On the Hard Lessons of Being a Hockey Dad
Nick Paumgarten Looks for a Sheet of Fresh Ice
The following appears in the 500th issue of The Sewanee Review.
The hockey parent has an internal clock. The countdown kicks in when you get to the rink, an hour before puck drop. Another winter morning: the boys, in matching sweats, performed their warmups in the parking lot, while their coach, a heavyset Czech, presided with a baleful glare that even the kids knew was only half-serious. Jog, sprint, squats, hops, jumping jacks, malaprops, taunts. He’d once written on a whiteboard, after a game, “You are suck.”
When they were done, they jogged past us through the lobby of the rink and jostled into their locker room. They were awake now, in a way we’d never be, though we’d been mainlining caffeine since dawn. While the boys dressed and chattered, and then sank into a depressive kind of stillness for the Czech’s pregame speech, we watched the Zamboni cut the ice, refilled our coffee cups, or retreated to a bathroom stall with a tabloid in hand. One of us arranged the boys’ sticks along the wall, outside the locker room. Another had turned over his car keys to a rink attendant as collateral for the team’s key to the room. But we were no longer permitted in the room, now that the boys were eleven. We were support staff. A paunchy entourage in bad jeans. Soon the referees stepped onto the ice to glide out a few lonely laps. And so we took up our positions along the glass.
This was somewhere in New Jersey. Wayne, maybe. Or Secaucus. Or Brick. The critical ones among us stood together. Negative commentary required like-minded observers. It can be fraught to disparage other people’s children in their earshot. We were the Platonists, yearning for the Form of the Good—quick tempos, crisp passes, hard accurate shots, the instinctive carving up of the ice surface into open spaces and hidden seams. Displays of strength, cunning, and character. The elevation of our sons and ourselves.
It’s hard to understand, if you’re a sensible person, or even an insensible person who happens not to have children, just how much hope builds up in the minutes before your offspring participates in a sporting contest. We know that the arc of athletics bends toward disappointment, that we must learn to accept and even forgive our sons’ flubs and deficiencies of effort, that we are at best projecting our own dashed aspirations onto them, or else merely raging at them out of frustration at the intractability of the world. We also know that the kids can’t hear us on the ice, and that even if they could, they would much prefer not to. But once the puck drops, such knowledge gives way to the ache of thwarted expectations, the pangs of our own powerlessness. As they disappoint us, we disappoint ourselves. And so we yell.
I say “we,” but I mean I. The others often yelled, too, but I don’t know what pacts they’d made with themselves and failed to keep, or what they were thinking as they shouted out their sons’ names with the kind of alarm usually reserved for a loved one about to ride a bike into traffic. Such exhortations: Adam! Henry! Etan! Sean! We spent weekends with each other for six months out of the year, yet we never talked about what we were really doing here together, or how it fit, or did not fit, into our ideas of how one ought to live a life. We talked about the kids as if they were professionals, or about other parents, programs, and sports. We complained about the lines, the power play, the chronic failure of the wings to corral the puck and chip it out of the defensive zone. Someone had hockey cards made. Color headshots on the front, some vitae on the back. Each boy had chosen a spirit animal.
My boy was number 19. Tall, lean defenseman. Spirit animal: cheetah. There were mornings where opposing coaches would find me after a game to tell me that they admired his way of playing. He was fast, nimble, physical. Good vision, heavy shot. He also had a chippy streak, and when opposing parents saw him doing something he shouldn’t with his stick, they sometimes yelled at him from the stands like bystanders witnessing the snatching of a purse on a subway platform. I’d find myself muttering counterarguments in defense of small, tactical acts of hockey violence, or even stating them aloud to the other Platonists, though without turning to look at the opposing team’s parents. I didn’t want to fight. I wasn’t defending him. I was parsing the code.
There were also mornings when he was listless on the ice, indifferent to his opponents, careless with the puck, even petulant toward his coaches. He would, in the parlance, quit on the play. From the perimeter, I took this in with mounting annoyance and mortification. The sundering of potential, the affront to the game.
This particular visit to Wayne, or Secaucus, or Brick, was one of those mornings. And so, after some unsightly sequence—lazy retrieval, turnover, goal against, slash—I found myself crying out his name, with a kind of diaphragmatic roar whose menace, once it had reverberated through the rink’s metallic confines and moldy rafters, appalled even me. You couldn’t take it back.
