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Their play depends on each knowing where the other is, a connection that begins hours before the game when Lindsey Rothschild, defenseman for the Brooklyn Blades, stands with her ice skates and her stick on the corner of 11th and Avenue B. In the minutes before center Jeanne D'Onofrio comes motoring down the block, Rothschild gathers the stares of East Villagers. "People are like, 'Oh, do you play hockey?' " she says. "And I'm like, 'No, I'm just standing here.' Then Jeanne picks me up, and we move down to the next corner."
In the rush of a match, they might glimpse each other as nothing more than a flash of black-and-green sweater. D'Onofrio waits for the face-off with a bellyful of nerves, hungry to score, afraid someone will score on her, worried she'll disappoint her teammates. She leans shoulder to shoulder with the opposing center, waiting for the ref to drop the puck. You're not supposed to look down, she knows, but up, at the little disk that's suddenly the size of a moon. Yet after three seasons, she still feels new at this, a 40-year-old who hadn't played since her days in Rhode Island youth leagues, so she keeps shifting her focus from the official's hand to the ice and back again. Hers is a world that won't hold still, a world where she counts most on Rothschild's fleet feet. "I'll say to Lindsey, 'I'm going to shoot it back,' " she says. " 'Take it. Zing it around. Pass it to your co-defender.' I know Lindsey's speed, so I know she can feel comfortable breaking out if she needs to. She can feel comfortable going for it."
Rothschild, 28, bets on D'Onofrio to read the ice and the other players, to find the seams before they open, and to drop the puck inside. She claims to understand the game less than D'Onofrio, despite having grown up the lone girl in a Michigan boys' league. Once, in grade school, she received a forced and unexpected apology from a half-pint who'd checked her. His hit hadn't stung, and neither does contact now.
"You've got your equipment on," she says. "You're on ice. You fall, you slide, you get back up. I love falling." Flying into the boardsor sending someone else flyinggives her one last chance to act like a kid.
As members of the Blades' B team, they'd be happy to approach .500. This year the squad put up a record of 6-11-2, traveling as far as Toronto for tournaments and playing as many as five games a week. They thrive on blue-collar labor, like beating a better player to the puck or slapping another cross-check on an opponent who's threatened to kill you. Like hockey players everywhere, they see that grunt work as a small victory. Before games, the team clasps hands and shouts, "No sleep 'til Brooklyn!" Then they skate until their lungs catch fire.
Aside from muttering "good shift, good shift," the players mostly save their breath so they won't turn blue. "If you come to the bench and you can talk to your benchmate, that means you didn't work hard enough," says D'Onofrio, who tumbled, blades over helmet, the first time she tried sliding over the wall. Rothschild tells of players gasping and heaving, pleading with the coach to put in a replacement line.
Hard on the body, hockey also puts a hit on the wallet. The team needs about $32,000 to get through a year, and skaters are expected to bring their own equipment and pony up a $750 annual fee. For all this, the Blades sometimes feel ragtag when they line up against teams with full travel regalia. D'Onofrio says it's hard to tell teammates, especially ones who've lately lost jobs, that they can't play because they can't pay. So far, the club has done its best to cover the difference, but the Blades need a backer, even one good for only a few thousand dollars.
D'Onofrio envisions a system of teams that could raise girls on high-level hockey, right from peewee to the NCAA. If she hadn't stopped playing for all those years, she says, she'd be a better player in 2002. Now it's a struggle to regain lost skills, just as it's a struggle for basics like rink time. "As a women's hockey league, it's hard to grow," she says. "Without the money, we can't even support ourselves. And the politics of hockey, you don't get the ice unless the men and boys are done using it."