The hockey parent has an internal clock. The countdown kicks in when you get to the rink, an hour before puck drop. Another winter morning: the boys, in matching sweats, performed their warmups in the parking lot, while their coach, a heavyset Czech, presided with a baleful glare that even the kids knew was only half-serious. Jog, sprint, squats, hops, jumping jacks, malaprops, taunts. He’d once written on a whiteboard, after a game, “You are suck.”
When they were done, they jogged past us through the lobby of the rink and jostled into their locker room. They were awake now, in a way we’d never be, though we’d been mainlining caffeine since dawn. While the boys dressed and chattered, and then sank into a depressive kind of stillness for the Czech’s pregame speech, we watched the Zamboni cut the ice, refilled our coffee cups, or retreated to a bathroom stall with a tabloid in hand. One of us arranged the boys’ sticks along the wall, outside the locker room. Another had turned over his car keys to a rink attendant as collateral for the team’s key to the room. But we were no longer permitted in the room, now that the boys were eleven. We were support staff. A paunchy entourage in bad jeans. Soon the referees stepped onto the ice to glide out a few lonely laps. And so we took up our positions along the glass.
This was somewhere in New Jersey. Wayne, maybe. Or Secaucus. Or Brick. The critical ones among us stood together. Negative commentary required like-minded observers. It can be fraught to disparage other people’s children in their earshot. We were the Platonists, yearning for the Form of the Good—quick tempos, crisp passes, hard accurate shots, the instinctive carving up of the ice surface into open spaces and hidden seams. Displays of strength, cunning, and character. The elevation of our sons and ourselves.
It’s hard to understand, if you’re a sensible person, or even an insensible person who happens not to have children, just how much hope builds up in the minutes before your offspring participates in a sporting contest. We know that the arc of athletics bends toward disappointment, that we must learn to accept and even forgive our sons’ flubs and deficiencies of effort, that we are at best projecting our own dashed aspirations onto them, or else merely raging at them out of frustration at the intractability of the world. We also know that the kids can’t hear us on the ice, and that even if they could, they would much prefer not to. But once the puck drops, such knowledge gives way to the ache of thwarted expectations, the pangs of our own powerlessness. As they disappoint us, we disappoint ourselves. And so we yell.
I say “we,” but I mean I. The others often yelled, too, but I don’t know what pacts they’d made with themselves and failed to keep, or what they were thinking as they shouted out their sons’ names with the kind of alarm usually reserved for a loved one about to ride a bike into traffic. Such exhortations: Adam! Henry! Etan! Sean! We spent weekends with each other for six months out of the year, yet we never talked about what we were really doing here together, or how it fit, or did not fit, into our ideas of how one ought to live a life. We talked about the kids as if they were professionals, or about other parents, programs, and sports. We complained about the lines, the power play, the chronic failure of the wings to corral the puck and chip it out of the defensive zone. Someone had hockey cards made. Color headshots on the front, some vitae on the back. Each boy had chosen a spirit animal.