What Fuels a Fanatical Sports Parent?

Confessions of a Hockey Parent
By Rich Cohen

“If the coach wants to win more than his or her team does, that’s a problem and the team is doomed to fail,” says the longtime coach of my 15-year-old son’s hockey team. Rich Cohen might understand. In Cohen’s thoughtful, lively new memoir, “Pee Wees: Confessions of a Hockey Parent,” the coach-player relationship is almost as important as the parent-child dynamic.

Welcome to the world of youth hockey in Connecticut — and meet Cohen’s 11-year-old son, Micah. What’s amazing is how universal the experiences are for hockey families: the grueling three-day tryouts (after all, “the team a kid makes will determine his standing in the youth hockey hierarchy”); the early-morning long-haul drives to arenas throughout the Northeast for games; the armchair-coach parents, keeping track down to the second the amount of time one’s kid plays; and verbal tensions between parents of opposing teams. “The mildest New Jersey heckler outdoes Connecticut’s most vociferous,” Cohen reports. “The nastiest are found on Long Island.”

At the book’s center is the development of Micah as a hockey player, and Cohen’s identity as a type of parent he describes as “the crazies, the control freaks, the hyperinvolved.”

Tryouts for the Connecticut team begin in April, with anxious parents pressing their faces against the glass or huddling like scouts in the stands. At the end of each evening, the parents gather in front of a list to see whether their kid made a team on the first round or will need to return the following night. For the Bears, 200 kids try out, of whom only 70 will be placed on teams, ranking from AA down to B. Micah slips into the A team.

The hockey season ramps up in September, and Cohen takes readers deep into the lives of team families. We meet a Deadhead parent, a dental hygienist, a beer importer and a French physicist. Most important, we meet the coaches, who have the power to shape or destroy a player’s confidence. There’s a young, talented guy named Pete and two assistant parent-coaches, Ralph Rizzo and Alan Hendrix. (Cohen acknowledges that names, teams and places have been changed, “ditto dates and details.”)

Initially struggling, the team tries to gel under Coach Pete, who adjusts his lines to create the best combinations. (There are often three lines of forwards and two defensive pairs in youth hockey; the first line is usually the strongest.) Throughout, Cohen inserts himself into Micah’s sport — cornering coaches, and breaking the rule prohibiting parents from talking with coaches for 24 hours after a game.

After Coach Pete moves Micah down to the third line — ostensibly to help weaker players — Cohen approaches him, dismayed that his son has been assigned a “crap detail.”

“Is Micah having fun?” Coach Pete asks, and Cohen acknowledges he is. “So what do you care? Try to remember what this is about — them, not us.”

On the car ride home, Cohen asks Micah: “Doesn’t it bother you? Why aren’t you pissed off?”

His son responds, “Because no matter where they put me, it’s still hockey.”

When Coach Pete disappears for a few weeks to attend to family issues, the coaching falls to Coach Hendrix, who gives more ice time to his daughter, humiliates the other players and emphasizes winning above development. The team starts to crumble.

No matter the struggle, Cohen shines when he’s exploring hockey history. He describes the annual tournament in Lake Placid, N.Y. — a rite of passage for every hockey kid in the Northeast — on the rink where, in 1980, a team of scrappy U.S. amateurs defeated legendary Soviets at the height of the Cold War. Cohen describes how Soviet hockey transformed in 1958 under Coach Anatoli Tarasov, who “built his team in the style of Russian folkways, influenced less by dump and chase than by the Bolshoi Ballet.”

Eventually, Cohen asks: “Why did I care so much about the rise and fall of a Pee Wee hockey team? Why did I spend nights on the phone with my father and other fathers, talking and texting?” These are questions he never fully addresses, but one can guess the conclusion is about wanting his son — and the team — to shine. What emerges for Cohen in this warmhearted memoir is a love for his son beyond hockey, as well as the acknowledgment that “there is little to match the intoxication of seeing your child do something well.”

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