A hockey dad lets go of his goal
illustration by Lars Leetaru
I took my first strides as a hockey player at Minnehaha Arena, an old-school ice rink in Minneapolis known for its punishing cold temperature and sweeping barrel-truss roof. My dad was right there beside me, his outstretched hands both a lifeline and a parental spatula. After every fall, every flailing wipeout, he would flip me back over and scrape me off the ice. Then he’d dust me off, take my hand, and we’d start all over again. (As a hockey trainer for both the NHL and the 1980 Olympics “Miracle on Ice” U.S. men’s hockey team, this work was Dad’s true calling.)
Every few minutes, my weak ankles would wobble and then blow out like car tires, sending me careening into the boards. But I loved it. My “car crash” skating style eventually smoothed into a glide, which turned into an adrenaline-fueled flight up and down the ice. At 45, I’m still a rink rat, the repugnant-seeming but affectionately used term for a hockey lifer, and play in men’s hockey leagues all across the Twin Cities.
When my son, Murphy, was 6 years old and ready to learn how to skate, I excitedly took him to my old gliding grounds for lessons. As I tightened his laces under Minnehaha’s hallowed, cathedral-like trusses, I felt our childhoods poetically tied together, as well. But Murphy wasn’t feeling it. He took a mental inventory of all the layers of clothes and pads that he was wearing and groused, like a pint-sized Larry David, “This is a lot of business.”
When that first skating lesson began—and, in fact, through its entire duration—Murphy fell down every five feet. But, unlike me, he hated it. By the end, my normally cheery son had dissolved into a sad, snow pants-clad puddle.
I spent three years trying to turn Murphy into a hockey player. I was engaging in classic Mini-Me syndrome, just as I had suffocated him with the music of The Replacements and the Clash, clad him in purple pride and dragged him to watch the Vikings, and given him an exhaustive education in Star Wars. But I finally abandoned my goal one afternoon at Parade Ice Arena in Minneapolis, when I was playing with my hockey tribe while our kids skated nearby. Players motored around the ice, shot biscuits into the net, and peppered the air with spirited banter as I enthusiastically asked Murphy if he was having fun skating. He nonchalantly shrugged and said, “Meh.”
Months later, on a warm spring day, with a golden smile on his face, Murphy eagerly asked me if I wanted to play basketball with him in the driveway. Lately, he’d been spending hours out there, vigorously dribbling and working on his jump shot. But I hadn’t realized, until that moment, that he was getting all the things I had wanted him to get out of hockey—the thrill of rushing up the ice, the joy of a good deke, and toughness—from basketball. He was still in the game, albeit one that could be played in shorts and sneakers instead of skates and pads, with a bouncing ball instead of a puck. It was time for me to come in from the cold, to meet Murphy on his own terms.
“Wanna play PIG?” I asked. I bounced the ball into his hands.