I’M BETTER AT IT NOW than I used to be. At first, I didn’t know how to be a hockey mom. The problem was, I grew up with five sisters, and male paraphernalia (both recreational and biological) were totally foreign to me. This was compounded by my divorce, which left my son with just a single mom and not a man in sight.
I registered him for hockey when he was seven. He needed equipment, they told me. I figured this meant a stick and a jock strap, and I thought I was pretty savvy to even know about the jock strap part.
I brought him to a sports store and discovered that only pimply teen-aged boys will wait on women. Solo mothers are, apparently, lowest of the low and Not To Be Dealt With By Senior Staff. I pointed an adolescent with a name tag on his football jersey toward my son and said: “Hockey. Do it.”
Four hundred dollars later, every part of his body was padded and armored with stuff designed to retain body odors and resist cleaning. And this was before he told me that he wanted to be a goalie.
He played his first game at an outdoor rink. The kids hit the ice, and 19 dads plus me surrounded it, standing knee-deep in snow. There were no seats, or warmth, or announcers. Ignorant of all sporting rules, I paid a ten-year-old standing next to me a quarter to tell me when to cheer.
Actually, when second graders play hockey, there isn’t a lot to cheer about anyway. Their heads barely peek over the boards surrounding the rink. They wobble around on ankles so weak it makes you seriously consider duct-taping them into their skates. They lean heavily on their sticks for balance, and when the rare opportunity to shoot the puck presents itself, it must be carefully weighed against the strong likelihood that lifting their sticks from the ice will result in a pratfall and probably isn’t worth the effort anyway. For periods of three or four full minutes, the puck lies unattended and alone (as do the goalies) while children, clustered like grapes, fight with each other to untangle their feet. It costs $100 just to register them for the right to do this, and that’s without figuring in your own Eddie Bauer investment that will keep you warm enough to watch them.
At the first game, three evil boys from an opposing suburb (détente, heck; it’s Edina versus the rest of us) slammed into my son and sent him cartwheeling across the ice. He landed conveniently near the snow bank I had carved out as a box seat, so I leaned over the boards and said—unfortunately, loudly enough for his coach to hear—“Honey? Are you all right?” he fixed me with a murderous glare that telegraphed one message to my doting mother’s heart: testosterone had kicked in and I had lost my little boy forever.
As the seasons wore on, his manliness continued to assert itself. He volunteered for goalie. His coach asked me if I minded. I didn’t know what there was to mind, so I let him do it. I remained unconcerned until I finally grasped the point that people were going to try to kill him by shooting pucks at his head. He earned the dubious right to be permanent goalie by throwing himself on top of every puck that came near him and lying there placidly while the visiting team beat him with their sticks. By the end of the year, he was using language on the ice that I would have washed his mouth out for, had I heard it at home. “It’s okay, Mom,” he said. “We have to talk like that.”
Six seasons have passed. I’ve often been the only mom in a locker room filled with boys and their fathers, but these days he’s old enough to lace his own skates and goes in alone (this equals climbing on the kindergarten bus as a passage toward adulthood). I now know what a “breakaway” means (someone else’s snotty kid has the puck and he’s heading toward my son—where the heck is the defense, anyway?). I still can not define “offside” to save my life, but I can quote chapter and verse on the relative merits of Vaughan Legacy goalie pads versus Miller and Cooper.
And, I possess a clearer understanding of the Rules for Hockey Mothers, as explained to me by my son. I do not know if these same rules apply to hockey dads, and I do not know if daughters who play hockey insist that these be enforced. However, I offer them to you as a general guide should you be unfamiliar with organized sports for children.
1. If he is hurt, do not jump up and run to him.
If you do this, he will never come home again. There is a manly ritual called “shaking it off” that must be honored here. Let him sit up slowly, flex his arms, move his head from side to side, and then climb to his feet while the spectators offer approving applause.
2. If he is really hurt, affect a lack of concern and amble over.
Conceal your phone in your pocket and dial 911 while you clamber over the icy snowbanks to get to his patch of the rink. Or, if you’re lucky enough to play indoors, lean against the glass and mouth “How you doin’, bud?” This goes for whether he just tipped over or has actually managed to dent the ice. In hockey, they play through concussions.
3. Abandon all affectionate family nicknames.
“Sweetie,” “punkin,” “angel,” and “sugar” must not be spoken, unless you want him to be pelted with jock straps the moment you leave the locker room. And yelling, “You get ’em, honey!” to a streaking forward does not inspire fear in the defense. Instead, try “Rambo! Remember what your parole officer said!”
4. Do not ask his coach how you are supposed to know which size jock strap to purchase.
I will never be forgiven for this one, but I still don’t know how I’m expected to figure this out.
Growing up in a girls-only household where we all took dance and no one’s school even had girl teams in anything but gymnastics, I’ve actually enjoyed visting this secret world of boys, men, and sports. It can feel a little harsh, but I can’t deny the pride I see my son take in the rough praise given him by coaches and hockey dads. And, on our side, every year I see more braids swinging out of helmets and more jerseys reading “Jennifer” and “Cassandra.” Which I support, until she’s heading down the ice on a fast breakaway toward my son, the goalie.
This appear in Minnesota Monthly magazine, March 1993.