Edmonton Journal

SURVIVAL LESSONS IN THE TRUE NORTH

Lessons from an impossible game played in a cold, difficult country

- DAVID STAPLES dstaples@edmontonjo­urnal.com

It is right and good that in this inhospitab­le country, bombed by snow, pocked by ice, our national pastime is the most impossible of games.

There’s nothing intuitive or easy about hockey, but then there’s nothing intuitive or easy about life in Canada, pinned down as we are each winter by an icy headlock.

What better preparatio­n for a hard land than a fiendishly complex game played on slippery ice?

Of course, all this is instinctiv­ely grasped by hockey parents. It’s partly why in large numbers we enrol our kids in youth leagues, even as the path to hockey excellence is straight up the face of a mountain.

Let’s consider the many thousands of children and teens playing this week in Edmonton Minor Hockey Week, the world’s most venerable minor hockey tournament, and what these youths have encountere­d as beginning players.

First, there’s the equipment. The initial hint hockey is not another simple throw-or-kick-a-ball sport is that to play you must first strap on enough body armour to protect yourself from a kick to the groin, if not a wild animal attack.

Simply suiting up correctly is a routine that takes years for a child to perfect. Socks, hockey socks, padded pants, suspenders, shin, elbow and shoulder pads, can, helmet, padded gloves, mouth guard, neck guard and face shield, and all of it has to fit snugly, even as it can feel kind of funny, itchy and weird to a novice player. The act of dressing a finicky kid for hockey is about as much fun as eradicatin­g a child’s head lice.

Then there’s the hockey stick, which for years most children will hold with one hand when they need two on it, and two hands when they need one. We won’t even get into the complicate­d ritual of stick taping.

At last, feet are wedged into skates, razor-sharp blades attached to hard boots with real laces that need the tying of real knots, a skill as lost to this new generation as cursive writing is.

Your child is now fully dressed, ready for action, or at least ready to pronounce: “I’ve got to go pee.”

Next up, the treacherou­s ice itself and the unnatural act of skating. The novice player steps out and, without thinking, uses the same forward walking or running motion on the ice that they’ve always used on firm ground. On the ice, though, the blade slips, catches nothing, and down splats the player.

A child will go on splatting for weeks, months, years even.

They will splat on faceoffs, breakaways and during puck battles. They will splat coming off the bench, splat coming on. They will do so until they are taught to master the unnatural shape they must contort their body into so as to skate smoothly — knees bent, butt down, back straight, eyes up, legs pushing out to the side, one thrust at a time.

The next impossibil­ity is the puck, the stick and what do with them. A Canadian adult male might be able to fire a puck as if it were a rock zinging from a slingshot, but to a child that puck is big, heavy and daunting.

Get hit by the puck? No thank you.

Raise the puck? Might as well ask a beginning player to raise the dead.

Take and make a pass? Even our elite minor hockey teams struggle to do so.

A final confoundin­g factor is that hockey parents and coaches — and this definitely includes me — are often bewildered by a game we think we know.

Many of us look at our kids, perceive a lack of hustle, and get ticked off: Why can’t they just skate harder?

Uh, maybe because they’re still learning. Maybe because no one has properly taught them yet. And maybe because they don’t know exactly where to go and exactly what to do with their legs and arms and stick when they get there.

This isn’t to excuse any lack of effort. But the hard lesson of hockey, and of a cold and difficult country, is working hard is good, but working hard and smart is better.

There are children blessed with stronger, faster bodies and more revved up on-ice engines than others, but hockey is a sport that rewards competent instructio­n, dogged practice and learned skill.

It’s possible to survive and even thrive in an impossible game and in Canada itself, but not without the right attitude, the right teaching, the right skills. That is what hockey teaches.

 ?? GREG SOUTHAM/EDMONTON JOURNAL ?? Evan Sorenson, 10, listens to his coach and father Kevin Sorenson (not in photo) as his atom tier 2 team prepares for a game Tuesday at the Mill Woods Twin Arenas during Edmonton Minor Hockey Week. Hockey provides kids the ideal lessons for growing up...
GREG SOUTHAM/EDMONTON JOURNAL Evan Sorenson, 10, listens to his coach and father Kevin Sorenson (not in photo) as his atom tier 2 team prepares for a game Tuesday at the Mill Woods Twin Arenas during Edmonton Minor Hockey Week. Hockey provides kids the ideal lessons for growing up...
 ?? GREG SOUTHAM/EDMONTON JOURNAL ?? Evan Sorenson, 10, gets help with his skates from his coach — and father — Kevin Sorenson, as the KC Cougars atom tier-2 team prepares for a game at Mill Woods Twin Arenas Tuesday.
GREG SOUTHAM/EDMONTON JOURNAL Evan Sorenson, 10, gets help with his skates from his coach — and father — Kevin Sorenson, as the KC Cougars atom tier-2 team prepares for a game at Mill Woods Twin Arenas Tuesday.
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