The Bitter Lows, Medicinal Highs of the Hockey Dad

Stressing through his son's youth hockey tryouts, the author endured the ups and downs experienced by hordes of American parents with kids in football and baseball and soccer and dance and theater... The themes—from a rival parent's canary-yellow Lambo to the sweet relief of an edible—are universal.
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Excerpted from Pee Wees: Confessions of a Hockey Parent, by Rich Cohen. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 12, 2021. Copyright © 2021 by Rich Cohen. All rights reserved. The names of people, teams and places have been changed for privacy.

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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 author's son Micah, as a first-year Pee Wee.

The author's son Micah, as a first-year Pee Wee.

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.

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.”

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If a kid who’s been on Single A slips to B, he will be ostracized, his parents cast out. If you talk to them, it’s the way you talk to a formerly rich man who has lost everything. You wish you could help, but, really, what can you do? I know a father who cried when his kid didn’t make the cut, not because it would hurt his kid, but because it would destroy his own social life. “The Double A parents were my best friends,” he said through tears. “Who will I sit with now?”

I’d always heard that a certain kind of sports parent uses their child to fulfill their own unfulfilled childhood dreams; that they live through their nine- or 10-year-old daughters and sons; that they’d only made it so far in sports themselves because they’d been missing a key element, had not worked hard enough or the right way, had given up when they should have pressed on, or had “grown late.” Armed with adult knowledge, they’d save their progeny from a similar fate. In this way, they’d vicariously live the life they’d wanted but could not have—the life of the standout, the superstar, the kid who just might go all the way.

And yes, there is some of that. But the motivation for most parents is more immediate. When your kid excels, you are treated better. I’m talking about status, how people greet you as you come through the big double doors into the rink. Once, when Micah scored an especially pretty goal, a father climbed out of the bleachers just to shake my hand. I’ve gotten high-fives, even high-tens. There have been full-body hugs. This is not about the past. It’s about right now.

The first tryout session lasted an hour. The parents not pressed against the Plexiglas were in the stands, with steaming cups of coffee. Some took notes. Others were on the phone, giving a blow-by-blow to an absent spouse. There were as many mothers as fathers, and the women seemed, if anything, even more stressed out than the men. (“Why isn’t he on his edges? I told him to be on those edges!”) Now and then, a mom would shout a bit of instruction, but that’s the beauty of hockey: the Plexiglas encloses the ice, protecting the kids from the parents. You can yell, but they can’t hear you.

Scattered here and there among the parents were strangers in overcoats, iPads on their laps. In response to the inevitable post-tryout parental blowups, several programs have come to employ “outside evaluators.” It’s a boom business. These experts make an independent evaluation of each prospect, grading kids from one to 10 in a series of categories: inside edge, outside edge, crossover, pivot. It’s less about hockey than about skating. The evaluators judge blind—no names, nor stories, nor statistics. Just the randomly assigned numbers on the back of the pinafores passed out at the start of each session. We’d been warned not to interact with the outside evaluators. “Don’t even say ‘hello.’ ” When I accidentally approached one of these experts, mistaking him for a college friend, panic came into his eyes, and he said, “Get away; oh please, get away.”

When I asked why we used outside evaluators—Why not just let the coaches pick their teams?—I was told it was about fairness, impartiality. But since the teams really were picked by the coaches and the parents on the board—FCAH is governed by a democratically elected board—it seemed more likely that the evaluators had been brought in to give the organization plausible deniability. It was something to point to when a parent complained: “It wasn’t us. It was them.” You got the sense, when you probed, that the expert recommendations came into it only at the margins. The coaches basically knew who they wanted before the first tryout. And those cases in which the outside evaluations did play a role were even more problematic. In fact, tryouts, especially when it came to the nitty-gritty of evaluations, had the same flaws as the rest of the meritocracy. The outside evaluators judge only what can be measured. If it can’t be measured, it’s as if it doesn’t exist. The intangibles, which turn out to be the very qualities that distinguish a good skater from a good hockey player, get lost.

