(originally published in The Charlatan, January 13, 2005)
A Hockey Homecoming
Joe Boughner tells how coaching kids brought back his love of the game
I had no idea how hard it would be to tie someone else’s skates. Tying skates is like tying shoes and I had been doing both for over 20 years.
I thought I was prepared. I attended the clinics and read the books. I studied the theories and watched the tapes.
But there I was, crouched on the floor with no idea how to proceed.
It was my first day on the job. Ben needed his skates tied and I was called on to do it.
It was the 2003-04 minor hockey season and I was the assistant coach of the Nepean Ice Devils Atom ‘B’ house league team.
I’d been out of school for a year and was bored with the working life. When I was a youngster playing minor hockey, I knew I would coach “when I was older.”
Then one day, I was older.
The process began one September evening. I drove down to a sprawling recreation complex in Barrhaven and walked into the minor hockey office. Even before I spoke to anyone I felt good about my decision. It was registration day and the place was packed with excited young kids and nervous-looking parents.
Just like I’d remembered.
I stepped up to the counter and waited for my turn.
“Can I help you, sir?”
I subdued a chuckle at being called sir.
“I’d like to sign up to coach,” I replied.
“Fantastic,” the woman said with a smile. “What division is your son or daughter in?”
“Oh, I don’t have any kids,” I said.
The woman’s smile grew broader.
“Oh, you want to help out your little brother or sister?”
“No,” I replied. “I just want to coach.”
Her smile waned.
“I just want to coach,” I said again.
“You don’t have any relatives playing in the association?”
“No friends of the family?”
“Did you play in the association?”
“No, I played in B.C., mostly.”
“Well, welcome aboard.”
The decision to get back into minor hockey wasn’t easy. Though I grew up playing hockey, the last few years had been less than enjoyable. As I got older, I realized the stereotypical dream of being an NHL superstar was not going to come to fruition. I was playing “for the fun of it,” but in my tiny association there weren’t enough players for a proper house league. We all played together – the jocks, the clumsy kids and people like me, decent players who just wanted to play.
Whereas the jocks would typically ignore the worst players, for some reason they made me their target. Maybe it was because I was bigger than them, and as a result, they couldn’t take me down. Maybe it was because I was just good enough to make them look dumb once in awhile. Or maybe it was because I was a little overweight and jocks are assholes.
Whatever the reason, hockey wasn’t fun anymore. In the fall of 1996, I registered for my first year of midget. Two weeks into the season, I quit. It wasn’t really a sad moment or anything. For some reason, the coach had called us all out for dry-land training – an inhumane series of track and field exercises – and after being mocked and teased because I can’t run (hence my playing hockey, not basketball), I drove home and called it quits.
There were other things going on. I was working harder at school to make sure I got scholarships for university; I was involved in the drama club as a technician; and, of course, there were girls. Girls are way better than jocks.
Strangely enough, it was around this time that hockey on a broader scale began to lose its appeal to me. I still enjoyed watching the game, but I was becoming more and more aware of how corporate and stupid hockey was getting.
In 1993, the NHL hired Gary Bettman to be the commissioner. Gary “NBA” Bettman. Gary “let’s redesign the NHL logo to be more like the NBA” Bettman. Gary “let’s rename the conferences and divisions, nobody cares about history anyway” Bettman.
I hate Gary Bettman. And I hate the things that hapened in his first years in power
- In 1994, the owners locked out the players.
- In 1995, the proud Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver.
- In 1996, the Canada Cup became the World Cup and we lost to the Americans, of all teams.
- In 1998, Canada lost in a shootout – a damn shootout – in Nagano.
And there was also the most heinous of all crimes. The unthinkable. The reprehensible.
- In 1996, they killed my Winnipeg Jets.
I’m not too proud to admit that I cried. The Jets represented all that was hockey to me. I saw my first NHL game in the Winnipeg Arena. I watched the dynasty-era Edmonton Oilers fly around the old building from the upper-upper deck – after getting the entire team’s autographs that morning in the hotel we shared with them. I watched Mario Lemieux lead a hapless Pittsburgh Penguins and afterwards, I proclaimed Number 66 my hero.
The Jets weren’t necessarily my favourite team, but they were always there for me. From the Randy Carlyle and Dale Hawerchuk days of the ’80s to the Teemu Selanne and Keith Tkachuk playoff “White Out” mania of the ’90s, the Jets were a constant.
Then they moved to the Sunbelt. And I quit playing.
