Checks and mates

Dear Hannes,

Last night after you’d fallen asleep, I had one of my hockey games again. We lost, which is never fun, but I scored a goal which is always fun, so all in all, it was more fun than not.

Skating is so much fun. When I was eight or nine, a little older than you now, I used to dream that it’d get so cold in Helsinki that all the streets would freeze over and I could skate to school. Skating was so much more fun that walking, or running. (For some reason, inlines don’t do it for me).

But I did have to to walk to school and back. If I didn’t walk with my best friend, I was always kicking pieces of snow and ice, and after school I’d play ball.

One game at a time.

I really should take you with me sometime, so you would see me play. It’s not great hockey, and I’m not as fast as I once was – still fast enough for those games, though, being the youngest player on my team – but I would like to open that door for you.

People often ask me – knowing that I write about hockey – if you play. And I tell them that you don’t seem to be interested in hockey at all. Remember the time we did go to a game at the Globe Arena in Stockholm? You had a stack of comics with you.

Would I want you to play hockey?

Let’s just say that I am perfectly fine with your not playing. It’s a special world that you need to find out about on your own.

I was eight when a friend of mine told me at school that the local hockey team was looking for players, and that he’d go. I must have told Grandma and Grandpa about it, because the same week I found myself standing at the local market square, waiting for a car to pick me up for the first practice. And after that, I’d be standing there every Thursday, in almost-full hockey gear, with a twenty in my pocket, to pay for the ice time.

A few months into the first season, Grandpa cut a deal with the coach, saying that he’d pay when he came to pick me up, so I didn’t have to have that twenty anymore.

I try to think back, and reach back to those first memories. Why did I enjoy playing so much? Did I? I must have because I always wanted to go back, because I played hockey after school, and because when Grandpa found me another team, I was just happy to play for two teams that spring.

I read about hockey, I wrote about hockey, I watched games on TV – although, at that time, the TV was in black and white, and we only had two channels – and I talked hockey with friends.

So it went. My school year coinciding with the hockey season, years rolled on.

We played, a lot. We traveled across Finland, playing in tournaments all over the place, staying at schools, and hotels, making friends, running around the rinks in almost-full equipment between our own games.

And we won and lost. We collected medals and we collected mental scars. And we watched way too many Chuck Norris movies on the bus.

Of course, it wasn’t all fun. Hockey is a rough sport, and there are certainly things I don’t like about it. There’s a culture, a way of doing things, that is – well – repulsive. It’s a man’s world, with everything that comes with it. The good, but also the bad that is acting macho and being ruthless.

Even as a kid, I heard people, both opposing coaches and spectators, screaming that somebody should “nail that number 17.”

And what may be even more troubling is that at the time, I carried the attention like a badge of honor. I was so good that the other team was ready to do anything to stop me.

Fortunately for you, they didn’t succeed. There was the time when a friend of mine was thrown out of the game for kicking an opponent. I don’t really know if he did, I honestly didn’t see it – and sure can’t remember it now – but what was crazy about it was that nobody on our team had seen it. No coach ever sees his own player doing anything stupid.

Of course they’re lying. And I’m not sure if it’s worth it.

There were coaches I didn’t get along with. Coaches that called me names, coaches who thought I was too small and weren’t shy to tell me that. Plus, when Grandpa was the coach, it wasn’t always such a treat to be the coach’s son. Not even when I did my best, and played well.

People always tell you to make sure you put school first. That’s what I’ll tell you, although I don’t have to, you seem to love it anyway. Well, so did I.

One year, I had a coach who told us after pre-season that that would be the year of “stupid hockey” and that “anybody with a grade point average over 9 wouldn’t play”. (Our scale was from 4 to 10). Only one player had that. He didn’t play much.

And he didn’t like it.

But I still liked the game, so I stuck it out.

I thought hockey was the greatest game on Earth. I thought my friends were funny and witty, I thought the people yelling stupid things in the stands were just a tiny minority, and I thought we were pretty cool.

Especially compared to my friends who played bandy. Hockey was the most popular sport even then.

From where I was standing – or skating – girls seemed to think we were pretty cool, too.

But in high school, I started to hear other voices. People I liked and thought should have known better would come to me and say, “you’re really a nice guy … even if you’re a hockey player”, or, “I can’t believe you play hockey … you’re such a smart guy.”

And they would all talk about fights.

I didn’t understand what they were talking about. Sure, I had seen a lot of fights, but I had never had a fight. Not in the rink, or outside it. Still haven’t. And I guess that’s how you have to look at it. You can’t worry about others, but just make sure you do the best you can, play as hard as you can, and carry yourself so that you (and me and Mom) can be proud.

People will say and do stupid things, and I know you’re smart enough to recognize them and so I hope you’re strong enough to not follow the stupid crowd.

Hockey gave me a lot of friends. My best friends have played hockey with me, and the hockey world keeps sending interesting people my way. Hockey gave me confidence, good times, kept me from getting fat, and it made me appreciate the success of a team effort.

But there are good friends and interesting people everywhere. At school, gymnastics class, your chess club. Hockey is not special in that way. Excelling at anything gives you confidence, and I bet choir singing or theatre also teach you a lot about collaborating with others, both boys and girls.

After my game last night, as I was walking from the hockey rink to our car, I saw a bandy match played on the outdoor ice, and I thought it looked like fun. And I asked myself whether I should push you into playing that. Or hockey. Or whether I should make sure you won’t play hockey.

I don’t know.

Maybe we can go skating tomorrow. Pass the puck around, shoot a bit, maybe play a game of shinny.

That’s always fun.

See if you think so, too.


4 thoughts on “Checks and mates

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