Wised-up parents with money hire private coaches to teach their kids how to excel at the handful of skills measured by the outside evaluators. Edges. Turns. Stride. Like public school instructors, they teach to the test. Over time, the aesthetics of the game have been remade by youth hockey tryouts. All those things that can be measured have improved. The game is faster, the skating more precise, than ever before. All those things that can’t be measured have atrophied. Character, leadership, how to deal with boredom or defeat. On the last day of a tournament, in the third period of the seventh game—that’s when you’ll find the best hockey players. A tryout cannot tell you.

Most of the day-one drills were designed for the evaluators. They are meant to isolate those skills that can be measured. This means five rows of kids executing, at the sound of a whistle, basic maneuvers. Crossover, pivot, sprint, stop—forward, backward. These skills are akin to the primary colors used by a painter: by mixing them, you can do everything that needs to be done in the game. The kids carried the puck only at the end, when they were set against each other in one-on-one, two-on-one, and three-on-two drills. They passed, they shot. The goalies were somewhat exempted. Because there are so few kids who play goalie, they often play for free. They were in the nets for tryouts, giving skaters a way to end a drill, a target—“Go through the cones, then shoot”—but it was only the skating that mattered. And yet the kids spent most of their energy faking out the goalie. They were like a guy on trial playing to the crowd, which has no say in his fate. In short, the kids missed the point, proving my long-held belief that kids are dumb.

I waited with the other parents in the lobby after the session. My son was always one of the last kids out of the locker room, which, especially when it’s 4:00 p.m. and dark and the snow is falling on a December afternoon, can be maddening. It’s because he likes to hang out with other players, linger and talk. It’s because he loves hockey, not just the game but the life. He loves it like a mobster loves Vegas. He’d been playing in Ridgefield since he was five. He was a Mite then, in the house league. He tried out for the travel team as a first-year Squirt. He started on the B team and climbed from there. He now was hoping to make Pee Wee A.

I questioned him as we drove home. I wanted to know how he thought he’d done. At such times, my normally talkative son—on most occasions, I can’t get him to shut up— turns into Gary Cooper, strong and silent. He frowns when I question him, then looks away.

“I already told you,” he says. “I don’t know!

Micah Cohen

Meanwhile, in a room in back of the Winter Garden, coaches, board members and outside evaluators were making the first big cut, dividing the kids into two groups: a small group and a big group. The small group consisted of 40—these kids would later be divided into Double A and Single A. The big group consisted of everyone else, 160 or so kids who would later be divided into A1 and B, or cashiered. The cut was not final. An overlooked standout could conceivably jump from the big group to the small, but it was hardly ever done.

The results of day one would be posted on the internet that night—no names, just numbers. Many parents had compiled cheat sheets: the name of each kid beside the pinafore number. That way, they would know the fate of not only their child but also their friends’ and rivals’ children. For the coldhearted, there is as much pleasure in another’s failure as in your own success.

I spent the night with my phone in my lap, hitting refresh. I knew I should not care this much. I knew I had lost perspective. I knew none of it mattered. I knew my son, as good as he was at hockey, was not that good—that neither the NHL nor college hockey lay in his future. But I could not help myself. I was reacting at a cellular level. In those hours, I cared about the numbers on that page more than anything else in the world.

The post went up at 9:00 p.m. I searched the small group for Micah’s number. I did not find it. I searched again and again—at first in disbelief, then in confusion, then in fury. I finally spotted it amid the common clay of the big group. I called a half dozen other Pee Wee parents trying to determine who’d made the cut and who, like my son—look at what they’ve done to my beautiful boy—had been shot full of holes. I came to identify with and almost love the parents of those who’d been kept back, and I came to loathe those who’d left us behind.

