The author of the Canada Reads–nominated The Bone Cage tackles the ups and downs of amateur hockey, from a mother’s point of view
Over 570,000 people are registered in Hockey Canada and over 600,000 in Hockey USA. It’s a national obsession. But what does that really mean when your child wants to play on a team? As a former varsity athlete and university instructor teaching sport literature, novelist Angie Abdou is no stranger to sport obsession, but she finds herself conflicted when faced with the reality of the struggles, joys, and strains of having a child in amateur hockey. In Home Ice, with equal parts humour and anguish, Abdou charts a full season of life as an Atom-level hockey mom, from summer hockey camp to the end-of-season tournament. Her revealing stories and careful research on issues such as cost, gender bias, concussion, and family pressures offer a compellingly honest and complex insider’s view of parenting today’s young athlete in a competitive and high-pressure culture.
About the author
Angie Abdou began writing fiction in 2000 and has since published five books. Anything Boys Can Do was praised by the Times Colonist (British Columbia) for its original take on female sexuality. The Bone Cage, a novel about Olympic athletes, was the inaugural One Book, One Kootenay, as well as a 2011 Canada Reads finalist and the 2012 MacEwan Book of the Year. The Canterbury Trail (Brindle & Glass, 2011), is a dark comedy specifically about mountain culture and more generally about community and our relationship with the environment. The Canterbury Trail was a finalist for the Banff Mountain Book of the Year and won an IPPY (independent publishing award), Gold Medal for Canada West. Her fourth novel, Between (Arsenal Pulp Press), is about working mothers, foreign labour, and swingers' resorts. It was chosen as a best of 2014 by the Vancouver Sun, Prism Magazine, and 49th Shelf. Her latest book, What Remains (Arsenal Pulp Press), will be released in Fall 2017. Angie was born and raised in Moose Jaw, SK. She currently lives in the Crowsnest Pass area and works as a Professor of Creative Writing at Athabasca University.
Excerpt: Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom (by (author) Angie Abdou)
“Have Fun! Try Hard!” — Reflections of a Hockey Mom
“Have fun! Try hard!” That was the coach’s rallying cry for every pre-Novice hockey game during my son’s first year in the sport. “Have fun! Try hard!” I love it. The slogan applies to so much in life — work, writing, marriage. If you have fun and try hard, the rest often sorts itself out.
I wrote the slogan in red crayon on a torn piece of paper and taped it to the laptop where I spend my days either teaching creative writing students online or pounding out my own stories. The slogan stands as a reminder that, sure, okay, I will likely never make the writer’s equivalent of the NHL and, yes, I know, I cannot expect a pot of gold at the end of the novelist’s rainbow. I can, though, enjoy the process. I can take pride in my work. I can always push myself to do better. I can find meaning in the challenge. And those things — in and of themselves — can be enough. They have to be.
If hockey began and ended with that “Have fun! Try hard!” philosophy, I would have no reservations about my son’s participation in the sport.
At nine years old, Oliver has already played hockey through two years of pre-Novice, one year of Novice, and his first year of Atom. Counting a previous year of skating lessons, five of his winters have been spent at the rink. Each year, the Have fun! Try hard! slogan feels less relevant to our experience of the game. I have arenas full of reservations.
I don’t have to spell out what’s wrong with hockey. There’s the violence. The threat of spinal and head injuries. The parents. Especially the parents. A league on Vancouver Island has actually banned parents from attending games. The kids play before empty stands, a stroke of brilliance as far as I’m concerned. This winter in Marysville, British Columbia, at the coldest rink in North America, I saw two adults — two fathers — get in a fist fight in the stands at an Atom hockey game. Atoms are nine and ten years old. I watched these men hammer each other in the head, spitting obscenities, as mothers with babies on their hips fled to the closest change rooms to hide, and I thought, What on earth am I doing here?
But my reservations about hockey might run even deeper than these typical complaints about hockey violence and crazed, delusional hockey parents. I was raised in 1980s Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Home of the WHL Warriors.
Alarm bells are already ringing for Canadian readers. Even before I mention names like Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury. Even before I mention Graham James.
Theo Fleury played for coach Graham James from the age of thirteen, first on the Junior team, the Winnipeg Warriors. When the WHL moved the team to Moose Jaw, Fleury and James moved too. “Graham was on me once or twice a week for the next two years,” Fleury writes of his coach’s assaults. “An absolute nightmare every day of my life.” Graham James even required Fleury to sleep at his house two nights a week rather than at the family home where he’d been billeted. Nobody questioned this arrangement. Nobody tried to put a stop to it. In 2009, more than twenty years later, Fleury published Playing with Fire and filed a criminal complaint against Graham James, who subsequently pled guilty to charges of sexual assault. I don’t remember anyone in Moose Jaw expressing surprise.
