Becoming an Irish ‘ice-hockey dad’ in Massachusetts
Father’s Day: I’ve put their skates on the wrong feet and sent them on the ice without pants, but it has been quality father-son time
Sean’s son Eoin (number 5, second from right) in Boston with the CRLS (Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School) team.
I don’t know why I wanted Eoin to try ice hockey, especially after his American-born mum insisted I was the one who would be rising at 5am to take him to the rink. Maybe it was just a novelty, something I never had the chance to try myself.
Whatever it was, I was determined to drag the 5-year-old out of bed and bring him half asleep to the beginners’ instructional hockey programme in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
And so it began, every Saturday morning like clockwork, with the temperature well below freezing, I’d start the process of feeding and dressing him, both at the same time; two mouthfuls of cereal to one item of hockey equipment. Wrapped up like the Michelin man he’d stumble out the door with skates in hand and a piece of toast in his mouth, often walking straight into a snowbank.
As the weeks went by the cereal bowl came with us. The trip to the rink got messier, and the smell of dried milk in the car more intense.
He looked so cute on the ice; the time he spent on the ice that is. Being a physically sensitive child, every piece of clothing seemed to itch or not fit. Maybe it was because it was donated equipment, but more likely was his dad’s total ignorance of how hockey equipment is supposed to be layered on.
As I settled with my usual morning coffee, the double doors to the ice would stir, then shake a little, before Eoin would push through and sit on the bench in the warm viewing area, swinging his legs to and fro.
“Is everything ok?”
“The skates are tight.”
“Are the boots hurting?”
“Dad they are not boots,” was the whispered reply.
Later I was told, out of earshot of players and parents, to never ever call them boots again.
“They’re not Irish football boots Dad - they’re ice skates!”
And so it continued for the first year at instructional hockey. Years two and three were not much better, but when Eoin was asked to join a team called the Cambridge Mites, his eyes lit up.
The first game was in Waltham MA, not far from Cambridge. It was scheduled on the same morning as a major snow storm, called a “nor’easter” in these parts. I got a strange reply when I called the rink to check if the game had been cancelled. “No we don’t cancel hockey games.”
So off we set at 5.45am for the 7am game. I was the only fool on the highway driving through the storm with snow falling at 5cm per hour. For the first time I began to question my reasoning for participating in this sport. I imagined news reports in Ireland announcing some poor Irish emigrant found abroad in a snowdrift, knocked out by a pair of loose hockey skates.
Crawling at 20km per hour we eventually made it safely to the rink, and to my amazement everyone was already there, drinking coffee and chatting away. Off Eoin went onto the ice for his first ever real game, as the team’s number 47. It was so exciting to see him with the puck and holding his own.
Suddenly there was a rap on the glass. It was Eoin. Off the ice he came.
“Dad, the skates.”
“What about them?”
“Dad the skates are on the wrong feet.”
“No they can’t be.”
“YES THEY ARE.”
I got a stern look from the Cambridge parents as I quickly swapped and re-laced them. What a difference it made. The boy could really skate now.
We persisted with the early morning training sessions, and I can happily say - with the exception of the odd major slip up - I think it was a success. The turning point was the eureka moment when I realised the wisdom of keeping two of every piece of hockey equipment (helmet, gloves, stick, socks, pants, mouth guard and laces) in the back of the car for emergency replacements.
It was all going well until it came to the turn of my second child Henry to participate in what I liked to think was becoming a great family sporting tradition. Henry was not as sensitive to the equipment (and I was by now a much more experienced assistant), but was more interested in the vending machine at the rink than the ice hockey itself.
One morning as I leaned over the ice barrier to talk to his coach he mentioned, with a smile, that there is a kid on the ice without any protective hockey pants. “We get all sorts in the city,” I smiled.
I looked at Henry with his beautiful red hair, skating away; how tall and slim he looked compared to his teammates. Wow, I thought, he must be entering a growth spurt.
When he came off the ice that I noticed the reason he looked so svelte. He had no hockey pants under his jersey - just his shorts! This totally slipped by me in the wee hours of the morning. I quickly made a detour from the vending machine to the bathroom with Henry in tow and slipped on his fat hockey pants.
Nobody’s the wiser, I thought, until my wife came home from the rink the following week, asking how I let Henry onto the ice without pants. I realised then why the coach was smiling; he knew he was talking to the offending parent.
Cambridge Youth Hockey has been a wonderful addition to the American experience for this dad, but the ice hockey itself has been of secondary importance. When I first engaged with the coach he set my expectations straight:
“Very few if any of these players will make it to college or professional hockey.”
But all I wanted was Eoin to make the Irish team. How hard could that be in ice hockey? If he could achieve this I’d be a happy hockey dad, and all those early mornings dragging the poor boy out of bed would have been worth it.
But of course, the real unexpected pleasure of those early hockey days with Eoin was the time we spent together, commuting back and forth to the rink; precious time spent discussing school, parties, sport and anything that popped into his inquiring mind as we sped along the quiet city streets. This was our alone time, father and son. In years to come I hope he remembers this time, and not the embarrassing boot fiasco.