A spirited tale from Traverse City native and local personality Shea Petaja, who laces up her skates and braves the ice for the first time since childhood. 

Featured in the January 2020 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.

I tend to be socially impulsive and bold. Every stranger is a potential friend, a new connection or at the very best…a good story. I’m not easily shaken when it comes to meeting people. Which is why the story you’re about to hear is especially uncharacteristic.

Lunch was scheduled for noon at The Franklin in downtown Traverse City, with two well-known writers—Steve Hamilton and Bryan Gruley. The National Writers Series has a knack for bringing in the most fabulous writers to our Northern Michigan town, and my boss, Dennis Prout, and I were joining the series’ founders to welcome them.

I did what any responsible adult who was about to meet two famous writers would do, I Googled them. Steve Hamilton, a highly acclaimed mystery writer is one of only two writers to receive the Edgars for both Best First Novel and Best Novel. Bryan Gruley is an American writer who shared the Pulitzer Prize for journalism and is currently a reporter for Bloomberg News. As an aspiring writer, I should know them, but I didn’t.

An hour before lunch I read everything I could, memorized their backgrounds, and then I tried to back out. I begged Dennis, “Please! Take someone else with you. I am embarrassed, I never read their books. I don’t know enough about their stories. What will I talk about?” Dennis, the one who hired me because I’m fearless with people, said, “You of all people will figure it out.” He wasn’t going to let me escape this quandary. I Googled more, I took more notes and I decided that I’d have to be brave. Surely our lunch companions, Doug and Anne Stanton, each of them also well-known writers, would help me out, right?

I walked into The Franklin with my head held high and my notes tucked neatly into my purse. I saw Bryan and his wife (thank you, Google images) and immediately introduced myself, “You must be Bryan Gruley, I’m Shea Petaja, we are having lunch together today.” He held out his hand, smiled and then with a flash of curiosity he said, “Married or maiden name?” I replied, “Maiden.” He continued, “Where are you from?” I shot back, “Here.”

Suddenly I felt like I was meeting with a detective, which would make sense because he’s a mystery writer. “Where are your parents from?” “Detroit and Cadillac.” His booming, radio-ready voice burst with excitement as he solved the mystery, “JIMMY PETAJA! Your dad is Jimmy Petaja?” I started to laugh and said, “Yes! That’s my dad.” He continued, “When I was 13, living in Redford, I recruited your dad to play on my hockey team. He scored four goals against the other team and we won. We WON because of Jimmy Petaja! That guy is an incredible player. I haven’t seen him since.”

Turns out, Google doesn’t have information like this. It’s only found in human interaction and the memories of those who never forget. My parents cancelled their plans that evening and joined us at the National Writers Series for the unplanned reunion. I was reminded once again, that hockey is less about the sport and more about the connections.

There’s not a week that goes by in this small town without someone saying, “Petaja? Petaja. Pet – ahhhh – jha. How do I know that name?” It’s inevitably linked back to one of three things: Hockey, church or a house. Either you played hockey with my grandfather, great uncle, dad or brother; you went to church with my family or my dad built your house. I can’t get away with anything in this town. Which turns out to be a good thing.

So, where does Petaja come from? It’s Finnish. My great grandparents moved to the Upper Peninsula from Finland. My grandfather moved to Detroit after college at Michigan Tech to work for “the man”—Chrysler. They worked hard, saved hard and played hard. The family motto was, “First we work, then we play (hockey).” It wasn’t until 1971 that my grandfather moved the family to Traverse City. He was invited by his cousin Dr. Arnold Sarya to help build the Glacier Dome. The dome would allow people to skate indoors. This had yet to be seen in the area. Most ice-skating happened on abandoned parking lots, the lake or backyards. Dr. Sarya was a visionary ahead of his time. My grandfather and his brother moved everyone up north and started their own business, “The Petaja Bros.,” and the rest is small-town history.

While I don’t have a specific memory of the Glacier Dome, I remember countless nights at the rink built shortly after called the Bubble Dome. When we weren’t at the Bubble Dome, we were on the lake or on our backyard rink. Eventually the Howe Arena became a second home as my brother took on hockey and I became a figure skater.

