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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.


Toward a Civil Society; Or, Just Because You Have Your Four-Way Flashers On Doesn’t Mean You Can Park Wherever You Want, You Dick!


(Spoiler alert: In case you haven’t figured it out from the title, this is going to be something of a curmudgeonly post. What my old copywriting pal and wordsmith Margaret MacQuarrie,, tags on her blog as “General Grumpiness”.)

I’m a fairly well-behaved, open-minded guy — in a charmingly uptight kind of way. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!) I’d like to be able to say that I strive to give folks the benefit of the doubt, but, truth be told, I don’t have a lot of faith in people to “do the right thing” when left to their own devices. One need only consider the last several bloodstained millennia of human history. The rise of the body corporate at the expense of the body politic. The obesity epidemic in the west. Reality TV.

And, in a way, it’s hard to blame people. Tens of thousand of years of instinct and conditioning, driven by that ancient reptilian brain of ours at the epicenter of our neural network, are difficult forces to bring under control. Back in the — evolutionary — day, it used to be if you could slice off even a little more for yourself than the next guy, gain the smallest of competitive advantages somehow, your genes would probably survive while theirs might perish. Greed was good.

But in an age of abundance, too much of a good thing — too much of anything, really — often ends up creating more problems than it solves. *Cue Supersize Me.*  We can — and need to — do better.

As an architect, for example, I have always tried to champion more environmental sensitivity and efficiency in the projects I’ve been involved with. We could save huge amounts of resources and energy if we truly embraced green architecture — but we’re not going to get there if we leave it to people to voluntarily do the right thing. Sorry, we won’t. It’s hard. It costs more money and requires a far more thoughtful approach to the issues. It involves sacrifice and a re-alignment of priorities that we hardly feel the need to impose upon ourselves given that our neighbours are still driving their kids to soccer practice in humvees. We’re not as bad as that after all, we like to tell ourselves. And it’s not like consumption  — even the conspicuous kind — is illegal or anything.

Whenever I try to convince people that we may all very well need a little kick in the ass to do the right thing, I always use the example of rationing during the second world war. Combatant nations had only limited pools of resources (food, raw materials, gasoline, manufacturing capacity, etc.) with which to wage war, and it was imperative that these resources were effectively marshaled to defeat the enemy. People weren’t asked to do the right thing in this instance — limit your gas intake for example, because we need the fuel for our bombers — they were compelled to do right thing through the imposed rationing of scarce resources. And it worked. I admit it’s an extreme example, but the point remains the same. If people could have been trusted to do the right thing in the first place, they wouldn’t have had to have been compelled to do so via external forces.

It’s the same with civility, the largely unwritten laws of social conduct that prevent interactions within our communities from coming to a complete standstill as a result of our own intensely personal interests. In the first-world, at least, such interactions usually roll along fairly well. Still, I’m long-enough in the tooth at this point in my life to appreciate just how thin the veneer of civility actually is in our ostensibly civilized society. A season of involvement as a parent in any minor sports league makes this immediately evident (but that’s a whole ‘nother blog!). You put even a minimal stress on a group of otherwise normally functioning people and you don’t have to scratch too deeply to see the rules of common decency and consideration start to falter. *Cue the footage of Black Friday line-ups gone bad.* Then, unfortunately, all bets are off. This is why we need to embrace civility with renewed vigour — not because it greases the rails for other people, but, if we’re all participating as we should, because it helps to grease the rails for ourselves as well.

Manners, general decency, non-egocentric behavior. Who gives a crap about this archaic stuff anymore? I suggest we all should. It needs be at the heart of what we teach our children and teenagers. It’s about how to get along. When my mother was a student in the 1950’s and 60’s, she informs me,  they actually had Civics classes. Imagine! An organized forum from which to share with children and young adults the concept that they had fundamental responsibilities within the culture they were lucky enough to be born into. That they were citizens and neighbours and it was vital for the vein of civic-mindedness to run deep if they were to maintain healthy, inter-dependent communities. (Of course, they also taught Latin back then, and the idea that an Africa-American might ever be elected as president of the Unites States seemed like an impossible dream, so perhaps backwards isn’t where I want to move this argument after all.)

We need to get it together. Here’s some food for thought:

  1. Four-way flashers do not absolve you from vehicular responsibility. “Parking’s pretty congested today so I’ll just park here in the barrier-free space [that’s architect-speak for the blue parking spot with the white wheelchair painted on it] in front of the Pharmacy. I seldom see any handicapped people parking here anyway, and I’ll be in and out before you know it. Just need get a Coke. And a pack of cigarettes. Oh, and a lottery ticket” [OK, so maybe I’m profiling just a little with this example]. “But not to worry, I’ll simply leave my four-ways on so everybody knows I’ll be right back. After all, it’d be rude to leave my car in the handicapped spot without the four-ways on.” Dick!
  2. Break the cycle of LCD TV. No, I’m not talking about your new 52” liquid crystal Samsung. I’m talking about lowest common denominator (LCD) television programming. Get a grip on yourselves, people. The Real Housewives of [insert name of city here], Honey Boo Boo, anything with a Kardashian in it. Really? Really?! This is the best we can do as human beings already a decade into the twenty-first century? They wouldn’t make this rubbish if we didn’t watch it, folks. We’re fiddling and Rome’s burning down around our ears.
  3. Lead by example. There’s a great TED Talk by behavioural economist Dan Ariely ( that outlines some of the key difficulties with what he refers to as our “buggy moral code.” He suggests that most of us  are willing to cheat a little — up to a level he refers to as a “personal fudge factor” — provided we’re fairly sure we can get away with it essentially unscathed. These proclivities, however, can be easily swayed by the behaviour of other individuals within our immediate surroundings. Where an atmosphere of virtue and honesty are made manifest, for example, people are far less inclined to cheat. Of course, the opposite is also true. And we call that the stock market.
  4. Put yourself in others’ shoes. The Golden Rule — “Do unto others, etc.” Always a classic regardless of religious affiliation (or lack thereof). Our brains are sophisticated enough at this point in our evolution that we shouldn’t actually have to experience something for ourselves first-hand in order to be able to develop a reasonable conclusion about it. Consider American Senator Rob Portman’s recent decision to support gay marriage in opposition to beliefs he had previously held throughout his life. Why the change? Because he recently learned his own son was gay. See the problem? If we have to be poor before we understand that poverty sucks, or die at the hands of someone of a different ethnicity to find the will to act against the horror of genocide, we’re really up the creek.
  5. Understand that civility demonstrates power, not weakness. This is a variation of lead by example. It means that we’re always paying it forward a little. We get to take the high ground when we do the right thing. We’re in control and conscious of the decisions we make to facilitate our interaction with others. It’s like anything else. You keep making good decisions about things over and over again — ignoring that sibilant egocentric hiss emanating from the top of your brain stem — and it soon becomes second nature. You’re not left constantly wondering what’s the right thing to do — you’re just doing it.

*THUMP* OK, that’s the sound of me stepping down from my soapbox. Thanks for letting me vent. Bottom line is that it’s better for all of us if we simply leave our — metaphorical — four-way flashers off and just park where there are actually empty spaces available that were designed to accommodate us. Yes, even if it’s at the far end of the parking lot and all we need is a Coke. And a pack of cigarettes. And a lottery ticket…

Oh yeah, and stop going to WalMart in your pajama bottoms. I mean, really, are you 12?