Sunday morning from Sochi, and the Canadian men’s hockey team goes for gold. Twelve hours earlier, it was Saturday night in Stittsville, Ont., and an elimination playoff game for my son’s team, the Ottawa West Golden Knights.
These are 14-year-olds playing in the third tier of competitive hockey. The prodigies have moved on and up. The kids that remain are good players who love the game and haven’t yet felt the lure of girlfriends or the responsibility of a regular job. They like playing together and hanging out and listening to hip-hop music. Two of these things make me happy.
This was my first year working the bench and helping to run practices. It brought to mind that image of cat-herding. I can now say with some authority: Attempting to get 17 teenagers to pay attention at the same time is exactly like trying to herd cats—flying cats that are buzzed on Red Bull and also deaf. Still, there were rewarding moments. There are few things as inspiring as watching teenage boys—those masters of practised indifference—do something they love, and do it with heart.
I’ve known many of these kids since novice hockey, back when the team’s offensive strategy consisted of trying not to fall down. Much has changed. They’ve become quick and skilful and hockey-smart. They’ve learned to hit hard and to get back up. During the game, they care about their slapshot. Afterward, they care about their hair. They stink and they swear.
More than once, I’ve had to stop myself from scolding them for the profanity. I knew them when they were little boys, and it’s those younger faces I sometimes see when they’re dropping f-bombs and trading wang jokes. Making things even tougher, I usually have in my head a much better wang joke. Alas, everyone who coaches today is required to attend a responsibility seminar—and, although it’s not mentioned specifically, I’ve inferred that I should keep my wang jokes to myself. (Even if they are vastly superior.) (Which they are.)
As the Winter Games approached, our Knights talked non-stop about the Canadian hockey teams—about the pressure to take the gold, the glory of scoring the winning goal. In youth, we see the feats of Olympians and dream of being among the best in the world at something. In middle age, we identify more with the athletes’ parents. The sacrifices they’ve made. The pride and anxiety they must feel in equal measure. The nine hours spent standing bone-cold on a ski hill, muttering: “Why couldn’t she have taken up trampoline?”
Our playoff series would go to the first team to get to four points. The Knights came into Saturday down three points to one, making this a must-win. No problem. Our kids had dominated the previous game, but had been stymied by the two most formidable adversaries known to the hockey player: bad luck and a good goalie.
This game was going to be different, until it wasn’t. Again, we controlled the play, as the Canadian men would do against Sweden. We scored with the goalie on the bench for an extra attacker, as the women did against the U.S. It wasn’t enough. In tying the game, we lost the series, four points to two.
In the dressing room, for the first time all year: silence. The silence of a large group of teenagers may be the quietest silence there is. The head coach had words of consolation. I tried to muster something profound, but everything sounds like a cliché after you lose. (Everything sounds like a cliché after you win, too, but you don’t mind as much.) Some of the kids had tears in their eyes. One kept it together until he saw his parents in the lobby, then went off into a corner and cried.
On Sunday morning, it was coffee, couch, TV coverage from Sochi. It was a triumph of talent and will. It was clinical and satisfying.
After the gold had been won, a TV camera scanned the faces: Marleau, Kunitz, Getzlaf, and then Toews. That’s the one that got me—Jonathan Toews, a.k.a. Captain Serious, who, at 25, has won the World Juniors, twice won the Stanley Cup and now has a second Olympic gold. Old hat, this whole “winning at the highest level” thing. Yet Captain Serious was beaming.
It is the simple truth of sport. Even among the very best, victory can force a smile onto the face of the stoic. And even when you’re just playing on a Saturday night in Stittsville, coming up short can break your heart.