I wrote this piece last spring, the day after watching my son’s last hockey game.
I am writing as a kind of confession. I’m a pretty good Mom, overall. I make great homemade pizza, I give lots of love and praise, and I let my kids get away with ridiculously dirty bedrooms. Most days I hardly yell at all! I am a good Mom.
But I am a complete failure as a hockey Mom. The worst! I tried my best, but I think I’m lacking some genetic marker for the job or something. After ten long years, I am finally facing the truth. As a screaming, cheering, referee hating, cursing hockey parent, I totally suck.
By way of explanation, you have to understand that the people in my family were not athletes. I had five siblings, and except for one sister who ran track, none of us were physically coordinated in any conceivable way. We were in the drama club. We sang in the choir. We were writers. We did NOT sweat.
Oh, I admit, we did watch sports, but that was different. I went to every High School football game, cheering in the stands with the Pep Squad and wearing my red and black sweaters. I watched high school basketball, and even high school track (There was a cute guy on the team). My sisters and my friends went with me and we had a blast. But we were only observers; it never truly mattered to us whether those teams won or lost. I was just there for the group cheering thing. I liked the cheering! I liked the sound of the band, especially that big bass drum. I didn’t actually care about the games themselves. After every game, no matter how important it might have been, I picked up a book, turned on some music, and promptly forgot all about it.
After a few years I grew up, got married, and had three kids. Hooray!!! Little musicians! Little poets! I was delighted! I made plans for them, envisioned them riding bikes, swimming, dancing, singing, going to tea parties. I liked baseball, so I even pictured my boys playing baseball on idyllic summer days. I’d sit in the bleachers eating peanuts, joyfully cheering them on. What lovely dreams I had as a young mother!!
But as our kids grew, they wanted to play all kinds of team sports, and very few of them happened on idyllic summer days. My husband and I experienced the joys of frosty mornings watching confused six year olds trying to play soccer. We endured rec league basketball on the rickety bleachers, we stood in the pouring rain for Pop Warner football, and swatted at mosquitoes and black flies during a brief experience with Little League. But it was hockey that changed everything.
When our third child was five years old, a friend of his got him interested in deck hockey. We signed him up, and were quickly charmed by the sweet innocence of the sport. Little tiny children in huge plastic helmets, running up and down the court, swinging excitedly and somewhat blindly at orange plastic balls. Smiling parents, encouraging the little ones to score. “No, honey, run THAT way! Good job!” I was enchanted when one little boy lay down in the center of the court, curled his arms around his little blue shin guards, and closed his eyes. His laughing Dad tried to coax him to get up and play, but he refused. “I tired!”, he called, and resumed his nap. So far, this hockey thing was pretty sweet!
After two successful and entertaining years of cute little guys hitting orange balls, our son decided (having just watched the movie “The Mighty Ducks”) that ice hockey was his “lifelong dream”, and we signed him up for the local youth hockey team. I pretty much figured that this would be more of the same sweet adorableness, only on skates. Hah! Was I ever in for the epitome of a rude awakening.
From the very first season, well before he reached “the checking leagues”, we knew that our funny, gentle little boy was facing new challenges in the world of aggressive athletics. I will never forget the time, when he was eight years old, that he crashed into another player along the boards, not having learned the art of stopping quickly. Our boy was tall and stocky, and the other little guy fell to the ice in a heap. Before I understood what was happening, the referee had raised his arm, and called a penalty. My darling boy was sent, with his head hanging, into a special little box that separated him from his teammates. “Why is Timmy in time out?”, I asked in alarm. The other parents laughed, and explained. “That’s the penalty box! Tim hit the other kid.” I was aghast. Tim? MY Tim? He hit the other little boy? On purpose?! I sat speechless in shame. “Nice hit”, one Dad said approvingly, and I knew that I was in uncharted territory.
If I may take a moment for an aside: you should know that Tim was, and is, a funny, charming, warm, gentle soul. People are drawn to his smile and his easygoing nature. His father and I have always prided ourselves on the fact that both of our boys are “gentle men” as well as “gentlemen”. Even as a toddler, Tim could charm a room full of adults in two minutes flat. Kids loved him, teachers loved him, we loved him. He was the kid who shared his cookies at snack; he was the kid who made the cranky teachers smile. Hitting another little boy, making him fall down, and getting sent into the “penalty box” for time out; these were not the behaviors that we had ever seen from our Timmy. These were not the behaviors that enlightened parents like us expected from their children!
