Memoir: Michael Redhill on becoming a full-blown hockey dad
As a kid, I never got into organized sport. Today, I’m schlepping my sons through pre-dawn blizzards to far-flung corners of Ontario—and loving it
As a hockey fan born to non-sporty parents, I had little experience of the game short of listening past bedtime to Bill Hewitt through a tiny radio hidden under my pillow. I was dismissed from speed-skating school for wonky ankles, and to this day I can’t skate very well at all. It was something of a surprise, after this childhood, to become the father of two highly athletic young men. Their mother, whose father played junior hockey in the ’50s, had both boys on skates at the age of two, and by four, each was ready for hockey school.
Hockey parenting with preschoolers was easy and often touchingly funny. In those days, it was a 10-minute drive north to the Leaside Arena to watch 10 players surround the puck and move it up and down the ice like a weather system. Then: hot chocolate. There were no imprecations from the stands any more serious than “Way to go!” and “Awww, nice try!” And there was loving laughter and applause.
About a decade later, my kids are 11 and 14, and the whole family spent New Year’s in a hotel room in Ottawa to witness my youngest’s team get pitted by the Grimsby Peach Kings at the annual Bell Capital Cup, a tournament with almost 400 teams from around the world. Between periods at Sandy Hill Arena, on our way to a 4-0 loss, I listened to a Finnish hockey coach rip his 11-year-old charges new peräaukkoita. This wasn’t just fun and games anymore. This was Single A.
Our elder son plays, too, but in a different league, with a different constellation of arenas and tournaments, and it’s been this way for years. My partner and I are full-blown hockey parents. Memories of those idyllic outings to Leaside compete now with a reality of rush hour excursions in mid-February to rinks in Rockwood Village or Markham. Many weekends are spent gathering in the gym-bag-reeking lobbies of America’s shittiest off-ramp motels. Our lives are held together by wads of hockey tape.
I have gone through periods of intense resistance. Having never been driven from rink to rink or field to field, I had a hard time settling in to the demands of an absorbing sport. I didn’t realize that hockey would send me, sometimes half-asleep, to far-flung parts of my own city at, for instance, pre-dawn. I also didn’t realize that it would start to stitch that city together into a much bigger city than the one I’ve spent most of my life in. Who knew Etobicoke was so close to Lawrence Heights? Turns out you can get from Canlan Ice Sports Etobicoke to the Rinx near Yorkdale in about nine minutes, even with traffic, although good luck getting down Orfus Road. And I’ve learned which rink has the tastiest hot dogs (Forest Hill—Shopsy’s All-Beef Wieners), the freshest coffee (Leaside), the best fries (Weston). I would never have discovered Camarra Pizzeria on Dufferin if not for Campbell Park Rink, nor the excellent Indian restaurants near Ice Sports Scarborough.
What surprises me most these days is the realization of how pleasant the routine has become, and perhaps how much my own parents and I missed out on when I was a kid. Amateur hockey generates a strange and wonderful sense of community. Once your child belongs to a team for a long time, their friends—and their friends’ parents—become fixtures in your emotional life. I see my hockey family more regularly than I do my own extended family. I have eaten dinner at long tables groaning with friends from walks of life I could never have encountered any other way. One hockey dad, who happened to be visiting the same lake where my family’s cottage is located, appeared at the end of our dock last summer in a speedboat and a pair of underwear and took my family out for a spin. Another went in with me on a case of irresistibly good red wine, but neither of us has tasted it yet because we’ve vowed to open the first bottle together.
All of this camaraderie brings shared sorrows as well. Last year, we had a death in our hockey family. One of the moms died. The players on the team, all 10 years old, lined up to pay their respects at the Ralph Day Funeral Home, shaking hands and whispering to each other what condolences they knew to utter. Some wore their team jackets. This, I realized, standing mute at the back of the room, is something that being teammates had taught them: you win together and you lose together. They’d been celebrating and mourning as a team for three years. Now, they were doing it for real.
The hockey season is long. About a year long. Ice hockey will carry on deep into the spring—even into the summer if there are tournaments or clinics. And there’s ball hockey on the weekends from May until August with a whole other group of hockey moms and dads. But right now, in late winter, it’s all about the rinks. The playoffs are weeks away. It doesn’t hurt anymore to get up early and go to practice. The season is on the line. We go out to play and be among others.
Michael Redhill is a Toronto novelist, playwright and poet. He is also the author of a crime series published under the name Inger Ash Wolfe.
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