Only two kids from Micah’s Squirt team made the small group: a boy named Brian Rizzo, who played defense, and a kid named Niels Andren, who’d been Micah’s rival. Niels played center on the first line for Squirt A. Micah played center on the second line. Micah chased Niels all season but could never catch up. Niels’s father, Blake Andren, was a local politician with clout in town, which helped get his kids onto all the top teams. Micah had grappled with Niels in soccer and hockey. Whenever there was a single spot left, it seemed to go to Niels. Meanwhile, Blake, blustery and gregarious, sat with the other top-team parents, not even bothering to watch tryouts. If asked, he’d say, “I’m just the kid’s ride.” In fact, he seemed certain of the outcome before the tryout began.

The other kid, Brian Rizzo, was the son of the parent-coach Ralph Rizzo, who’d coached Micah for two seasons in Squirts. We were almost friends. Ralph Rizzo looked at Micah and saw a possible obstacle to his dreams for Brian. I looked at Ralph and saw the corruption of America. Ralph made the safest hockey-parent play. He’d signed himself up as a parent-coach, which meant going to classes, getting “certified.” Most of the classes were about keeping your mitts off the kinder and watching out for bullies. Many FCAH parents did not play hockey growing up—that lack of firsthand experience could make them insecure and aggressive. Once certified, that changed. The unknowing parent became the all-knowing coach. Ralph was issued a black uniform—pants and jacket, team logo on one arm, his name on the other. Plus a baseball hat. Parent-coaches were merely meant to help the professional head coach—these tended to be men in their 20s or 30s, young fathers who’d played high school hockey—opening the doors to the bench, tending to the injured, directing player traffic. But you put a middle-aged man into that black-and-gold jacket, with that all-powerful title on his sleeve—Coach—and he is going to exert himself. All to say, Coach Rizzo, who spent the rest of the week selling BMWs at a nearby dealership, entered the Winter Garden like Vince Lombardi entering Lambeau Field. The parents stepped aside, nodded and whispered, “Morning, Coach.”

The best youth hockey programs don’t let parents coach. It leads to nothing but trouble. The parent-coach either favors his kid or terrorizes him. The standard is higher or lower, but never the same. I have yet to meet the father who can objectively judge his own child; that person doesn’t exist. And even if there were such a person, he’d go unrecognized. Why? Because even if there is no conflict, there is still the appearance of conflict, which is almost as bad. In my day—from here on, let it be known that “my day” means the late 1970s and early ’80s—parent-coaches tended to overcompensate. They set a higher bar for their children, made them work harder and more. If you spotted a Little League baseball team with its best player in right field and batting last, you knew it was the coach’s kid. Today’s parent-coaches tend to do the opposite, using their position to put their kid in the best spot and get him the most at-bats or ice time, for it seems no one will let a single advantage go. This shift—to parents who favor their own from parents who disfavored the same—is part of a general decline in community. As America fades as a dream, it becomes every man for himself.

Team? What team? Get your kid to the next level. That’s all that matters.

It was even worse with Coach Rizzo. Not only did he use his position to advance his kid; he used it to hobble others. Having spotted such a kid, he’d short-shift him, scold him when he complained, then tag him with the worst of all labels, “bad kid.” As in, “Yeah, I know he can play, but he’s a bad kid.” I had a sinking sensation as I examined the groupings after that first day: the entire process seemed like theater.

micah-cohen3

It struck me as I lay in bed that night, angry and unable to sleep: This is America in microcosm. Today’s hockey tryouts will be tomorrow’s college applications. Today’s A team will be tomorrow’s Ivy League school. The same people who’ve wormed their way into this fix will worm their way into that fix, too. Then there was another, even scarier thought: Maybe Micah is simply not as good as I think; maybe I’ve lost all sense of reality; maybe it’s not them, but me. I remembered an encounter I’d had with Coach Rizzo a few years back. I’d been complaining about Micah’s ice time in Squirts and considered moving him to a different program. “Don’t make the classic hockey-parent mistake,” he said, “of thinking your kid is always the best.” But I told myself that this was not about hockey. Not really. It was about right and wrong. I did not want my son to be cheated. I did not want him to learn, at his age, that the world is corrupt. That knowledge would come soon enough.

