How can I best describe the colossal madness of youth travel ice hockey? How can I possibly convey to non-cult members the extreme level of depraved insanity we share?
The enterprise started out innocently enough. My then youngest child asked if she could attend an early morning ice hockey clinic in the park with her friend Christian. Having zero ability to ever say no to my children, (more on that later) I consented to the clinic. After a few phone calls I learned that all participants would be required to provide their own equipment.
Now for those with no notion of ice hockey you should know that it’s a game played on a frozen surface by twelve heavily padded, helmeted players wearing skates. Notwithstanding the fact that the clinic was for 7 year olds, there were no exceptions to the “provide their own equipment” rule. After a trip to the sporting goods store for the first in a long series of equipment purchases I was lighter by about $200. The clinic fees added another $50 or so.
Mihijita took to the ice immediately and I watched from the stands with her older sister; completely oblivious to what had just occurred. Over the course of that winter, she attended nine or ten early Saturday morning clinics. We rose before dawn, dressed in the dark and made our way to the outdoor rink sometimes in single digit temperatures. She was happy, so I was happy.
My oldest daughter was not so happy. Hija noticed her little sister getting lots of new stuff and receiving a fair amount of attention because of hockey. The following winter, Hija requested her own equipment and tuition for the clinic. Again, there is no no so Hija joined the clinic that year. I could have put an early end to the whole business and knowing what I know now, maybe it would have been for the best. Bygones, water under the Zamboni I suppose.
I should say at the outset I never played ice hockey. Growing up in Los Angeles, we didn’t spend a lot of time looking for pick-up pond hockey games after school. The smog would have prevented it even if the weather had allowed for such recreation. Everything I know about the sport I know because of my kids.
As they grew older, and worked up through the more advanced clinics, my kids developed their skills and moved along a predictable path (not that I would have predicted but – again, what did I know about hockey?) towards something called “travel hockey.” Travel hockey means playing for a team that plays games against other teams. The teams are scattered around the globe, hence the travel part. And while I’m sure there are teams in places like Minnesota and North Dakota where a kid can just walk down the block to their local rink and attend practices and ride on team buses to games – not so in New York City. Although New York has recreation leagues, the level of competition was not commensurate with my kids’ ambitions. OK, they developed into really, really good players.
At this point I should say something about the whole idea of girls playing ice hockey. My mom always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. Whether that’s good advice or not, I’ve automatically relayed the information to my children. If Mihijita wanted to be an ice hockey player, she got to be an ice hockey player. Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 also didn’t hurt. Girls did not play sports when I was growing up. Girls played with Barbie Dolls and helped mom in the kitchen. Today you are as likely to see girls playing soccer, hockey, lacrosse or even football as you are to see boys. This is a direct consequence of Title IX. Even-steven for everyone. Yet, there came a point during a recreation league game (this is primarily boys mind you) when Hija took a very hard check into the boards and did not get up on her own accord. After that we realized why girls only played ice hockey along with the boys only until they were about 14. At age 15 boys develop certain testosterone driven characteristics that prohibit their association with girls – on the rink or otherwise I might add.
I was not aware at that time that there were girls-only teams out there. After one of these co-ed rec-league games another parent (cult member) came to me to say someone was looking for the parents of Hija and Mihijita. I found the guy and discovered he’d been scouting my kids for a state tournament team – a really big deal in the hockey world – and needed my consent for them to play for the New York City Girl’s Team. I knew they were good, I just didn’t realize they were that good. They tried out for and made the team, played that summer for NYC and returned from the summer tournament looking for higher levels of competition.
By this point Mihijita had moved up to goalie. At the tournament Mihijita faced and turned away shots from at least one player who represented the USA on the Olympic Hockey Team at Salt Lake City. Their mom and I were in awe of our kids.
The closest suitable girls team was based at a rink that was at least an hour’s drive. The girls tried out for and made the team no sweat. I attended the parent orientation (indoctrination) meeting and learned what it means to be a hockey parent. They would attend at least two practices during the week and would play 2 to 4 games each weekend. No team transportation available. Be on time or lose a game.
I was in. I let them cut my palm and I joined my blood with that of the other parents in an oath to travel hockey. And for the past few years I have spent the winters and parts of each summer traveling around the eastern united states supporting my kids’ pursuits. I’ve survived snow storms in Philadelphia, hostile opposing parents in Buffalo, screaming coaches in Washington D.C. and the winds off the Great Lakes in Oswego. All this while my kids beat around a rubber puck at hundreds of ice rinks. My kids have played with and against former, present and future Olympians. They have been featured on TV and in newspapers. I’ve driven as much as 1,200 miles in a single weekend. I have eaten food that I would normally run away from. I have met some remarkable parents and some horribly misguided ones. It’s such a strange strange world.
A word here about the stress this type of activity puts on a marriage. M and H are my kids from a previous marriage. New and improved wife2 has shown incredible patience and support towards her step kids and undeserving husband. She has given up virtually most of her weekends with me during the season. She should be nominated for sainthood. Balancing the wellbeing of M and H with the wellbeing of the marriage has challenged us. Off-season is better but not all our hockey issues have been fully worked out. I worry that until M gets to college, we’ll hash these problems around endlessly. Good news - my kids are two of the top women’s ice hockey players in NYC – Bad news - my kids are two of the top women’s ice hockey players in NYC. Bottom line is it has taken a lot of work on our part to get to this point.
Now for the payoff - H will be playing in the NCAA this fall when she starts college. Three colleges offered her very generous financial aid packages to play for their teams. She had the luxury to choose among colleges she had selected to recruit her as well as the colleges that did not. Her younger sister will probably receive even more attention from colleges because of her size and goalie skills.
I am a very proud father. I am also pretty much ready to be committed but still, proud. The madness associated with this type of parental sacrifice is undeniable. Would I do it all over again? I can’t say. Have my kids benefited and grown closer to their father? Certainly. I never in a million years would have predicted this.