I have a recurring dream of a goalie academy. An academy for the training of hockey goalies. This isn’t to say that I ache to start one, or attend one, or send a child to one. I mean, now and then, when I’m sleeping, my brain deceives me into thinking I am walking through such a place. Its characteristics change. In a recent version, there was an antechamber with slots for goalie sticks in front of a photo gallery of former greats. The building had wooden walls, the moldy old pine boards of a neglected beach cabana. A warren of stairwells led to a large hall, like a summer-camp bunk room, with kids in goalie gear performing calisthenics in rows atop a sort of bench that ran the length of the room. Nothing ever happens to me in the goalie academy. Further stairs led me elsewhere—to a pit of spiders, perhaps, or a car on a dark, icy road.
As a child, I went to a real hockey camp every summer. My final year, my sixth, was on the campus of a boarding school in New Hampshire. On the first night, the counselors herded us into their dorm room. Orientation. House rules. Unlike our own rooms, which we’d been in for a just a couple of hours and which were sparse as reformatory cells, theirs was lived in, a hockey hothouse—boom box, girlie posters, dirty laundry, a reek of extra pads. They’d been here in the weeks before we arrived, and would remain after we left. They were the deep state.
We filed in and pressed in tight. Our parents had gone. We were 14 years old. Some of us were giddy with the change in supervision, others sullen with homesickness or ill-fitting cool. The counselors were 18, 19, always performing. They had mustaches, muscles, mullets, and a perpetual, barking mordancy honed in the locker room and the showers.
About five minutes into this meeting, there was a knock on the door. It was a chubby, jug-eared boy with a buzz cut and, behind him, a woman with frizzy hair and a fervid expression that seemed out of place here in the counselors’ den.
“This is my son, Fred,” she said. “Please take care of him.” Her tone—half-pleading, half-remonstrance—suggested she knew we would not. She had her hands on her son’s shoulders, and when she nudged him into the room, she raised them, and they remained aloft, caught between pulling him to her and letting him go.
“Hi, Fred,” the lead counselor said and, then to the mother, “We’ll take great care of him, Mrs.___, don’t you worry.”
That night the counselors made us do exercises in the halls. Sprints, push-ups, sit-ups, wall-sits, squats. Fred was the kind of boy who couldn’t run properly. He was overweight and careened into the walls. He couldn’t do the other exercises, either, so the counselors devised special ones for him. They ordered him to lie on his back and hold his legs and arms in the air, waving his hands and feet. This was called the cockroach. We stopped and gathered around to watch. They forced him to stay there, limbs aloft, for 10, 15, 20 minutes. He laughed at first and so did we, but after a while, as the counselors prodded him with hockey sticks and cut-off wooden shafts heavily wrapped in cloth tape, and half-facetiously woofed out orders, he began to cry, and our own laughter ebbed. Some of us thought of our own mothers, or of Fred’s.
The counselors got us up every morning with Metallica and Scorpions on the boom box and the whack of sticks on doors and dressers. They made sure we were at the rink on time for two full weeks of three-a-days. Our sweaty gear, stuffed into our lockers, never dried between sessions. One never forgets the clammy greeting of wet hockey pads on a summer morning. At night, the counselors rounded us up in the common room and made Fred do the cockroach. No one ever stood up for him.
For a few days, a pack of boys roved the campus playing the knockout game. One at a time, each boy would hyperventilate, then hold his breath, while another kid pressed him against a wall, palms to chest, until the first boy passed out and collapsed on the ground. After a few seconds, the boy regained consciousness, and testified to a seemingly timeless dream-journey: stately pleasure domes in the blink of an eye. When my turn came, we were in the stairwell of the dorm. I came to, on the landing, to the sight of faces hovering over me. Beautiful. A door had cracked open.
Later in the first week, I was injured during a shot-blocking drill. I’d objected to it, on the grounds that using your body to stop pucks didn’t seem like a thing you should practice, unless you were a goalie. The counselor running the drill called me a pussy and told me to get in line. On my first go, I slid feet first, as instructed, and he fired a snapshot a few inches off the ice. A testicle had gotten free of its protective cup. The hockey gods keep a clean ledger. I spent a few days in the infirmary, my left nut the size of a plum. A nurse came by now and then to check on it, holding it gently in hand. A few friends visited, too. They brought my Walkman and a cassette of Van Halen’s “Fair Warning.” They laughed when I told them about the nurse. You could get a lot of mileage out of taking a puck in the balls. I got out of the infirmary in time to join the boys for the Saturday night movie: The Guns of Navarone. By the time I returned to the dorm, Fred was gone. I never saw him again.