The irony, for me, is that Tim took to all of this bashing and crashing like a duck to water. Oh, he wasn’t ever one of those players who enjoyed inflicting pain (which put him in the extreme minority in the sport), and I don’t think he ever really enjoyed feeling pain (did I mention that he’s a pretty smart kid?). But he loved the speed, the feel of the skates on the ice, the sound of heavily padded players crashing into the boards. He loved the whole atmosphere.
As the years went on, and Tim progressed into checking and then harder checking, my feelings about the sport of hockey went from aghast to absolutely horrified. I watched my little guy as he practiced hitting other kids. I watched him push, shove and kick to get the puck. I watched him practice getting hit and practice crashing into the boards. I immediately pictured broken arms, legs, necks. I thought about casts, crutches, wheelchairs. I am (may I say) the ultimate neurotic mother. Watching my son risk life and limb in pursuit of a black rubber disk was not in my comfort zone.
From the very first time that I watched Tim play youth hockey, I was able to clearly and accurately visualize the moment when he would crumple, motionless, to the ice. I pictured the shocked hush of the crowd, the anxious movements of the EMTs as they shuffled skateless across the ice, the ride in the ambulance as it sped toward the hospital with my baby in the back. The fact that Tim was always one of the biggest kids on the ice did nothing to ease my fears. The fact that in those first years all he had to do was lean on the other kids to get the puck did nothing to reassure me. A hockey rink is no place for a psycho mom like me.
I don’t know if you have ever been to a high school hockey rink. It’s a loud place. A really loud place! Every single rink seems to have been designed by acoustics experts who want to make sure that no one in attendance can relax for even a second. Pucks slam off the glass, helmets crash into helmets (back to my scary visions again!), sticks bang on the ice. Then there are the voices. The INTENSE voices….. Yeeeesh. I was completely unprepared for the vocabulary choices of hockey players and hockey coaches. And let us not forget hockey parents. Oh, the language of hockey parents…. I had no idea that “frickin’” could be used in so many creative ways!!
To add to my discomfort at the rink, I have never managed to feel completely at ease with the other parents. First of all, almost all of them are really, incredibly, strikingly young. The mothers are thin and pretty and funny. They look adorable in scarves and wool hats. They know how to joke with the coaches and how to talk to the boys. They can tell a slapshot from a wristshot. They know what a breakout is (what, it’s not something to do with acne?). They yell and cheer and stomp and clap with an easy comeraderie that totally escapes me. You see, I wear bifocals. My hair is gray. I look like Nanook’s grandma in my winter coat. I’ve tried to copy the way that they stand around in groups, the way they chat about the games, the way that they casually participate in “chuck a puck.” I try, but I just can’t get the hang of saying “We played crappy today!” or “We need this game!” when I know that I can’t even stand up on ice skates, much less play hockey on them. What “we”?
I have made a concerted effort to learn how to yell like the other Moms and Dads, but every time I join the cry “Clear the zone!” I wonder “What zone? Where?” After ten years, I still can’t find it. Sometimes we all stand up and scream “SKATE!!” which appears to be a universal parental roar at hockey games, but which strikes me as completely ridiculous. I mean, jeez, they ARE skating, aren’t they? We’re the ones standing still, screaming at the kids who are flying up and down the ice as fast as they can. Why are we yelling “SKATE!”? It seems as redundant and pointless to me as the advice that fathers are taught to give to mothers in labor. “Breathe, honey.” Or “Push!” Yeah. Thanks, uh, we already thought of that!
Hockey is a really emotional game, too, and that’s been hard for me. Don’t get me wrong; I am 100% Italian so I know all about being emotional! It’s just that the emotions related to hockey all fall into one category, and it isn’t happiness. Hockey makes people, well, really, really angry. In nine games out of ten, the players end up mad at each other, mad at the refs and sometimes mad at the coaches. The coaches are almost always mad at the other coaches, mad at the refs, and mad at the kids. On both teams. They get frustrated and upset with the kids on the other team for perceived “dirty hits” (But, come on, how can they tell a “dirty hit” that smashes a kid into the ice from a “clean hit” that smashes a kid into the ice? Really?). Then they get mad at the kids on their own team for a variety of offenses. Things like playing the puck and not the body, playing the body and not the puck, moving up too close to the red line, not moving up close enough to the red line, hitting, not hitting, using a slap shot, not using a slap shot……You get the idea. And the coaches seem to believe that screaming and swearing at the players will improve their play.
