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The Sad Fate of the Sports Parent

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A true sports parent dies twice. There’s the death that awaits us all at the end of a long or short life, the result of illness, misadventure, fire, falling object, hydroplaning car, or derailing train. But there is also the death that comes in the midst of life, the purgatorial purposelessness that follows the final season on the sidelines or in the bleachers, when your sports kid hangs up their skates, cleats, or spikes after that last game.

The passage of time is woeful, and, for a parent, living your dreams through the progress of your progeny is as inevitable as the turning of the Earth. But the sports parent lives the experience in concentrate—a more intense version of the common predicament. You must give up your vicarious hope of big-league glory and let it die. You must part from what, if your kid pursued his passion seriously, had become a routine of away games and early-morning practices, hours in the car, a hot cup of coffee in your cold hand as the sun rose above the Wonderland of Ice, in Bridgeport, Connecticut; the Ice Arena in Brewster, New York; the Ice Vault, in Wayne, New Jersey—home of the Hitmen, whose logo is a pin-striped gangster with a hockey stick. And you’ll suddenly find yourself watching the Stanley Cup playoffs not in the way of a civilian but with the chagrin of knowing that the game’s upper ranks will never include your kid.

One recent morning, courtesy of Facebook Memories, I came across an old picture of my son, a high-school junior who recently announced his decision to quit hockey—to retire! The photo was taken by teammates after a victory at Lake Placid, New York. Sweat-soaked, draped in the arms of friends, grinning like a thief, he looked no less ecstatic than Mike Eruzione after he and his team won Olympic gold in the same arena in 1980.

And me? I was this Eruzione’s old man, waiting with the other parents outside the locker room, experiencing a moment of satisfaction greater than any other I’d known, either as a player or as a fan. I was a car in park with the accelerator pressed to the floor. I was a wall bathed in sunlight. This win was better than the Illinois State Championship I won with the Deerfield Falcons, in 1977. It was better than the Bears’ 1986 Super Bowl victory.

The end began like this: One evening, after the last game of the high-school season, I asked my son if he’d be trying out for spring league. For a youth-hockey kid, playing spring league is the equivalent of a minor-league pitcher playing winter ball in Mexico—so necessary as a statement of intent and means of improvement that forgoing it is like giving up “the path.” Rather than a simple affirmative nod, as I’d expected, I got these words: “I’m going to think about it.” Think about it? For me, this was the same as a girlfriend saying, “We need to talk.”

Only later did I realize that those words were the first move in a careful choreography. My son wanted to quit, but in a way that would not break my heart. He also didn’t want me to rant and rave and try to talk him out of it.

We had reversed roles. He was the adult. I was the child.

He knew he would not be playing college hockey even if he could. With this in mind, he had decided to use his final year of high school to get to know people other than hockey players and spend time in places other than hockey rinks. In the way of a pro with iffy knees nearing the age of 35, he had decided to exit on his own terms. He was not worrying about losing his identity as a player or about missing the camaraderie of the locker room; he was worrying about me. Hockey had been an entire epoch of our father-son life. It had ushered me, the sports parent, out of my 30s, through my 40s, and into my 50s.

My son began playing hockey in 2012. At 5 years old, he was among the army of kids enrolled in Ice Mice. He climbed the ranks from there: Mite to Squirt, Squirt to Peewee, Peewee to Bantam, Bantam to Midget. He had no inherent genius for the game, but he loved it, and that love, which was his talent, and the corresponding desire to spend every free moment at the facility—the life of a rink rat—jumping onto the ice whenever an extra player was needed, shooting tape balls in the lobby, made him an asset. A kid can have all the skills, speed, size, and shot, but if he doesn’t want to be there, if he doesn’t love the game, it’s not going to work.

It was passion that got him onto the top teams (this was tier-two and tier-three hockey in Fairfield County, Connecticut) and thus sowed the seed that eventually became, for me, a bitter plant. His love for the game elevated him to the hypercompetitive, goal-fixated ranks, where it’s always about the next tryout and the next season, who will make it and, more important, who will be left behind. Irony: His love for the game had carried him to a level where no love is possible.

When people accuse sports parents of living through their kids, they mean that the parent wants the kid to achieve in a way they never did. But that’s only part of the story. For most of us, the reward is in the present, not the past. You’re treated better when your kid scores; your status is raised. Your kid being on the top team puts you, or so many people in my world seem to believe, in a higher class of parent. If your kid is demoted, dropped from the AA squad to A or (yikes!) from A to B, your status and social life are diminished. It’s like experiencing a financial reversal.

Because I am human, I tend to blame entities or systems or other people for things that strike me as unfair. As my son progressed, I caught a glimpse, for one fabulous, deluded moment, of the life that he (we, I) would never live: high-school athletic stardom followed by college triumph and possibly even a professional-hockey career. That I knew this was a fantasy—he was never that good—did not make it less powerful. Lost in it, I experienced my life as an NHL fan with new intensity. I was not just watching the Blackhawks; I was scouting, picking up tricks that I could pass to my glory-bound boy. This was a dream that I was too embarrassed to share with anyone, even my wife. I regarded it the way members of the Free French regarded the liberation of Paris: Think of it always; speak of it never.

In short, I lost my way. Rather than letting him enjoy the moment and the fact that these seasons were his career, not a preparation or a path toward one, I was constantly scheming about his next move, his next opportunity, his next shot at the big time.

Here’s the worst part: I knew exactly what I was doing. I was attempting to replace my kid’s will with my own. I knew that it was wrong and, worse, counterproductive. The more I pressed, the less he enjoyed the game. The less he enjoyed the game, the worse he played. The worse he played, the more I pressed. Economists call this a negative feedback loop. I knew it but could not stop. It was psychosis.

Maybe the most notorious sports parents suffer from a shared psychological condition. LaVar Ball, Emmanuel Agassi, Earl Woods—those sports dads were all obsessed to the point of being abusive. I prefer to think that I am not; yet, for all the varying degrees of our kid’s success, our predicament is the same. At some point, even if it comes after 20 years in the pros, the set will be rolled away, revealing our true location. Rink parking lot. Beat-up vehicle. Alone. Even the child prodigies will retire.

I told my wife that I feared our son would realize, too late, that he missed the game. He has the rest of his life to goof around; this was his last chance to be in there, mixing it up, instead of watching from the sidelines. But I was mostly anxious for myself. How was I going to survive all those endless winters without hockey? And what about the fantasies of TV cutaways, with the NHL announcer saying, “And there’s the man who taught him how to skate!” By entering my fever dream and pointing the way out, my son was behaving like the parent who says, “It’s going to be okay. There’s plenty to live for. It’s time to move on.”

Although it’s over for me and my kid, I do not want to sell the experience short. It was mostly wonderful: He played for a dozen years, from ages 5 to 17; that was his career in the game. In that time, he accumulated so many stats—goals, assists, penalty minutes, and so on—that the print on the back of his hockey card, if he had one, would require reading glasses to examine. He learned how to play on a team, support his linemates, stand up to bad coaches, learn from good ones. He learned that getting hit, even getting laid out, is not the worst thing, that scoring is better revenge than hitting back, that there is more to learn from losing than from winning, but that too much losing is soul-destroying, that the joys of victory are fleeting, and that it’s the physical sensations—the feel of your skate blades cutting freshly surfaced ice, the weight of the puck on your stick—that stay with you.

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