Rich Cohen is the author of more than a dozen works of non-fiction. His latest book is Pee Wees: Confessions of a Hockey Parent, from which this essay is adapted.
Hockey is the best sport for kids and parents. Compare it with the others in the marketplace. Start with America’s most popular, tackle football. What’s wrong with football? How about everything? What does football teach such a kid about life? Devotees think it’s teamwork they learn, co-operation and sacrifice. They learn the class system. There are the aristocrats – quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, all those who handle the ball – then everyone else, the working masses tasked with protecting the aristocrats. A kid can spend the entire day on the field without touching the ball, and forget about scoring.
Then there’s the long-term effect of all those collisions – what a few hundred low-impact blows can do to a developing brain. Barack Obama said that if he had a son, he wouldn’t let him play. Ditto Terry Bradshaw and Mike Ditka. It explains the recent exodus from the game. Many parents who played high-school football have pushed their kids into lacrosse and hockey instead. They grew up in another time, in another nation, where football was king. But things change. I recently flew into O’Hare airport. The suburban towns, once dotted with gridirons, were nothing but soccer fields.
What about basketball, the ranks of which have also been swelled by the dangers of football? It does skirt many of football’s problems – contact is incidental, every position is of equal importance, any player can score. But basketball fails in another way. It values height above almost any other characteristic. A short person can excel in basketball, but must be wildly gifted to do so; one in a thousand. Height has never been of paramount importance in hockey – with the increasing importance of skating skill, it matters less than ever. Hockey is a refuge for sports parents of moderate stature, like myself. I am 5 foot 10 in boots and expect my son Micah to end up about the same. The NBA’s top 2019 draft pick (Zion Williamson) is 6 foot 7, 285 pounds. In the NHL, it was Jack Hughes – 5 foot 11, 170 pounds.
And what about baseball? The nation in which that sport was invented and served as a pastime is gone. It’s too slow for modern America, too delicate, sophisticated and subtle to hold the attention of our kids. YouTube and Fortnite and the rest have shredded their attention spans. They can’t handle all the dead time scattered across a game, which unfolds over the course of an afternoon. They start with T-ball at the age of five or six, then quit. Why? It’s boring. And hard.
Football, basketball, hockey – there is a place for hustle in these sports, going all-out, forcing the action. Hitting a baseball – if you can’t hit, it’s no fun – is not like that. Hustle will not help. It’s more like belief in God: The harder you try, the harder it gets. You can play hockey angry, with an edge, with a sense of bringing justice to a lawless town – but the opposite is the case when it comes to hitting a baseball. Baseball is like Buddhism. It requires a calm presence. You must clear your mind and concentrate, tune out everything but the ball, which most modern people cannot do.
Lacrosse, soccer, tennis? I know little about those sports, those kids and those parents, but I do know hockey. I know what it has to offer and what it teaches. First of all, it’s a tremendous workout. That’s why the locker room reeks, why the equipment bag exudes a stench no amount of machine washing can touch. The kids come off the ice sweat-soaked, spent.
Which is itself exhilarating. Exhaust the body, free the soul. Then there’s the importance of teamwork. Hockey is about operating together, passing and making plays. A low-skilled group of kids who play as a team will almost always beat an atomized collection of all-stars. That’s an invaluable lesson. Here’s what it means: Teamwork matters more than talent. Or maybe the ability to sublimate your gifts and desires for the good of the team is the talent. When it’s functioning like its supposed to, youth hockey is one of the few sporting communities that still works – where co-operation is rewarded, where the small things count, where it really can come down to who wants it more.
And here’s another thing about hockey: It’s good even when it’s going bad. There’s always the possibility of a breakaway, life on the rush, how the puck feels on your stick. And of course there’s the culture of the game – the values, philosophy, minutiae. There are the rinks, the ice palaces and winter gardens, each different but all the same: the smell of sweat and hum of industrial equipment, exhaust fans, pumping units and chillers. There are the lobbies with soda, candy and claw machines, and of course the vintage pinball and arcade games: Pac-Man, Defender, Galaxian. There’s the Zamboni driver finishing his task with broom and scraper, smoothing the lip of ice that accumulates in front of the big doors where the Zamboni sleeps. There are the rink rats with tape balls, chewing tobacco, tall tales and broken sticks mined from the dumpster. There are TVs showing great games from hockey’s past.