I gave him the news in the morning. “You didn’t make the top group.” I did not want him to find out from Brian Rizzo or Niels Andren at school. I did not want him to learn via gloat. I broke it in the worldly way of my own father: “In life, we learn more from failure than from success.” He was bugged but not devastated, or even all that upset.

Which upset me. Why did I care more than he did?

The second tryout session began after school. The locker rooms were a mix of weak players, kids who could barely skate and kids who’d been shafted: Maybe they’d had a bad tryout, or maybe their game was built on intangibles. Or maybe their parents were too opinionated, or maybe they were “bad kids” being taught a lesson by coaches who did not seem to understand the crucial role “bad kids” have played in the history of the game.

I told Micah to just go out there and do his best. “Forget what you can’t control, remember what you can. And hustle. The rest will take care of itself.” I said this without believing it, which is the job of parents.

I sat in the bleachers beside parents who felt exactly like I did. Each one had a gripe. They bitched and pontificated. Meanwhile, I was trying to see Micah through the eyes of an outside evaluator. Not making the top group seemed to free him. It was as if a weight had been lifted; he was having fun. He began to distinguish himself, began to play his game, which is less about precision than verve. He plays with tremendous style, which is one of the most underrated qualities in sports. It’s not just the what; it’s the how. Like the slant of sunlight, or the tone of a particular piece of writing. It’s what remains when everything else has boiled away. It’s a characteristic lope, the joy in the effort. He did especially well during the two-on-one drills. If you put him with a kid who is equally joyful, the game will become what it must have been a hundred years ago, when it was just friends playing on a frozen pond. He scored on a wrist shot, then scored again with a tip-in.

I played hundreds of hours of hockey, baseball and softball as a kid. I experienced every kind of big moment, and experienced many more as a die-hard Bears, Cubs, Bulls and Blackhawks fan. I was at the Superdome when the Bears won the Super Bowl in 1986. I was on Lake Shore Drive the following January, the worst time of year in Chicago, when the same team choked on its own blood. A huge Polish cop, standing amid the depressed multitude, said, “Get your heads up. Tomorrow is another f------ day.” I lived through the Cubs’ collapse in ’84. I sat outside my house that night and cried. I was in Cleveland when the Cubs slayed their infamous curse, beating the Indians in the 10th inning of the seventh game of the World Series. I cried that night, too. But nothing in my life as player or spectator has matched the satisfaction I feel when my kid scores a goal. All the while, as the play is developing, I’m expecting him to lose the handle, mess up, as life is indeed mostly failure, but this time he doesn’t. I stand and scream when the puck goes in, thinking, My God, this is how it should always be. It’s this feeling that makes parents crazy: having it and not having it and chasing it like a hophead chasing a fix. It’s the essence of all sports.

I congratulated Micah after the second tryout. He’d played hard, done his thing, done it well—you can’t do more. A friend once told me that you should never tell your kid you’re “proud” of him. That makes it about you. He told me you should instead say, “I’m happy for you,” which makes it about him. So that’s what I said outside the locker room: “I’m happy for you, Micah.”

He nodded, smiled, then asked for “candy-machine change.”

I ran into Niels’s dad, Blake, on my way out. He was chatting up a member of the board. Niels was in the top group, which had its tryout immediately after ours. (The kids in the upper group stood along the Plexiglas watching the lower group while awaiting their turn. Our kids had to walk through them to get off the ice—a tunnel of shame.) Blake shook my hand, frowned, then looked away, saying, “I hope Micah makes it.” He said it like a fat cat rejecting a petitioner but wishing him good luck anyway. It infuriated me. Then I saw Coach Rizzo. He was talking to the head coach of Pee Wee A beside the pro shop skate sharpener, which cast his face in a glow of orange sparks. Our eyes met. Then he turned away, pretending he hadn’t seen me.

The author's own youth team, in Deerfield, Ill. Cohen is pictured at bottom left, sulking, he says, "because they put me in the spot traditionally reserved for the shortest kid."

