For a girl who was painfully shy as a child, and only got slightly better through adolescence, having to meet dozens of new people once a year and being expected to socialize with them is a horrifying thought. It was the one thing I didn't take into account when I made the decision to live with Mike and follow him wherever his career took him. I knew I'd be spending countless hours in hockey rinks, that he wouldn't be home half the season, not every game played would go well, I'd be giving up the chance at a career for a few years at least, and so on. I didn't take into consideration that I would always be the new girl walking into a room full of people who know each other.
My first experience being the new girl was Mike's first year pro in Vegas in the ECHL. I was finishing school so I was the out of town girlfriend. Being the out of town girlfriend isn't very fun, because when you can't visit often, you don't really get to know the girls that well. At least for me, when that happens, you tend to do a lot of standing around, nodding and smiling without any sort of clue what most of their discussions are about. That year I was visiting over New Year's and the guys were on the road in Salt Lake City for 3 games that weekend. Some of the girls wanted to go and Mike's car was the only one we could take, so they relied on me to get them there. We were stuck in a car for 6 hours together, so while I spent most of the time listening to the talk, I was forced to answer questions as well. I still felt strange through the entire 3 week visit, like I was an intruder in a circle of friends.
The following season Mike was back in Vegas and I was spending my first year as the in town girlfriend. Two of the girls from the season before that I'd met were back, so it was a little less awkward that year. I didn't know them well, but they weren't strangers either. It also helped that we all lived in the same apartment complex so we were together all the time. It also helped that one of the couples were literally our next door neighbors in the complex, so there was someone I could get to know pretty easily. It took about a month before I really felt comfortable there, but by the end of the year I never wanted to leave.
The season after that we thought we'd be returning to Vegas, but a week after getting there Mike signed with Portland in the AHL. While I was excited about the opportunity, I was upset about leaving the girls I had gotten to know so well. I didn't get to town until a month into the season after even the new girls had all met and formed friendships. I spent the rest of the year feeling like an outsider because I'd missed that key part of the season when girls really bond. While all the girls there were nothing but nice, I could feel my shyness overtaking me, and I basically became a hermit. I wasn't myself that year, and I have no one to blame but me. I ran scared from the friendships I'd seen that had already formed by the time I'd gotten there and never tried to form my own. I even found myself making excuses not to hang out or to leave early when I did because I just never felt right.
The year after that it was on to another new team in Norfolk. I was determined not to let what had happened the year before happen to me again. Before games even started I sent Mike into the locker room on a mission to collect the phone numbers and email addresses of all the girls that would be in town so we'd all have each other's contact info. There were a lot of new girls that year so it was the same situation for just about everyone. Right off the bat one wife had the girls over to watch all the road games and I forced myself to go even when I wasn't in the mood so that I wouldn't miss out on any of the bonding. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and forced myself to interact and make an effort. I'm glad I did, because that was one of the most fun years we've had.
When Mike got called up to Tampa that year, we knew there was a pretty good chance he could be finishing the rest of the season there. Yet another new group of girls to get to know who had more than half a season to spend together, and for most of them, a few seasons. Thankfully one of the girls I'd spent the most time with was there and she made the introductions for me. I was too overwhelmed, and too busy crying, with Mike's first shut out in just his second start to be nervous when meeting everyone. I'd always been super nervous about walking into an NHL family room, because it just seems like it's this huge deal. It wasn't at all. Each wife and girlfriend was super sweet and many of us got together every road game to hang out, watch the game, drink some wine, and have dinner. It certainly helped already having a friend there to rely on, but I never felt out of place, or like I didn't belong. That whole year and experience really helped me knock down some of those shyness walls.
The next year was another new team and another new group of girls. I attended my first weekend of games and sat alone, too nervous to walk into the group and introduce myself, even after the previous season's progress. It took until the team Halloween party before I really met the girls. There's not much in the way of talking and getting to know each other in a loud and crowded bar, but the introductions were made. That team had some very outgoing girls who weren't afraid to sit down and talk to anyone, and I find those types of people very easy to talk to because they always find something to discuss, and they're so outgoing that they somehow find a way to pull things out of me.
We returned there for the following season and it was my first time truly not being a new girl. Of course that wouldn't last long as we are now on another new team. I wasn't afraid coming to town this time. Maybe it's all my experience being the new girl, maybe it's the fact that with my age has come an understanding that smiling and saying hello to a stranger isn't the end of the world. You come up with a set of standard questions to ask every girl you meet. The "Where are you from?", "How long have you been together?", and "How did you meet?" questions that break the ice and can lead to more topics to talk about. While Mike and I didn't know a single person on this team when we came, we've been in hockey long enough to have a ton of mutual friends with many of the other couples. That in itself is another kind of ice breaker.
It will always be difficult the first time I walk into a new rink. It's still instinct to hunker down in my seat and sit by myself hoping that one of the other girls will recognize that I'm a wife and just let them come to me. It's so much easier to let that happen than force myself to walk up to a group that obviously knows each other. The fear of putting myself out there will never go away, but it does get easier. Maybe by the time hockey ends I'll no longer be shy, but I wouldn't count on that.