In February of 2019, Rich Cohen hit his lowest point as a hockey dad.
His son Micah, 14, was playing for the Pee Wee Bears, a youth hockey team based in Ridgefield, Conn. It was supposed to be a fun way to discover the joys of competitive sports, but instead, it turned into a nightmare.
While playing the Wild Haven Wombats at the Winter Garden Ice Arena in Ridgefield, the opposing team came after the Pee Wees “like the Jets in ‘West Side Story,’ all elbows and slew foots and cross-checks,” writes Cohen in his new memoir, “Pee Wees: Confessions of a Hockey Parent” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), out now.
“I got credit-carded,” Micah complained to his dad during a break in the game.
“What does that even mean?” Cohen asked.
“A kid’s skate blade went up my butt,” his son said.
But the violence isn’t what troubled Cohen. What shook him to his core was that his son’s team was losing.
Growing up in Libertyville, a farming town north of Chicago, Cohen played hockey as a kid “because there was little else to do.” His father was disinterested, only coming to see him play on rare occasions.
Cohen set out to be a more caring and supportive hockey parent. But the game had changed since he was a kid.
“Parents have remade the game in the image of the adult world, turned it into work,” he writes.
The reasons have less to do with how this benefits kids than what it does for adults.
“It’s status,” Cohen told The Post.
You’re treated differently by other parents if your kid is a star on the rink. There are even social cliques where parents of less successful players are excluded. When their kids are picked for an elite team or make a winning score, “parents get a boost and feel better about themselves.” Even though “almost none of these kids will even play in college. This is it.”
A youth hockey season typically lasts for eight grueling months, fifty games played from August to April, culminating in a state tournament. And competition to get on a team is fierce — hundreds showed up for the Pee Wee hockey tryouts, but only a handful were offered slots on a team.
The Pee Wee parents Cohen knew ran the gamut — there was a beer importer, an FBI agent, a dental hygienist, and a French physicist — but they shared a singular focus on their kids being the best. Some screamed openly at coaches, refs, and sometimes their own children.
Cohen particularly remembers a private-equity guy called Parky Taylor. After one game, Parky sat alone in a McDonald’s and devoured a stack of cheeseburgers to console himself, while his son, Duffy, waited in the car. Although the Pee Wees had won, Parky was upset that Duffy hadn’t stood out. “His eyes were full of suffering,” Cohen writes. “It was a pain I knew intimately, but would never admit to anyone with real problems.”
The youth hockey parent is a growing phenomenon. Whereas participation in youth football has fallen, youth hockey has jumped. In 2019, close to 600,000 kids across the country signed up — a 100,000-plus increase over the last two decades. Part of it is fears over concussions and long-term head trauma. Most kids no longer have the attention span for baseball, and basketball is too dependent on height. Hockey has it all — a physical workout that anyone can play.
“A kid can spend the entire day on the football field without touching the ball,” Cohen said.
But with hockey, if they’re on the ice, they can get to the puck.
Although Micah’s team made it all the way to the state tournament, the Pee Wees lost in an embarrassing 11-to-1 defeat. After the game, some parents confronted the coach, blaming him for excluding their children and costing them the game.
“You humiliated them,” one parent screamed.
It was then that Cohen realized the damage they had done. Parents and coaches had “remade the team in the image of the grown-up worldmade the game resemble their own lives, “breaking its spirit with the weight of their adult needs. But if you asked the kids, they’d tell you that all of it, even the losing, had been fun.”
Micah said as much, after he learned he wouldn’t be advancing to a more top-tier team. During a ride in the car, Cohen asked him:
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
“Not much,” Micah replied.
Micah just shrugged.
“Because no matter where they put me,” he told his dad, “it’s still hockey.”