Editor’s Note: This story was first published on March 19, 2015 on NBC SportsWorld
Learn to Play, a youth hockey clinic at Ice House, a popular four-rink facility in Hackensack, N.J., is set to start at 5:15 p.m. It’s a spring weekday in 2014, and I’m driving my 6-year-old son, Pierce, across the George Washington Bridge from Harlem for his first class.
I’m very nervous and a bit frantic about this first session. Traffic on Route 4 could cause us to be late. Did I forget to put a piece of hockey equipment into the new duffel bag? Will my lack of knowledge about hockey be a source of embarrassment for my child?
I have spent the last three days meticulously collecting the equipment for this assignment hatched by my son’s newfound interest in the game. An old colleague from Sports Illustrated loaned us a helmet, gloves, girdle, neck collar, shoulder pads, elbow pads and knee guards.
At Peck’s, a family-owned skate shop in White Plains, N.Y., that’s been in business since 1936, I bought a pair of used skates, a wooden stick, the duffel bag, a mouth guard and a roll of tape for the price of one pair of high-end skates at a New York City store.
* * *
We arrive early at Ice House to a mass of hockey moms and dads preparing their children to go onto the ice. Pierce knows how to put on all of his equipment, but he’s not yet strong enough to lace up his skates. While years of deadline writing had taught me how to perform under pressure, I feel overwhelmed by this task.
The worn tips of the waxed laces make it very difficult for me to fit them into the skate holes. And when I finally do figure out how to tape the ends to create a point, I have trouble finding a comfortable and stable fit for the skates on Pierce’s feet. Finally, a coach steps in to help — sparing me further humiliation and distress.
Pierce enjoys his first lesson — lumbering ungracefully on the ice — but he is committed, ready to take his reluctant dad along for this adventure.
* * *
Before Pierce became inspired by a schoolmate to take up the game last spring, I had never fomented any interest in the game.
I grew up outside of Atlanta, where two NHL franchises have failed. As a child, the closest I came to an ice rink was on family trips to see the Ice Capades, the traveling entertainment show that mostly featured retired Olympic figure skaters.
Yet I was aware of Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers. With five Stanley Cup wins over a seven-year period in the 1980s, the Oilers were hockey’s equivalent of the glamorous Los Angeles Lakers. Gretzky was the game’s biggest attraction and the Oilers’ All-Star goalie, Grant Fuhr — the first black to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame — was for years the only recognizable player of color in the NHL. But he was Canadian, hardly an accessible symbol for a kid raised in the American South, where football is king. At Sports Illustrated, I managed to write about just about every sport, except hockey. Michael Farber, our Hall of Fame hockey writer, was always a pleasure to read, but I knew hockey not for what it was, but for what this fabulous writer made it.
The so-called “Miracle on Ice,” the United States’ upset win over the Soviet Union in the semifinals match of the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., was seemingly implanted in the collective memory of all American sports, no matter one’s relation to the game.
* * *
It’s not that I ever believed that I couldn’t play a sport because of the perception that it was predominantly white. I competed in junior golf tournaments throughout my teen years at all-white country clubs, where often I was one of only two or three African-Americans in the field. Professionally, I have been one of a handful of full-time black golf writers over the last 20 years.
My indifference to hockey was grounded mostly in my lack of a support network in the game. While professional golf is overwhelmingly white, I grew up with a core group of mostly black players, including family members that reinforced my interests in the game. The black faces that I didn’t see in PGA Tour events, I could find in great abundance at the Browns Mills or Alfred “Tup” Holmes golf courses in Atlanta. Located in southwest Atlanta, on the site of a Confederate breastworks during the Civil War, the Holmes course was named for one of the men that helped to force Atlanta to desegregate its public courses in 1955.
My father, Larry Evans, played in a college golf event at this course when he was student at Fort Valley (Ga.) State University in the late 1960s. One of his brothers was one of the first blacks to integrate the public course in Forsyth, Ga., where I lived as a child.
I was fortified by this legacy as I made my way through the world of golf as an amateur player and then a member of the media.
* * *
I considered all this history in those days last spring when I was scrambling to collect Pierce’s hockey gear. What did it mean now for me to confront hockey as a parent, at a time when no one would ever tell their child that they couldn’t play a game because of the color of their skin or that the game was not a part of their culture?
I needed to educate myself about the game. Or at least know how to correctly put on skates, if I was going to be any help to my child.
* * *
Don’t do it,” one dad from Pierce’s school told me. “The early morning practices and the games will take over your life!”
But there was something urging me to pursue hockey, despite these warnings.
In 2012, I met Ted Moran, an investment professional in his mid-forties, who played in an adult hockey league in New York. He was one of the first African-Americans that I met in the city who loved the game. At a time when I was eagerly anticipating the day when my son would start golf and football, Moran was urging me to get him into hockey. Through him, I learned about Ice Hockey in Harlem, a program at Lasker Rink in northern Central Park that began in 1987 with 25 kids. I knew of a couple of kids in the program that split their time between football and hockey.
Four years ago, I met Fuhr during a PGA Tour event in Palm Springs. He lauded programs like Ice Hockey in Harlem as a sign of racial progress in the game. In 1995, the NHL created a diversity initiative that helps support approximately 30 inner-city hockey programs.
