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I began my battle against hockey before my son was even born. From the moment of the first ultrasound when the technician said “You see that little protrusion there?”, I began plotting my silent resistance. Music, art classes, fencing – anything but hockey.
But one day, the words I had been dreading came pouring out of my eight-year-old’s mouth: “I want to play hockey.” My heart sank and in an instant I saw my life disappear down the proverbial drain.
It’s not that I hate hockey. It’s actually the only sport I can watch and get excited about. Football and baseball make me catatonic and I’d rather stick red hot pokers in my eyes than watch five minutes of golf. I have fond memories of my dad taking me to the odd NHL game or gathering on Saturday nights to watch two of the six teams that formed the NHL. Back then, I could name all the teams and traded cards with the boys at school. However, when they began to name hockey teams after cartoons and natural resources, my interest began to wane.
Hockey has it all – speed, skill and Canadian tradition. But I never wanted to be a hockey parent or have my child subjected to the cruelty and pressure of minor-league hockey. However, after six months of relentless nagging from our son, his father, who not-so-secretly harboured dreams of sharing the hockey experience with his first born, found a solution to placate me: a non-league program that taught young kids basic hockey skills as well as skating. I was won over when I discovered the program was developed and taught by Karen Magnussen. Now this was something to brag about. “My son’s skating teacher is an Olympic champion.” I shouted to anyone who would listen.
My son just shrugged. It meant nothing to him. One more hoop he had to jump through to join our nearest minor-league team. After completion of the course, he sadly did not veer off into figure skating but wanted to be a goalie and insisted on joining a small spring league.
Miraculously, they won their first game. I sat through the whole thing stuffing my gloves into my mouth as a horde of stick flailing little boys came hurtling at my son, his body barely visible behind a Michelin Man mound of padding.
Prior to the second game, there was an encouraging pep talk from the parent coach, “You guys did great last week and I know you’ll keep it goin’ out there. We’ve got Aidan in net” – a slight but visible puffing up by goalie Aidan – “so let’s go play some hockey.”
It was a slaughter. When the game reached a score of 10-1, they stopped putting the numbers up on the board.
“Boy, I bet that goalie has nightmares tonight,” laughed one dad from the other team to his buddy as he walked back to the dressing room.
I rehearsed my post-game attitude. Don’t sound too cheerful. Don’t sound disappointed. Make it sound like it really doesn’t matter but don’t make too light of it. Above all, don’t hug him until you’re in the car. Get Kleenex ready for his sobbing. Remember the good part is that he’ll probably quit after this.
“Hey. How are you doing?” (Was that too casual?)
“Good. Can I get a Coke?”
What? Good? Okay, he’s holding it together until we get in the car. He’s repressing his feelings – just like his father. Let him know it’s okay for a boy to cry. I forgot the lecture about soft drinks, broke my own rules and bought him a Coke.
“Kind of hard game, huh?”
“Yeah, the other team was really good. They had some bigger kids.” Imagine an NHL player saying that in a postgame interview.
“Sooooo… what do you feel about hockey now?”
He turned to me with that special look children reserve for their incredibly obtuse parents.
“Can I please join Thunderbirds now?”
I learned from my son at that moment how to accept defeat gracefully. He had kept his part of the bargain. He had patiently learned from that figure-skater lady and now he was ready to move on.
In the years to come, hockey built that kid in ways I had never imagined. On the early morning practices, he got himself up, made breakfast and got his gear together. He supported and worked with his teammates without fail. He had an array of extraordinary coaches, from great parent coaches who had them dancing around the dressing room before the game, to the two kids, barely out of their teens who wanted to coach because their dads had coached them and they wanted to give back.
As a Goalie Mom – a role I was not born to play- I suffered far more than my calm, philosophical son. My stomach resided in my throat most of the time and I was only relieved by the presence of the other goalie mom on our team, Bernie. We would clutch each other and occasionally hold the fort while the other would leave the arena for a break to stave off cardiac arrest.
I was also perpetually cold – to the point of bringing blankets. In the suburbs they had these beautiful new rinks, with warm coffee shops where you could sit in cushy chairs and watch through the glass. In Vancouver, a city that hadn’t had a new ice arena since Captain George sailed in, we were relegated to hard benches – sometimes a railing for your butt – and the odd vending machine with watery hot chocolate.
I also not-so-fondly remember skate tying. I pulled those laces until my fingers ached and they dug into flesh. They were never tight enough. The day my son was able to tie up his own skates was as much of a celebration for me as the day he graduated from diapers.
Now – at 27 – he plays on two different teams. He and his dad take off for the UBC rink on Sunday afternoons. I came around to the realization that I was as wrong as anyone could ever be. Maybe we were extremely fortunate. Maybe other people didn’t have such a positive time in the world of hockey. Maybe it was because Aidan was in house league and not in rep, where the parents really do believe their kids are NHL bound. I don’t know. But when the right people are involved, when it truly is about just playing the game, it can be absolutely formative.
Hockey took this little kid, who was sometimes nervous, shy and unsure of himself and turned him into a star among many stars.
Annabel Kershaw lives in Vancouver.