There is satellite radio to fill all the hours on the road. Micah and I would listen to New York Rangers games on the way and to Los Angeles Kings games on the way back. We agreed that a game can be even better on the radio. “With television, the game is played on a screen,” Micah explained. “On radio, it’s played in your head.” He liked when the announcers were quiet and you could hear the crowd, the hoots and whistles, the slap of the puck. We’d argue about players. He championed the stars of the moment: Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane. Being an old man, I liked the old-timers: Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Stan Mikita.
I told Micah the history of the sport, how it likely started on frozen ponds in Western Canada and then moved indoors. I told him how it evolved, what it had been and why it changed. I told him about the famous arenas: the Montreal Forum, the Boston Garden and the old Madison Square Garden, where the Brooklyn Americans played on the same ice as the Rangers. I told him about the renowned NHL teams, the villains and heroes. I told him about the 1977 Canadiens, the 1982 Islanders, the 1984 Oilers and the 2013 Blackhawks. I told him about the first goalie to wear a face mask, the first player to curve a stick.
I was introducing him not just to a history, but to an ethos and lore. I wanted him to become a citizen of Hockey Nation. I wanted to give him something he could enjoy long after he stopped playing.
“Every team loses the way your team is losing now,” I told him. “It’s important. It can even be seen as a kind of opportunity. You don’t learn by winning: You learn by losing. You have to go through it. That’s how you become a hockey player. We all get knocked down. Who gets back up? That’s the question.”
I showed him the hockey cards I’d collected in the 1970s. Each pack came with a booklet, a cartoon biography of a player who grew up in the 1940s or 1950s. These were fables, morality plays. They all started the same way: with a kid too poor to buy equipment fashioning a puck out of an old pair of socks, pads out of an old mattress. He’d turn up in hand-me-down skates at the pond only to be laughed at and driven away. He practised alone. He was the young David sent to tend sheep while his brothers battled the Philistines. When Goliath appears in the valley, he will emerge. The comics all ended the same way, too: with a young player – Denis Potvin or Greg Polis or Brad Park – sticks in hand, bag on shoulder, staring at the façade of Chicago Stadium or Maple Leaf Gardens: the promised land!
We watched hockey movies – such as Miracle, in which Kurt Russell plays Herb Brooks, coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that shocked the Soviets in Lake Placid, N.Y. “You think you can win on talent alone?” Brooks asks his players. “Gentlemen, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.” Youngblood, in which Rob Lowe plays a prospect making the transition from amateur hockey to the game’s violent minor leagues. The Blackhawks’ brawler Eric Nesterenko, playing Mr. Lowe’s father, teaches Mr. Lowe to fight. “You can learn to punch in the barn,” Mr. Nesterenko says, “but you gotta learn to survive on the ice.”
And of course we repeat-watched Slap Shot, in which Paul Newman plays Reggie Dunlop, aging player-coach of the Charlestown Chiefs of the Federal League. “Let ‘em know you’re out there,” Reg tells his team. “Get that lumber in his teeth!”
As you make your way through this oeuvre, one question keeps recurring: What’s the best way to turn a kid into an athlete or any kind of artist?
There are two basic approaches: force or enticement. You can think of it in terms of broad pedagogical concepts, or you can imagine two fathers, each with his own parenting style.
First, there’s Press Maravich, the father of basketball prodigy Pete Maravich. Press, who played pro basketball for the Youngstown Bears and the Pittsburgh Ironmen, had made the transition to coaching by the time Pete was born in Aliquippa, Pa., in 1947. Pete began to show interest in basketball as soon as he could walk – yet, disturbingly for Press, he showed interest in football and music, too. Press responded with reverse psychology: He’d host pickup basketball games at his house but refuse to let Pete so much as touch the ball. Pete sat in the window watching. He came to know the basics even before he could dribble. Press finally “gave in” and let Pete play. Okay. I can’t stop you. Pete – later known as “Pistol” because he shot from the hip, like a gunfighter – had been hooked by forbidden fruit. The way he moved, how he carried the ball, the don’t-look passes and the shots that came off the rebound – his game had the joy of something almost sinful.
