Dept. of Sport Sciences, Linnaeus University, Växjö Sweden
‘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?
These words are the opening paragraphs of Home Ice: Reflections of A Reluctant Hockey Mom, by Angie Abdou, professor in creative writing at Athabasca University, in Alberta, Canada, published last year. Already after having read these lines for the first time, and no other part of the book, I was inclined to name it as one of the best sports accounts of 2018. When I finally put Home Ice down, having read the book from cover to cover in one fell swoop, I was pleased to proclaim it as one of the most memorable hockey books ever written.
The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, while the sport, and the body of hockey literature, is growing fast, the issue of the game’s impact on family and social life has only been touched upon in passing. And this then, habitually, in the manner of volatile and sentimental comments on the faithful backing of star players careers by their loved ones. In contrast, more detailed and far-reaching explorations of issues such as how the relatives experience the everyday life of the star players careers, what personal sacrifices they have (had) to make, and what effect the game has (had) on the relationships between family members are still few and far between.
Hence, just by addressing these issues in a book-length consideration of life as a “hockey mom”, far beyond the big headlines and primetime TV, Abdou has made a great literary contribution. Needless to say, the fact that Abdou’s account is extremely well-written and tremendously thought-provoking makes it even more so.However, that does not mean that Abdou paints a unilaterally negative picture of the game and the experience of being a “hockey mom”.
That brings me to the second consideration which make Home Ice a veritable success: Abdou’s sharp pencil. She is a great writer, with a personal and enchanting tone, combining candid humor and personal soul-searching with well-ordered empirical zeal and gracious intellectual reflection. The result is a remarkably captivating and well-grounded discussion of a well-known, but too rarely contemplated phenomenon, i.e. parenting in sport in general and the life as a “hockey mom” in particular.
Among the issues raised by Abdou along the way are, for example, the gender bias in ice hockey, nagging concerns about rising costs in youth hockey, as well as the strains on family life that accompanies the son’s busy hockey schedule. However, that does not mean that Abdou paints a unilaterally negative picture of the game and the experience of being a “hockey mom”. Rather, she gives a multifaceted account on the matter, where sincere criticism of problematic aspects of the hockey culture goes hand in hand with heartfelt annotations of the many attractive features of the game, such as a parent’s joy of her child’s happiness in playing, the sensation of being part of a meaningful social milieu and having an inspirational interest, as well as how wonderful it can sometimes be to have a cup of bad coffee in a simple plastic mug in a tired arena somewhere in the middle of nowhere, haven driven on murky roads for hours.
Home Ice might not appeal to the hockey fan who is only concerned with reading about great victories and fatal losses on the ice. But, for all of us with a keen interest in the game’s profound impact on people’s lives and the society in which we/they live it stands out as a must read.
Ultimately, although Abdou might never make it to her own profession’s equivalent of the NHL, Home Ice: Reflections of A Reluctant Hockey Mom have most definitely earned a roster spot in mine.
Copyright © Tobias Stark 2019