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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Sunday Morning at the Ice Rink

I take my eight year-old for group skating lessons every Sunday mornings at a rink complex that has three rinks, two of which always seem to have hockey games going on. My daughter expressed an interest last fall in learning how to figure skate (I get corrected if I call it ice skating), so I signed her up for group lessons.

She quickly advanced to the second level, if only because she had taught herself to roller blade the summer before and showed some good balance. I quickly learned not to sit in the bleachers near the rink, where the temperature is about 44 degrees, and now I repair to the cafe area where I sit and read the paper, watch her skate and take an occasional glance at a hockey game. It's fun for me to watch her, because the smile on her face is pure, and during free-skate time she applies the lessons she learned diligently and tries to improve. As a parent, that's particularly rewarding.

The venue isn't fancy, and the rental skates much more resemble the shoes that Tim Robbins wore in "The Shawshank Redemption" than the kicks that Sasha Cohen wore in Torino. The place meets our needs, even if it is a bit chaotic and the cafe area won't make your neighborhood Starbucks worried about losing market share.

The figure skating parents are a diffuse bunch. You can't really characterize them by an common traits except a willingness to remain warm. Some parents free skate if possible while waiting for the lessons to end, others watch, some try to do work on their laptops and others read books. Most kids are learning to skate because it's a fun thing to do. There are advanced figure skaters, and there are kids who take private lessons, particularly the ice hockey players, but most take their lessons in groups. Proficiency, not professionalism, is the goal.

Then there are the ice hockey parents. It would be patently unfair to paint them with a broad brush, but they are different from the figure skating parents because the level of involvement is different. Figure skating parents, at the level I'm talking about, are involved. They don't pay that much for the lessons (about $15 per session), and the rink is within a comfortable driving distance of where they live. Ice hockey parents, on the other hand, are committed, both in terms of dollars and time. As for the former, they shell out a bunch of bucks for the team their kids play on, which covers rink time, equipment, uniforms, etc. The last time I checked, the fee for a high-school kid's club team -- affiliated with a rink -- was about $3,500 per kid. As for the latter, many of these parents travel great distances with their kids' travel teams. If you live in central New Jersey, you might spend one weekend in Virginia and the next in Lake Placid. Which could mean, if you're a non-hockey playing sibling, that you spend a bunch of time in a car, and then a hotel that's more likely a Super 8 instead of a Four Seasons, and you end up watching a sibling (whose face you can't see because he's wearing a helmet) in a drafty rink.


If you're a parent, you're driving kids here, there and everywhere. These parents look tired, and I'm sure that they fight to get all elements of their lives handled at nights during the week because of the travel schedules. Some of the parents looked haggard, and others looked aggressive. If both parents have jobs, it's hard to imagine how they can keep their family lives together and thriving. There was a group sitting near me in the cafe area that jeered when calls didn't go their way. I suppose that if you get up at 5 a.m. on weekend to travel to an early-morning game, you'd crosscheck a nun if she were blocking your view. Those parents are really committed. I'm sure some love it; I'm sure others question their own sanity.

It's great to teach our kids about commitment, but I do wonder whether such a detailed level of involvement for, say, a fourth grader, is all that wise. More and more travel teams are started for kids at younger ages, before the talent separates. I know of one family in the neighborhood where the parents had a strained marriage because of the level of effort they had to put into a young daughter's travel soccer team several years ago. The solution was to play a local, intramural schedule. As it turned out, the kid, while very nice, didn't turn out to be the next Mia Hamm. And I don't think they're wondering whether she would have had she stuck with the travel team.

I am perfectly content to be a casual figure skating parent, and, yes, I might even try to take lessons to skate with my kids. I haven't been on skates for, well, many more decades than I'd like to admit (except for one foray a couple of years ago), and, unlike riding a bicycle, you can forget. I skated about two years ago, and I ended up with a very sore right forearm -- from reaching out for the boards as my safety net.

