The New Rink Rats

Originally appeared in The Globe and Mail, Saturday, November 6, 2004  

The New Rink Rats 

Despite predawn mornings shivering rink-side, bad food and sometimes bad manners, more and more mothers are joining Canada's favourite game. Kathy English reports

When Johnny Misley was a young boy growing up in Vancouver, early-morning hockey practices at suburban rinks meant rising at 4 a.m. His newly widowed Mom, Adda, would throw a coat over her pyjamas, drive her son to the arena and stay outside in the cold car to catch a bit more sleep before beginning her day's work.

Though she slept through the practices, the mother of two rarely missed the opportunity to watch her son's games, and many years later, when Johnny was in his 20s and playing professional hockey in Europe, she was in the stands when he scored his first goal. Her son picked up the puck, skated over to her, threw the puck up to her and said, "This is for you mom; for all you did so I could play hockey."

Johnny Misley is now vice-president of operations for Hockey Canada, the governing body for amateur hockey in this country. Not surprisingly, Mr. Misley believes that mothers are integral to the heart and soul of hockey in Canada. "I think the role of hockey moms in Canada is huge," he says. "I coach my two sons' teams and I seem to deal with more moms than dads".

As part of its second annual Hockey Canada Week, which kicks off tomorrow, Mr. Misley's organization is paying tribute to Canadian amateur hockey players and their parents. 

While the hockey rink has long been familiar territory to Canadian dads and the relationship of fathers and sons within hockey is almost mythic (think Wayne and Walter Gretzky), visit any arena in Canada today and you'll find that mothers are actively involved with both sons and daughters who play Canada's game.

Hockey moms have always chauffeured their offspring to chilly, freon-filled arenas, cheered them on from the sidelines and laundered their stinky hockey gear, but they are increasingly stepping up their involvement in the game to serve as volunteer conveners, coaches, trainers and fundraisers. Some moms are joining hockey leagues themselves, a factor in the growth of women's hockey in Canada.

More than 550,000 boys and girls play organized minor hockey in 3,200 arenas across Canada each week of the hockey season. Add to those numbers the thousands of children who play outside official organizations in pickup games at neighbourhood rinks, and the lucky young players who make it to the big leagues, and it's obvious that hundreds of thousands of Canadian woman can classify themselves as hockey moms.

But whether these women choose to regard themselves as hockey moms or simply moms of children who play hockey might depend on the images they themselves attach to the label of hockey mom.

Indeed, our perceptions of them seem to fit two opposing stereotypes: the dedicated saint of a mother who rises at 4 a.m. to get little Johnny to practice and the pushy madwoman who heaves hot coffee on the referee while young players look on -- an image evoked by Hockey Canada itself in the controversial "Relax, it's just a game" ad campaign last fall. 

That campaign was designed to use humour to raise awareness and promote discussion about the dark side of minor hockey characterized by what most agree is a minority of overzealous parents who scream, yell and badmouth other players, coaches and referees and sometimes even their own children. Many hockey families failed to see the humour in the ads and found support in CBC hockey commentator Don Cherry (remember him, pro-hockey-starved fans?) who called the campaign "sickening."

Of course there is truth in both stereotypes, but the vast majority of Canada's hockey moms (and dads) are simply dedicated parents who love their children and hockey.

The lessons about life that can be gained on the hockey rink is an aspect that seems to appeal more to hockey moms than dads, says Mr. Misley of Hockey Canada.

"Moms get so excited by the game and seem to pick up on the values aspect of hockey that comes from being part of a team and having to work hard and be committed," he says. "I knew my mom made so many sacrifices because she knew that when you keep kids active, you help keep them out of trouble. I think many moms understand that even more so than dads".

Michelle Giacometti, a mother of three who manages the Mississauga Jets atom team that her 10-year-old son plays for, finds great joy in her role as a hockey mom even though, with two boys playing hockey, she is in cold arenas almost every day. "To me, hockey is Canada. I bleed red and white," she says. "My boys get so much more out of hockey than just hockey skills. They are learning about life and I love to see them so involved. I'm involved because they are involved." 

An actress and musician, Ms. Giacometti is the co-creator and star of a revue called Schtick on the Ice, a musical comedy by, for and about hockey parents performed by an ensemble cast at hockey fundraisers throughout Toronto's suburbs. To the tune of Irving Berlin's Oh How I Hate to Get up in the Morning, the show pokes fun at the pushy parents who let the screaming and shouting that comes with cheering on your team turn into something ugly.

"Hockey people can get very intense and parents do get right into the zone," Ms. Giacometti says. "We have a song where we're all screaming at the ref, yelling, 'Come on, bash his teeth in,' but it's all in fun and the message is to lighten up and just enjoy the game."

Being a hockey mom seems to be a role that is easy to mock. In an on-line essay titled Hockey Moms: Are they an Endangered Species? Toronto humour therapist Catherine Lawrence pokes fun at the stereotypes associated with her fellow rink side mothers.

"Hockey moms flock together, travel in packs and have been known to bare their teeth at the opposition," writes Ms. Lawrence, whose son, Ben Morse, 15, plays for an AAA team in the Greater Toronto Hockey League.

Ms. Lawrence, a lawyer who now runs a consulting business called Survival of the Funniest, believes that humour is a critical survival skill in life, work, health -- and hockey.

"I am a hockey mom and I can stand on the sidelines hollering with the other moms, but I can own that behaviour and find the humour in it," she says. "After all these years of being a hockey mom, it all cracks me up: The arena food, the arena fashion..."

For the uninitiated, arena food is "a separate category in the Canada Food guide," says Ms. Lawrence, who grew up in a hockey family and played herself during her university days. "It includes beef jerky, cheese glop from a pump bottle and stale buns."

Oakville hockey mom Cheryl Anczurowski took her role one step further -- onto the ice. Last winter, she decided that since her 12-year old son and her husband were so passionate about hockey, she would join in.

"At 36, I thought I was going to be this old lady trying to play hockey, but it turns out that most of the women in our league are women about my age who discovered a love of hockey through their kids," she says. "Now hockey is something we can do as a family and Mark thinks it's great that his mom can play hockey too." 

The more these moms get involved with the game, the more time they need to spend at the arena. But they don't see the extra hours as a sacrifice.

Diana Widell devotes at least 15 hours a week as a hockey volunteer from mid-July through to April. For the past two years, the mother of four has served as convener of her son Ian's division of the Minor Oaks Hockey Association, one of Canada's largest minor hockey organizations. This season, she took on convening duties for the Oakville Hornets, the team that two of her daughters play on. 

Her dual roles keep her at various hockey arenas every Saturday from 7 a.m. through to 8 p.m. During hockey season, rarely a day passes without to-dos connected to hockey. Though hockey was not part of her life growing up in the United States, Ms. Widell now enjoys both the game and the camaraderie she encounters at the arena where everyone knows her name. "People always say this must be such a thankless task and it must kill your social life, but it's great when I walk into the arena and know all the boys and all the parents. Hockey is our social life. I'm in this because I love the kids and I love the game."

Kathy English is a freelance writer in Oakville, Ont.