What makes hockey different from some other sports is that the special acoustics of the hockey rink make it easy for the parents (as well as the grandparents, friends, neighbors, classmates and local reporters who are attending the game) to hear every “frickin’”, every “freakin” and every sarcastic “What the HELL were you thinking?” as it reverberates around the place.
I found it impossible to sit calmly while the team coach screamed in the face of my stoic son, who remained true to his character and didn’t yell back. (Even the second time. And the third time.) At those moments, hearing those men berate and embarrass my son, something would snap in me and I’d slip right into the same rage level as the rest of the crowd. I would seethe, feel my heart palpitating, grind my teeth, clench my fists inside my wooly mittens. I’d fight back the urge to vomit, which was matched equally by the urge to smack those men directly in the face, and I’d sit as still as a stone in the stands (next to my equally rigid, equally enraged husband.) This state of red eyed rage would last for DAYS (and nights!) during which I would endlessly picture myself verbally castrating the coach, usually in public, and then striding confidently away as he stood in mute shame. In the most powerful of these fantasies, the coach would grovel before Tim, begging his forgiveness as he realized that he had wronged the best kid, the best leader, the best Captain that he would ever have the honor to coach.
And once in a while other parents would get into the act, as the collective angry insanity swept through the rink. I’d have to sit within 5 feet of a Dad who would loudly demand to know how anyone could be as terrible a player as my son. Flash back to the physical symptoms listed above, and double them. Flash back to my revenge fantasies, and add a moment in which I calmly drop a giant anvil on the head of the offending parent, like a clip from a RoadRunner cartoon. This fantasy, too, includes the moment where the idiot realizes that Tim is about to be elected President of the United States, and recalls the error of his earlier days. There is always groveling and begging for forgiveness in these visions, but it is rarely, if ever, given.
So you can see why I never know how to reply when people ask, “Wasn’t that fun?” after a particularly intense game. “Fun?” I want to ask. “Fun?!” To me, fun is a night out at a comedy club, with a nice cold martini in front of me. Fun is a week in the Caribbean. Fun does not involve the word “frickin”. Ever. Fun rarely includes stomachs in knots, nausea, neck pain or jaw clenching. Fun feels good; hockey games don’t.
Of course, when Tim plays well, or when the team wins a big game, hockey is exciting, engaging, enthralling and almost all encompassing. When they score in the last seconds of a key game, against a key opponent, and all of us screaming, hysterical parents embrace and pound each other on the backs, it is uplifting. The sense of belonging to this crazy community can sweep me along, if only for brief moments. To say that I am ambivalent is an understatement. To say that I am bordering on nuts is probably closer to the truth.
And here is a dark secret, never before revealed, about how I have managed to get through all these games. It’s a strategy that I developed years ago, when the parents were screaming, the kids were fighting, and the air was filled with the sound of helmets and pads crunching on the glass. I learned to keep my eyes toward the ice (although I very often didn’t bother to focus unless Tim was out there) as I mentally rehearsed whatever piece of choral music was on my mind at the time. The more aggression, anger and frickin fighting that was going on, the more complex my internal orchestra became. It was only in this last season, Tim’s senior year of High School, and his year as co-Captain, that I realized that in all of the cacophony of the rink, I could actually sing the music out loud. No one ever heard me as I practiced the alto lines of Handel’s Messiah this season! But the exercise allowed me to tune out the noise of the rink, and probably saved a few parents and coaches from that anvil on the head.
And so I sit here tonight, on the eve on Tim’s last ever hockey game. I have survived the ten years of crazy practice schedules, and broken sticks. I have learned to overlook the smell of sweaty pads and gloves, and to do my laundry while stepping over skates and helmets. I have managed to avoid saying what is on my mind to those angry coaches, and have recognized that behind their desire to win there is a deep loyalty to, and affection for, the kids on the team. I have made very good friends, where I might otherwise not have looked for friendship. I have learned several new uses of the word “frickin” and I can tell a slap shot from a wrist shot when it comes from the point. I think I have even located the “zone”. I sit here tonight and think about the young man that my little boy has become, and all of the lessons that he has learned since he first slapped at that little orange ball. And I am surprised to find myself in tears.