They Shoot Hockey, Don't They
15 April 2001
"My name is Paul and my son plays youth hockey," I say sheepishly.
"Hi Paul," the crowd of strangers warmly responds.
I sit back down, again taking comfort in my anonymity. The man at the podium smiles. He exudes a certain peacefulness that comforts me. He is relaxed. I find that unusual for someone ready to speak to a crowd of approximately 35 people. He doesn't rush into his talk. Despite the silence there is no sense of awkwardness. Both his hands slowly caress the podium as if it was a dance partner. He is ready to speak.
"Thank you for coming out tonight. I want to extend a special thanks to those of you who are with us for the first time. Please know that you are always welcome." It is as if he is speaking directly to me. I feel welcome. After pausing briefly, the man continues. "It has been three years, ten months, and twenty-two days since I went to a youth hockey game." The audience acknowledges the man with clapping and smiles. I listen intently as the man begins his story.
You wouldn't know from looking at me today but I was lost. This group pulled me back. It started innocently enough. I took my 5-year old son, who liked to dress up as a hockey player, for skating lessons. Our town has a co-ed youth hockey program. On Saturday mornings at 8 o'clock they teach young kids to skate. I bundled up my son one early morning and signed him up at the rink. He had never skated. My wife was afraid to even come and watch. I was afraid he would fail. He wasn't afraid.
He began by pushing a chair from the goal line to the blue line. He was good with the chair. He could not stand up without it. My focus was on my boy. I laughed when he fell, once I learned he wasn't getting hurt. It is hard to get hurt wearing all that gear from head to toe. Soon he could skate without the chair. The lessons held out a carrot for the youngsters. Those just learning to skate stayed on one side of the red line and the more advanced beginners were on the other side of the red line. What was the carrot? A hockey stick.
The line of demarcation was nothing special, a red line painted below the ice surface. But to the eyes of a child it was the Berlin Wall. The children eyed the "world of the sticks" and were filled with desire. The "world of the sticks" was for the chosen. A tall man with "Coach" embroidered on the shoulder of a pullover fleece did the choosing. He was young for a coach and could skate better than any of the other adults on the ice. He could also shoot the puck, the hard rubber cylinder that took the place of a ball in the sport of hockey, faster and harder than any one on the ice. "Coach" only came over the line of demarcation for two reasons. One, to get an errant puck, or, two, to invite a youngster to join the "world of the sticks."
On the sixth Saturday I saw "Coach" come over the line, thinking that he was retrieving a puck. Instead he approached my boy. My son skated towards me screaming "Dad, Dad, Dad, give me my stick." His face and voice combined the emotions of joy and urgency. I passed him his stick through a door along the boards. He hardly broke stride. It was as if the prize could be taken away if he did not get over the red line in time. I didn't know it then but that was the day I became hooked.
I slid down the outside of the boards to the other end of the rink and was approached by a parent. He was like a greeter welcoming me to the next level. "Which one is yours?" he asked with a smile. I told him my son was the one with the Mighty Ducks shirt. "How long has he been playing?" was the next question. "He's been skating for 5 weeks," I responded. It was as if the Moonies were recruiting at hockey rinks. I was being peppered with simple but personal questions by a smiling face on a head that never stopped nodding.
After a few weeks Nodding Head stopped asking questions and started giving advice. "Your son's looking good out there. Get him on an in-house team." "What's an in-house team?" I inquired. "On Saturdays, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., kids ranging in age from as young as 5 up to as old as 11, play against each other. They have three lines on a team. The third line is for beginners, the second line is for kids at an intermediate level and the first line is for the most advanced kids. The kids play 36-minute games and 3-minute shifts. We also call it Buzzer Hockey. Its like playing three separate games within a game." His answer was quick and concise as if he had given the advice on many occasions. "You need to sign him up now for next year. The season starts next October." I appreciated the advice.
I signed him up. I don't think I even asked my son first. I just told him later. My son was placed on the Canadians. My son and I were pleased. The Canadians, Les Habitants, have the greatest name in hockey. The Montreal Canadians are to hockey what the New York Yankees are to baseball and the Boston Celtics are to basketball. My wife laughed at us instead of pointing out to me that associating the nickname of a six-year-old's hockey team with a professional team with the same moniker was a warning sign of the onset of disassociation. Picture a man in his forties singing "O Canada" with his son in preparation for a living-room hockey game. My family restaurant of choice was now Bugaboo Creek and I didn't even know why.
Watching my son play on the third line of his in-house hockey team was pure joy. My expectations were low and my appreciation level was high. Falling brought laughter. Good plays brought pride. There was no downside to being a third-line parent. Each shift was three minutes of pleasure. Winning and losing did not matter. No, that's not true. It mattered but only relative to a range of pleasure. In the locker room after the first game the head coach choose one player to give the "Game Puck" for "hustling his butt off," my son. The team and parents cheered. My son's round face lit up. I lit up inside.
