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Rules of Engagement: As in Minor Hockey, So too in Life

IMG_0340 - Version 3 Spoiler Alert: You don’t have to be a hockey fan — or a sports fan of any kind — to “get” this blog. So read on. Really!

With the impending award of Lord Stanley’s Cup sometime in the next several weeks — though not, unfortunately, to the Pittsburgh Penguins who we cheer for here at The Gooseyard, and who, ignominiously, lost their fourth semi-final game in a row to Boston last week — it appears I had better get this blog uploaded before the 2012-13 hockey season — or at least the NHL season — expires for good.

Once, long ago, in the dark recesses of history (i.e. the mid-1970s), I played minor hockey. At that time I lived in a small town in northern Ontario, and, if you were a boy, you played hockey. I played for two years at the “Atom” level. I don’t remember being a particularly adept or inspired player, but the experience remains, nonetheless, one of the cornerstones of my young life.

The town where I lived was so small it generated, by necessity, a fairly “inclusive” and democratic minor hockey program. If you wanted to play hockey, you played. Exceptional skill was essentially irrelevant as there were only enough boys for a single team at any of the age levels. We — my fellow Atoms and I, that is — had no idea that other places in the world had so many players to choose from that they were able to create things like Double “A” or Triple “A” teams to denote different levels of achievement within the same age groups.

We practiced twice a week, and a couple of times of year we would make the trek to somewhere other than our own community — always to a larger town or city — where, if I remember rightly, we usually got trounced. But, ohh, the adventure of traveling to what was always — for us at least — an exotic locale and a strange new rink where we’d play against different teams we had never met before or even knew existed! It seemed everywhere we went kids were playing hockey.

I never played hockey again after my family left Ontario, and really never gave it much thought after that. Though, like most Canadian men, I’ll try to check out Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday if one my favorite “franchises” happens to be playing, or watch the Canadian teams play in the Olympics or the Worlds — especially against the Russians or Americans.

For the past five years, however, watching my son, now 13, play hockey in a province-wide league with a abundance of teams at all skill levels (“A” through “AAA,” and beyond), I find myself thinking, more and more, how the seemingly simple experience of playing hockey ultimately shapes our children’s — hold your noses, I’m about to go all LBJ on you here — hearts and minds. That is, how it builds — in less poetic, less foreign policy-esque terms — what we might traditionally understand as “character.”

When you spend five years sitting in the stands watching young boys grow and develop — and, in some unfortunate cases, come apart at the seams — you can really see the whole tableau unfold as sort of a microcosm for life. They’re all there: the natural sportsmen, the bully-boys, the team-players, the egoists, the “grinders”, the bewildered, the ineffectual, the leaders, the followers.

Watching them at 10-years old, I felt as if I could imagine those same boys, those same characters, playing out their lives 25 years later in a boardroom, or on a construction site, as scientists or teachers, or salesmen or pharmacists. Using the same inherent abilities and strategies and defenses that they had developed long-ago on the ice, but simply applying them in a different milieu.

Strangely, I began to realize, the reverse is also true. As adults, there appear to be any number of “home truths” that we can extrapolate, and potentially apply to our own lives, simply by seeking to understand the rhythms of our children’s minor league sports involvement. Whether you’re a writer or an accountant or a stay at home parent, the same elements always seem to remain consistent.

 

#1. You gotta show up. Sounds simple. You have to put in the time and be committed to what you’re doing in order to create a strong enough foundation upon which to build something. But the key to showing up is to really strive for some sort of intellectual “presentness.”  No sense physically being there if your mind’s elsewhere. As the poker players would say, you gotta be “all in.”

 

#2. Play with heart. If your heart’s not in it, you’re just going through the motions. You may not always win, but at least, if you play with heart, you’ll always open up more opportunities to potentially win than if you’re just putting in the time.

 

#3. Don’t wait for the play to come to you. Every now and then you’re in exactly the right place at the right time. The puck lands magically on your stick and you’re away. But if your entire game consists of constantly waiting for that perfect play to come to you, chances are you’re going to spend most of your game being perpetually disappointed. Your job is actually to “force the plays,” to create opportunities where none previously existed. Can’t make a play? Shoot the puck into the corner and charge in after it! Something’s bound to happen.

 

#4. The biggest celebrations can often erupt for the weakest players. This is a variation of “Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone.” There’s nothing more heartwarming than seeing the parents and kids on the team cheering madly when someone who seldom, if ever, gets a goal, actually scores. This is especially true when folks know that the player in question has been spending his time actively working towards trying to get a goal rather than simply bemoaning the fact he never seems to get one.

 

#5. If you’re not sweating, you’re not working hard enough. This, I suppose, is self-explanatory. Effort — significant effort — must be exerted in order to achieve goals. You can’t simply think your way through to success: you actually have to begin to act at some point. And the larger the prize, the more you gotta sweat.

 

#6. It’s easy to be omniscient from high in the stands. But guess what — you don’t play hockey in the stands. You play it down on the ice, trying to take it all in through the wired-visor of your helmet, with sweat in your eyes (see Item #5, above!) and players pushing past you in all directions. You’re going to miss plays and make mistakes because you don’t have a bird’s eye view of everything going on around you. What you have to do though — all you’ll ever be able to do — is make the most out of the limited data available to you at any particular time, act upon it, and move on.

 

#7. You gotta earn your ice-time. This one I remind my son about before nearly every game. In agricultural parlance, you reap what you sow. The more often you demonstrate you’re ready to go out there and make it happen, the more ice time you’ll find yourself being awarded to actually make it happen.

 

#8. If we are so worried about violence erupting in the post-game handshake line-up that we have to re-brand this demonstration of sportsmanship as a pre-game ritual instead, we have screwed up minor league sports — and our kids opportunity to live in a truly just and civil society — so irreversibly that we should simply hang our heads in shame and leave the rinks and the sports fields altogether.

 

The last item, as you might be able to discern, I feel somewhat strongly about.

In the association in which my son plays, along with many other associations, there’s been some serious talk recently about moving the post-game handshake to a pre-game time slot instead. That way if a player(s) is overheated about something that happened in the game, he won’t have the opportunity to throw a retaliatory punch during the post-game line-up.

See anything problematic with this approach? I hope so. Quite simply, it does nothing more than reward bad behaviour. Rather than having to address an unacceptable act of violence in the first place, all reverting to a pre-game handshake serves to do is remove a potential psychological trigger mechanism. This approach may prevent a punch from being thrown after the game is over, but nobody has actually learned anything. Really appreciating what it is to play sports — and to “play” at life — involves giving individuals full access to a wide-range of compelling triggers, along with the training, support and confidence to understand how, and why, not to pull them.

Ultimately, I’d suggest, what we need to be doing is focusing on raising better kids — better citizens — rather than abnegating our responsibility on issues like this by simply altering the game’s parameters to accommodate those youngsters who play sports without a proper respect and appreciation for the lesson that should lie at the very heart of such activities in the first place — sportsmanship.

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