Theo Fleury and I are nearly the same age, so his nightmare with Graham James happened while I too was a teenager in Moose Jaw. You could often find me and my gravity-defying hair at the local rink. Before games, my friends and I would shimmy into our tightest acid-wash jeans. To get them on, we’d lie flat on our backs and hook the tip of a hanger into the zipper tag, suck in our stomachs, hold our breaths, and yank. That’s how we made sure our jeans fit just right. Hockey players were a big deal. It was important to look our best.
My little brother — two years younger than Theo — also played hockey. My brother, Justin, was a strong and athletic kid, physically mature for his age. Now kids can be drafted at fourteen, but back then there was no Bantam draft. Instead, each team had a protected players list of fifty, which included players of all ages. As soon as my brother turned twelve, the Warriors put him on their protected players list. He was the only Moose Jaw kid listed. The way I remember it is that when my brother turned fourteen, Graham James asked him to practice with the Warriors and play exhibition Junior games as an underage. In Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, deals do not get bigger than this. An invitation to play Junior is a hefty step in the exact direction of the NHL. Every hockey player’s dream.
The way I’ve always told the story, my brother said no. Even today, I can hear Justin’s fourteen-year-old voice, “That Graham James guy creeps me out. No way. Keep me away from him.”
I won’t say everyone knew. I won’t say that even in 1985 — nearly twenty-five years before the criminal charges — everyone knew. I won’t say hockey culture protected Graham James, a pedophile and sex offender who used his power to prey on vulnerable boys. I won’t say hockey culture victimized Theo Fleury. On those matters, I will leave readers to draw their own conclusions.
But I will say that even though I was very much on the periphery of these events — up in the stands with my impossibly big hair and my impossibly tight jeans — these events affected me more deeply than I knew.
I’d been away from the rink for decades and returning with my son felt like a kind of homecoming, though, thankfully, I’d returned wearing more comfortable pants.
My husband and I disagreed about whether to allow Ollie to play hockey. “Why would we?” my husband argued. “We live here.”
Here is Fernie, British Columbia. Home to a world-class ski resort with lift access just ten minutes from our house. With stunning snow-capped peaks in every direction, Fernie is a recreational dream: downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snow biking. Who would choose to get on a treacherous winter highway to spend the weekend drinking bad coffee inside a rink?
My husband had a point. My point, though, was that it is not up to us to choose. Our children’s sports are like our children’s marriages: we, the parents, do not get to decide. Ollie picked hockey himself. At four when he first asked to play, we put him in the figure skating club’s learn-to-skate program. I got away with that for two winters. Two afternoons per week he skated for an hour. We spent our weekends at the ski hill, as a family. A few months before he turned six, he told us again, “I want to play hockey.” When I took him to the rink for the same learn-to-skate program, he turned his serious eyes on me. “No, Mom. I mean real hockey.”
He begged us to let him play. I thought of my own childhood love for swimming, of everything that sport taught me about passion and goal setting and discipline. Any meaning I have found in life has come from those three things. Passion doesn’t come from a parent saying, “We live ten minutes from a ski hill: you’ll ski.” Passion comes from inside. We get to have kids, but we do not get to tell them what they like.
I’m not sure I won that argument. Ollie does play hockey but I am the one braving the highways every weekend. I am the one sitting at the rink, drinking bad coffee. “As long as you love it,” I tell my son. “If you love it, I’ll do this. As soon as you only kind of like it, we’re done. We’re going skiing.”
In conversation with Christian Bök, a childless poet friend, I tried to explain my devotion to my son’s passion. Christian could not understand why I would sacrifice my winter (my Fernie winter) to a sport so at odds with our lifestyle. I said, “I’m sure my parents didn’t want to drive me to the pool every day at five a.m.”
“Oh . . .” Understanding shimmered on Christian’s features. “So you’re paying it forward?”
“No,” I said. “I’m parenting.”
As much as I play the martyr with my husband, Marty (“Oh, don’t you worry about Ollie’s hockey, I’ll just do everything.”), I do enjoy certain aspects of this return to the rink. The smell of shaved ice. Warming my hands against a cup of coffee. The magic turns of the Zamboni. And when Ollie scores a goal? His eyes find me in the stands, and he blows me a kiss.
“Did he just blow you a kiss?” the other mothers ask.
“Yes, yes, he did.”
