If there was one sports event I would not have missed in 1990, one that both amused and uplifted me, yet prodded me to think, it was my six-year-old son's first hockey game.

I don't mean to imply that the Nasty Boys of the Cincinnati Reds weren't thought-provoking or that James (Buster) Douglas wasn't amusing in his way. It's just that every once in a while, after a steady diet of professional sports, you find yourself singing the old Peggy Lee tune: Is That All There is? You question the energy and resources expended on sports and ask yourself what, if any, values do they teach? You wonder if there is anything about games and competition, beyond the pure escapism of entertainment, that actually matters.

I think there is. I think I saw the seeds of it last February.

I'm not going to numb you with the details of the game, except to say that from a spectating viewpoint, it was cute: introductions, the national anthem, referees. Everyone played. My son Nate's team got killed, but neither he nor his teammates seemed to mind. Just skating and swatting a puck is a small victory for a six-year-old, and small victories, regularly attained, are what those kids require from sports.

I can only speculate on what the game looked like from Nate's skates. His senses must have been on overload. He wore a uniform. There was a real scoreboard. He fell down and blocked a shot. Adults were cheering him. Once, while staggering through a turn, he caught sight of a video game through the Plexiglas. This was noteworthy. The arena he usually skated in didn't have any rinkside video games, and Nate's head swiveled 180 degrees in a double take. As he slowed, you could sense the temptation. Climb over the boards or continue skating? But he pulled himself together and resumed chasing the other 11 kids on the ice, who, ratlike, were following the pied piper of a puck.

Six-year-olds just want to play. At that age they aren't picky about what they're playing—hockey, soccer, tag, checkers, video games, it's all the same, except that as a general rule the more equipment they must wear, the better.

I am told that by the time kids turn eight or nine, winning becomes the thought for the game, every game. That's a discouraging prospect for a lot of parents, but it's all right with me. It's a natural enough instinct, and it is then that Nate will begin to learn some of the more vivid lessons that organized sport has to offer. He will no longer merely be playing, he will be competing and growing up. He will learn to follow rules, to be dependable, to practice. He will learn that sports teams are meritocracies—the better one plays, the more playing time one gets—and that meritocracies hurt feelings. He will learn that a will does not always find a way, but that it sometimes does. He will start to learn about teamwork. He will learn about sportsmanship, good and bad. With luck, he will learn what it is like to play for a great coach with a gravelly voice, whom he trusts and fears utterly, whom he will remember the rest of his life.

"Swiiiiift! You move like a lighthouse! Take a lap!"

I envy Nate all those lessons and discoveries, even the painful ones.

I am looking forward to watching him put on his game face; to interrupting him when he starts to complain about the referee. I am even looking forward to the first time Nate comes home from a loss and goes into a deep and silent funk. It will come, sure as winter. His mother will put up with it for a while, then will attempt to put an end to this nonsense by telling him, kindly, "It's only a game." If he responds at all, it will be in a rude tone of voice: "I know it's only a game," and he will give her a look as if she could not possibly understand. I can predict these things because, well, we are related, and it is possible that I shot such a look at my mother once or twice. I can already tell that he's a competitor.

A competitor may or may not be talented. But a competitor cares and tries like hell, because he or she is someone who faces up to the fundamental truth that it may be only a game, but the purpose of the game is to win.

Any game, any level. The purpose is to win. Which is not to say that winning is the only thing, as Vince Lombardi did, for winning is merely the goal. It is the means of reaching that goal that's important to a young person, the athletic equivalent to analytical thinking. How you practice, how you prepare, how you conduct yourself in the heat of competition. That's what I would like Nate to learn through sports. Still, the amateur, even the young one, must be committed to winning. Because if the effort to win is missing, then none of the rest of it matters. Obeying the rules doesn't matter. Being a reliable teammate doesn't matter. Practicing hard doesn't matter. Having a good coach doesn't matter. All these matter only if the players attach importance to winning. If no one really cared, if everyone were just out there for a lark, well, where would be the value in that? We learn something from winning and something different from losing. But what do we learn from not caring?

It is possible, of course, I am wrong. It is possible that we already take organized sports too seriously in this country and that our school systems are right when they cut their athletic budgets in times of fiscal crunch. Fewer sports. Fewer teams. Fewer coaches. Fewer playing fields to maintain. Fewer participants. They're only games, after all.

I don't know, though. I keep thinking about something Mike Reid, the pro golfer, tearfully observed after losing his lead in the 1989 PGA Championship: "Sports are like life with the volume turned up." The disappointments are keener. The successes more tangible. The lessons more lasting. The friendships more memorable. It all makes for a pretty rich stew.

Nine months later, a lifetime at the age of six, I asked Nate what he remembered best about his first hockey game. Not much, was his initial response. When I pressed him, he came up with two things. He remembered crashing into the "bulletproof glass" with his helmet, sprawling to the ice in a daze before bravely continuing. And he remembered scoring a goal. Heroic memories, both. I ran those by my wife, Sally, and we are in agreement that neither incident actually happened. I don't quite know what that means, except that obviously organized sports do not stifle the imagination. I suppose he willed those things to happen and, over time, his memory came up with a way.

The important thing is that already he aspires to be more than he is. That's the precious nugget that lies at the heart of every kid chasing a puck or swinging a bat or shooting a ball. When a young person starts trying to be the best he or she can possibly be because of a game, then the game matters—enough to make a father want to watch the passing years through bulletproof glass, and cheer.