The minor hockey league isn’t so minor…speaking from the outside looking in, at least. I am NOT a hockey mom, or coach, or fundraiser, but I am a hockey aunt who truly enjoys watching her nephew play. Aside from his games, however, I’ve never had much interest in hockey, be it watching or playing. But, of what little I know about organized sports nowadays, it seems to have evolved into a whole other entity from when I was younger. In my day, there seemed to be only a few families that we knew of who could afford extra-curricular sports, as most of the rest of us undertook hockey/skating in a more leisurely manner. Because of that, maybe I didn’t know what all went on in a hockey arena, but from what I hear from friends who are hockey moms, organized hockey is definitely a culture unto itself. I’d like to take a look at this culture in this post knowing full-well and outright, as already prefaced, that I am simply writing as an onlooker to the whole situation, so please do not shoot the messenger. It just so happens that I am intrigued by some of the parts that I see that make up this modern-day, all-too-popular part of family life in Canada.
As a kid, I grew up skating in our backyard (my dad was the neighbourhood hero flooding over our garden area), the local outdoor rink, or on special occasions, the nearby Rec. Centre. I enjoyed skating on warmer days, once I got the hang of it, but that was only after many a lesson from my dad wherein I pushed around an old four-legged stool for balance. Do you remember doing that? I think they have some more sophisticated tools these days, but you have to admit that the stool thing did the trick…at least for me, anyway. In school, I really liked playing floor hockey, defence specifically, if that counts at all as hockey. At home, NHL hockey was on our TV a lot (along with Don Cherry who was the synonymous sports commentator, and still is, by the way), especially during the Gretzky era. I will reluctantly admit that I did enjoy watching some of those late 80’s/early 90’s games, particularly playoff games, and I probably can even name a few of the Great One’s team members from back then. (Let’s see… Kurri, Fuhr, Coffee, Messier, MacTavish). But that really is the extent of my overall hockey experience, aside from attending the odd live game.
When my nephew was old enough to begin playing hockey, I will admit that I thought that it was quite something that four and five year-olds could tackle the sport of hockey. I mean, they’re so young yet. But, as with most things, ‘the younger they are, the quicker they will catch on’, I guess. Initiation is the first tier in the minor hockey league, as many of you likely know, and initiation it is! For everyone, I think. Registration itself is quite the process, as parents scramble to get their child on a team months in advance of the actual start-up, which actually doesn’t seem to have a wind-down in my opinion. With that, of course, comes fees, equipment, schedules, arenas, rules, coaches, try-outs, fundraising, camps, and the list goes on. I mean, WOWEEE!!! All in the name of sports, exercise, comraderie, a shot at playing professionally? All good reasons to have your child participate in hockey, for sure.
However, at the risk of being unpopular here, I’m just not sure that I buy into the often ‘all-or-nothing’ mentality that goes along with organized hockey, as I sit on the sidelines and listen to some parents shouting at their kids to do better, to coaches to get their child on the ice and to referees (who are kids themselves) for making ‘stupid’ calls. Never mind, the comments I hear aimed at the opposing team, who remember are kids. While, I, too, get caught up in plays and the excitement of the game, and find myself shouting out plays or cheering for my nephew’s team, I make a conscious effort to keep negative comments to myself and to remember that we are in fact watching a game. A game. The word game usually, or at least used to, insinuate fun. F-U-N, or have we forgotten the ‘N’ part? Maybe I am mistaken? I think most of the kids on my nephew’s team are there because they enjoy it, but at what cost? Some would argue that that’s they way it has to be, and I am naive to think otherwise. ‘After all, some of these kids will go on to play professional sports’, and they might as well get used to it, you know, ‘toughen them up’ so to speak. Ummm, I don’t know the exact stat, but I believe that less than one percent of players will be good enough to reach the professional level, so I don’t think that constitutes the aforementioned argument, and I’m certainly not sure that’s reason enough to behave the way I see some adults behave in a local arena. Notice that I said some, not all.
The interesting part is that the yelling and bad-mouthing is only a part of the sidelines of minor hockey. Amongst the people watching, there are certainly distinguishable cliques, which reminds me a lot of high school, really. It almost appears hierarchal in a sense. I mean, you have those who are clearly on top, in charge and know of everyone else’s business, personally and otherwise, or at least they think they do, and are more than willing to share their thoughts on everything and everyone. They seem to call the shots and define what is acceptable, maybe even popular for the group, including everything from jerseys to hairstyles to babysitters. Then, you have the middle-goers, who are involved, pack snacks and lunches to have on hand, do their fair share of cheering and fundraising, and are sometimes swayed by the people on top, be it peer pressure to fit in either themselves or pressure to have their children fit in, or otherwise. Then, you have the casual-goers, like myself, who are usually there to cheer on a certain someone. We clearly stand out amongst the others, and are often shot questioning looks as to why we are there or who we represent. We don’t know of everything that’s going on, and we sometimes call out the wrong names of team members. Or, maybe that’s just me? But, we usually have stories to pass along post-game. Stories like the time another casual game-goer (safe to say someone’s grandma), slapped my arm so hard out of excitement that I darn near fell off my padded seat cushion. (Oh, yah, we part-time attendees usually come sporting things, like outrageous cushions, specialized coffees, etc., that make us stand out from the crowd). Of course, there are many in-between types and those that don’t fit into any categories, much like it was in school. They are just there to support their kids/relatives, and often just want to keep to themselves.
In my own personal situation, my nephew’s parents and I are not exactly on speaking terms, so I choose to sit on the sidelines along with the opposing team. I must admit that this has some interesting takes on things, which I’ve come to find amusing for the most part. I get to analyze the goings-on of their hierarchal structure and listen to the otherwise muted comments, if I were out of ear-shot range on the home bench. For the most part, however, I am accepted there and never questioned, as I cheer aloud for my nephew’s team. Sometimes, I feel like a bit of a traitor sitting on the wrong side, but mostly I am just happy to watch the kids play. Many of the same children have remained on my nephew’s team over the years, a team now playing in the Atom league, and I am continually shocked and amazed at how skilled they have become in such a short period of time. They are truly enjoyable to watch and marvel at, and I have them to thank for a new appreciation of the sport of hockey, minor or not. After all, I’m not even sure I could skate without that raggedy four-legged stool these days.
That being said, I do have one wish and that would be for our society in general to be less organized, less scheduled and minor hockey fits under that umbrella. Practices at 6AM, games at 9PM, and tournaments five hours away seem a little much for 5-12 year olds, especially. And, yes, I know that lack of ice time/sufficient arenas contribute to the unreasonable hours/places, but time with our young ones is a precious commodity and ‘running’ from one place to another seems a bit counterproductive to me. But, I am not a parent, I am not a hockey mom…I’m just a casual sideline observer. Having said that, I will add that I can greatly appreciate all of the countless hours and energy that parents put into giving their kids opportunities that organized sports offer. I’m not sure that I could do it. And, regardless of what I think or how I feel about aspects of the amateur hockey world, I will continue to be a part of it, as I watch and cheer on my beloved nephew from my black, padded seat cushion.