Tough Love

How a Minnesota hockey mom shows she cares

Chasing a dream means not being a bystander

Photo courtesy of Karen S. Schneider

I have been a hockey mom for 15 years, breathing deeply in rinks across the state to calm my racing heart in both victory and defeat a hundred times over. If I can come up with an excuse—a convincing cold, say—I prefer to stay home on game night and read, getting text updates from my husband, Peter, as I take refuge on my couch from adrenaline-filled arenas.

But last February 11, the couch was not an option.

My son, Cade, was a center for the Benilde-St. Margaret’s  hockey team, about to face off in its 24th game of an undefeated regular season against perennial powerhouse Wayzata. Shortly before game time, I arrived at the arena and, scanning the crowd for my husband, ran into two Benilde dads. Large, cheerful men, they loved to talk at parent parties about their kids, their cabins and, Republicans both, their amusement at my crazy liberal views. “Have you seen Peter?” I shouted over the din. One pointed above my head, shouting back: “By the blue line.” Then they stepped in to squish me in an embrace, laughing as they yelled: “Trump sandwich!”

It is silly to blame the end of my son’s high school hockey career on President Trump. Still, I do.

Minutes later, a Wayzata defenseman checked Cade into the boards and he broke his collarbone. Benilde won the game and claimed an undefeated season. But a jinx is a jinx. Wayzata went on to win the State Tournament at the Xcel; Benilde never even made it through the front door.

It is silly to blame the end of my son’s high school hockey career on President Donald J. Trump. Still, I do. Hockey moms are a superstitious bunch. While others embrace the sweet sentimentality of Valentine’s Day love, for us, love often feels fierce and blind—a never-ending stand-off of “us” against “them.” Only the evolutionary pull of Minnesota Nice stops us from chanting “Lock him up” when an opponent checks our kid—even if the hit is fair, like the check that injured my son. I consider myself good people, but in an arena, amidst a crowd seething to assert tribal superiority and settle old scores, I have been known to express my love in anger and blame.

I hate myself on the car ride home.

I have always taught my children that kindness matters most: more than being rich, smart, funny, or right. The tension I feel in an arena disturbs me. Shift after shift, the ancient amygdala part of my brain asks not, “Are we winning?” but, as if we were in a battle for survival instead of a State title, “Are we safe?”

It is an irrational fear that my son has never understood. He has dreamed of playing hockey at the highest level he can since he was five, and bore last year’s heartbreak without regret, knowing that sorrow is the price we pay for love. But for me, over time, the pain of love lost—from loved ones who die to friendships that shatter—has become so deep it feels existential. When the team Cade played for in the Canadian Juniors this season lost nine games in a row, I stopped watching him on TV. “Is this still fun? Still a dream?” I asked him. He gently rebuked me: “Playing is the dream.”

At the start of Cade’s senior season for Benilde, his coach, Ken Pauly, said “Winning is our goal, but it is not our purpose.”

A year after the Trump sandwich, those words guide me in a different sort of arena, where even old friends are drawing new lines, and the tension—and stakes—are extraordinarily high. I fear extinction; my instinct is to retreat. But 15 years on the sidelines have taught me what Cade and his coach always knew: Giving up is the only defeat. Our goal is to win, but our purpose is to connect. We are all, individually and together, in pursuit of a dream. Jinx or no jinx, the couch is not an option.