A lot of transitional events get celebrated with a party. Marriage, birthdays, graduations. Put on a special garment and be, by the virtue of occasion or ceremony, transformed. The Women’s Winter Classic was marketed, during the three days between announcement and event, as one of these transformative and transitional events: the first women’s outdoor game on a grand stage, the first meeting of the CWHL and NWHL, partnering with the NHL to bring this dream to fruition. CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress talked about the role of the lengthy relationship between CWHL and the NHL in creating this opportunity; NWHL commissioner Dani Rylan spoke about all of the little details that went into making the game happen, right down to the signage. Later, players from Les Canadiennes and the Boston Pride would talk about the wondrous moment of stepping out onto the ice and looking up at the expanse of Gillette Stadium around them.
Denna Laing is one of those players. She posted on the Facebook page her family has created about her experience at the Winter Classic: “the best day of my life.” Most of the photos attached to the post show Laing with her teammates in their jerseys; one shows her prized gold pumps, Winter Classic hat, and coffee in her Winter Classic dressing room stall. In the first period of the game that followed, Laing fell and suffered a significant spinal injury. At present, she has limited mobility in her upper body and no feeling below the chest.
Of course, if you’ve been following women’s hockey, you know all this. You might not have seen Laing’s injury, because the Women’s Winter Classic—for all its pomp and circumstance—was only seen by a handful of people either in the stands or watching along via Periscope, but you’ve no doubt read the articles. The tragedy of Laing’s injury has arguably provoked more interest and coverage from mainstream media than the game itself. Across social media, hockey teams and fans are posting their support of Laing with the number she wore at Princeton, tagged #14strong. NWHL players are wearing a yellow sticker with #24 on their helmets, the number Laing wore for the Boston Pride. A friend of the Laing family started a fundraiser on GoFundMe that reached over $43,000 in donations before it was suspended at the request of the Laing family, who have their own donation page set up at dennalaing.org.
I didn’t see Laing’s injury in real time, although I was at the Women’s Winter Classic covering the event for Watch This Hockey. It was difficult to see the players on the ice from the high vantage of the media seating at Gillette. I’d been distracted for most of the first period, trying to figure out whether it was better to watch the close-ups on the big screen above the field or squint at the ice, where the players looked like festively-attired ants. That confusion wasn’t why I missed Laing falling, though—I was tweeting.
Real life has a way of interrupting narrative.
Like the Women’s Winter Classic, profound injury leading to disability is also a transitional event. We have stories we tell about disability, too, many of which have already been trotted out on Laing’s behalf. There is a short leap between the tragedy of injury and the “tragic” existence of people with disabilities. If Laing wants to describe her injury as a tragedy and her recovery as a challenge, her experience is hers to own and define, but we should be careful how we generalize disability as an obstacle to be overcome. People with disabilities are people before they are stories. There is no obligation for anyone with a disability to be a heroic example for the world.
Unless, of course, you’re already a heroic example for the world. You’re part of a groundbreaking event; you’re playing for a league whose tagline is History Begins; you’re a female athlete of extraordinary ability in a world where “role model” is one of the key marketing attributes for people in your profession. You’re Denna Laing, posing for a photo with your Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. You’re on NHL ice in the middle of the Patriots’ home stadium with the broad sky above you. It’s the best day of your life.
When people talk about the tragedy of Laing’s accident, that tragedy isn’t just about the loss of Laing’s mobility or her athletic career—frequently, those things are incidental. The emotional note they hit is the loss of the dream of Denna Laing who skated onto the ice at the Winter Classic: the dream of the female athlete taking center stage. Laing, herself, isn’t lost at all. Like all of us who live with a disability, she will go on to have a life that may not include hockey but will be as meaningful and valuable as the life of any non-disabled person. Like all of us who live with a disability, she will regain autonomy not through hashtags or short-term fundraising efforts, but by long-term communal support and collective action.
Let Laing’s teammates on the Pride mourn the loss of her place at their side, but stop talking about her like she’s dead. Let Laing define her own experiences. Don’t donate a couple of bucks, chuck a puck, and check out. Learn how you can be a disability advocate and ensure that people with mobility impairments like Laing’s have full access to your community. Most of all, don’t make Laing into a symbol of whatever you feel about female athletes, women’s hockey, or the Winter Classic. Let Laing tell her own story.