The legend of Teresa Ryan didn't precede her when she walked into the recreation-center gym last year to play in the mostly men's floor-hockey league. It sort of sneaked in behind her. Sneaked up on a lot of the guys, if you want to know the whole story.
Floor hockey is pretty serious business in the Northampton Adult Floor Hockey league. On game nights, nothing is more critical than winning. Guys play as if there's a bomb ticking, and the fate of hostages hangs in the balance, and only a victory in tonight's rec-league hockey game will prevent catastrophe. Then, when the games are done, nothing is more critical to many of the players than heading to the local pub, to ogle the waitresses and order plates of artery-clogging snacks and pitchers of lager (and the occasional round of Irish car bombs), and shoot the breeze with the very opponents they just tried to demolish, bonding over a shared joy: being 30 or 40 or 50 years old and still getting to play.
Forty years ago, when men of a certain age would set aside one night a week for friendly competition, trash talk and junk food, it was poker buddies passing chips and ashtrays around a card table. Today, guys' night out is more likely to be rec-league sports, which could be softball or basketball. In the Philadelphia area, more than most places, it often involves some version of floor hockey.
Floor hockey is sometimes called foot hockey or ball hockey or deck hockey or sneaker hockey. In a gym designed for basketball, like the one at the Northampton Rec Center in Bucks County — a squat building built in the 1950s as part of an anti-Soviet missile base — you could call it gym hockey. Outside, it's street hockey. It's hockey without skating, and it's an exhausting workout: chasing a hard little orange ball, trying to shoot it into a 4-by-6 net with a stick while not being bowled over by the other team's players. Ice and roller hockey are strenuous, too, sure. But there's no gliding in sneakers.
In this region, we seem happy to play the game anywhere there's a flat surface. I've played at Northampton for years, and I played a season in a tough league at the Northeast Racquet Club on Krewstown Road in Bustleton, and in a seriously tough outdoor league in Hamilton, N.J., where a couple of players, rumor had it, had skated for the Trenton Titans minor league hockey team. I also play floor hockey Tuesday nights at a Salvation Army gym in Levittown, in a small pickup game that has been happening weekly since the late '80s.
There have been floor leagues in Fox Chase and Downingtown, in Phoenixville and King of Prussia. In fact, the biggest adult ball-hockey tournament in the United States is held annually at the Sportsplex in Feasterville. This is what happens when you have a town that's berserk for hockey but has more asphalt than ice.
Many of the older players in leagues like Northampton are former high-school jocks who aren't ready to hang it up yet, no matter how many knee braces or Advils it's gonna take. The games aren't for sissies. Checking is banned, technically, but banging hard into your buddies while going for the ball really is part of the fun. In a rare moment when a knucklehead loses composure and risks hurting someone, a few wise men are bound to pronounce: "Hey, we all have to go to work in the morning" (a statement to which, as a free-lance writer, I mutter, "Well, I don't."). A typical final score is 9-8, and for every pretty goal you're gonna see three ugly ones.
Like the township itself, Northampton's floor-hockey player population consists of lot of guys who grew up in humble Northeast Philly neighborhoods, worked hard, and moved on up to homes in Lower Bucks.
"We didn't have access to ice rinks and money, things like that, so we played street hockey," says Adam Roman, perennially one of the top scorers, a gentlemanly killer with a deadly snap shot. "The Flyers were so popular, everybody wanted to play. We had those sticks with plastic orange blades you got from Gino's."
Roman grew up in Bell's Corner, "near Jack's Deli," and went to Northeast High. Today, he's an SAT tutor in Newtown. Another top scorer at Northampton, Tom Howard, teaches high-school history in Cherry Hill. Drew Miller, maybe the league's best stickhandler, recently took time off to graduate from the Philadelphia Police Academy. Dan Beyer, the league-leading goaltender who inspires teammates and opponents with relentless insults, is an electrician. There's a landscaper and some lawyers, a prison guard, guys who sell medical supplies and frozen foods, and at least one player believed to be a dentist. At the postgame tavern, the men who move documents for a living swap advice with the men who work with their hands, and nobody talks politics. For at least one night a week, it doesn't matter if you're the kind of guy who grew up in the suburbs and moved to the city — or the kind who grew up in the city and moved to the suburbs.