That fall, I was a freshman at a prep school where some of the better varsity players were heading to Division I college programs. I had a rough tryout. I was overmatched, a dilettante really. I had some problems with my gear and didn’t make it out of the locker room until the tryout was already under way. The players were at center ice, huddled around the coach, who was telling them how the session would go. They turned to look at me as I fumbled with the latch to the door in the boards. I had forgotten to take off my skateguards. One step onto the ice and down I went. This happens every now and then, and it always gets a good laugh. Someone usually says, “Banana peel,” or, this time, “Sniper.” Later in the session, I vomited over the boards. I wasn’t in hockey shape. I’d been smoking clove cigarettes. That night I returned to the dorm and told the house master that I’d decided not to play hockey anymore.
He said, “You can’t just quit.”
I said, “Watch me.”
My older son quit playing hockey, once, when he was five. He’d gotten a full kit of gear on his birthday and had worn it around the house for a couple of days, an unspeakable delight visible through the lattice of the cage—the pride of a novitiate. He’d been out on the pond with me a few times and had taken skating lessons at the rink with a friend of mine, a coach named Patrick. It’s easier when someone else does the teaching. Patrick had a program called Mighty Mites. In youth hockey, you move up from one tiny-thing name to another. First mites, then squirts, then peewees. The big boys, when they start to get hairy, graduate to bantams and midgets. That’s when the hitting begins. The Mighty Mites weren’t even yet mites. They were mini-mites: specks of potential, germs of failure.
Every Wednesday afternoon, I cut out of work and drove my son down to the rink, where I took up a spot with the other parents along the Plexiglass to observe our mini-mites bumper-car around for an hour in coned-off sections of the ice. Young coaches in official-looking sweats playfully coaxed the little ones to their feet and urged them back into the fray. It looked like a healthy thing for city kids to do. Resilience, grit, even some rough stuff without immediate censure. The puck was of occasional interest, like a housefly to a dog. My son didn’t stand out, one way or the other. Expectations were raw, unformed, not yet infected by the spore of improvement. When he looked at me, I waved.
A few of the other fathers were guys I played with in a men’s beer league late at night at this same rink. Ex-high-school players, mostly. In the locker room, in the presence of our darlings, we tuned down the banter as we helped them through the reverse striptease. Cup, shins, socks, pants, skates, shoulders, elbows, sweater, lid. To tie a skate, you took the boy’s foot roughly in hand and propped it between your knees, and then, bent at the waist, you hauled in on the laces, a gesture at once tender and brusque, like the brushing of a child’s matted hair. The fathers tossed encoded remarks over their shoulders as they made double knots.
One day, after a few of these sessions, and with months more of them paid for, my son, fully dressed, grew flushed. He was shaking his head, his expression fierce, his eyes welling up. He refused to leave the locker room. He did not wish to play hockey today. A man can convince himself that such a stance is unacceptable. Quitting is a habit. So: let’s try the gentle approach, and then the firm. Neither were of any use in the face of tears, snot, splotchy cheeks, and inexpressible unease. He gave no reason.
It had taken me nearly an hour to get to the rink. Such traffic, the city a snarl. The time, the money, the sacrifice of an afternoon of work, scuttled by the whims of a child. Stubborn, stubborn boy! The other dads feigned sympathy as they shooed their kids out of the locker room. Quitting is contagious. Finally, I surrendered. While my son changed back into his street clothes, without my help, I called my wife from the bathroom, out of earshot. The news did not trouble her.
“But he made a commitment,” I said.
“He did not make a commitment,” she said. “He is five.”
My son and I drove home in a silence that was somehow both punitive and forbearing. He did not skate again that winter.
The following fall, he began playing again. He liked it. His little brother, not yet four, took it up, too. Number 19, the cheetah cub. For a time, the younger one played goal. He loved the gear. He was quick and competitive. The coaches encouraged him. It’s hard to find goalies. But one afternoon, when he was tending goal in a game for his school team, his older brother, who was playing defense, gave him a hard time for a failure to make a save. Blaming the goalie was a violation of the code, but what are you going to do: brothers. Their faces were invisible behind their masks, but there they were by the crease, performing a pantomime of an argument. Something about that exchange soured him on the position, and he never played goalie again. This was a relief, to me. The reason it is hard to find goalies is because playing goalie is insane.
