Hockey has become a fantastic excuse to get together with friends./Photo: Julie McCann
I used to think hockey was for other people: jocks, joiners or people who enjoy flags on their car windows. I never thought our national pastime could include...me.
But leaning against a snowbank this past January, watching as a pile of hockey sticks began to grow at the centre of the outdoor rink, a new thought dawned on my. My son, Casey, then 9, tossed his stick on top. His younger brother, Quinn, then 7, did the same. The mess of skaters out there had been pushing their pucks under the clear blue sky, whacking them against the boards and hitting the net’s posts with loud tings. The multi-sized herd had an unspoken shared plan: The pile was divided in two, teammates nodded to each other and the game was on.
First, a faceoff. A tall, gangly teenager passed to Casey, who continued a push to the net. Quinn, helped by a twentysomething bearded guy, tried to hold them off. A dude in mirrored yellow sunglasses intercepted the puck, zipped back the other way and took a—gentle—shot on a net guarded by the littlest kid on the ice. Goal!
As I looked on from the rink’s edge, a few happy tears crept out from behind my sunglasses. It had been nearly four years since I’d signed on to a life of hauling my kids to house-league games, but something was different. This sport was making me feel something. Although I ran with hockey fan boys in high school, dabbled in road hockey after university and understood that hockey was our nation’s thing, I’d grown up mostly hockey naive—and it certainly didn’t give me butterflies like this.
The shift had drifted in this past season. Our family chats at home about NHL teams were getting progressively more animated and frequent as we swapped facts gleaned from hockey cards, sports news and friends. With strangers, small talk turned to Erik Karlsson’s most recent goal. For Christmas, my mom bought me Dan Robson’s biography of legendary coach Pat Quinn, Quinn, and I devoured it. Now, I almost understand offsides.
At our park’s rink, watching a mixed crew of ages and abilities play together as naturally as breathing, I suddenly saw the beauty. Without quite noticing it, this crazy sport had snagged my heart. Hockey just feels...fun. Joyful. And the craziest thing is, discovering this feeling is making me a better parent and a happier person.
This might have happened because I surrendered. That was what a friend had gently suggested I do when she first encouraged me to sign up my boys for hockey: If I could let go, dive in and learn stuff along with them, it could offer us a shared language, experience and hobby. We could be a tighter team.
Some of hockey’s well-known crummy parts certainly serve as good bonding fodder. When we have to wake up at 4:45 a.m. for a 6 a.m. game, we’ll say “Hockey players and swimmers all over the city are trying to pull themselves out of their beds now, just like us. It feels lousy for them as well, but we’re all tough. Let’s do this together.” Then there are the heavy bags of gear that have to be hauled, hung, packed and washed. All of this offers an array of mandatory and repetitive responsibilities. And with the schedule, because no week looks the same, we’ve had to release and just let the current pull us along, day by day.
The parent in me has also come to adore the abundance of heart-tugging life lessons. For instance, when Casey’s team lost their game in the semifinals this year, he spent the evening in pieces. All of them really wanted to win for Coach Ahmed because they adore him and, more so, the Falcons would never be the same team again. “I feel so terrible,” he said, weeping in the kitchen door frame after a stretch of moping in his bedroom. “Will I feel this bad tomorrow?” It was tough to see him so blue. But I quietly loved it, too: He would feel better. We’d all feel better. But his palette of experience and emotion had just gained a new shade.
As a parent, I’ve also had to learn to trust both of my kids more. We all want to cheer up our kids and erase their hurts, but sometimes things just suck. Your team loses. Your teammates don’t pass to you. You make a crummy play. You didn’t want the blue Gatorade; you wanted the orange one. But these are their swamps to navigate, not mine. I’m learning to stand on the sidelines and bear witness as they muddle through. They can do this.
And that, weirdly, is helping me become braver and more trusting of myself, too. If Casey can learn to bounce back from a big loss, I can quit letting fear keep me in the role of a neutral observer. Hockey has made me want to join its team. I’ve discovered I like watching and learning about the sport, but my favourite part—the part that has washed into everything—is the feeling of community it has brought to all of our lives. It has made me feel connected to my neighbours, my city and—my apologies for the gushiness—Canadians all over who are into pucks.
Rinkside, we roll with an eclectic group of families—people that, by virtue of their day jobs or neighbourhoods, we probably wouldn’t get to mingle with otherwise. At a time when our lives— real and digital—can keep us isolated in separate bubbles of sameness, a hockey rink can include an excellent mash-up of humans with different views and perspectives. When we’re not side by side in the stands, cheering on our kids, someone might pass around a pack of gum while a dad explains why members of his American family voted for Donald Trump. Or while road-tripping to a game with a mom, I’ll learn about her childhood in Lebanon or what it’s like to really hate your job. It’s a community that swaps Crock-Pot recipes, too. As the season unfolds, everyone begins to feel like a weird relative.
And when we all gather in a hotel somewhere for an out-of-town tournament, parents in the hallway talking and sipping out of paper cups, kids darting in and out of rooms with mini-sticks and potato chip bags, it’s its own kind of messy beauty. I’m still not getting a flag for my car, but I’m happy I’ve joined in.
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