He scored 50 points in his college debut, and averaged 44.2 points a game at Louisiana State University, where he was coached by his father. He became an American sensation. His floppy hair, saggy socks and lope were imitated by kids across the country. He was taken third in the 1970 NBA draft and was a great player on a mediocre team in Atlanta – what the franchise gave its fans instead of victory. He served the same function when he played in New Orleans. He was not on a good pro team until 1980, when he was signed by the Boston Celtics, partly to mentor rookie Larry Bird. Pete’s knees were shot by then; the sight of him packed in ice at the end of the bench is pure American melancholy, a picture of what the game does to beautiful youth. He retired at 32 and died eight years later, collapsing during a pickup basketball game. An autopsy showed he’d been born missing a coronary artery on the left side. He shouldn’t have been able to run, let alone play the way he played for more than 20 years. His career was a miracle, driven by the desire of a kid initially forbidden to play. He was convinced that he’d chosen his course – though it had been chosen for him. That’s the Press Maravich method.
There was no illusion of freedom for Andre Agassi, whose father, Mike, plotted his course in the way of a mountain climber. Mike, an Iranian immigrant who started in the United States as a doorman in Chicago, recognized tennis as a back way into the upper class, and so had his son on a court even before he was strong enough to hold a racquet. He made Andre hit 5,000 tennis balls every morning, afternoon and night. If there was a conflict with school, there was no school. Andre came to hate tennis, but stayed with it because Mike would not let him quit.
Mike Agassi was the sports parent in extreme, working his son like a thoroughbred – no freedom, no joy, just the long road to the practice that never ends. Tennis stopped being a game for Andre before he was 10 years old. It was early mornings, screaming adults, impossible standards – the end of childhood. The Mike Agassi method may have turned Andre Agassi into one of the greatest tennis players in the world, but it can’t be the best way to live.
Which brings us to another question, the only one that really matters: What do you want out of the game?
For most parents and kids, it’s about fun as well as the lessons that come from the experience – lessons that can be applied to the rest of life: Teamwork means sacrifice; effort means playing through pain. A good player learns to plan for the future. You don’t pass to a teammate. You pass to the place where they’ll be in the future. You learn the art of friendship. You become comrades facing a threat. Feelings of appreciation and equality emerge: I don’t care what you look like, just if you can help get us out of this jam. But losing is the game’s great teacher, even if you’d rather not sit through the lessons. Even a good season will include slumps and spirals, moments of fury and walks of shame. The game is ecclesiastical. It teaches the folly of pride. It lectures on human limitations. No matter how good you are, someone is better. Losing is humbling. You shouldn’t like losing, but must know how to do it. Being a good loser means not blaming the refs, even if the refs were at fault. It means knowing when the game is over, and crediting the other team. The handshake line that follows even the most contentious game is hockey’s greatest ritual. It’s a way of saying, “That is finished and we accept each other and continue on with our lives.” Being a good loser means learning these lessons, then leaving the loss behind. If you brood, you will lose again. That’s how a bad game turns into a slump.
Winning has its lessons, too. We all hate sore losers, but sore winners are worse. Be modest in victory, knowing you could just as easily have been on the other side – as you were yesterday and will be tomorrow. Don’t be a wise guy. Don’t chirp. Follow the golden rule. In my day, we raised our sticks when we scored to draw attention. The modern kid goes in for more elaborate celebrations – fist-pumping, pointing. And yet, even in the NHL, hockey celebrations come nowhere near the decadence of the touchdown dance. Our game is the best kind of throwback: a fortress against gloating.
It’s for these reasons, and more, that we look forward with such excitement to the new NHL season, which opens on Jan. 13. Though the season will be shorter than normal (56 games instead of the usual 82), and though the teams will be divided into Canadian and American divisions – as it was once before, long ago – the return of the NHL signals the fact that life goes on, no matter the circumstance or danger. The pandemic-era safety measures – few if any fans in attendance; coaches wearing face masks (which will complicate life for the belligerent) – remind us that it’s important to be careful. The drop of the puck tells us it’s just as important to play the game – which, as my father would tell me, “is not just a game, you idiot – it’s life.”
Excerpted from Pee Wees: Confessions of a Hockey Parent by Rich Cohen. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Jan. 12, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Rich Cohen. All rights reserved.
Hockey at home
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