After playing hockey in Japan and the Czech Republic, I knew that I would have to pack my gear for my Fulbright journey. Six months ago, one of my USA teammates who had played for the Leiden Lions (another city in The Netherlands) gave me the contact information for a woman who plays on the Dutch national team. A few emails later, I was in touch with Brian, the captain of Cool Mokum in Amsterdam. He informed me that the team practices on Tuesday nights, and if I was good enough I might be able to play a half season until March.
I emailed Brian the day I arrived, despite my sleep deprived delirium, informing him that I was in Amsterdam, and asking if I could play the following Tuesday (I mean, I needed at least a week to get settled and bike off my plane legs).
“Next week? How about you come to practice tomorrow. I’ll pick you up at 20:30 and you can meet the team. I’ll let our trainer know you’ll be there.”
I had been in The Netherlands for less than 48 hours before my first trip to the ice rink. For some reason I was not surprised. Also, my willingness to hop into cars with strangers is questionable...but hey, anything for ice time right?
At 20:27 on Tuesday, I eagerly headed down the three flights of spiral stairs to find a small 206 Peugeot jam packed with hockey gear, George (a Canadian expat player), and Brian. I shoved my gear into the back seat and we were off.
Brian explained that there are a couple of different divisions of hockey in The Netherlands. Bene-League (super competitive), and first, second, third, fourth and fifth division. Other than youth hockey, that’s it. For a country that is so good at speed skating and field hockey, ice hockey has taken second fiddle, or more like tenth fiddle.
Brian also said that he had to make sure I knew about their trainer. Cool Mokum skates in the second division, and when Brian invited me to practice and mentioned a trainer I started having flashbacks of skating drills that make you want to puke .
“So, our trainer is a 94-year-old man. He comes out every Tuesday, puts on his skates, drops the puck, and blows the whistle.”
Praise be. Here I was thinking that it was going to be an organized practice. A 94-year-old man dropping the puck for a scrimmage? That is more my speed.
We parked at the Jaap Eden, walked past the outdoor skating track, and inside to the rink. Brian showed me the women’s locker room where I could change and shower privately if I wanted to. He also kindly invited me into the team’s locker room. I took him up on his offer to dress with the men.
Ice, Ice, Baby! Jaap Eden has both an indoor rink and outdoor track
Locker room culture is a surefast way to learn about how a society expresses its masculinity. Donald Drumpf’s excuse about sexual assault as “locker room talk", point to a brutal truth about how sports culture has historically marginalized women.
There's a lot to unpack here...
In third grade, I started playing hockey, which also lead to my first experience in an American locker room filled with boys. At 15, I was working in sales for a company that cleaned hockey gear. There was hockey player, who I knew and had played with for years, ask how much it would be to perform a sexual favor. Aside from the crudeness of the remark, I was upset because someone who I had seen as a teammate so quickly objectified me as a woman. It goes without saying, that playing a male dominated sport is not always easy.
Most of the time, I turn the situation into a joke and come up with a witty remark that I hope will shed light on inappropriateness of the comment. By and large, locker rooms have made me far more comfortable interacting with men. I see them dressed down, and prepare alongside them to go into battle.
Needless to say, aside from playing hockey, I was also enthralled by the idea of seeing what a Dutch locker room was like.
The demographics of Cool Mokum are similar to the beer league team that I was playing for in New York, the majority are white men aged 20-60’s. About half of them have kids, and most have been playing hockey their entire lives. The team is also entirely Dutch, with the exception of four expats (three from Boston and one from Montreal).
Let me introduce some of them:
Tjakko played in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid for the Dutch National team. They played against the Soviets, and he is one of the best hockey players that I know.
Martin lived in California until he was thirteen, and knows one my teammates from Jr. Sharks and another from the Riveters. He played in the highest Dutch league, and recently joined Cool Mokum.
The hockey world is small after all.
At age 20, Boris is the youngest member of the team.
I didn’t need to know Dutch to understand there were definitely some pussy cat jokes tossed around.
Michael plays defense and has four kids. He wasn’t planning to have four, but ended up with triplets...two of them play hockey.
Triplets for the win.
Despite being welcomed into the locker room, the language gap limited my ability to understand what was happening. English is taught in secondary schools in The Netherlands, and 91% of the population can speak it. However, unless someone is talking with an expat, the conversations are entirely in Dutch.
Being surrounded by a language that I can not speak allows me to take note of the tiniest things happening around me. Cool Mokum takes care of each other. Similar to the rink I was playing at in New York, the locker rooms are left open and anyone can walk in. Before practice, the team showed me a bag where they collectively store their phones and wallets to take out to the bench. In New York, we were all just responsible for bringing our own bags out to the rink. Differences much smaller than what I would ever have thought to consider significant are shaping my view of Dutch culture.
After suiting up, I stepped on the ice. No matter where I am in the world, hockey has always been my sanctuary. As my blades dug into the freshly cut ice, the familiar sound of my edges calmed me. For the next hour and a half my movements were automatic.
Wim, the 94-year-old, blew his whistle every 90(ish) seconds. Then whoever was closest to the puck would pick it up and skate it over to him, so that Wim could drop/throw it at center ice. In American culture, caring for the elderly is viewed as a feminine role. However, these Dutch men, in full gear, were bending over to pick up a puck for this man who they joke “founded ice hockey in Holland”.
Skating and passing are fundamental to Dutch hockey. More than any men’s hockey I’ve played in the US, the Dutch skate into open space and move the puck instinctively. I told Tjakko on the bench that the best part about Dutch hockey is that they play like women.
Had to bring my socks to Rep the Riveters!
Nothing pairs better with hockey than beer. After practice, Brian invited me to Elsa’s.
When we got to the bar the team was sitting outside, bundled in jackets, drinking Heineken (which definitely tastes much better here). After multiple rounds of beer, they ordered borrelhapje (bar snacks) and I experienced my first bitterballen.
and I thought fried food was popular in Mississippi…
The guys joked that in the past all the women they had played with showered with them, and that they are so welcoming that even girls from the other team come and shower with them. Like Pig-Pen from Charlie Brown, I told them that I couldn’t even remember the last time I showered at the rink, but nice try (I do shower when I get home, I promise).
At around 00:34 (12:34), we settled our tab at Elsa’s. Cool Mokum has a long-standing deal with the bar; everyone drinks unlimited beer and we get borrelhapje for €15 a person.
On the ride home, Brian asked me if I would like to play the rest of the season with Cool Mokum. I immediately agreed. There is nothing that I would rather do with my evenings than play hockey. Not only do I get an experience with Dutch locker room culture, but they also play hockey like girls.
Mokum is the Yiddish word for “safe haven” and a slang term for Amsterdam
Have you ever played sports internationally? If so, what are some of the differences you noticed? What other activities have you done to connect with people when traveling?