Adam Roman first noticed Terry Ryan at the preseason scrimmage last fall. Before each new season begins, players who haven't been in the league are herded onto the floor for an informal shootaround, so team captains like Roman, pacing the sidelines with clipboards and taking names, can figure out which rookies look good to draft. It's not a co-ed league per se, not one of those two-girl-minimum situations. Every season, 50 to 80 people sign up to play and maybe one to three of them are women. The females join for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they're attached to a guy in the league. Sometimes they're fitness buffs looking for something different than the workouts they get from distance running or Zumba. Sometimes they have hockey experience. Every once in a while, well, you get a big surprise.
"I could just see that she understood the game," Roman says. "Passing. Being in the right place. I asked her name, and she said, 'Just make sure you pick my husband, too.' "
Terry and Steve Ryan came into the league together, presenting themselves as a package deal, to be drafted together. No one knew for sure who was the player in the family and who was tagging along. Steve was a skinny guy; Terry had a sturdy, athletic build. Was he any good? Was she any good?
Roman decided to draft the Ryans onto his team, dubbed Old School, and it soon became evident that Terry Ryan was a player. She scored early and often — and soon led the team in points. She also regularly burned male opponents. Roman eventually decided to play on a line with Terry instead of a forward he'd selected higher in the draft.
"She was intuitive and skilled and unselfish," he says. "One time, we had a 2-on-0 and she knew I was behind her, and she made a couple moves and left it for me. She was basically on a breakaway, but she set it up where she just left it for me. I had an open net."
By the 2012 winter-spring season, some of the guys in the league were wondering what, exactly, they were dealing with, especially after Terry's daughter, Emily, said something about her mother almost playing in the Olympics. Todd Borow, a corporate lawyer who's been in the league for several years, decided to investigate. He couldn't establish an Olympics connection, but in February posted a finding on the league's Facebook page: a link to the website for the 2011 U.S. Women's National Street Hockey team. It said Terry Ryan had led the team in scoring during the previous World Cup tournament in Prague. She was also a team captain. The U.S. had placed fourth in the world. What? Where? There's a Women's National Street Hockey team?
Not long after that, Dave Noe, another player, was on the sidelines watching Ryan play when he had a thought. "I think that's Terry Gillespie," he said.
Noe is a big guy who likes to park himself in front of the net in the same way an RV parks under I-95 to tailgate before an Eagles game. It ain't moving, and neither is he. Noe grew up in Northeast Philly. Today, he's operations manager for a specialty waste-disposal company.
"She looked the same. I knew it was her," he says.
When he was 10, 11, 12 years old, Noe played youth football for Our Lady of Calvary in the Far Northeast, and he swore that Terry Ryan was Terry Gillespie, who played for Liberty Bell, a neighborhood rival. It was an all-boys team in an all-boys football league, but she was the quarterback.
"She was by far their best player," Noe says. "They were in the playoffs every year, and she was the one that drove it. I remember specifically we were in a playoff game, and we actually knocked her out of the game. It wasn't an illegal hit. We got to her, and we knocked her out of the game. And the team wasn't nearly as good without her."
Noe went to Archbishop Ryan High at the same time as Terry, and she was a star there, too, he remembered, in girls' sports. He'd heard she went to Rider University and landed in the school's sports Hall of Fame.
Of all the former jocks in the Northampton floor-hockey league, it was starting to look like the biggest of them all was a 43-year-old mom.
It just so happened that the next game my own team would play in the Northampton league — we're called Mystery Meat — was against Terry's summer team, the Wild Ferrets. I figured it wouldn't hurt to gather some pregame intelligence, so I tracked down a couple of her USA Street Hockey coaches. "She has a great shot and good awareness," said Mike O'Connell, who coached Terry on the U.S. Women's World Cup team that went to Slovakia in 2011. "Terry's calm in front of the net. She looks for the right play, tries to get open, and once she gets a shot off it's usually a good one."
J.J. Deviney, who coached the 2009 World Cup team in Prague, remembered a play Terry made against Austria, a game in which she scored twice in a 6-0 victory: "They had her double-teamed. Someone took a shot from the point. Terry got a stick on it, spun around and roofed it over the goalie's shoulder."
On a sweltering evening early this July, I finally got a chance to talk with Terry Ryan and unravel the final pieces of the mystery. We both were wearing our Northampton hockey jerseys, about to play against one another. We walked back to a little activity room in the rec center where we could talk.