So, I was raising defensemen. Their participation took on momentum. They joined travel teams. There would soon be weekends where we’d have six or eight engagements at rinks in several states. You’d be amazed at how many rinks there are, in a certain radius. There was one next door to a dog pound, another on the fourth floor of a mall. To reach the home of the Thunder, on Staten Island, you drove past a strip club, a liquor store, a jail, and a bail bondsman. This progression ended with the skating pavilion.
A kind of dementia settled in, a blurring of days and years. Wins and losses, good plays and bad plays, fits of hostility and stretches of boredom. The name of the game is time and space. Take it away from your opponents, create it for yourself. At first, we laughed about the parents who took it all too seriously, and about the absurdity of our existence, the surrender of sleep, nutrition, exercise, and work in pursuit of no particular goal—college hockey, for our cohort, was a preposterous long shot. We considered the futility ennobling. You do a thing for its own sake. But we also looked askance at the parents who, in their enlightened recognition of this, dared to strive for well-roundedness, who allowed or encouraged their kids to skip practices or games for church, violin, a play, a fishing trip, or a grandmother’s birthday, to say nothing of other sports. Many sneered the words “baseball” and “lacrosse” the way some people say “millennial” or “Sarah Palin.” You make a commitment, you see it through.
At six, my boy, post-goalie-experiment, pre-cheetah, hardly moved on the ice. He was a fully armored windup toy, a South Park cartoon with hair sprouting from the seams of his helmet and skates the size of chipmunks. If we urged him on from the stands, we did so mostly in affectionate jest. We were paragons of perspective, happy to be alive. There were bitter-cold mornings at outdoor rinks where you could see a simultaneous sunrise and moonset at opposite ends of the sky.
By the age of eight, though, he was showing flashes of something else. He was often the best player on the ice, intuitive and quick. Here it was, a fast-twitch inheritance from a bloodline that was not my own. In spite of myself, I fell for it. Though I knew better, I started to care, deeply—to fall prey each weekend to the fluctuations of a child’s moves and moods. His potential possessed me, like some kind of demon. I no longer noticed the sun and the moon.
This was good for no one. The more I cared, the less my son did. For a few years I helped coach—an assistant to the Czech, working the defensemen’s door, hovering behind and above my son on the bench, not always stifling expressions of disapproval. After games, I tried to talk hockey in the car, leading with a highlight to review a mistake. I badgered him about optional sessions or special skill clinics. Watching NHL games with him on TV, I sometimes rewound a play on the DVR to show him a subtle, canny move. Doughty, Hedman, Keith: do what they do, and you can’t go wrong.
At some point—I cannot say exactly when—I decided it was better to stay away. I returned to the critics’ corner along the glass. I quit the car talk. A teammate’s dad texted me videos of his son doing drills with a famous Russian hockey guru on Long Island. An ex-teammate, who’d moved to Connecticut to join a top team, won the North American peewee championship in Quebec. A time or two, I allowed myself to think that my boy, on a good day, was better than any of them. More frequently, I taught myself to recognize that this didn’t matter at all, especially if it didn’t matter to him.
Eventually, I gave up on comparisons. I only wanted him to enjoy himself. Instead, he began to state plainly that he didn’t really much like playing ice hockey. Was this rhetorical? Perhaps. But he chafed against the squandered time, the overinvested parents, the monotony of the drills, the expectations. He had a way of curling his lip when talk turned to the weekend ahead. Maybe potential was a kind of curse, one best banished by the charm of half-heartedness.
The hockey family in summer: the kids go off to camp for three-a-days. A few teammates are in Dearwood, Minnesota, feeding the mosquitoes at a hockey academy by the lake. Others head to the Czech Republic, to a program run by their coach. Clammy pads in the morning, sauerkraut at night. They sleep on the floor in his living room and are given chores. They get better and learn something about the world. The cheetah, though, is taking the summer off. He fishes for porgies and beats his older brother at ping-pong. The older brother, who plays junior varsity hockey in high school, comes out occasionally to skate at night with my beer-league team. We are the ghosts of hockey future.
The cheetah is 13 now, a bantam. In the fall, there will be bodychecking, a new layer of sanctioned violence. Head on a swivel. Intimidation is a tactic. There’s always a boy with a mustache, and a father pounding on the glass. My son is not that boy—and I won’t be that father—but the other day, I caught him retaping the blade of his stick, with the intent, almost gentle expression of a doctor dressing a wound. He hasn’t quit, yet.
From the 500th issue of The Sewanee Review.