March 4, 2013

The Hockey Mom: Riding the wild coaster we call hockey

By April Bowling

It was a tough game, and I was white-knuckling my coffee cup, standing at the glass.

April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.

My son Sam was locked in a goalie duel, with the score tied 0-0 halfway through the second period. The other goalie looked impenetrable, while Sam looked like, well, Sam. My little cutie dressed in the team’s falling-apart goalie gear, standing between the pipes smiling and depending as heavily on his teammates for good defense as he does his unorthodox, part-time goalie moves.

The action moved down to the other end of the ice, away from Sam. All of a sudden, a kid on the other team swatted a floater from half-ice. The puck skidded, slower and slower, toward Sam … an easy save. He went to swat it away to the corner with his stick … and missed. In sickening slow motion, the puck crept into the goal behind him.

His teammate who had come down to collect the puck off what should have been an easy save went ballistic with frustration. I heard him yell at Sam, and while I couldn’t hear what he said, I could imagine. Sam immediately looked up at me. I gave him the don’t worry about it sign we have — a brush off of both arms. But the smile was gone. He looked sick.

I prayed and prayed that they would come back and tie or win and that Sam’s mistake wouldn’t matter.  But they went on to lose by that one-goal margin, and Sam had to face the consequences of his miss.

It got worse before it got better. The next game Sam played in goal was a little cross-ice pickup game against an opponent who was very similar to us in most talent, but who also possessed a ringer, a kid they put on the ice infrequently, but who scored at least one time per minute when they did. Due to his coaches’ judicious natures, we were leading by one with a minute left. They put him on the ice for the last shift, and he immediately beat Sam glove side with a pretty lift going left to right in front of the crease, tying the game.

Then he won a breakaway right out of the ensuing faceoff and deked Sammy right out of his skates. Score. They win. We lose.

Sam was completely deflated in the locker room. His coaches told him how great he had played, but for the first time ever, they couldn’t make Sam smile. 

It was hard to watch. But I know firsthand that playing sports is as much about learning to struggle with adversity as it is about having fun and getting exercise. As we insulate our children from failure and discomfort more and more — we are the generation that coined the phrase helicopter mom, after all — sports remains one of the great schools of life, and hockey is Ivy League among those schools.

Over dinner that night, I told Sam an old Persian story about a king who asks his wise men to design him a ring that will keep him from getting overly happy or overly sad, but instead keep him level-headed, calm and ready to meet anything the future might bring him. After much deliberation, the sages handed him a simple ring with the words “This too will pass” etched on it.  It needed no magic, but the ring worked perfectly when he read those words.

Sure enough, the next week Sam learned the truth of that story. His team was invited to play a tournament over Christmas break. Sam won his game in goal with a strong performance, but then went on an offensive tear at wing, scoring four out of five goals in one game, and scoring twice in in the championship game, which they went on to win.

So they got a big trophy, which is thrilling to any 7-year-old boy. But the streak kept going back in league games, where Sam scored at least once, and often two or three goals in games that he played forward. He continued to win in net as well, albeit — as always — with plenty of scoring and defensive help. People began to tease him about getting a big head. Sam would just smile and not say anything.

I jokingly asked him what he would choose if he could only play one position the rest of his life, now that he was playing so well at all of them. “Well,” he said, “not defense. And definitely not center because you can’t dig in the corners. I’d play wing and goalie.”

“I said you have to choose one.”

“I can’t! I want to play both!” He wasn’t buying my game, nor should he. But I loved that it didn’t matter what he thought he was best at, just what he loved playing the most.

Life, like hockey, is comprised of ups and downs. Sometimes you score a hat trick. Sometimes you let in the winning goal. Sometimes you get the job offer. Sometimes you get the pink slip.

The other night at his goalie clinic, no less the four people commented on Sam’s permanent smile as he drilled away, making lots of mistakes and progress along the way. In fact, even when he muffed an assignment (and there were plenty), he responded to the coach’s ribbing with his big grin still in place, ready to try again.

“Does that kid ever stop smiling?”

“You better tell him his face is going to freeze that way!”

“I can’t believe Sam is still smiling!”

I could believe it. Sam loves playing hockey. And he was staying in the moment the way I often wish I would, and sometimes with great effort can keep myself. Most of these kids have that ability, and it’s our job as parents to help them learn to keep it. It’s not to say that Sam didn’t get really excited or pretty upset at different points this season, simply that with a little guidance he was able to quickly put things in perspective with the support of his teammates and family.  Like a puppy, he largely left the moment in the moment and moved on. 

That’s a powerful ability, and it can be learned and retained as our little hockey players grow up. Because when you combine those two important perspectives — just keep doing what you love and “this too shall pass” — and you can ride out even the wildest coaster that hockey, or life, can hand you.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.