And I don’t know if anything fills my heart more than the sight of my Oliver in the change room, red-cheeked and sweaty-haired, smiling ear-to-ear because he’s scored a hat trick.
Perhaps I’ve repressed my less sentimental memories of hockey culture.
At six, Ollie had an altercation with his coach. Ollie flips out sometimes. He can be what we like to call “challenging.” I’ll get to that later. For now, just imagine tears, uncontrolled rage, resolute disobedience. The coach, who’d recently been to a seminar on the importance of strict discipline, got a bit “in Ollie’s face,” as we say in Moose Jaw. He got a bit loud. Ollie can do loud too. It wasn’t a shiny Tim Hortons hockey moment. Once we all got home, my husband sat Ollie down to explain to him the athletic code of conduct. “What the coach tells you to do, Ollie, you do it. Whatever it is, your only answer is ‘Yes, coach! Yes, sir!’”
My blood turned cold. I could feel my throat closing. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” At first my voice came out strangled, but I picked up volume quick enough. I’m sure the rising note of frantic alarm seemed vastly out of proportion to my husband and my son. “You do not say, yes, sir! You do not say yes to anything you do not want to do. Not ever.” My husband looked at me funny just in time to see me press my hand into my chest, trying to slow my galloping heart. “You do not.”
I hadn’t thought about the Moose Jaw Warriors in decades, but suddenly Theo was there. Graham James was there. My brother — with his, “No way. That guy creeps me out. I’m not playing.” — was there.
“Coaches are not always good,” I added, clearly shaken. “And . . . and I don’t like this game anymore. I don’t . . .”
“Um, Ang, are you okay?”
“No. No, I am not.”
So there’s that little bit of ugly, festering hockey history.
But is that really what my resistance to hockey is about? We can’t raise our kids under a bell jar. Bad people live everywhere. Theo Fleury had nobody looking out for him. My true reservations about hockey are perhaps a little subtler than the one panic implies.
Let me tell you about Ollie. He’s “different.” That’s what his teachers tell me — his teachers who work in a system that is hell-bent on making kids the same. Ollie shakes his hands and chews his shirt. Dr. Google tells me both can be symptoms of autism and/or stress-anxiety disorder. Ollie has an inflexible and inflammatory sense of justice. He wants things to be right and fair. He’s especially big on fairness. He wants people to be good. And fair. When he inevitably runs up against not good and not fair, he gets emotional. To this day, he has not forgiven our neighbor Crissy-C who, at two years old, right in front of Ollie in our driveway, killed a grasshopper. That happened when Ollie was four. Now he’s nine, and the incident still brings him to tears. That dead bug and the murderous Crissy-C keep him awake at night. “That grasshopper was my friend. It might have had a family. Why would she do that?”
I once told my dad that reading to children increases their empathy. He responded, “I can see that, and you’re creating an Ollie in a world of no more Ollies.”
So, maybe it’s my fault that Ollie is too sensitive for a hockey locker room.
At the start of last season (Atom Year One), the boys were charging around the dressing room in their underwear, roaring and hitting each other with their sticks (in Atom, moms are still allowed in the change rooms, since the boys can’t tie their own skates). One of those boys is Quinn. I make a habit of being friendly with these boys and learning their names just to be sure they realize that I am watching them and I know who they are and they had better be nice to my boy. (Yes, I know, cue psycho-thriller background music, zoom in on the crazed mother.)
So, Quinn stomped on a spider. The boys all hollered over the impressive display of blood and guts and gore. I tried to position myself between Ollie and the scene. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. I tried to put the words in my expression as I met his eyes and held my hands lightly to his cheeks. Please, Ollie. Please don’t cry.
It’s not that I believe boys can’t cry. It’s not that I’m trying to enforce a hypermasculine code of conduct. It’s not that I don’t understand how harmful gender stereotypes can be. It’s simply that I don’t want the boys to make fun of him.
“Mom,” Ollie said, his eyes already brimming, his mouth twisting the way it does just before he loses the battle with his gargantuan emotions. “WHY?” He wrung his hands. “WHY would they do that?”
“It’s okay, Ollie. Let’s just get your skates on.” The boys were already looking our way, still in their underwear, sticks frozen overhead.
“But the spider is dead,” Ollie said, holding himself together, though the quiver in his voice and the tears on his cheeks hinted that his composure might not last. “There’s no reason to kill a living thing,” he continued, “unless maybe if . . . like . . . you’re going to make a steak or something . . .”
Being a human is hard. Ollie understands ethical conflict. He lives it, every day.
