By Tim Whyte
When our son Luc was little, just learning to play hockey, my wife and I told him there was one thing most important about hockey:
To have fun.
Regardless of the score, or whether he scored a goal, and so on. And in those early years, he was almost militant about having fun. The kid took it to heart.
One weekend, when Luc was 4 or 5, I was helping out as a “dad coach” in a clinic at the old Ice-O-Plex in North Hills, which was the L.A. Kings’ training facility at the time.
The coach running the clinic was Igor, who played professionally in Russia. He was really good at hockey. He was an old-school Russian who grew up behind the Iron Curtain. Thick accent, broken English, no-nonsense guy.
The 4- and 5-year-olds in this clinic had gotten a little… distracted. They were being kids, goofing off and not following along with Igor’s drills. So he blew the whistle and gathered the kids.
Once they all took a knee to listen, Igor posed a question.
“Who can tell me,” he said, in a booming voice that sounded like it emanated from the Kremlin itself, “when you are trying to be better hockey player, what is most important thing?”
Uh-oh. I tried telepathy to my kid: “Don’t raise your hand. Don’t raise your hand. Don’t raise your hand…”
I hadn’t warned Luc about the Russians’ philosophy on hockey.
Damn. Telepathy sucks. The kid raised his hand.
Igor pointed to Luc, and my boy answered, in his high-pitched, sweet, American kindergartener voice, summoning all the innocence of youth:
“To have fun!!!”
There was no pause. No condescending pat on the back of the head. Igor responded with a swipe of his arm, almost as if to dismiss the sickening running-dog capitalist thought my little boy had dared express.
“NO!” Igor said. “Most important thing is DISCIPLINE!”
Then, on the way home, in the car, from the back seat:
“Dad, what’s ‘discipline’?”
It was just one step on my son’s hockey journey. Soon, I would be coaching him in youth leagues at Ice Station Valencia and then, for a couple of seasons, in travel hockey. Around the time he turned 10, my shelf life as a “dad coach” expired. Once the kids get to a certain point, “dad the coach” faces almost insurmountable challenges. First, you get accused of favoring your kid. Second, you overcompensate by actually NOT favoring your kid, even if he’s one of the best players. And third, once the kid reaches a certain level of proficiency, there’s not much you can teach him anymore.
So the kid went on his journey through youth hockey, playing a few years under professional coaches for the L.A. Junior Kings in El Segundo and then a few more years back up here in Valencia.
Through most of those years, I continued to play in the beer leagues. Luc was playing high-level travel hockey — about 50 to 55 games a year, with a heavy road schedule to far-off destinations in the Midwest, Canada and the East Coast — and all it took for me to “take a season off” from the beer league was one minor elbow injury. There was just so much going on, and I was banged up…
One season off turned into two… and so on… next thing you know, I haven’t skated in eight years.
When Luc finished youth hockey, it was on to junior hockey — which is kind of a semi- semi- semi-pro experience, for players through age 20. They play with full NHL-style rules (yes, there’s an occasional fight) and most of the guys aspire to play either in the pros or U.S. colleges, or both.
For three years after high school, we watched Luc play in the Western States Hockey League, which has about 30 teams in the Midwest, Southwest, the Rockies and the Northwest. We were fortunate because Luc, unlike most juniors, got to play for his hometown team, the Flyers right here in Valencia. He had a few teammates from Southern California, but most were from elsewhere — the U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway, Sweden. It’s entertaining hockey, and in his years with the Valencia Flyers they were a contending team, even compiling the league’s best regular-season record in his final season.
Once juniors ended, it was time for the boy to go off to college. Now, he’s playing for the University of Oklahoma (Boomer Sooner!), which competes in the top division of the American Collegiate Hockey Association. He’s going into his senior year this fall, and I consider his hockey adventure a success: He’s not headed to the NHL, but after all these years, he never burned out, he used hockey to help leverage a great education, and he still loves the game.
But, until a few weeks ago, there was one thing that had never happened: Luc and I had never played together, on the same team.
Right about the time Luc was taking final exams at OU this spring, my phone rang, and it was an old friend, Dan Melnick, who played hockey with my dad way back in the early-1970s. I had played in Dan’s leagues at a couple of different rinks over the years, and he asked if I’d be interested in playing in a new old-timers’ league he was putting together in Valencia.
The clincher? Dan said I could bring Luc, too. After all these years, we would have a chance to play together.
I hadn’t been on the ice in eight years. I’d gotten woefully out of shape. But this was too good to pass up. So, about three weeks ago, Luc and I played our very first game together.
Being perfectly honest, I can’t skate even 50 percent as well as I could eight years ago. I’m doing well if I can get up and down the ice twice before I have to get off and suck wind for a couple minutes. But I’m working on it.
The reactions I’ve gotten from family and coworkers have been amusing. When I told my dad I was going to get back on the ice (Happy Father’s Day, Dad!) he said something along the lines of, “What position are you going to play? Pylon?”
Comedians run rampant in my family.
Similarly, Signal Sports Editor Haley Sawyer said, with incredulity, “What position do you play? Goalie? I don’t know, you just LOOK like a goalie…”
I’m sort of a forward. Can’t skate well enough to play defense. I’d told my son that if he waits long enough, I will get open for a pass in front of the net. Fortunately, he’s really good at hockey, so he can hang onto the puck for a LONG time while I make my way down the ice and get into position. By our second game, it happened: Luc had the puck on the right wing, held onto it long enough to make a nice pass to me, through traffic, right onto my tape, and I managed a one-timer right into the net.
The next week, he set me up again. And one of our other teammates set me up for a second one. And then, as far as I can tell, I got credit for a third goal that bounced into the net off my foot, leg, butt, or other random body part.
A hat trick. Three goals in one game. Hey, they don’t ask, “How?” They ask, “How many?”
The next night, we were at dinner to celebrate my daughter’s and nephew’s graduation from Saugus High. I was across from my mom (belated Happy Mothers’ Day, Mom!) and told her about my hat trick. My mom, like my dad, grew up in Canada. She knows hockey, and she knows how tough it is, at any level, to get a hat trick. And when I told her, she responded:
“YOU got a hat trick???”
Yes. My mom said it with “YOU” in all caps and three question marks at the end. And yes, I teased her about it. What’s really funny is, she wasn’t trying to give me a hard time. It was just her involuntary natural reaction.
Good times. Whatever happens the rest of this summer, I already have memories I’ll cherish, because after all these years, I finally got the chance to play hockey with my boy, and there’s nothing like that feeling — even in the beer league — of having your kid put the puck right on your tape for an easy tap-in. But it wouldn’t matter if I scored or not, because of all the laughs we’re having from the beginning of the game to the end, and beyond.
Yep. It’s fun. And that’s the most important thing about hockey. No matter what Igor says.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter: @TimWhyte.