RALEIGH — When she skates, Donna Tomkinson forgets that she's the only woman playing hockey for the Storm and that she shares a locker room with a dozen sweaty men with hairy shoulders.
She never considers that she's 56 and a mother of two or that she has bad knees and is at least a head shorter than any of her teammates.
She remembers to take out her pearl earrings. She pulls on her helmet with the protective Plexiglas visor, which got chipped by a high-flying stick. Then she skates to her spot at right wing with tufts of red hair flying behind her.
No. 6 in your program. Team leader in assists last season.
"Just one of the guys," she says.
Here at Raleigh's IcePlex, Tomkinson discovered new life, thrills and family connection in the lower-C hockey league, which welcomed not only a middle-age woman, but her 60-year-old husband and 20-year-old son, who all play together on the Storm's front line.
Her success there speaks to the raging popularity of this imported sport, still barely more than a decade old in the Triangle. After Raleigh hosted the National Hockey League's all-star game in January, Tomkinson watched a new wave of gray-haired players show up toting gear last worn in college, salvaged from dusty attic boxes.
But her presence on the ice also highlights a community sports league that is uncommonly welcoming, where nobody gets scolded for letting a puck slide between their legs, and some of the better players still end up skidding on their bottoms.
Camaraderie on ice
Any veteran of Raleigh's softball leagues knows about the trash-talkers who show up in sock stirrups and expensive cleats, who fill the lineup cards with ringers, pummel their sneaker-wearing opponents until the mercy rule kicks in and then celebrate with loud tailgate parties. Not to mention the umpires who inspect bats in the dugout and call out batters for stepping on home plate.
You don't always feel like you belong.
At first glance, the IcePlex might not seem welcoming to a middle-age mother. After a Sunday game, there's a player limping around the parking lot with one wounded hand stuffed inside a plastic bag filled with ice cubes and the other curled around a bottle of Labatt's beer.
When Tomkinson walks into the locker room, she is greeted by her shirtless, sweating teammates ripping tape off their legs and passing cans of Yuengling from a big, red cooler. But she takes a seat next to them and shakes her hair out of her helmet, sharing the joy of a 3-2 win.
"Hey, you got another assist!" shouts goalie David Diraimondo. "Nice positioning today. Really nice positioning."
After a few minutes, she ducks out of the locker room to let the men shower by themselves. She'll change in a restroom stall. She's not the only woman in the league, but often, like today, she's the only woman on the ice. She doesn't care, and neither does anybody else.
"You just don't want to hit them so hard they won't date you afterward," teammate Danny Morganelli said.
He's kidding, of course. This is a no-checking league.
Tomkinson's only hockey-related injury came as a spectator, when she tore a ligament in her finger after falling on the stairs at a Carolina Hurricanes game.
"I had the same surgeon who worked on Rod Brind'Amour," she said, showing off the scar.
The Everest line
Tomkinson grew up in Canada but never played hockey there, even as the manager of her college team. She just felt too awkward to compete.
Her hockey period started in Clayton, where the family moved in 2001, and a blistering summer combined with the hot flashes of menopause forced her to seek the relief of an ice rink.
She dragged her husband, Bill Everest, and both children to Garner for a learn-to-skate session, and before long, they bought four complete sets of used hockey gear.
Step into their family garage and an entire corner is dedicated to their sweaters, sticks and helmets - some of it hanging from the ceiling, all of it neatly arranged.
"I played pond hockey as a kid," said her husband, who also grew up in Ontario. "But this is a lot of fun. We're the Everest line."
Not long ago, Tomkinson lost her job in the insurance industry. She's looking for new work. All her life she has combated pain from Osgood-Schlatter disease. But her hockey hasn't suffered. Her daughter is in college at UNC-Chapel Hill, but her husband and son Vincent never miss Thursday-night drills or Sunday games.
You can see them practicing their hockey stops, sending ice shavings flying in the air, or passing back and forth to each other down the length of the ice.
"She has bad knees, so she's a slower skater," Vincent explained, "so people tend to forget about her over in the corners. That's why she has so many assists."
At 56, she isn't going to try anything daring. Most of the Storm players get to the team bench by skating directly into the waist-high wall that surrounds it and throwing one leg over the top. Tomkinson, by contrast, opens the little door and walks through.
You can find her tidying up the locker room before she dresses, and laying out her pads in a neat row - ever the mother figure.
But she brings a lifetime of experience to the ice, and her eyes show the fearlessness of someone who can keep a marriage alive for more than two decades, navigate the job market, give birth and raise a pair of children.
After that kind of pressure, you don't much mind a hockey stick to the visor. You just keep skating around the obstacles.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-4818