"I started off playing soccer in second grade for the Northeast Y, and we were like 0-15," she told me. "My brother played football for Liberty Bell and his team was undefeated. I thought I was playing the wrong sport. So I asked my parents if they would let me play football. "
She was 8 years old. When Terry's parents agreed to let her try football, her dad talked to the Liberty Bell coaches. "Just give her a couple days and then you can cut her," he said. After a while, dad asked the coaches when they were going to cut her. "We're not," they replied.
She was a natural. Besides playing quarterback, she kicked, returned kicks, played some running back and middle linebacker. I mentioned to her how Dave Noe remembered how his team succeeded after she was knocked out of a playoff game. "I don't believe that," she says. "I never got injured."
She is now used to stirring memories. She played football with the boys for five years, she says, and, "It's very rare that I go someplace in Northeast Philly and I don't feel that double look, that double-take: Are you Terry Gillespie?"
"A lot of people still recognize me because I think I look the same," she continued. "I say, 'Yeah.' And then everybody has a story. I moved in to Heflin Road once. It was Halloween and a guy's walking his kid around and he goes, 'Are you Terry Gillespie?' I was at a bar and a guy told me how I broke his collarbone."
She played softball, basketball and field hockey at Ryan, and was a perennial All-Catholic, graduating in 1987. She went on to play field hockey and softball at Rider, where she held the school record for career batting average (.373) until 2002. This summer, she's playing in a co-ed slow-pitch league; after the first seven games her batting average was 1.000.
And she did indeed make a run deep into the Olympic trials. When they were assembling the 1996 softball team, she made it through three stages of tryouts. But she opted not to try out for the 1995 Pan Am Games — choosing to stay home and get married — and that ended her run.
In 1997, she had a horrible skiing accident, shattering her leg into several pieces. A doctor said she'd never play competitive sports again. But seven years ago, a neighbor told her about a women's hockey tournament in Feasterville, where a New York team needed a player. Like many kids who grew up in Northeast Philly, she had played endless games of street hockey as a kid. A scout from the USA squad saw her play in the tourney and called her. The national team travels to world championships every two years, and if Ryan makes the 2013 team, it will be her fourth tour of duty.
I had a final question: How did she think the Northampton teams would fare against the women's squads she had faced around the world? Because, hey, why wouldn't a bunch of middle-aged guys addicted to pub wings (they're the kind with the hot sauce and cheese already mixed together) be able to compete with highly trained, world-class athletes?
She was diplomatic in her response. "Strengthwise, these guys are obviously stronger. A terrible guy is as strong as a good girl, to be very honest," she says. "But speedwise, movementwise, it's a different game. It's more about passing and style than about the big slap shot. I honestly think, because of the way that we spread out, that we would have a good shot." Which I think was her polite way of saying we'd have our butts handed to us.
Ten minutes after we finished talking, Ryan and I stood at the center of the Northampton gym, ready to take the opening faceoff. It's fair to say that I was intimidated, squaring off against a player who had scored goals against entire countries. I must have been surging with adrenaline, though (or whatever hormone surges through threatened men), because I won the draw clean. Do you believe in miracles?! I snapped it back to a defenseman, and we took an early lead.
Yet I had a feeling my victory would be short-lived. With seconds left in the first period, Terry's team trailing by one, she got herself open in front of our net and scored, to tie it up at 3-3. In period two, our defense tried to clamp down. There was a loose ball near our net and Terry went for it, and so did our defenseman, Kevin Ferry. He went to his knees, hoping to block the shot that he figured she was about to take, and he slid right under her. Terry went airborne and landed hard, face down. She didn't move for a while. Everyone stopped. It only briefly flashed through my evil mind: Maybe Noe was right, this is how you beat a Terry Ryan team.
"I got the wind knocked out of me. I fell awkwardly on my wrist," she said afterward. "I wasn't happy with myself that I couldn't get up right away."
She didn't miss a shift.
The Ferrets took the lead in the third period, but as the game clock ticked down, my team was hanging in there. We managed to get back within one goal, trailing 7-6, and the momentum seemed to be on our side.
With 90 seconds left, Terry's teammate, Mike Sypek, got control of the ball in our zone and ended up on the floor. Terry stood coolly at the other side of the slot, near the net. I got caught between them. Sypek shoveled a pass to Terry, and I watched over my shoulder as she buried the ball into the top right corner to ice the game.