I suppose that different people find their enjoyment in different ways. One of the best skating scenes I recall took place about five years ago on Route 29 near Lambertville, New Jersey. Somehow, an iced pond had formed on the road side. An older woman, with a full head of grey hair, had parked alongside and was doing all sorts of toe loops and pirouettes on this pond. The sun was shining brightly, and there was this woman, skating on this makeshift pond, the ice queen of a major New Jersey artery. The serenity with which she plied her hobby left a lasting impression on me. At that moment, especially in her mind, she was the best skater in the world.

And therein, I suppose, lies the lesson. It may well be that none of these kids will play in the National Hockey League. It may well be that few of these kids will play major college hockey. But right now, in their own element, there is a Dominic Hasek, a Rob Niedermeyer, a Peter Forsberg, relatively speaking, an acrobatic goalie, a rock of a defenseman and a talented center. It's my profound hope that these kids (and the parents) have the same enjoyment that my daughter does learning to figure skate and that the doyenne of the roadside had while skating on that sunny day. For, if that's the case, then it's all worth it.

Because, as it's been written, living in the present is the most important thing. Are the kids doing their best? Are they learning teamwork? Are they getting good instruction? If the answers to those questions are affirmative, then great things can happen. But if the emphasis is only on winning, then it may well be more about the parents than the kids. So, sports parents out there, always remember why you're doing what you're doing and for whom you're doing it.

After all, while weekends might not be made for Michelob, you yourselves don't have to feel like an iced beer because of the time you spend in a hockey rink. Weekends are supposed to be fun.

For everyone.


Blogger BCSportsFanatic said...

I think what you've written is right in many ways, but also there's more to it.

Not sure if the Minor Hockey leagues in your area are tiered, but here in Canada they are. You have House leagues for the "fun" people, and Rep leagues for the "hardcore" people.

For the Rep leagues, there is an emphasis on winning because all the players there are serious players that have aspirations of playing at the next level. A level of commitment is required by players and parents. Sometimes they get a little too hardcore. But having coached a Rep team before, more commitment is definitely better than less. It's not fair to the players who are busting their tail, only to have a lazy player drag the team down.

For the House leagues, it's all about learning, having a good time, etc... This is reflected in the players/parents as well who are more relaxed and laissez-faire like yourself. Also having coached House teams before, we focus more on participation, encouragement and confidence building.

1:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a hockey parent for the past 12 years (and probably the next 10) I too have seen some pretty nutty hockey parents. Being involved as a board member of the local league, I have been invoved in too many cases where the behavior was over the top.

Hockey IS expensive and time consuming, though the fee for a travel team at the rink level is more like $1500 than the number you quoted (plus gasoline!). The travel is usually less than one hour, one day out of the weekend, unless the teams choose to do holiday or post season tournaments in places like Lake Placid or Virginia. For the kids who are younger, the travel is less.

There are Tier I teams who travel all over the place for the best players who also have very committed parents. Those teams do travel a lot and have higher fees. I can't imagine my kids doing that, but I know some who do.

One of my theories about parent behavior relates to the time and financial commitment. Very few parents are delusional enough to think that their kid has a chance at the NHL or even a college scholarship. They know the math -- there are very few hockey scholarships, and half or more of them go to non-U.S. players. Because of the time and expense, youth ice hockey can become the primary entertainment expenditure for a family. They get wrapped up in it as if it were an NHL game. It's no excuse, just an observation.

The vast majority of the hockey parents I know are in it for the right reasons. For the players, the team bonding is unlike any sport with which I have been involved. Because it is personally time-consuming for the kids, they also are dedicated. It is a wonderful sport, and there is nothing wrong with being a committed athlete, even if you never play beyoond your club or high school team. There are a lot of good lessons to be learned.

I have one son who is now playing club hockey in college. He played 4 years of varsity hockey in the Philadelphia area and knew he had no chance to play on a competitive college team. His college has a Division I team, so the kids who play club do so because they love the game. He is having a great time on that team, and he'll play hockey as long as he can, I'm sure.

As I said, I've been involved for a long time (especially since I can barely skate myself), but I can tell you that the good far outweighs the bad.

My 7 year-old is playing now, and I think he's caught the bug. Looks like I'll be freezing at the rink for many years to come. Happily. As long as he is having fun.


3:02 PM  

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