I fought the attempts to have Ollie diagnosed until late in grade three. I didn’t want a label. He’s Ollie. He has Ollie-ness. He suffers from Ollie-itis. This year, though, I decided maybe a label would help, maybe a label would come with coping strategies. We saw a counselor. I braced myself for the words she would attach to him.
“Ollie,” she told me, “is what we call a highly sensitive child.”
The counselor read the symptoms: overdeveloped sense of empathy; tendency to process all the details in a room; tendency to immerse oneself in the struggle and challenges of others; tendency to get overwhelmed; extremely emotional; tendency to process situations at a very deep and complex level; inclination to escape into imagination when bored.
“Oh no!” I said. “He’s a writer.”
I remembered the first time Ollie — at three — recited one of his own stories to me so we could make his first book. “Don’t you think it ends a little abruptly,” I said, jotting down his last line. “Do you maybe want more of a gradual, full finish?”
“Mom,” he said, practically rolling his three-year-old eyes, “that is the dénouement!”
Right. So I’ve got a writer. I worry about my little artist, how he will cope at the hockey rink. Will he be safe? Can he be happy there?
But here is the thing about sport. For all our Have fun! Try hard!, you know what makes kids happy in sports? Winning. Scoring goals. Being good. That’s the thing I’m not supposed to worry about as an enlightened parent: is he any good?
Having fun and trying hard — that’s our focus. But here’s the catch: nothing is more fun than scoring goals.
Ollie’s birthday is December 17th. Anyone who has heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers knows that a December birthday for a hockey player sucks. Very early on, resources are directed toward the best kids. When kids are little, a few months can make a significant difference in development. A child who just turned five will generally not be as good as a child who is almost six, even though they are in the same age group. More resources, therefore, go to the January and February babies, and as a result those early-in-the-year children do become the best players. With a December birthday, Ollie is the youngest player on the ice every second year. In the words of my brother, it’s not fair that a kid should have to pay for the poor planning of his parents. “You and Marty could’ve waited a month,” says Justin, a January baby.
Ollie’s first year of Atom was pretty brutal. He’d only played one year Novice (for players under nine) and hoped to stay there for a second year with his friends and grade three classmates. But he’s big for his age, and the Fernie Minor Hockey Association decided it was time to go by the book and move him into Atom (for players under eleven), even if he would be only eight for nearly half the season. He didn’t score a goal all year. Not one. I know because he tells me often. I thought this might be the year that killed it for him — the love — but in April we were playing in the waves in Mexico, and I said, “You love this! Maybe surfing is your favorite sport!”
Without hesitation, he said “Surfing is second. Hockey is my favorite sport.”
So a year of no goals was hard, a year of being the youngest (and sometimes the worst) player on the ice was hard, but that tough season wasn’t enough to kill Ollie’s love for hockey or to dull its allure that I don’t understand and can’t control.
My brother, who played triple A hockey in Moose Jaw, was also an Olympic wrestler. After high school, he chose to go to Simon Fraser University, which competes against American schools, and he won four national championships in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. In fact, during his university career, he never lost a single match to an NAIA opponent. He competed for Canada in the 2000 Olympic Games. I’ve watched him closely. He was good. He won almost always. He had the success that sport parents dream of for their children.
In my 2007 novel, The Bone Cage, I explored my worries about sport as they manifest in my brother. I know how tied up one’s identity can get with success in sport. I know how all-consuming that focus on gold can be. I worry about the transition to post-sport life.
Theo Fleury wanted to be good. People told him he would never make the NHL. He was too poor. His parents had checked out. He was way too small. Being devoted and loyal and obedient to his coach — that was Theo’s chance for greatness through sport. He believed that.
Obsession over sporting success can destroy lives.
There is also something inherently hypocritical and superficial about the enlightened parents’ insistence that winning doesn’t matter. What does that mean exactly? Why, then, are we keeping score? Why are we even playing games in which the objective is for our team to get goals while stopping the other team from getting goals?
I have mentioned sacrificing my weekends. I have mentioned venturing out on deadly mountain highways in the worst of winter. I haven’t yet mentioned the cost. In 2011, a Royal Bank survey of parents across Canada found families spend an average of $1,500 a year on hockey. Many spend much more. A 2013 American article on ESPN puts the cost higher, adding up a lifetime total of necessary purchases parents might forget to tally in the year-to-year bustle: $2,645 for skates, $1,250 for helmets, $150 for elbow pads, $180 for shin guards, $400 for gloves, $15 for Febreze spray and drier sheets, $40 for special hockey detergent, $1,750 for sticks. The article goes on to include dues and camps and travel and eventually adds up to a grand total of $48,850 U.S. for one child’s experience in youth hockey. “I’m just like an ostrich in the sand,” one mother wrote. “I’m sure it’s $10,000 to $15,000 a season for one AAA novice son.”