The 2003-04 Nepean Ice Devils don’t remember the Winnipeg Jets. The oldest players on the team were two years old when the Jets moved. But even with this decade-and-a-half gap in our hockey experiences, I was amazed at how many things we had in common.
Kids today still play British Bulldog. They still know the half-ice horseshoe, though they now call it “The Butterfly.” And a hotdog and pop still constitute the best pre-game meal $3 can buy.
The supremacy of the arena canteen was evident from day one. As I was hunched on the floor trying to figure out how to tie skates that I’m not wearing, many of the Ice Devils were downing their pre-game pops and polishing off their chips. I stood up and looked down at my handiwork.
“Are they too tight?”
“Okay, well, go skate a few laps in the warmup and see if they’re okay.”
Ben’s skates were, quite frankly, an additional concern I didn’t need that day. It was my first day on the job and I was a little overwhelmed. The incident in the hockey office a few weeks earlier had me rattled. Were the kids going to think I was weird? Were the parents going to think I was some sort of pedophile? I needn’t have worried – on any count. The parents were amazed and thankful that I wanted to help (it got them off the hook, after all); the kids thought I was cool because I wasn’t “old” like their parents. . .
And Ben’s skates held up.
The Ice Devils won the game 3-1. I was undefeated as a coach.
To be a minor hockey coach in Canada, you have to attend a weekend-long clinic and pass a police background check. That’s all. There’s no test, there’s no mid-season evaluation and the clinic was full of fathers who had been guilt-tripped into helping and wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.
Luckily I had an additional resource at my disposal.
The greatest coach in the world lived down the hall from me for most of my childhood. Okay, so I’m sure most people think their dad is the best coach ever, but there’s a difference here. I’m right. Looking back, Dad’s the one who inspired me to coach in the first place. He coached before I was born, he spent the better part of my childhood alternating between coaching me and my older brother, and when we all left the nest, he started coaching again.
He’s the kind of coach that inspires confidence because he just seems to know everything about the game. He never yells, never swears and yet, his players respect him in a way that all the water-bottle-throwing tantrums could never inspire.
His players actually like him.
Behind the bench, he looks thoughtful. When he praises a player he does it loudly, but when he has a critical comment, he gets right beside the player and says it quietly so nobody else hears. It seemed to work for him, so I stole his ideas and used them.
The strange thing was that I also subconsciously copied a lot more from him too.
I found myself copying his weird little idiosyncracies – saying everything twice (“Hard on the backcheck, boys, hard on the backcheck”); showing up to the rink absurdly early and being the last to leave; and leaning way over the boards, quietly watching the play.
It dawned on me one day. I was becoming my father. And that was fine with me.
The winning streak was up to three. I was 3-0 as a coach. Clearly, I had this whole gig figured out. Then in game four, it all fell apart.
I was nervous. It was an October regular-season game, it was meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but I didn’t know how to handle it. What should I say to the boys? Would they be upset? How would the goalie feel? The final buzzer sounded. The boys poured onto the ice and lined up to shake hands.
I gathered up the water bottles and headed down to the ramp leading to the dressing room. The kids filed off the ice and I gave them all supportive taps on the shoulder pads as they went past.
“Good game, boys. Good game.”
I fell in line behind the last player and followed them to the room where the parents were waiting. The boys pulled their helmets off and I held my breath, worried about what they’d say.
“Mom, can I have a Powerade?”
“Dad, can Alex come over and play Xbox?”
“Are we going to Gramma’s house today?”
I was baffled. Where was the helmet throwing I remembered from my days as a minor-hockey player? Why weren’t they mad? Why was nobody glaring at Alex, who let in a few weak goals?
Then it dawned on me. They were too young to be jaded. They still enjoyed hockey for what it was – a game. They went out to play because it was fun. It wasn’t about winning or losing, they just went out and enjoyed themselves.
Then I realized something else. I didn’t really care that we’d lost either.
I set out to coach thinking that I could have some fun and maybe teach the kids a few things. I had no idea just how much they’d teach me. I learned that knowing how to raise a slapshot makes you a demigod to a nine year old. I learned that there is nothing funnier than a coach falling on his butt during a drill.
And I learned that hockey is still fun. The game itself hasn’t really changed.
Behind the corporate mascots and their T-shirt cannons, the million-dollar salaries, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Florida Panthers. . . behind it all is a ridiculously enjoyable game. A game played by people who are there to have fun. And occasionally tie some skates.