Monday, June 30, 2014

Foul balls.

Several August moons ago, I stormed up to the registration tent at the Nova Scotia Open and tried to remove myself from the tennis tournament.

“What’s the problem?” asked the official.

“My partner is an asshole.” I replied.

“What category are you in?” he asked.

“Parent and Child,” I said.

My child — an otherwise, mild-mannered lad — hates to lose. In what is intended to be a “fun” event at the annual tournament, my refusal to smash the ball at our five-year-old opponent had my doubles partner frothing at the mouth.

Never mind that the adult opponent spared no pace when directing shots at my kid. I just wasn't going there.

Directly after our match, Justin McDonough — son of Alexa, and poster boy for sportsmanship — pulled my little McEnroe aside, and explained why I had done the right thing.

“Winning is not as important as being a decent human being.” he said.

Hearing those words from Justin was the difference between me wrapping my racket around my kid’s neck, or buying him an ice-cream cone.

Later on — in the same Parent and Child category — I watched a father push his own son down and out of the way, so he could smash a winning forehand at the child on the other side of the net.

Evidently, the win-at-all-costs mentality is omnipresent. From the hockey coach who tripped a 13-year-old in a post-game handshake - to the infamous Tour de France - to questionable line calls in junior tennis.  

A recent survey for the British Cricket Foundation found that two-thirds of U.K. children feel under pressure to cheat.

At the inaugural parent meeting in Atom AAA, the coach announced that fair and equal play was his modus operandi — that is, until playoffs, tournaments (or against Sackville) — then he’d be shortening the bench. Any parent who wasn’t OK with that could “find another team.”

Nobody budged. Perhaps parental bragging rights to AAA was more important than pulling splinters out of a child’s butt.

Which explains the fat man yelling, “Pull the goalie!” at the Joe Lamontagne minor hockey tournament in Cole Harbour. The goalie was a little girl who could barely reach the top of the net to grab her water bottle. Sure, the score was lopsided — but this was Atom House League, not the NHL — and she was doing her best.

The fat man eventually stormed out, sparing me the effort of kicking him in the 5-hole. I later discovered that his son was the backup goalie. 

Thus confirming my belief that the misbehaving adult waving the ‘win-at-all costs’ flag, likely carries a suitcase full of squashed dreams.

Heck, no one is more resentful than myself, with parents who ignored my desire to be the next Chris Evert — resulting in me swapping my racket for a bong, at 14.

But eventually, you just have to let it go.

I played a “friendly” game of 21 recently. The mercury was pushing 35C and we had the tennis courts to ourselves. With 21 (and heat stroke) within reach, I asked the cute young pro to fetch us a couple of cold Smirnoff Ices.

My opponent — an otherwise intelligent woman (despite ridiculous porno moans with every stroke) — suddenly conceded, and began muttering insults.

Dumbstruck, I wasn’t sure if she hated life, hated vodka, or simply hated losing to someone who didn’t treat an osteoporosis-preventing game of 21 like a Wimbledon final.

What’s worse is, she made me hate the game — momentarily — and I felt like the little goalie trying to shut out the fat man.

“Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” 

If famed basketball coach John Wooden’s words ring true, then I am a foul-mouthed competitor, with a thirst for fun at all costs.

And at this stage of the game, I’m good with that.

Originally published by the Chronicle Herald.

The power of pink.

Cars spill out onto aptly named Vimy Avenue. Many a war has been fought here, and as we wander through the familiar door, I sense the fight against mould and memory is a losing battle. 

I choke up on so many levels.

I was six when this ol’ barn in Halifax was christened Centennial Arena, and this is where it all began. “It” being my life as a hockey mom. My launch into a foreign society that would become family — albeit dysfunctional — with a cousin or two you would happily run over in the rink parking lot.

In 1967, hockey was the only religion in our Chicago home. My dad dragged us to Blackhawks games, silencing us with cotton candy that I would throw up, faithfully, on the way home. Little girls didn’t play hockey in my world. I wonder what my life would have been like if they had.

Tonight though, we are spectators. My boy is beside me, wishing he wasn’t, and we have come to cheer on the Halifax Hawks midget double-A team — for no other reason than love and support — a little something I picked up along with rink-fry ass.

Tonight, things look like any other hockey game — except for the ponytails, and the provincial championship on the line.

From what I understand, the Halifax girls have their hands full with this corn-fed Annapolis Valley team. And, as fate would have it, this game had a history before it began. Two weeks ago, in double overtime, with a score of 0-0, the power went out.

The hockey community is notoriously quick to point fingers (just ask James Reimer). Crappy officiating. The goalie. The coach. The list is endless. But Nova Scotia Power?

Hockey rules dictated that the entire game had to be replayed. In the ensuing weeks, Halifax used their blackout momentum to upset the Valley in the league championship. But could they keep the sparks flying?

There’s a familiar face behind the Halifax bench. From my perch, I see a tiny patch of bald in what was a full head of hair when he began coaching my child a decade ago. Graham Burgess is a legend in this community. He is the encouraging word to the defenceman who turned over the puck. He is unwavering post-game praise.

While other coaches lead with the grace of Mayor Rob Ford, Burgess guides his troops with civility. Tonight, eyeing my son in the bleachers, Burgess’s smile induces my second wave of nostalgia.

Afterward, I asked Burgess how coaching girls is different. “Girls comprehend a system quicker,” he said. “And their egos aren’t as big.” He believes that “you can push girls, but you have to keep it positive.”

“This is a good thing for any coach to do — with girls and boys." He believes. "We’re managing positive thoughts and feelings to enable your athletes to perform better.”

I now understand why the jump from bantam to major midget was so hard for some boys. It wasn’t the step up in speed and strength. It was the leap from Coach Burgess.

The first documented women’s hockey game was in 1892, but enthusiasm has been skyrocketing since 1998. Last year, 87,230 girls enrolled in hockey across Canada — thanks, in part, to role models such as Hayley Wickenheiser.

I used to love watching Halifax’s Jillian Saulnier outskate the boys, until her career took a successful NCAA turn. Once, while stacking wood at a neighbour’s, Jillian was the first to put down her road-hockey stick and pitch in, working long after the boys quit.

It is that kind of feisty spirit that brings me to the rink.

Tonight, I'm cheering on a kid who “stands out,” according to Burgess, because she’s a “fierce competitor who plays as hard as she possibly can every shift.”

Sophie Kinley also has a smile that could light up a darkened arena.

As fate would have it, Sophie’s efforts weren’t enough to help stave off the vengeful Valley team. Or the ensuing tears.

For a few, tonight would be their last hockey game. The lucky ones will play varsity. Others may coach, referee or join a “wine” league. Some will simply “hang ’em up.”

What these players will never hang up are the life skills and memories gained from hockey. Teamwork. Respect. And a few stories to tell their granddaughters.

Burgess says the “power outage” game was one he will “cherish forever.” A game that exemplified “determination, emotional control and amazing sacrifice.”

Bitter, and lacking those fine qualities, I chirp, silently, “Screw you, Nova Scotia Power.” 

There’s enough sparkle in these players to illuminate the world.

Originally published in the Chronicle Herald. Cindy Schultz is a natural-born cynic who owns her own advertising and branding agency. Her son plays in the OHL.