Do I really want to pay $15,000 a year for the privilege of driving three hours to Creston and watching my son’s team get trounced 17–3? Do I want to pay that kind of money for a son who is sometimes the weakest player on the ice? For a son who is always sad because he hasn’t scored a single goal all season?
In the last tournament of Ollie’s first Atom season, his underdog team shockingly fought their way into the final and, oh my god, were they stoked. They were up against a big-city team — a team with bigger kids, a team with more second-year kids, a team with better kids. But you should’ve seen our boys play. They did not give up. The two teams were back and forth for the full three periods. We were up two goals. We were down one. Back up. Then down. We parents cheered until we were hoarse. My butt did not touch my seat once. My cheeks hurt from smiling. And Ollie! I wish you could’ve seen my Ollie! The kid was on a mission, a blur of speed and energy. The other parents noticed too: “What has gotten into him? Look at him go!” And god can he skate. I haven’t mentioned how he skates, have I? Long, strong strides. When he makes up his mind to go, nobody can beat him. Ollie on ice: it’s a thing of beauty.
He didn’t get a goal that game, but he stopped the other team from getting three. In front of the net, he was a brick wall. Every time he went into a skirmish on the boards, he came out with the puck. Every time he stepped on the ice, he got credited with assists.
In the end, his team lost by one goal. Most of the kids didn’t care. They were ecstatic with their silver medals. But two kids cared. One was Remy, the team’s top goal-scorer. The other? Ollie. Ollie and Remy were inconsolable. From the stands, I saw the tears and the mucus, the shaking and the red face, the pounding of the stick on the ice, the accusatory glare at the refs. Of course, the accusatory glares at the refs. By the time the other team started throwing their gloves and sticks in the air, I was down to ice level, face to the glass. Please. Please, Ollie. Hold it together. Please.
Ollie does not like when a team over-celebrates. It’s not nice. It is not fair.
The two teams lined up for the Player of the Game awards. We don’t pay much attention to this part. In all of his years in hockey, Ollie had never been awarded Player of the Game. But he hunkered in line, his scowling face covered in snot, his shoulders heaving with sobs. I patted the glass to get his attention. It’s okay, I mouthed. It’s just a game. He refused to look my way. His scowl deepened.
“. . . and for the Fernie Ghostriders,” the coach said. “The player with the most heart, the player who tries his hardest every time he steps on the ice, the player who always busts his butt for his team. Nobody loves hockey the way this boy loves hockey. Player of the Game: number eleven Ollie Abdou!”
As Ollie skated back into line with his award, he found my eyes and lifted his trophy in a toast, an almost reluctant smile spreading across his snot-covered face.
The player with the most heart? Ollie is nothing but heart. And it looks like he and his big heart will be back for Atom Year Two. I will have to learn to parent an athlete in a sport that I’m not even sure I like. Together, we will try this hockey thing for another season, I’ve promised, as long as he loves it.
“The author brings a novelist’s eye to the story, telling it in first-person present tense; with its sharp characterizations and dialogue in place of autobiographical exposition, the book is a first-rate memoir and a fine example of narrative nonfiction. It's also a must-read for parents with youngsters who play organized sports.” — Booklist Starred Review
“This is a lively, honestly written account of parenting that will resonate with readers who are fully involved in their children's sports.” — Publishers Weekly
“This immersive memoir brings together the personal and a good dollop of research in sports psychology. Abdou writes with uncommon frankness about the raw moments of hockey momdom and her personal life.” — Toronto Star
“A beautifully written and wise look at the troubling culture surrounding amateur sports through the eyes of a conflicted hockey mom. Home Ice reminds us ‘the best lessons we take from hockey have nothing to do with winning.” — Erica Ehm, Creator and Publisher of YummyMummyClub.ca
“Angie Abdou cracks open the world of the hockey mom with her distinctive, wry humour. Not only does she explore the winner-take-all hockey culture, she confronts her own place in it and the price it exacts on her family and her marriage. Brave and refreshingly candid, Angie delves into issues many of us grapple with but don't dare voice.” — Jan Redford, author of End of the Rope: Mountains, Marriage, and Motherhood
Other titles by Angie Abdou
Overcoming the Neutral Zone Trap
Hockey’s Agents of Change
This One Wild Life
A Mother-Daughter Wilderness Memoir
Writing the Body in Motion
A Critical Anthology on Canadian Sport Literature
The Sawchuk Poems