I went to every game. I also took my son to "hockey clinic." Clinic was sandwiched between in-house games. A commitment to one one-hour game a week was increased 100% to two hours every Saturday. The rink was only two miles from my house. All-in, driving and preparation time included, it was only a three-hour commitment once a week. My wife wanted to do other things with our weekends, but I was firm. A boy needs to keep his commitments. Funny, I would let the kids skip school for vacations and for special days with mom or dad but there was no skipping hockey. My son and I attended games and clinic religiously that first year and every year after.
I am not sure when it happened but it was sometime in the second half of the season. Unwittingly, I fell into the trap that snares every hockey parent. I started judging my son relative to the other boys and girls. The seeds for such thinking were there on the very first day I took my son to skate. They were reinforced the day he was invited to the land of the sticks and the day he was given his first Game Puck. A father favors his son or daughter. Youth hockey is no different. In fact, it is worse.
Near the end of the season Nodding Head approached me again. "Your son's looking good out there. Get him on a travel team." I didn't need to ask Nodding Head what a travel team was. I knew. Travel teams played teams from other towns and played in tournaments. My son was now seven. I signed him up for the Mites, the cute name they gave the team with players age nine and under.
Our family actually went that whole summer without hockey. We went to a dude ranch in eastern New York State. We had a wonderful time. My wife loved it. Home-style meals cooked for us. Horseback riding three or four times a day. There is something therapeutic about being in the mountains riding a horse. The wranglers had special names for all of the horses. For some reason they liked to give me a stallion named Wild Thing. My wife often rode Slow Poke. She was horrified to find out that this mare didn't get its name from the pace it kept but from its nightlife. We spent our weekends at fabulous spots. We drove to Tanglewood in the Berkshires to listen to the Boston Pops. We took ferries to Martha's Vineyard and Vinalhaven. We enjoyed the fireworks displays in the historic towns of Lexington and Lincoln, Massachusetts. Hockey was out of our lives. We were a family.
Alas, the summer came and went. Travel team hockey started in September. The ritual began again in earnest. The commitment now was a travel team game and practice, and in-house game, and clinic. Hockey was no longer restricted to Saturday. Travel games and practices could fall on any day and often came on short notice. I found myself driving as far as 30 miles to go to games. My son was now a Flyer and skated on that in-house team's second line. But other coaches often asked him to play for their teams as well. He was now playing up to two or three in-house games most Saturdays. My son and I were becoming more and more estranged form my wife and daughter. The game, and I with it, was getting more and more competitive. Travel team coaches yelled at the young players. They meant well but they still yelled. Boys and girls who looked so young to me out of their uniform looked so mature in it.
My son developed into a goal scorer. At the Mite level, goal scorers are few and far between. It separated him from his teammates, which was good and bad. Our Mite team made the finals of the Christmas tournament. At the end of the third period of the Championship Game the score was tied 2-2. It was still tied after a five-minute overtime. The game went into a shootout. Two goalies, no older than nine years of age, would face five shooters. Each player would take the puck alone at center ice, skate in on the opposing goalie and take a shot on net. My stomach turned. First, I was nervous that my son would not get picked to shoot. Second, I felt awkward when he was picked and the son of the parent standing next to me was not picked. His son was a year older than my son and one of the team's best players. Third, I felt bad for the goalies being put in such a pressure situation knowing one would likely lose. With the score tied 4-4 my son came to center ice as the last shooter. The pressure was almost too much too bear. The rink was now full of people. Not only the friends and relatives of the two teams playing but all of the players and spectators of the teams that were ready to go on the ice after our game were now watching.
My son skated towards the net. I stopped breathing. He dropped his left shoulder ten feet in front of the net and shot the puck. The goalie lifted his glove over his shoulder. The puck hit the glove and I lost sight of it. The fans behind the goal were the first to react, their hands reaching for the sky. I saw the puck in the net behind the goalie. Three quarters of the crowd cheered. The goalie bowed his head. My son threw his stick in the air. I took a deep breath and then cheered. His teammates came off the bench to bury him.
Hockey should have ended right then and there for my family. I am sad to say it didn't. Nothing will ever match that moment. Instead I fell deeper into my addiction. The encroachment on our family time was nonstop. Summers became interrupted by hockey camp. I was drawn into coaching. I started to see the ugly side of sport. A vanguard party controlled our town's youth hockey program and they dished out perks and favors to family and friends in a way that would make a commissar proud. Nodding Head covered the politics like a beat reporter. Lost in a lost world I found YHA and got my life back.
The crowd, breaking into applause, stands. I clap as hard and loud as anyone. This is my first Youth Hockey Anonymous meeting and I have tears in my eyes. I know I won't be back. What can I say? I'm hooked.
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