When did youth sports in America start becoming less about the children playing, and more about the status of the parents watching? This is one of the essential questions at the heart of Rich Cohen’s insightful and incisive new book Pee Wees: Confessions of a Hockey Parent. In this book, Cohen follows his son Micah’s Pee Wee hockey team throughout an entire season, covering an entire year of 50 hockey games that culminate in a state tournament.
The book starts in the month of April, when 11-year-old Micah is selected for the Pee Wee A Ridgefield Bears hockey team by a panel of supposedly non-partial judges. There are several levels to American youth hockey leagues, and and at Micah’s rink they consist of Double A, Single A, A1, and B. Each level signifies a social status. And in Cohen’s belief, his son is talented enough to make the Double A team, but he’s held back by a shadowy bureaucracy made up of board members and coaches who are also the parents of players. As Gordon Campi, another parent of a Single A player says, “If you figure out why the Double As are no good, you’ll understand what’s wrong with the way talent is judged in this country… They say that there are fifteen roster spots, but half of them are filled before the first tryout. They go to the children of the parent-coaches and their pals, or to the sons and daughters of board members. No more than six or seven spots are genuinely in play.”
Many of the children have also been downgraded to the Single A team because they are seen as “bad” or “troublesome” by the coaching staff, but Cohen claims that this supposed weakness is what ultimately winds up giving them their edge over other teams. He describes one of the aforementioned players as “a good kid having a hard time,” and that the entire team has a “Bad News Bears” quality about them. “We’d become a dumping ground for good players with an attitude problem,” he writes. “The experience of being relegated was supposed to teach them humility, but it only pissed them off.” The fact that their team is named the Ridgefield Bears only lends more credibility to this comparison.
This grittiness gives the team their drive to win, carrying them through a season with many challenges, most of them created by the politics of the adult coaching staff. In the regular season the Bears face some truly hilarious and hilariously awful games against hostile teams from other cities, and the behavior of adult fans is quite often worse than anything they face from competitors on the ice. They also travel to a large scale tournament in Lake Placid, the site of the famous Miracle on Ice game in 1980. But the narrative arc bends most compellingly to the final showdown between the Single A Pee Wee team and their ultimate nemesis: the Double As. Many players on the Single A team, not to mention their parents, feel that beating the Double As will show once and for all that the coaches were wrong in their initial assessment, and that many of the Single A players deserve to be on the Double A team.
As a reader, you can’t help but root for the Single A team as the supposedly disenfranchised underdogs. Cohen’s confessional style provides an immersive experience that is utterly relatable. Who among us hasn’t felt as if they were passed over unfairly for a bump up at work or a boost in our personal lives? Who hasn’t witnessed a promotion based on nepotism or bias that has nothing to do with qualifications and been enraged over it? At one time or another all of us have probably felt that the world was stacked against us because of how we dressed or how much money we had in the bank, and Cohen capitalizes on that feeling to great effect. Maybe you grew up on the wrong side of the tracks or you didn’t drive a cool enough car, and that was enough to get you ostracized from the highest social circle. All of these status symbols have become as American as a McDonald’s burger and fries, and all of us have likely felt like an outcast at times because we were told that we didn’t measure up to some sort of arbitrary gold standard.
But the question then becomes: what do you do with that feeling? If you’re the sort of parent that Cohen describes, you take all those frustrations that happen to you throughout your adult life, and you transform it into intense pressure that you then push onto your own children. You try to force them to relive the glory days you may or may not have had, in this case trying to force them to work hard enough to make the Double A team, no matter the cost. You yell at referees during games, and you scream obscenities at other parents in the arena – or worse yet, you scream those obscenities at the children on the ice. And if you’re one of the worst hockey parents, you try to become a coach so that you can give your child preferential treatment and more ice time, even if that means that your team consistently loses because better players sit on the bench while your child skates.
In this way, the confessional yarn that Cohen spins about youth hockey culture becomes an indictment of modern American culture. The ice rink itself is a microcosm of what is going on outside of it, and Cohen sees something very rotten in our current state of affairs. He casts a harsh light on writers like Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, who has written that a person must practice ten thousand hours to truly master a skill. He says the acolytes that Gladwell has created have turned many a parent into a monster who attempts to force their child to practice ad nauseam to achieve that level of “greatness,” sacrificing even their summertime break and their childhood days of idyll in their quest for greater power and status.
Of himself and the other parents who felt that their children were treated unfairly, Cohen writes: “To us, the game is more than a game. It’s a metaphor. When it’s not working, the world itself is not working. The ineffective coaches and favoritism represent the sort of bulls**t that is ruining this country. It’s the universal fix. It’s the parent-coaches taking care of their own. At times, it can seem as if the very concept of team has broken down. It’s every man for himself.” And that is truly what makes Pee Wees such a compelling read. The gossipy, salacious stories about other hockey parents will make you laugh out loud, but the questions Cohen raises about the fabric of American society and what’s truly holding us together are what will linger with you after you’ve finished reading.
Cohen criticizes our personal obsession with our progeny and links our favoritism towards our own tribe with the general decline in American society—all while still acknowledging his own bias towards his son. He tackles corruption and nepotism, and questions why sports teams are now so hyper focused on the more tangible elements like “heights, strength, speed,” and why we have devalued equally important though less obvious skills such as “intelligence, creativity, will”. It is not a far leap from sports to schools, causing readers to question why, for instance, test scores matter more than values like hard work and personal integrity.
Cohen also defends the now old-fashioned notion that you learn more from losing than you do from winning. As Cohen’s father told him when he failed to make the cut to get onto his own youth hockey team, “Life is mostly failure. It’s falling short, getting cut, not making teams. It will happen again. It happens to everyone. All you can control is how you react. Everyone gets knocked down. Some people stay down. Others get up. Which will you be?”
If you’re someone like Cohen’s son, even if you are not picked for the Double A team, you will continue to play, and play for the fun of it, rather than with the hope that you will someday make an NHL team. Even as Cohen wonders to himself “why do I care about this so much?” and finds himself spiraling into a commensurate spiral of depression and rage, his son continues with this attitude of playful passion. Micah loves the locker room banter, his teammates, and the game itself—all of this in spite of being on a team that occasionally suffers from a losing record. It’s a lesson that many adults could learn from, whether we’re parents, hockey parents, or just citizens of the world.
As Cohen’s youth hockey coach used to say whenever they lost: “There’s still a lot more hockey left to play.” Maybe this time, we can play it differently, or perhaps it’s up to our children to take that path. Either way, works like Cohen’s are a powerful impetus to try to do better.