Gray stratus clouds conceal a secret blue sky that lies just beyond. It is 36 degrees — warm for late November in Minnesota. It will feel colder in the wind, and it catches several fans off guard. They are wearing thin hoodies and jerseys and several people have uncovered heads.
Not me. My head is always covered, prepared for the cold and anything else that comes my way. Faithfully guarded in this hijab.
A slight fog lingers over harvested fields, adding a dampness to roadside prairie grasses, barren oak branches and evergreen needles.
Gray Novembers in Minnesota remind me of the steel cities of Pittsburgh and Johnstown, Pa., where I was born and raised. Even when all the mills have locked their gates, those towns, their hills and valleys have not forgotten. There seems to be a permanent smokiness, like faint, ashen particles clinging in the air. Just like this fog.
The Minnesota Wild is having its outdoor practice today. This is probably the only opportunity I will get to watch the team live.
We arrive 40 minutes before the start time, and I swear we found the last seats in the bleachers. We sit cozily next to each other, and to other fans. This is my kids’ favorite part, right now — how the Zamboni whirls around the rink, rumbling loudly. It’s one of my favorite parts, too: laying down a pristine finish, a silky smooth glaze, correcting imperfections.
Today, I am going back in time, to when I was a little girl. For us Slovaks, growing up in Pennsylvania, hockey was our life. We would watch my uncle play for the local team in Johnstown. It was both exciting and nerve-racking. My anxiety about flying pucks hurtling into the stands still remains. Today, I try not to flinch at the cracking sounds echoing in the arena. But I’m always keeping an intense eye on the pucks.
We lived in Pennsylvania when the Pittsburgh Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups. I remember being a little kid, skipping school the first time, just to celebrate. Jaromír Jágr was our Czech prince. Mario Lemieux wasn’t too bad, either. Staying up late for overtime was always allowed. And then we moved.
In Indiana, hockey just wasn’t that big. We still followed our teams, but the magic was fading.
In Indiana, I did find a path for myself and I converted to Islam. There were moments of isolation in a small town where there just weren’t many Muslims. But then I moved to Minnesota. I had no idea what I was in for.
Here, I started seeing people who were like me at the grocery store or at the mall and I felt as if I belonged, on so many levels besides just my faith. I felt at home and I knew this place is special.
I remember that first fall, seeing several flocks of migratory birds overhead. I was wide-eyed staring above at this natural beauty. In the winter, the snow was whipping and whirling across farmlands, wetlands, lakes and ponds in blizzard-like conditions, and then it was solidified; this place is beyond my expectations.
But today, I hear the sound of the puck being passed between players, sometimes slamming into a stick, the back wall, a goalie glove or a net. The players gliding on those thin, sharp blades and their sudden stops, expertly sheering ice into a cascading spray. Comfort. Home. Those sounds carried me away. The banging of sticks against the rink wall, and the crowd’s muffled, gloved applause. It was beyond my expectations, again.
The coffee brewing behind me and cold breaths exhaling; it was divine. The brisk cold wakes everyone up, it can snap people out of it and it gave me a moment of clarity. Thankfulness. Thankfulness for Minnesota Nice.
No one bats an eye when I show up in a pink hijab to watch the Minnesota Wild. Thankfulness for natural beauty. Thankfulness to hear those hockey reverberations again after having them tucked away in my heart for so long.
Kristen Obarsky lives in Chaska.