We Just Played
As I look around the arena of youth sports right now, especially youth hockey, I had to ask myself how in the world I developed such a love of this game back when I was a small boy? Did parents I was around back then act this way? Why was this sport the one thing we could do for hours and never get tired of it?
So I though back to my days of youth hockey. The 6 a.m. practices at the outside rink in the small town I grew up in. Walking 12 blocks with my skates tied together hanging over my shoulder, stick in hand and anxious to get there. Mr. Kirkpatrick was always there before any of us getting things set up. I can still see his Blue Chevy pick-up backed up next to the bench where we put our skates on. How many pucks did we put off the side of the fenders and he never got upset? We would skate for an hour and a half, following his instructions, then, after practice was over, we made our way over to the pond that sat in the middle of the city park and we played there for hours after that. We just played. No parents screaming, no coaches yelling, no referee’s, just us. Skating and dreaming we were Gordie or Bobby or Stan but we just played.
Back then we didn’t have fancy work-out places in office parks where parents lined the front counter and watched as a group of 10 year-olds went through drills on synthetic ice. My parents never went to practice. My dad never played so he wasn’t about to stand there and talk about what the coach should be doing. If he happened to give me a ride to practice it was because he was going that way, but had something he needed to do as well that day. And he just let me play the game. Back then we didn’t have $150 dollar sticks made of graphite, or $300 skates. We didn’t have fancy warm up’s and jerseys. We played teams from the town’s near-by and when the game was over we came back home and headed back down to the pond in the park, and we played. Just played.
Somewhere we have lost that simple developing love for the sport. Love of just playing the game. The love of just being on the ice and skating. The love of a game so great that you would skate for hours outside in 8 degree weather and still not want to call it a day. Now we have parents spending thousands of dollars on equipment, travel expenses, workout programs and the list gets longer and longer. Who is this really for? Is it for the little player, or is it for mom and dad, many who have never put on the pads but are convinced they have seen enough hockey to know their child is the next great one? Is it for the parent who has to one-up the guy standing next to him to make sure his kid has the more expensive equipment and he can brag at the rink that his kid went to this camp and is working out with this person? Seems to be anymore. Just stand and listen next time your standing there. We’ve gotten so bad our kids are doing the same thing anymore. Does anyone just play the game?
One thing I remember most about my dad after one of my games is that he never replayed the game for me in the car on the way home. When we got in the car he would always ask “Did you have fun out there?” and that was it. If I broke a stick and he would re-glue it, clamp it in a vice overnight and re-tape it. If I couldn’t be fixed, he would spend the seven dollars for a new one, but I treated it like it was gold. I remember when I was picked for my high school team and I came home to tell him. “Don’t let your grades slip, congratulations” were the words he said. I remember how Coach Dudzinski walked up to him and told him that I was picked, not because I was better than some of the kids who did try-out but because I just loved being out there and didn’t know when to quit. I just loved to play.
My dad never complained to him about my ice time, or where I played. He sat in the stands on Tuesday and Friday nights and watched. And he just let me play. We won the State Championship one year, one of the greatest moments I have ever had in my life, and I will never forget what my dad said when I came off the ice. “Did you have fun?” I think back now and realize that I did have fun and that is why I love this game the way I do. And my dad let me have fun. He didn’t yell at me when I was 10 because I missed a pass, or when I was 12 and let that kid get by me on defense and score or when I was 14 and missed the net so bad on a shot that I knocked out the lights on the scoreboard. But he also didn’t brag to everyone when I put in the game winner in the quarterfinals in high school and taught me to never rub it in to someone. That was poor sportsmanship. He just let me play.
Now sometimes I see guys my age playing in a league and I stand there, jealous because my legs don’t allow me that joy anymore. The joy of just being out there like young boys, just playing the game. The joy of endless hours on the ice till it got to dark to see. The hours of just playing with kids that are still friends to this day. And we all just played. Maybe we should all just let our kids play.