The author's own youth team, in Deerfield, Ill. Cohen is pictured at bottom left, sulking, he says, "because they put me in the spot traditionally reserved for the shortest kid."

I would have gone over and made him shake my hand, but another parent pulled me aside. This was Rob Laird, whose son Tiger was in the process, though we did not know it, of being relegated to the B team. Rob had been battling the early stages of multiple sclerosis. “The one compensation,” he’d said at the time, “is medical marijuana.”

Looking into my eyes, he decided there was no one in more need than me.

“Check out a mirror,” he said. “You look like one of those guys steering a sixteen-wheeler up a glacier on Ice Road Truckers. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear someone shout, ‘Micah’s dad fainted!’ ”

He handed me a marijuana edible. It was a strip of paper, like a Listerine strip for the soul.

“How does it work?”

“Put it between your bottom lip and teeth and just leave it,” he told me.

“How much should I use?”

“One works for me,” he said, “but everyone is different. I’d start with a half. Take the rest later if you still need it.”

I waited till I got home, then took half, like he said. I put it behind my lip and waited. Laird called 30 minutes later.

“Has it kicked in?”

“Not yet.”

“What do you feel?”

“Nothing.”

“Just wait,” he said.

And then, almost as soon as we got off the phone, it hit me. It came like a wave, like in the old Kool-Aid commercials, a tsunami of punch that lifted me up, then broke over my head. I took the half-strip on Thursday at 5:00 p.m. I was high by 5:30 and remained high for at least three days. Went to sleep high, woke up high. Spent the day high, went back to sleep high, woke up high again. I smoked pot in high school and college, but this was different. That affected my mind. This affected my soul. I began to worry I’d damaged my brain, changed my personality, become like a guy I knew in college who’d taken a hundred hits of acid. For the most part, I enjoyed it. Songs struck me as profound, food was delicious. But now and then I panicked. I wanted it to end. I wanted to feel normal. I had bouts of paranoia. I asked myself, “What the hell did Laird give me? Was that marijuana or was it angel dust?” I reached an insane conclusion: “Micah is in competition with Tiger for one of just a few spots on a top team. The drop has made me paranoid. Laird knows Micah is a better player than Tiger and also knows my counsel is a big part of that, so he’s plotted to remove me from the picture. This isn’t a medicinal high! It’s a chemical lobotomy!”

Even weeks later, long after I believed myself sober, the stony mood would come back, wash over me like a tide. Listening to the radio in my car, I’d think, My God, this is the greatest song I’ve ever heard. Then another part of my brain would say, You’ve heard this song all your life and know it sucks. Idiot! You’re still high! Sitting in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, enjoying myself too much, the same voice would say, No way these fries are this good. You’re still high.

It was through this lens that I viewed the rest of tryouts. It was like watching my kid through the wrong end of a telescope. Everything looked strange, distant, and very small.

I was definitely high when I called Micah’s Squirt coach before the final day of tryouts. He’d seen Micah play and knew he belonged on a top team. How did he explain the placement? What did he suggest? He said that Micah did belong on a top team, but to understand him as a player, you had to see him in a game. “Tryouts are not his best,” he said. “The kid’s a gamer. The next session is all scrimmage, with coaches on the ice. If he plays like he can, he’ll be fine.”

“We already know you’re not making a top team,” I told Micah before he suited up. “That part is over. So forget it and just go out and have fun.”

Here’s a message for test-takers: No matter how hard you work, nor how well you perform, you still need a little luck. In our case, it came as a result of another parent’s tactical error. Blake Andren, believing his son’s place was secure on a top team, asked if Niels, who had a scheduling conflict, could spend the final tryout scrimmaging with the lower group, which went on an hour earlier. The coaches agreed, so Micah spent that last day in a kind of showcase, lined up across from the kid who’d been one spot above him on the depth chart all year. It soon became clear: Niels was the better skater, but Micah, who scored twice in the first 10 minutes, was the better hockey player.

Invested moms and dads watch over their hopeful teens at Brewster Ice Arena, outside New York City.

