"When Being Hockey Crazy Meant No Time For Dinner"

One afternoon when I was about 11 or 12 years old, I was in the kitchen gulping down a soup and sandwich when I overheard my parents, who were in the living room, talking to one of their friends about me. They obviously didn’t realize that I was within earshot. My father described me to his friend as being “hockey crazy”.  

Robert Kirwan, Publisher of After The Whistle reflects upon what hockey meant to him while growing up. 


One afternoon when I was about 11 or 12 years old, I was in the kitchen gulping down a soup and sandwich when I overheard my parents, who were in the living room, talking to one of their friends about me. They obviously didn’t realize that I was within earshot. My father described me to his friend as being “hockey crazy”.

Back then, I took what my father said as the ultimate compliment. I finished my lunch and then hurriedly picked up my worn out  stick and went outside to join a dozen or so of my buddies for the second half of our ‘four-hour road hockey game’.

Normal everyday things like lunch, dinner and homework simply got in the way of our games. The dreaded “Bobby, it’s time to eat” became such a game killer that eventually most mothers learned that family gatherings at dinner time would have to be put off until after hockey season. Either that, or they would have to co-ordinate dinnertime with all of the other ‘hockey moms’ on the street. Even the term ‘hockey mom’ had a different meaning back in those days.

Most of the guys in the group also played on “organized teams” back then. A few of our games were even played ‘indoors’ at the old Copper Cliff Arena. That was a big treat for us to get to skate on artificial ice, out of the wind and snow. A good season would consist of about 16 games (including playoffs), and we were all happy with that, because as far as we were concerned, the most important hockey games were played on the street with a tennis ball.

We even played some games against friends from the other side of town. It was quite a sight to see ten or twelve of us march down the street like little soldiers with our sticks in hand to take on the guys from “across the highway” in my hometown of Lively, Ontario. When we had a lot of players show up for the game we would sometimes play in a grass field so that we had room for everyone to play at once. It wasn’t unusual to have twenty four kids on the field at once, and we didn’t need any adults telling us which position to play. It just happened. There was no way you would ever see a bunch of guys all running for the ball. We know how to spread out and pass the ball to our teammates in the clear.

I remember one time playing on the golf course behind my house. It was late in the fall and there were no golfers playing any more. We played on the 1st green because it was so flat. I have since turned into an avid golfer, and it makes me break into a cold sweat every time I think of that day and what I would think if I saw kids doing that today. Needless to say, it wasn’t very good for the green.

One thing that I didn’t even pay any attention to at the time, is that no one really talked much about our ‘organized games’.  Upon reflection, it was kind of strange that we didn’t say much about the big games when we were in our proud uniforms and played on the “team”. We would go to the game at the arena and then come home and immediately hit the road for the big game of the day. The one with no clocks; no coaches; no line changes; and no referees. I also recall that there weren’t many parents at our league games. Mine always came, but aside from a few fathers in the stands who were more interested in talking with their friends about work, there wasn’t much noise or shouting. It was simply a game of hockey with rules, line changes and skating around on a big ice surface, just like they did every Saturday night on Hockey Night In Canada.

I wasn’t much of a ‘real’ hockey player when I was young. I played house league, but that was pretty much all there was at the time. I was small for my age and many of the others were much larger and faster. I never seemed to worry about my safety during those days, and that makes me wonder a bit since I was smaller than many of the other players and our equipment wasn’t very protective. We just played on the team and had fun.

It wasn’t until I “made” the high school junior team that I experienced something that, for the first time in my life, made me feel bad about playing hockey.

High school hockey was extremely big back in the 60’s. When you were on the high school team, you were really someone! I’m sure I only made the team because the coach had to keep most of the people who tried out. There were a few people cut from the team during tryouts, but I loved practices and thrived on scrimmaging with my teammates. I was one of those kids who looked good in practice, but when it came to games, it was a different story.

In any event, when I saw my name on the list of players who made the final cut and went to pick up my sweater, socks and pants, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. The next time I ever recall feeling like that wasn’t until the day that I picked up my son’s traveling team sweater after being informed that he was selected to play on the elite level club. Come to think of it, I think it was me who grabbed the sweater from the trainer first and then turned it over to my son. It was as if I was reliving my high school days all over again. As you will see later on in this book, there is some significance to this and it has a lot to do with what is wrong with hockey today.

