Pee Wees: Confessions of a Hockey Parent
By Rich Cohen
Rich Cohen is prolific. Fifteen books, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone writing, co creating HBO’s Vinyl. He covers a lot of ground, but his two favourite subjects are team sports, and scrappy Jews. Both of these swirl together in his latest, Pee Wees: Confessions of a Hockey Parent.
Pee Wees tracks a season in the life of the ‘A’ Bears, the Ridgefield, Conn., hockey team that Cohen’s 11-year-old son, Micah plays for. Giving a small fry team the major league writing treatment may seem indulgent, but there’s some serious stuff here, enduring questions about morality, class structure, and whatever it is that motivates hockey moms and dads. Cohen spices the nutritious content with wisecracks, and it works.
Mixing the sacred and profane is Cohen’s sweet spot. Lots of funny scenes of kids responding to solemnity with virtuosic cussing. A Sandy Koufax teaching moment helps Cohen negotiate a game scheduled on Yom Kippur. Cohen even finds Old Testament morals tucked into the pages of those tiny O-Pee-Chee hockey bio comics that were still around in the 1970s.
Like many serious jokers, anger fuels Cohen, and youth sport’s injustices stoke his flames here. The trouble begins with tryouts. Outside evaluators monitor the season-opening rituals, but their data serves mostly to give coaches a justification for player picks they have already made. Well-to-do parents hire coaches to juice their kids’ measurable skills, their edges, turns and strides, so players are learning to the test. Not learning hockey, learning evaluation-passing tricks. Even before tryouts, ambitious parents have their kids drilling through the off season “… when you see those kids in the fall, they look as pasty as workaholics. They have grown as players, and all it cost was a summer of their childhood.”
So, the sorting and grading and pecking order starts early. The hockey hierarchy bleeds over into the rest of life. Elite kids get even better, and kids on the AA team do not fraternize with the B teamers. Tellingly, a parent cries literal tears when their kid gets demoted. “The double A parents were my best friends. Who will I sit with now?”
Cohen’s main beef is that coaches are coaches and parents are parents, and never the two should mix. All the petty, miserable unfairness that Cohen sees and skewers, starts with parent coaches. They use their roles to exorcise demons from their own experiences as child athletes. They crush other kid’s dreams in order to make stars of their own offspring.
Because Connecticut has both hedge fund enclaves and rust bucket towns, Cohen is witness to some rich/poor morality plays. Arena parking lots fill with Maseratis and battered K-cars, and everyone knows who’s driving what. Cohen describes one game against a team coached by none other than Mark Messier. There’s a very funny (and again, profane) end to that one. He makes it clear that wealthy people can buy things they don’t deserve. Micah plays a team from Greenwich, which is coached by the legendary Martin St. Louis. A blissfully rich and ignorant parent yells at the NHL hall of famer “You don’t know the first thing about hockey!”
The Pee Wee ‘A’ Bears’ main coach, who has no kid on the team, becomes embroiled in his own father’s criminal proceedings, which means two assistant parent coaches can rush into the void, favour their own children, and make life miserable for everyone else. One parent coach dislikes Cohen, and takes it out on Micah, who has the flu but comes to practice anyway. Cohen sees Micah after practice. “He looked like one of those El Greco saints who, having died and been buried, suddenly stands up in the grave, clumps of earth falling from his hair.” Which shows just how overwrought the whole scene can become.
Parental conflicts read like instances of road rage. Blinding fury erupts from objectively minor grievances. Cohen gets so upset at the lousy coaching that he has to see a cardiologist, who bills him a few thousand bucks and advises him to simmer down. Rich Cohen himself was a good player in his youth. He played angry. As a parent, he’s pissed off that his own boy, who’s also a pretty good player, is NOT furious with the way things are going.
“Why do we push our kids? Why do we put them in high pressure situations? Why do we treat them in a way that we ourselves would resent being treated? No one knows what sort of engine drives the sports parent.”
For the Pee Wee ‘A’ Bears, it’s all about making the state tournament. Which they do, barely, entering as last and lowest seed. The A Bears are the also-rans, whose parents want revenge because their boys (and two girls) were overlooked by the Pee Wee ‘AA’ Bears.
The team starts the state tournament beautifully. Great games. But in the one that matters, the As vs the AAs, disaster hits. The main coach, whose dad has just been sentenced to six years in jail, goes AWOL. The brutal assistant parent coaches, the rotters who favour their own kids, take over and rework all the lines so their darlings play almost the whole game, while everyone else is benched. Of course it’s a stupid debacle. The players are crushed and humiliated by their selfish idiot parent coaches.
There’s a minor redemption to follow, but no need to spoil it.
Having been a useless parent coach myself, (I was nurturing and supportive but I led my teams to endless defeat) Pee Wees stirred mixed memories. Sharpest of all, a fastball game in a rougher neighborhood. My 14 year old kid’s team arrived in matching uniforms, cleats and gear. The opposing team drifted in wearing all kinds of old kit. They were coachless and carefree. One of their boys took off his shirt between innings, revealing an enormous and hairy belly. He lit a cigarette, and when a mum tut tutted him, he swore a blue streak at her. I loved that rotten kid, whoever he was, and I hope he’s still clobbering homers.
Hardcover $34.99, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, 222 pages.