Carrots and sticks

Often, when I try to explain something to a friend or Wife, I find myself drawing analogies to hockey. It seems like such a simple way to make sense of the world. Not that it always is that, like when I try to explain the euro crisis drawing parallels to no-touch icing, but sometimes it is.

A hockey rink is a miniature version of the world – because there’s a mix of all kinds of people, and, hey, we are the world.

These are the sticks.

At the rink where I spent a big chunk of my high school years, there were two friends, T and J. The best thing about the two friends was that they were always there. They were there when the kids younger than me played, they were there when my team played, and they were there when the men’s team played. Hanging around the rink, in the cafeteria, sitting in the stands, seeing everything, and making their best to hear, and know, everything about everything.

It wasn’t unusual to see a group of people standing in the cafeteria, talking, and then see T sidle up to them, stopping just a couple of steps from the group, looking the other way, but listening to every single word that was said. And of course J was there, another two steps removed from T.

T was a skinny one, J a little rounder, and I guess both were in their forties back then.

Either way, they were friends, they were hockey buddies and I always imagined they were either workmates, or that they lived in the same facility because they always showed up at the same time and because both T and J were mentally challenged.

They were also each other’s polar opposites and while I didn’t understand it then, I now realize that they taught me something about the art of motivating people.

T and J were like the devil and the angel we always see sitting on people’s – or possibly, say, ducks’ – shoulders in cartoons. They used both the carrot and the stick with the players and coaches.

One of them, T, the one who had been a fan longer, was the devil. He was the pessimist, the one whose light at the end of the tunnel was always that of an oncoming train, he was the dark cloud hanging over the heads of all the players of the club in all the games he watched. “That’s not going to work out,” he’d say.

J was the silver lining of the cloud, the sunshine, the eternal optimist. He was the one who’d wait for you just outside the locker room, and then pat you on the back, and then the next player, and then the next, as the players walked out to the ice. On some days, he would just follow me and pat my back all the way from the locker room to the ice. Sometimes, on non-game days, all the way from the cafeteria to the stands, just because that’s what buddies should do.

T could be mean, too. Because he was always at the rink, and because he did hear what people were talking about, he did know a lot of stuff, and even if he didn’t always make the right conclusions, he did find a way to get to you.

“Yeah, well, you got a couple of points the other day, but it’s gone to your head. You’ll lose today. Sure you wanna win, but it ain’t ever gonna happen,” he’d say, never looking directly at you, always talking to the walls.

“Oh, come on, T, maybe the kid’s on a roll. Right?” J would say then, with a big smile on his face.

“Ain’t gonna happen. He’s too weak. Look at him. He should go to the gym, but he’s afraid he’ll get killed. Too weak,” T would say, and walk away a little, then spin around and walk back.

“No, no, he’s strong. And fast,” J would say and then tell me that we’d surely win the game, because he just knew it.

“We’ll just see, I guess,” I’d say and walk towards the locker room.

“He’s just too weak,” I’d hear T tell J behind me. And then he would repeat it a little louder to make sure I heard it, too. “TOO WEAK! NOT GONNA END WELL!”

I’d laugh, but I’d also grit my teeth and go out ready to prove everybody wrong. And while I walked out to the ice, J was there to give me a pat on the back.

Then T and J would go to the stands and watch another game. And win or lose, they’d be there after the game, too. And the next day. With their carrots, and their stick. The pat on the back and the kick in the shin.

How does that make you feel?