Once the high school hockey season began, however, my bubble burst and I would often find myself sitting on the bench with the other two players on the 4th line, watching the top three lines taking their regular shifts. I had felt disappointment in my life before that, but it was the first time in my life that I had ever felt the pain of public humiliation. And as unbelievable as it sounds, I was being humiliated in the sport that I had loved from the time I could hold a hockey stick.

It was my first experience with elite hockey, and I quickly discovered that everyone is not treated equally when it comes to ice time at this level of the sport. The better players on the team got the most ice-time and our line, the fourth line, got on the ice perhaps two or three times a game for short shifts. There were some games when I didn’t even get to play at all.  It got so bad that I didn’t even tell my father when our games were scheduled. The odd time when he came to the game I felt bad for him because I knew that he was in the stands with some of the other parents of the better kids and I always thought he must have been embarrassed to let them know which number I was wearing. My father was a supervisor at work, so he enjoyed an elevated status in the community. I felt that my low status as a hockey player was embarrassing to him and letting him and our family down. He never, ever gave me any indication that this was what he actually thought, but it was how I felt and it hurt me deeply inside to think that I was a disappointment to this man who had called his son, “hockey crazy” only a few years earlier.

Many years later, I found myself in the stands watching my own children on the ice. This time, however, I was the one who was bursting with pride because my sons were all gifted hockey players. They weren’t NHL material, but they were always among the best on their teams. They were the ones who were put on the ice during the final minute of play. They were the ones making the big play. They were the ones the other parents cheered. I felt that my personal status as a father was greatly enhanced as a result of the abilities of my children. Their success was my success. It didn’t take me long to enjoy living vicariously through my sons. It felt good.

The one thing that kept me ‘grounded’ through all of this was that I couldn’t help but notice the parents of the kids who were third-liners. These were parents of the kids who seemed to always make the crucial mistake which caused a goal; the kids who just couldn’t keep the puck on their stick; the kids who never played on the power play, never killed penalties, and heaven forbid that they would ever touch the ice with less than five minutes remaining in the game.

When these parents mingled with others in the lobby, they stayed out of conversations that were about the plays of the game or about the way the players performed. They wanted to talk about anything else except the game. It was as if they didn’t want to be reminded about the insignificant contributions their children made to the team. My thoughts often drifted back to my own days on the high school team, wondering if that was how my own father felt when he spoke to the other parents. I also noticed how the parents of the better kids were always talking about the plays their own children made. It was as if the rest of the world didn’t matter. What did matter is that their own child played a fantastic game and they wanted to talk about it to anyone who would listen. Before the season was very old, the parents of the four or five weaker kids seemed to drift off by themselves, staying away from the main group.

One thing I always remember is that during my high school hockey playing days I was still one of the best road hockey players in town. I could out-perform all of the bigger and better players from the 1st and 2nd lines with no problem. No one could handle a ball on snow and in boots like I could. Even when we played shinny hockey on skates without equipment on the outdoor rink, I would shine. I could handle the puck, pass the puck and make all of the plays with the best of them. Whether it was on boots or on skates, when we were playing for fun among friends, I excelled. When it came time to pick teams, I was always picked first or second (if I wasn’t already a captain) and I always played a significant role scoring tons of goals and often-making game winning plays. All I can remember is that I had a great time and a whole lot of fun. We didn’t care if the score was 48 to 42 or if the series was 12 games to 10 when we played games up to five - we just had fun.

But as soon as I put on the team uniform and stepped on the ice to represent Lively High School, it was a whole different situation. There, I sat in humiliation on the bench while the others played. But I couldn’t quit. That would be worse. Winning games meant nothing to me. As a matter of fact, I almost hated winning. We had a good team, but the odd time we lost I would feel a bit of personal satisfaction and fantasize that perhaps if I was on the ice things might have turned out better. We won the city championship that year, and I had to suffer the shame of being congratulated by people at the school even though I knew I had contributed nothing to the win.

I only played one year on the high school team. I didn’t even try out the next year. People asked me why, especially my father, but I simply shrugged off the questions and stated that I didn’t have time. I remember that it was shortly after that year on the high school team that I stopped playing road hockey. Perhaps it was because I was getting older, or that there were other things to do, but the ‘road hockey gang’ just seemed to lose interest in being together. The game of hockey was changing and we couldn’t quite figure out why.