My dad offered to get me into hockey, but I was too distracted by the dance routines and sequined costumes. There was something so alluring about the control you could have with a toe pick. After I had my ice time to perfect my version of Michelle Kwan, I would play hockey in my figure skates. Like my dad, I was a right-handed writer with a left-handed stick. I preferred strategy over skill and if I fell, I always took a moment to smell the ice. If you’re a skater, you understand that this can be as nostalgic as your grandmothers’ cookies.

The joke among family and friends is that my dad was born with a hammer in his hand and skates on his feet. While my grandfather Bob Petaja and great uncle Burt Petaja are hockey legends at Michigan Tech, my dad didn’t join a team until his early teen years when he succumbed to peer pressure from guys like Bryan Gruley. The puck doesn’t fall far from the center because he has the same talent. Being Finnish and partaking in the daily sauna (pronounced sow-nah) surely helped!

When I approached my dad last winter and asked him to teach me how to skate on hockey skates, not only was he surprised, his entire team was on board too. Hockey guys started dropping gear off at my office. First a stick, then some gloves and then a few pairs of skates. My desk began to look like a locker room. The only things I was missing were the pads. No worries; local legend Don Rutt came to the rescue, letting me borrow his.

“It was time to trade the tutu for the hockey girdle and join the millions of other women who are playing hockey. You heard me … Hockey is the fastest growing female sport worldwide.”

We met at a private rink in a barn located on a working farm in Williamsburg. Privacy was the royal treatment I would need to spare my ego, which was soon flattened by the appearance of my mother. I guess every hockey player has one in the family: a hockey mom, and you’re never too old to have a hockey mom. Andy Wakeman was there as the photographer to document the moment. Not only was he my best friend growing up, but also he played hockey on almost every rink my dad built since 1991 and helped maintain them too.

I suited up and walked onto the ice with as much grace as the Michelin Man. I got on the ice and I fell. Not once, not twice, but multiple times. Hockey skates are like foot prisons. You roll on them looking a lot like those bop bags that are blow-up versions of a clown filled with a sand bottom. The whole purpose of a bop bag is that it gets knocked down only to get up again. I teetered back and forth subconsciously searching for the toe pick to save me. It didn’t. I got knocked down, but I did not bounce back up again. If there is one reason to choose this sport, it’s the pads—they are wonderful.

My dad, the philosopher, said, “Shea, you have to trust your edges. Like this.”

Just like that he showed me his magic tricks. He swooped to the left and to the right and then he did the grapevine on ice. I’ve been witnessing this my entire life being fully amused but never appreciative, until now. He’s not the brute force player who becomes a sloppy mess on the ice. He doesn’t take his life out on the game. He’s more like a Zen master tracing the lines of his craft for others to read from the stands. It’s grace and grit all at once—true Finnish “sisu.” That’s what I could see from my vantage point as I lay face down on that nostalgic ice unable to do what he said: trust my edges. This has been the life lesson between father and daughter.

If you ask my dad, who is now 63, when he will quit playing, he says, “I’d rather burn out than rust out.” This isn’t a new saying—I’ve heard it passed down the generations. My grandfather played until he was too sick from pancreatic cancer, a battle he didn’t win. My great uncle Burt played well into his 70s and was forced to quit due to his own health issues—which he would never admit. The Petajas don’t stop. We work and after work we work on something else, which is why my dad started the “Over 60 – No Checking League” with his buddies. They don’t have time to recover from injuries and have no intention to quit the game. Even men who have never played are joining the teams. When I asked why, my dad said, “It’s pretty simple, I think. By our age you’ve accomplished everything you wanted: career, family, sports, houses, you name it. But these new guys always wanted to get out on the ice. So, they do. And that’s the beauty of hockey, you can start at any time.”

Here I am, at 39, trying to unlearn the harsh stop of a toe pick and learn to trust my edges. I must admit, I’m not sure it’s for me. In an age when women are told to lean in, I’d rather pivot and observe, much like my dad does. He doesn’t rush forward unless it’s his turn. He passes the puck to set players up for success and he doesn’t let the others know what he’s in the game for. Perhaps that’s the secret every player should keep under the shoulder pads and close to the heart—the reason they need to play.