Lex Payne doesn't match a mind's eye hockey player. She's athletic, sure, but if you saw her in, say, a coffee shop, she doesn't cut an imposing figure you'd just as soon avoid in a dark alley, much less on the ice. She even smiles a lot -- and when she does you can see she has a complete set of teeth. Yet all evidence otherwise, Payne is, indeed, one of Memphis' amateur-hockey players. Moreover, she's one of the few women playing in the city, competing regularly against supposedly biologically advantaged men. On ice, she's no goon, but don't underestimate her abilities and fierce play.
Payne grew up in a hockey-mad household, her dad a devoted fan and amateur player himself. But Payne didn't pick up a stick until her college days at Middle Tennessee State University, and even then it was happenstance: "When I started taking classes at MTSU, my mom gave me the option of either using roller blades or a mountain bike to get around campus," Payne recalls. "I thought I'd have an easier time with roller blades because I wouldn't have to tote a bike around, and I was living on the second floor of the dorm.
"[My skating] started out slow, but once I got used to not falling, I got to where I enjoyed it. I saw some flyers on campus about roller hockey, so I went to try it out." She started playing hockey against other students in a parking lot once a week.
The rest, as they say, is her-story: "I've been hooked on hockey ever since then." Payne is hooked to the tune of playing hockey year-round, ice hockey with the Blues City Hockey League at the DeSoto Civic Center from October to March, roller hockey at FunQuest in Collierville the rest of the time. She even volunteers a couple games a month as an off-ice official with the Memphis RiverKings, taking down stats during games.
The benefits of playing hockey are many, Payne says. Getting in shape is of course one of the key advantages, but with hockey, there's much more going on than just simple exercise. There's the motivation and satisfaction to remain faithful to a workout regime; there's the experience of teamwork; there's the sheer joy of playing. And there's the stress release: Payne often hits pucks after work. "I definitely feel a lot more relaxed after that," she says. "I took martial arts before, and that was a stress reliever, but I got injured more frequently and was more exhausted. But when I started playing hockey, all it took for me was to hit the puck and take slapshots, and that in itself did me a lot of good without me getting hurt."
And now Payne wants to help other Memphians, especially women, find that satisfaction. She has formed MemphisWomensHockey.com, a gateway to what she hopes one day will be an all-women hockey team in the Mid-South. It started because she wondered, what if there's somebody like me out there who wants to experience playing hockey with other girls. The Web site currently has information about where "any woman can play hockey, no matter what their skill [level] is." Even though Payne admits that "right now it's simply a Web site with a blog," in the future, she wants an all-women team modeled after and competing against existing teams in Nashville, St. Louis, and Atlanta, among other places. "I love the fact that Nashville has its own women team composed of women of all ages, 18 and over, with all sorts of skills," she says.
There's something empowering watching these people play hockey. This isn't the seemingly hustle-less flow of grace, speed, and power of NHL players; it's not even the more clearly effortful -- but still impressive -- skills of minor-league professional hockey players like the ones on the RiverKings. No, adult-league amateur hockey is clearly strenuous, and the results of plays are often enough messy: Passes aren't always given or received with clarity, shots on goal aren't brilliantly created, and the skating generally is labored.
But when players exhibit flashes of excellence, it's stirring: a pass that hits a teammate perfectly in stride; a burst of fierce defensive stick work; skating that slices around defenders; a nice glove save. These are the hallmarks of amateur hockey, and when they're performed by people who actually kind of look like you, they make it all look attainable -- they make all the hard work, shortness of breath, and minor injuries look worth it.
With new skating facilities opening in Cordova in the next two years, the future looks bright for Memphis-area hockey and, if Payne has a say in it, for women's hockey, too. "It's constantly growing," Payne says. Players come from all sorts of backgrounds and are varied in age and skill level. The new rinks will give hockey players a place for on-ice team practice time that has only been dreamed of wistfully since the Mall of Memphis closed. And they won't have to vie for ice time with those damn figure skaters anymore, either. ●