They circle the ice fast, skates flashing, sticks clicking and scraping, bumping into each other in their eagerness to be first. At the coach’s whistle, they wheel, separate, and reform in new flight patterns, organizing themselves by shirt color into drills.
The atmosphere in the rink is intense despite the clammy chill. Moms wrapped in blankets sit on the sticky bleachers and sip hot chocolate. Dads lean against the Plexiglas beside the ice, holding hockey tape and offering words of encouragement, praise, or correction. The children, all boys nine and under, are focused, serious, and good. They manipulate their sticks, skate backwards, and turn on a dime sending waves of ice chips off their blades. They handle the puck with ease when it’s passed back and forth between them or chipped off the wall into their path.
Some part of me would like to say that my boys look unsure, awkward, or behind in their skills. I’ve always mocked such intense sport programs for young children. They don’t. They’ve been skating since they were three. They aren’t superstars, but they aren’t out of their league either.
This is hockey boot camp, which will be followed by “rate skate”—a two-day mini draft process during which the boys skate and run their drills for all the coaches and are invited to play on a team.
Before I had children, I would have sworn to you on my chai tea latte, we’d never do this. If there was one thing I thought was ridiculous, it was competitive sports for very young children. Why couldn’t it just be fun? Why all the pressure? Why the select teams, the camps, the expensive gear, and the weekends lost to ice rinks?
What I failed to realize from my narrow, completely unathletic perspective is that it’s fun. Our four kids learned to skate because their Dad wanted to be on the ice with them, weekend after weekend, winter after winter. He didn’t yell at them or force them, he just went and skated with them. He threw his back out playing in an adult beginner league. He bought them hot chocolate, challenged them to races, and let them stay up incredibly late at semi-pro games.
Enthusiasm is contagious. Eventually, I drank the cocoa, gave in to family time in a deep freeze locker, and started tagging along, albeit still clutching my Starbucks cup and a book in one hand.
This year, at six and eight, our oldest boys are good—or at least, good enough—for this slightly intimidating competitive process and they are so excited. It’s fun to be good at something; it’s fun to belong. Hell, it’s even fun to be the mother of two little people who are good at something and enjoy doing it. The best part might be the love and respect I have for their Dad. He didn’t drag them onto the ice, kicking and screaming, to compete. He led them out as a way to have fun and spend time together. I would have preferred if he’d chosen a warmer sport, but I’m proud to be married to a hockey Dad like him.