Like almost everyone else, Jackie Houston began playing organized hockey with a team of toddling 8-year-olds. The only difference is that she was 13. And she’s black.
A Boston native raised in foster care, Houston began seventh grade in a new school with new opportunities. One of those was the opportunity to play sports, though hockey was completely foreign to her. Nonetheless, she was intrigued.
“I saw people carrying their hockey bags, but I didn’t know what hockey was, so I looked it up and thought, ‘that looks so cool,’” said Houston. “My brothers’ friends from school, their mom was a coach, and she got me all the equipment to get on the ice and give it a try. I found it wild that people had so much skill on ice.”
The coach was Kate Lowenstein. Hockey had always been a bright spot in her life, an inspiration through difficult times, and she hoped it might be the same for Houston.
“I knew her because I had her two youngest brothers as foster kids, and when I read their file, it said their older sister dreamed of learning to play ice hockey,” said Lowenstein. “So I told her she could come skate with my Allston-Brighton team anytime and that I would coach her and teach her to skate and play the game. I gave her a bunch of my old equipment and used a Pure Hockey birthday gift card from my mom to get her what she still needed. But it was on her to show up.”
Getting there, however, wasn’t easy. For Houston, it meant trekking solo across greater Boston from Dorchester to Brighton, a journey that included a bus route, three different trains and a short walk. It usually took an hour, though it sometimes stretched to 90 minutes in bad weather or congestion.
“One time, I was tired and I forgot my skates on the train, so I had to go all the way back to Brighton to get them,” Houston said. “I was crying. I was so happy they were still there.”
And while navigating Boston’s streets and rails was tough, learning the techniques of transportation on ice was even tougher.
“It was shocking how, when you watch hockey, you see people doing it with such ease and you think, ‘that must be easy,’ but then you get on the ice and you’re slipping and sliding all over the place,” said Houston. “I thought I’d be able to get on the ice and just be able to do everything, but instead I was struggling and falling everywhere. Especially with hockey, though, you see the progress very easily, which is nice.”
Houston persevered, always there, always smiling and always with a great attitude. The Allston-Brighton club became her happy hockey home; a place where she could learn and play along with a roster of youngsters who became little sisters for a season or two.
“Kate was very supportive, and then playing on a team, everyone was so supportive,” said Houston. “Then there was a big transition when I’d get on the ice and instead of slowly tip-toeing on, I’d just jump on and skate around and it would be really easy. That’s when I realized I was improving. At that point, I started feeling like I should keep playing hockey because of all this support and my own improvement. It really helped me handle everything else that was going on in my life.”
Houston made big strides in her three seasons with Allston-Brighton, and by then, hockey had become a passion. She worked a summer job to earn money for extra ice time and offseason training. This past fall, she tried out for her school team at Boston Latin Academy.
“At first, it was shaky, because I started hockey so late that I wasn’t as good as the other girls on the team,” said Houston. “It was also a bit weird because a lot of them came from different backgrounds and already knew each other, so it was hard to get into it at first, but they were really supportive and encouraging, so that was really nice. From then to now, it’s improved a lot. My teammates are really cool people and it helps me because it widens my horizons socially.”
Acclimating on the ice took some time, too. The pace was faster, more intense, but Houston managed the transition and continues to improve. She also plays volleyball and competes in track and field, building an all-around base of athleticism that helps her at the rink.
“Playing at this level, it allows me to see girls who’ve been playing a really long time,” she said. “They’re even faster and more agile and have crazy handles, and when I see that, I think, ‘I can be like that, too,’ so it gives me a goal to reach.”
An excellent student at BLA, Houston, now 16, looks ahead and hopes hockey can be her game for life. She’d love to play in college and beyond.
“Even if I can’t play in college, I’d probably play on a side team in my free time because it’s just a really fun sport,” she said. “The people are fun. Just being on the ice is fun. It gets you into your element. If I’m having a bad day and I have hockey practice later, it usually makes my day.”
Along the way, she’s grown stronger through the challenges. But it wasn’t just the difficulty of getting to the rink or learning to skate that littered her path.
“Whenever I tell people I play hockey, I get the surprised face,” she said. “I feel like it’s about being black and being a girl. One time, my friend was getting on the ice after me and he said that I should probably leave before his other teammates came because they might call me names and make fun of him for being around me. Those things made playing just as difficult as transportation did, because they made me question if I should really be playing the game.”
But in her retrospection, Houston is both matter-of-fact and determined. Hockey is her game; her teammates, her people and her development, her cause. She called the slights mere obstacles, not insurmountable, “because in the end, the game is fun and the support of all my teammates and coaches helped me overcome.”
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