On a brighter note, I didn’t just drop out of hockey altogether. I decided to become a referee. It was great and I must say that I was very good at it. I seemed to have just the right attitude and a special gift for managing a game. I even got back into the high school league – this time as a linesman. We only had one linesman and one referee in those days. And it was usually the visiting team that had to provide the linesman. I was the one who was selected to accompany the Lively High School senior team on road trips. What a feeling? I would actually ride the bus to the game with the players and they all genuinely respected me for what I was doing. Imagine. To these star hockey players I was someone special because I was doing something that was different. There was only one linesman on the ice and that person was me. There were plenty of players. I don’t think I even got paid for those games, but I felt like I was on top of the world. I was still in hockey, and I was a somebody again!

My father was often in the stands watching me referee in the house league in Copper Cliff. After the game I would meet him in the lobby and everyone would make a big fuss about the good job I was doing. They would stop what they were doing and talk to me about the game, asking questions and treating me like I was an expert. I could tell by the look on his face that my father was extremely proud, and it certainly made me feel good about myself knowing that he felt that way. He would often be teased good-naturedly by his friends who would joke with him about being the only person they knew who came to games to cheer for the referee.

I know my father loved this attention because, once again, years later I found myself in exactly the same situation.  All three of my sons stopped playing organized hockey when they entered high school. They got into other school sports, but they all continued to referee. And they are all gifted referees. I know I seem to overuse the term gifted, but there is no other word to describe their ability to manage hockey games.

It is kind of ironic. I was identified as being hockey crazy early in my life. I had three sons who were all extremely talented hockey players. I discovered a place in hockey as a referee, and all three of my sons became excellent referees. Co-incidence? Is it in the genes? Who knows?

But I do know that I get as much, if not more pleasure from watching one of my sons referee a game as I did from watching them score goals as players. It is nothing for me to drive three hours to watch a game that one of them is refereeing or lining. When Marty went to Kingston to line his first out-of-town game in the Ontario Hockey League, my wife and I drove seven hours to be in the stands for the game. And anyone who spoke to me that night, from the ticket agent, to the concession stand girl, to the people sitting beside us, knew who my son was. When Warren refereed his first Junior A hockey game in Espanola, my wife and I were there. And anyone who I talked to knew who my son was. I loved every minute and the distance didn’t matter.

But there is a dark side of this story as well. Ryan, my oldest son, has remarkable skills as a referee. But he regretfully had to hang up the skates when he graduated from university to start a career as an independent financial advisor. In his words, “I can’t have my clients hearing disgruntled hockey parents calling me an idiot or worse, and still expect to have their confidence in my ability to handle their finances. I also don’t want to risk having a client take his business away from me because he is upset with the way I referee his son’s hockey game.” This saddens me as a father, because I know how much he enjoyed the game.

During the summer of 2002, we had a family meeting that included myself, Marty, Warren and Ryan. We decided to create a web site called ‘After The Whistle’. Our goal with this web site was to help parents, players, coaches and fans in general gain an appreciation for the game of hockey that would allow them to develop an improved attitude towards the sport. It is our opinion that a lack of understanding of the basic fundamentals of the game itself is the root of most of the problems that have infected the sport today.

As you may have noticed as I have rambled on, many of the problems in hockey today have been with us for many years. The gradual loss of enjoyment once you enter the world of organized hockey has always been there. However, today we see kids losing that enjoyment even in house league. The impact players have on their parents, and vice versa is still there, but the parents are much more vocal and the kids seem to be under much more pressure. I have also noticed that as the problems in hockey have escalated in recent years, the number of road hockey games seems to have declined.

We have even created an Online Book as part of this web site. It is called "For The Sake of The Game". This book is an extension of ‘After The Whistle’.  We hope we give you food for thought about your role as a parent, coach, player or fan. This book will certainly not answer all of your questions. In fact, when you finish reading the final chapter, you may have more questions than when you began. They may not be the same questions, but I can assure you there will be questions.

We are hopeful that this book raises awareness and creates an enhanced level of appreciation for minor hockey which will enable you and your children to get much more enjoyment from the sport.

My personal objectives are quite clear. Some day, I want to look out my window and see my grandchildren playing road hockey with a dozen or so of their buddies. And I want to chuckle to myself when I see how many times it takes for their mother to convince them that they should take a break to eat.

We hope that you return to our online book and this web site many times during the season.  Above all, we hope that it can, in some small way, make the game of hockey just a little bit better for you this year.  

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