I didn’t grow up around the sport of hockey. Not really.
But when my oldest son started to play a few years ago, it was hard not to get hooked. The kids are passionate. The parents are passionate. I guess you have to be, when from August to March, you practically live in one ice-cold rink or another.
For the most part, the youth hockey ride has been great. For the kids, the lessons are many: sportsmanship, teamwork and the importance of putting in what you want to get out among them. For us, the parents, hockey is a thing around which a nice little community is built. We help cart kids around, travel together to tournaments, laugh and drink beers in hotel hallways and celebrate in the collective achievements of our players.
Like I said, the Youth Hockey ride has been great. Until a bump in the road hit me – hard – yesterday.
Fortunately, my son’s coach – who, in full disclosure, is also my husband – and the assistant coaches of his team bust their butts to not only teach the kids the game of hockey, but also to show them what it means to be part of a team – not a star – and to play the game fair, hold their heads high, be competitive but have fun. It’s amazing what they have done with these kids over the course of the season.
Yesterday I learned that not all coaches are like that. Yesterday, my son’s team came as close as I’ve ever seen to being part of one of those stories you read in the local newspaper. You know. The ones that sometimes give Youth Hockey a bad reputation.
I guess it doesn’t matter what team it was, really. Though I’d like to publicly shame our opposing team’s coaches, who not only didn’t discourage their kids from checking, slashing, charging and blatantly elbowing our players in their heads, but seemed to actually encourage it by their own behavior. Some of these things are penalty-worthy in the NHL, but all body contact like this is strictly prohibited in Mite hockey, as it greatly endangers the safety of young players. Did I mention my son is 8 years old?
Come to think of it, it really does matter what team it was, because on several separate occasions, members of this same coaching staff were thrown out of games for misconduct, once when our team played them in January, and three times during other games before that. Again, we’re talking about 8-year-olds playing hockey. As I write this, I am floored that this coaching staff is still on the bench, teaching kids.
After a prolonged period of dirty play, our players begin to retaliate, defend themselves. Someone shoves. Another punches. My son is thrown in the penalty box. But through it all, our parents continue to cheer the opposing team’s goalie when he makes a spectacular save. After all, they are kids learning the game, and we all marvel at their abilities, whether they’re our kids or not. Whether they play for our team or not.
The opposing team’s parents, however, scream angrily at our players. Idiots. Punks. I stand up and shout to no one in particular “Really? You’re going to talk like that to kids?” At the other end of the ice, I find out once the game is over, a dad has challenged some of our dads to a fight out in the parking lot. Really? Who does that? But in retrospect, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised given the seemingly acceptable culture of violence and nastiness surrounding this team. That may sound dramatic, but it really fits.
The referees (a whole other issue) seem oblivious to what’s going on, penalizing our players when trying to defend themselves, telling my husband pompously they have “missed” the calls against the other team. My husband steps out on the ice to tell the referee that he is close to pulling our kids off the ice because he’s worried about their safety.
The opposing team’s parents and coaches scream at my husband to sit down. “Get off the ice,” they yell in disgust. The whole scene feels surreal.
But the real kicker comes a few moments later when one of the coaches for the other team yells and hurls a full water bottle toward the players on the ice. Again, who are these people? Keeping pace with the inappropriateness of the game, the referee yells, “What the f*ck are you doing?” but a second later skates to the bench to hand the coach his water bottle, as if he’s dropped it by accident. Then, the ref blows the whistle to resume play.
This guy hurls a water bottle towards players on the ice and is not being thrown out of the game? What is going on here?
For the last few minutes of play, we sit in the stands remarking to each other how this game couldn’t end soon enough. When the buzzer finally does sound – our team winning 5-4 – my husband instructs his team to forego the traditional handshake and tells them instead to head straight to the locker room. The other parents boo and hiss. Yell that we have no class.
When they ask why there was no handshake – as this is usually an integral part of the game, players and coaches coming together to congratulate each other on a game well played – my husband explains to his players in the locker room that he was worried there would be some sort of confrontation between the two teams in the line. He was worried that someone would get hurt. And then we really would end up in one of those newspaper stories.
After, as we stood around waiting for our players to emerge from the locker room, we were sort of in shock, laughing nervously about what went down. “What the hell was that?” we all ask each other. But we know we’re not the only parents to see a game go down like this. Unfortunately, it happens all too often. Overzealous and unchecked (and perhaps a just a wee bit unstable) coaches, and the parents who love them.
At home, I ask my son his thoughts about the game.
He said he couldn’t wait for the game to be over, a sentiment some of his teammates also expressed on the bench. “I was sort of scared. Scared that the refs were going to throw daddy out.”
And as a mother, this makes me mad. Because as the season winds down, this is not the game I want him to remember, a game where some a-hole coach hurls a water bottle onto the ice and the refs are yelling profanities and players are charging with their elbows up, aiming for the helmet, and you’re worrying about defending yourself against unexpected hits instead of playing the game.
As a coach, you not only have the responsibility of setting a good example for your team, but for all the kids you stand before. Teaching a blatant disregard for the rules not only endangers players’ safety, it also breeds bad hockey players and not-so-nice people. If you can’t set a good example, you shouldn’t set an example at all. Kids learn exactly what their coaches are teaching them.
So, to the coach of that opposing team, do your kids – and ours – a favor, please. Hang up your whistle.