I’m pretty sure that if I had known all that was going to be involved I would never have said yes…but, when my son’s aunt called up and offered to pay I said sure, okay. She said that she would take care of the registration fee if I would agree to cover the cost of equipment. I was between pay cheques so I trundled off to the pawnshop to hock some jewelry. Actually when I returned to get it a week later the gentleman who owned the store didn’t even charge me a fee. I don’t know if he was a fan (as I had explained my need for quick cash) but given the circumstances it was a kindness that I certainly could appreciate. And just like that everything changed.
I had grown up in a single parent household and there had never been money for any type of organized sports. My brother could skate but he’d never actually played hockey that I knew of. There was no hockey night in Canada in my house. When I finally married years later my husband would be shocked and somewhat appalled that I had never even heard of the Canada-Russia series. I had a vague idea of who Wayne Gretzsky and Bobby Orr were (another something scandalous to my Bruins fanatic husband) but I couldn’t have told you that they were Canadian. Don Cherry was an unknown to me as were the terms "original 6", "puck bunnies" and "hat trick". So even though I’d been born in the great white north, I was not born into the culture of hockey.
Before I got married to my hockey crazy husband I too was a single parent as my mother before me. I was, as I have already said, blissfully unaware of the gaping hole in my knowledge of the national pastime. My son had not even been on skates before his first hockey practice. He was enthusiastic and so was I as we headed off to the arena. The place was teeming with what looked like hundreds of armored midgets. We found the change room and started to get ready. I wasn’t sure how everything went on but with a little help from one of the hockey dads we were set to go.
Thank God for all the padding, I think that my son spent more time lying on the ice than he did standing up. I was in the warm room watching the action on the ice through the large picture window when I heard two of the other mothers critiquing the 5 year olds who were on the ice.
" Look," said the first one, “there are some kids who can’t even skate out there".
The other mother, absolutely horrified, answered, " You’ve got to be kidding".
It was my child they were referring to of course. He couldn’t skate but he didn’t care, he was having a great time. This was my first taste of NHL-itist.
NHL-itist, in case you don’t know, is a well known disease found around Canadian hockey rinks. The symptoms manifest themselves in an all consuming parental belief that it is only a matter of time until their little Johnny is noticed by a roaming scout and whisked off on a magical journey to the enchanted world of the NHL. I am fortunately immune to this particular disease. I actually have Dentist-itist which is a malady characterized by the fervent hope that your son will someday become a successful dentist (yeah! free dental care). So ambition free I was able to enjoy my little tyke rolling around on the ice in his little red Timbits jersey. Lord knows I had no idea once again and after such an auspicious start that he would become a beautiful and graceful skater. Later we’d always tell him he should have gone into figure skating (that was before I learned how much that cost!). He’s been playing hockey for ten years now and he still doesn’t have much of a shot but that boy can skate.
But back to that day in 1995, that day, my son discovered his first love. He discovered the joy of being one of a company of men, little 2 1/2 foot men but men nonetheless. He learned that it is fun to sweat, stink, and spit and to be a little bit, not a lot, "bad" (moms don’t seem to encourage that type of thing). It was never any problem to get him out of bed as early as 6 or even 5 am to go off to the rink. He loved it and still does. He’s played house league and competitive (travel) hockey and I’ll tell you that he liked the house league better. He’s had winning seasons full of trophies and medals and he’s had losing seasons where even I got tired of listening to myself say " Did you try your best? Then that’s all that matters”. Trust me when your team hasn’t won even one game in a season those words start to sound pretty empty. This past year was the first time he had the opportunity to skate around the ice carrying a championship banner. But even if his team hadn’t gone all the way he’d still have came back this year. It’s what he is and it’s what does. Football might distract him, he actually managed to get knocked unconscious last year and he loved that, or lacrosse or dirt biking but hockey remains his first love.
September is here and I’m digging through the old equipment trying to figure out what I can make "last one more year". No amount of washing can remove the underlying stench of the "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" (or should I say the smell of de’ feet). My son likes that smell. Halfway through hockey season I don’t even want to sit in the car with his bag and he actually can’t wait to put the malodorous contents on. Next Sunday will be his first time on the ice this season. Actually I’m sort of looking forward to it.
Don’t get me wrong I don’t enjoy the early mornings, arena coffee, occasional crazy parent, long road trips or cold weather and even colder arenas. What I’ll be watching for is that first step out onto the ice when skates kiss the cold hardness and my son slips into the rough embrace of the game. I know he doesn’t see it as a discipline, or a philosophy or as anything grandiose for that matter. To him it is what it is and that’s just fine. There is something to be said for the joy to be found in watching someone do something that they love with their whole being. When it all comes together, as sweaty and stinky and bruising as it is, for him it is his poetry, his life, his first and perhaps forever love.