better ones because, as previously mentioned, they taught their sons to skate before they could walk. Leif was the father of one of the more experienced kids. When you were playing hockey, you became a “gubbe” at the age of seven, at least according to Leif. Gubbe is a Swedish word meaning old man.
The plural of which, “gubbar,” would be shouted to rile up the boys before or during a game. “Let’s go gubbar!!” simply sounded more hockey-ish than “Let’s go boys!” Boys didn’t play hockey, or rather, when you played hockey, you weren’t a boy, you were a gubbe. I liked being a gubbe. Even the singular term gubbe felt collective in a way, like you were part of something. You can’t be a gubbe on your own, you have to have a bunch of other gubbar around you in order to be a gubbe. At least when you were seven.
The team also had a bunch of administrators and behind the scenes characters, all of them were parents of one of the players on the team. The son of the guy who would run the scoreboard and commentator’s booth during games was a guy called Bengt, but everyone called him Bengan. Bengan was a great player but an odd character.
He was fast on the ice but stiff as a board off the ice. He could barely bend over to touch his knees. Once we got a bit older, each day’s workout expanded from just being on the ice to also take place in the running trails before and after each hour on the ice. During one of these pre-workout runs in the trails, Bengan decided it would be a good idea for him to jump off the trail, pull down his pants, and with his genitals in the air, roll around on top of an anthill. I only did one evening with the scouts, but I didn’t see any of that there. Maybe it was because the scouts weren’t divided by gender, and Bengan thought this was a boys-only event.
I wasn’t completely hopeless, I had learned to skate on the lake during previous winters, but only in one direction, straight forward, and when I did skate, dad was always right behind me, making sure I didn’t fall on my face. But now I had a cage on my face, which stopped me from losing all my teeth whenever I fell. For the uninitiated, it’s difficult to explain, but until you’re 18, you have to wear a helmet with metal bars covering your face. Pros included not having the puck knock out all your teeth, break your nose, or blind you, and cons included that anyone could grab your face-cage and whip your head in whatever direction they wanted. But simultaneously this was also a perk since you could do it to everybody else. It basically just depended on how much of an asshole you felt like being.
The head coach was a guy called Mats. He was in his late thirties, early forties, and he was a baker. Hence, he could make it to all the practices that started before school had even ended at two-thirty in the afternoon. He basically got up at two and started at three in the morning and finished at ten and then slept until it was time to teach a bunch of kids how to play hockey. The team wasn’t entirely made up of lads though, there were two girls, Mia and Josefine, who basically had to play with us if they wanted to play at all. There was a women’s team, but the age range on that team basically went from 14 to 37, so they weren’t quite ready yet.
They were actually two of the better players on the team because guess what? They had learned to skate before they could walk. And girls develop earlier than guys as well. One of their perks was that they got to watch thirty or so guys run around naked on an almost daily basis. Although at that point, that most likely wasn’t beneficial as much as it was traumatic.
They themselves dealt with having to change into their gear in a room full of immature boys by going into the bathroom and putting on their hockey pajamas that everyone wore under their pads to not make it so itchy, while the rest of us just kind of went for it, balls aflingin’. These hockey-pajamas would sooner or later become childish and eventually, you would just use the t-shirt you were wearing and put your leg guards straight onto your leg, like a man! Or you know... a gubbe.
Having girls on the team was never an issue, not even when it was time for one of them to lead the team in the pre-game motivational chant, which for some time went thusly. One player would yell: “Hejsan grabbar, har ni stake!?”
Then the rest of the team would yell: “Jajamensan upp I taket!” This rhymes nicely in Swedish but what it translates to is this:
“Hello boys, do you have a hard-on!?”
“We sure do, it’s going up to the ceiling!” And then the whole team would chant the name of the team three times all together just to make sure that the surrounding area would know who it was who had boners en masse at a very inopportune time. A later variation of this was to yell to one of the coaches and ask if he was hard. He would usually not respond. Thankfully.