Invested moms and dads watch over their hopeful teens at Brewster Ice Arena, outside New York City.

I was sitting in the bleachers with parents from Micah’s Squirt team, lower-tier folks just like me. Most of us had gone through the three stages of tryout grief: denial, anger, acceptance. We were talking quietly, cursing the arrogance of the top dogs, when a man in a dark suit sat down next to me.

“Are you Mr. Cohen?” he asked softly.

I wondered if I’d left on my headlights or parked in a handicapped spot.

“Yes,” I said.

“We’d like Micah to play in the second session,” he whispered. “Does he have time?”

“Yes,” I said. “Of course.”

“Good,” he said, standing to leave. “And please be discreet.”

I suddenly felt estranged from the people around me, lower-tier parents, losers like I used to be.

Christina Egan, with whom I’d been gossiping, leaned over and said, “Did they ask Micah to stay?”

“Yes.”

Her lips pursed. She looked at the ice, then said, “Good, that’s good.”

I called Micah aside as he came off. I told him what happened.

I said, “What was Fonzie?”

He said, “Cool.”

I said, “Right. And that’s how I want you to be about this.”

The hockey played in the second session was crisper and faster. There were 28 kids, not including goalies. They were divided into two teams, then they scrimmaged. Each shift was one minute, the blink of an eye when you’re trying to distinguish yourself. It was easy to identify the standouts—several of them would become Micah’s teammates: Tommy McDermott and his stepbrother, Joey; “Broadway Jenny” Hendrix and “Broadway Julie” Sherman; Barry Meese, the kid with the very old dad; Becky Goodman; Leo Moriarty; and Coach Rizzo’s son Brian.

Of course, there were other kids, a handful clearly marked for Double or Triple A—kids so fast and far ahead they seemed untouchable. When two of them went up the ice together, passing the puck back and forth, closing in on the goalie, your heart went into your mouth and you were happy to be there. A friend once told me why basketball fans groan when a half-court shot taken by the other team rims out. “Because you appreciate greatness, even when it hurts.”

Micah was stronger in the second session than he’d been in the first—the better the players, the better you play. It’s why holding kids back until they are big makes no sense. You never want to be the best kid, or the worst. Dead middle is where the growth is. We went home after and waited. The system seems like it’s been designed to create anxiety. Two hundred kids. Seventy spots. The Double As are notified first. It’s like a fraternity bid, a tap from Skull and Bones. We’d like to invite your child to join the Double A Ridgefield Bears. Top players get the initial calls. If they decline, another kid is moved up the depth chart. It takes two or three days to fill the entire Double A roster.

Meanwhile, gossip spreads like a prairie fire. You get an update after each offer has been made. You get the news even if you don’t want it. Another mom, another Facebook post: fireworks and champagne bottles. You do the math. The longer you wait, the slimmer the odds. No chance now—it’s been 32 hours! My expectations adjusted. I was like Rocky, hoping to merely go the distance with Apollo Creed. “Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed.” I had no thought of Micah making Double A. It was a miracle he was even in the running for Single A. I’d been sure he’d make it when we left the rink but became less certain as the hours turned into days. Had Micah been pulled up merely because Niels begged out and they needed an extra body? How cruel!

The call came in the middle of the following week. Micah had made Pee Wee A.

I tried to gloat, but Micah would not let me. He said, “Dad, cut it out.” And I did, but he could not stop me from jumping up and down inside. Micah making the team the way he did seemed like a parable, his hockey career in miniature. He’d been judged unfairly and sent down, but persisted, playing himself into the top group, slipping beneath the wire on the last minute of the last day. It was like Rocky. There was a training sequence, then a showdown. There was a brutalized but victorious fighter calling for his woman—not his wife but his mother, Jessica. (Yo, Jessica!) And there was me, the cornerman, grizzled old Mickey, on him because I knew what he was capable of. The music should have come up when I got that call, the credits should have rolled, but that’s not how life works. It continues instead, triumph giving way to another struggle, more anxiety, more joy.

Ice Rink

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