“Pee Wees: Confessions of a Hockey Parent” is an inside look at the highs—and lows—of youth hockey. It’s a world that’s all too familiar to hockey moms and dads.
PEE WEES: Confessions of a Hockey Parent
Every kind of car in the parking lot. German cars. Italian cars. Jeeps with the tops down. Inside the rink, the parents, hundreds of them, some in suits, some in sweats, some dressed like Ralph Lauren, some dressed like John Gotti, have their faces pressed to the Plexiglas. As if they are at an aquarium. As if they are watching sharks and it’s feeding time and the water is full of herring.
These are Pee Wee hockey tryouts in Ridgefield, Conn. In the world of youth hockey, Pee Wees are like Britney Spears in that song—not a girl, not yet a woman. Eleven- and 12-year-olds, tweens, though certain parents, looking for an edge, have been known to stretch it, fake a birth certificate, which, in addition to a diet of greasy food and prescribed pharmaceuticals, explains the occasional behemoth who crosses the ice like a beluga, all shoulders and legs, a sumo among flyweights, which always elicits the same comments from the same parents. “Maybe that kid can lend me his razor.” Or “Maybe he’ll buy me a beer.”
Youth hockey is broken into age divisions, each given a cute name. There must be a history behind these names, though I’ve never cared enough to find out. Seven- and eight-year-olds are called Mites. Nine- and 10-year-olds are called Squirts. Eleven- and 12-year-olds are called Pee Wees. Thirteen- and 14-year-olds are called Bantams—that’s when the game changes. Through Pee Wee, checking is not allowed. Once a kid becomes a Bantam, it’s open season.
My son Micah is a first-year Pee Wee, but could pass for a Squirt. He’s often lined up against second-year Pee Wees who could pass for Bantam. The height and weight difference can be comical. It dramatizes the story of my people. We are moderately sized. It’s always been us against the big fellas. But hockey teaches you a key lesson early: size is not everything. You can beat size with speed or intelligence. Even in the brutal world of youth sports, a smart kid has an edge.
About two hundred prospects turned up at the Ridgefield Winter Garden Ice Arena for the first day of tryouts. It was mid-April. The buds were on the trees, baseball was on the fields, but it was still January in the rink. Kids had come from a half dozen nearby towns. Wilton. Danbury. South Salem. Fairfield. Katonah. Brewster. Some were from farther afield.
These were hotshots, superstars who went from program to program, using each tryout as a practice or an ego boost, a way to humiliate the locals. These kids were from Triple A teams. Parents spoke of their arrival as medieval villagers spoke of nomadic hordes. They are coming! They are coming! From Westchester! From Stamford! From Greenwich! They are coming to pillage and make our kids look silly!
The Fairfield County Amateur Hockey Conference (FCAH) fields four travel teams. From highest to lowest, it goes AA, A, A1, B. The season is long, 50 games culminating in a state tournament. For the parents, this means waking up early, staying up late and driving for hours. It means living like a long-haul trucker, making the same sort of calculations and drinking the same amounts of coffee. It means visiting each town in the state, coming to know every mascot and jersey as well as the net income, fashion preferences and pedagogical style of every sort of hockey parent.
Tryouts consist of three sessions over three days. Of the nearly 200 kids who turned out for day one, 70 will be offered a spot. They will be given 24 hours to accept or decline. If they don’t respond, the organization will keep their deposit—half the full-season cost, around $1,500. Parents withdraw if they believe their kid has been placed on the wrong team. They might go to another program, where they believe their child will be properly appreciated.
Confessions of a Hockey Parent
If you have been in the program for more than a year or two, you will know many of the kids at the tryout. You will have studied them in a way an adult should never study another person’s child—coldly and cynically, noting each strength and flaw. There’s a lot at stake. If your kid makes a top team, he will play with top players. The games will be faster, the opposition better. He will improve just to keep up. He will rise. Choosing a player for a top team can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Did he make it because he was better, or did he get better because he made it? What’s more, the team a kid makes will determine his standing in the youth hockey hierarchy. Kids on the AA team rarely fraternize with kids on the B team.
It’s even worse for parents. In our program, the adults constitute a tremendous socioeconomic cross section. You see it in all those cars in the lot: Hyundais, Toyotas, Fords, BMWs, three Volvos, two Teslas and one canary-yellow Lamborghini, owned by a cowboy hat-wearing father in the depths of a midlife crisis. (The pickup trucks belong to the coaches.) You see it in the clothes of the mothers and fathers who line the Plexiglas, which range from bespoke suits to yoga pants, from cashmere pullovers to Target hoodies. Though most of the kids are indeed white—this is starting to change—nearly every income level is represented, every profession, sensibility and temperament. It’s like that Sesame Street song “The People in Your Neighborhood.” We’ve got a security guard, a financial adviser, an electrician, a demolition man, a veterinarian, a retiree, a nurse, a pulmonologist, an architect, a contractor, a digger of septic tanks and a Broadway producer. It’s not wealth or fame that determines social position in our neighborhood. It’s your child’s speed, hands and “hockey IQ.”
Excerpted from PEE WEES: Confessions of a Hockey Parent by Rich Cohen. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 12th 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Rich Cohen. All rights reserved.
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