Fifty-seven years after Willie O’Ree became the first black in the NHL when he joined the Boston Bruins as a winger, there are approximately 30 black players in the league. P.K. Subban, a Canadian defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens, is perhaps the most exciting, and most hated, player in the NHL.
Subban grew up the way many boys do in Canada. During the winters in Toronto, where he was raised with four siblings by West Indian parents, the 25-year-old Subban skated every day.
“If you want to be an N.H.L. hockey player, you better be really good on your skates, so one of the things I realized was [P.K.] needed to put a lot of time in at a young age,” P.K.’s father, Karl, told the New Yorker in December.
Justin Miller, the father of Grady Miller, the boy that inspired Pierce to take up the game, told me much the same thing last spring.
“You have to put the time in on the ice,” he said. “There is no way around it.”
A marketing executive in the spirits industry, Justin Miller is the consummate hockey dad. He devotes countless hours a year shuttling his two sons to various clinics, practices and games.
“It is a self-selecting passion and lifestyle,” he told me on a day that he was taking his oldest son, Cole, to a three-hour stick handling and power skating clinic. “It’s not necessary to push the rigor to that level to have success at hockey, but it’s something as a hockey Dad that I choose to do as long as the boys want it.
“Ultimately it equates into a significant time investment and a lot of time together as father and son, as a two-man team with each boy.”
Justin shared this very personal reflection with me after rereading a 2013 article by Peter Cheney in the Globe and Mail about the end of his 14 years as hockey dad. “Hockey had defined our lives,” said Cheney, since his son told him at four-years-old that he wanted to play hockey.
“For nearly a decade and a half, we had cruised the road together, “Cheney continued. “We talked. We listened to music. We were father and son, travelling together on a mission that I thought would never end.”
Ultimately, Pierce will decide how long our father-son hockey tandem will last. What’s sure is that the possibilities in the sport for him are far greater than they ever were for me. There is more racial and geographic diversity in the game in the United States than at any point in its history.
Still I’m reminded by the paucity of black faces at Ice House of the whiteness of the game. Yet what matters most is my son’s mastery of the fundamentals of skating, passing, shooting and stickhandling.
As a father there are few things more satisfactory for me than watching his progress as a skater.
I recall Nietzsche in “Thus Spake Zarathustra”: “A man’s stride betrays whether he has found his own way … I love to run swiftly. And though there are swamps and thick melancholy on earth, whoever has light feet runs even over mud and dances as on swept ice.”
* * *
After a year on the ice, Pierce is becoming an adequate skater, but he’s far from moving with the agility and grace of a good hockey player. This winter, he wants to master skating backwards. He won’t make the leap from the Learn to Play clinic to a team until he can meld all of the facets of the game.
His excellent hand-eye-coordination enables him to control the puck well with the stick, but when the puck isn’t commanding his attention, he has a tendency to start skating with his stick off the ice.
Keep your stick on the ice! It’s one of the oldest and most important axioms in hockey.
“Pierce you’re not going to be ready to receive the puck if your stick is off the ice,” I tell him after almost every practice.
His struggle is understandable. It’s easier for him to skate faster with his body more upright and the stick slightly horizontal to his body like he’s carrying a rifle.
As long as Pierce continues to train at Ice House, widely recognized as one of the best youth hockey programs in the U.S., I have no concerns about him growing out of this bad habit or any others. It’s doubtful that he will ever acquire the training regimen that P.K. Subban kept as a child. He will play other sports.
But if Pierce wants to truly improve as a hockey player he has to skate more than once or twice a week. Hopefully, he will grow into a competent player; good enough to fully enjoy the game the way it’s meant to be played.
Ice House is full of parents with lofty aspirations for their children. “Competent” is likely not their primary goal for their boys.
One mother, who told me that she had relocated to another state with her son so that he could play on an elite travel team, has her sights on her son getting drafted and playing in the NHL. She is concerned, however, with his height. Apparently 6’2” isn’t tall enough to play certain positions at the elite levels of the game.
At Ice House, I have seen license plates with Hockey MOM splashed across the front bumpers. The pursuit of hockey is everywhere.
It’s not that parents in other sports don’t embody their kids’ sports activities with the same rigor of some of these mothers that I have encountered at Ice House. Now with year-round activities at the youth level, many sports defend their culture as a way of life. But hockey commands a different level of attention to skill development. Skating needs to become as easy as walking for a hockey player, and it’s not an easy skill to master, unless it’s undertaken at a very young age with vigorous determination and practice.
Ever the optimist that Pierce will stay with the sport, Justin Miller is encouraging us to join a school team in the fall, administered by parents.
“I play hockey but we don’t watch it on TV or go to New York Ranger games,” I recently overheard Pierce tell a friend.
If my son is a little detached from the everyday culture of the sport, it’s mostly my fault. Pierce’s love of football is a reflection of my unfailing dedication to the sport on Saturday and Sundays in the fall.
* * *
Though Pierce often reminds me that I am not his coach and that I don’t know enough about hockey to correct his mistakes on the ice, this journey is for us to share as father and son. We are learning the game together. I want for him what I never sought for myself. Even now as I’ve grown fairly competent with helping him get on his skates properly, I still carry a measure of anxiety on our drives across the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey for the clinics.
Pierce still playfully chides me for fumbling with his skates. “Why is it taking you so long to tie my laces?” he asks.
Perhaps this is all a good thing, because soon these hockey trips will come to an end and he will be headed off to college and adulthood.