Sam Weinman

The perfect season

Sam Weinman
The perfect season

We spend more time with hockey in our family than I care to admit.  And not just hockey games, but everything: hockey practices, and hockey camps, and driving to hockey rinks. And then driving back home from hockey rinks because someone forgot a shin pad and it’s actually in mom’s car. We watch NHL games, and college and high school games, and we scour the Internet for highlights of dangles and snipes. I coach our boys, so I email and text with other coaches about practice plans and lineups, and one of our 9-year-old left wing’s improving wrist shot. Later I’ll peek online to see whether the team we play on Saturday has played any of the teams we’ve already played.

I am unapologetic about my love of hockey but my time management could use some work.

My kids don’t go to enough museums.

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There have been books written about the outsized importance youth sports have in our culture, and the “road to nowhere” we all seem to be traveling. This is not the part where I disagree. I’m fairly certain my kids won’t make the NHL (I’m counting on them not reading this), and every hour we spend in frigid rinks with bad lighting and questionable air quality is an hour they could be learning the cello, or cleaning out the garage, or navigating unstructured time without an adult directing them where precisely to be and when. I get it. I really do.

But I also know hockey offers more than most people can appreciate. It teaches in all the classic character-building ways we hear about in movies—resilience, and teamwork, and the value of hard work. But even in more granular ways, the game teaches–about our use of time and space; about the laws of diminishing returns; about the balance between risk and reward.

Hockey teaches that you can drive directly at a goal, but there are times when you’re best suited lurking around the edges. Hockey teaches that if everyone is doing the same job at once, some other job is being neglected. It reminds you to not spend too much time looking down at your toes or you risk missing an opportunity, or worse, ending up on your ass.

I lean too heavily on hockey metaphors because I find hockey illustrates life in ways that everyday life rarely can. The pushing and pulling of trying too hard and not trying hard enough. Of not wrapping one’s self worth entirely in results. Of missed shots still being better than those not taken at all.

  Photo by Aileen Brown

Photo by Aileen Brown

The other day my wife remarked how boys my sons’ age don’t always express their emotions. But as a hockey coach I see it differently. I see players fly into the zone with something that only can be described as joy. I see them lose a puck and in a fit of frustration chase it down, and win it back. I see them wheel out of the corner, poke the puck past a player with one hand, then regather it to shoot. Creativity is expression, and not everyone paints.

I can’t say exactly what all this time immersed in a sport will have prepared my boys for once their playing careers are over. They’ll know how to execute a three-man weave, and where to stand for a defensive-zone face off, and that when you get up for a game before sunrise, it’s possible to eat a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch with your eyes barely open. These are not boxes you can check on a job application.

But hopefully, maybe, they’ll also know something about commitment, about being part of something larger than themselves, about the ways we can channel our energy in productive and counterproductive ways.

Plus, they’ll know something about having fun. That part still counts for something.

* * *

My youngest son’s team went undefeated through the regular season this past winter and it was impressive: Fourteen 9- and 10-year old kids showing up for early morning games, needing help tying their skates, then outworking their opponents as if paychecks and careers were at stake. I had never seen anything like it, and in my own perverse way, I sadly worried how any team in subsequent seasons could top this one.

When we lost our league championship game, I didn’t expect to be relieved.

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The game that night was a blur. An early goal. My normally silly son in tears on the bench. When we finally scored at the end of the second I thought maybe we were ready to mount a comeback. But that was as close as we got. When the final horn sounded we shuffled off the bench and watched our opponents pile on top of one another at the other end of the ice.

In the aftermath I watched videos and traded texts with other coaches—like I said, I spend too much time on this stuff—but really the simplest explanation about what went wrong came later: We didn’t know how to lose.

The fact that I had written a book on this subject in the last year still didn’t prepare me until it was too late. The book had expounded on the ways to profit from setbacks, and warned against the inherent complacency that accompanies extended success. But this team always felt different in that its success was largely attributable to simple exertion, to simply skating harder than our opponents, then celebrating with fistfuls of Munchkins in the locker room afterward.

I had assured the kids that effort mattered above all. But that’s more difficult to grasp when shots ring off the post and your best scorer is dry heaving on the bench. Because then the question is not just how hard you’re willing to work, but how you respond when wedged into a corner. The fact that we hadn’t been in that corner at any other point in the season proved to be an experience our team sorely needed.

Hence my sense of relief, because if hockey is meant to mirror life, then perhaps I’d have sent the wrong message if the kids just floated into the offseason with an undefeated record and a gleaming trophy to take home. As a coach and a proponent of failure, wouldn’t that have contradicted everything I believed? Isn’t a perfect season inherently flawed based on the absence of imperfection? The more I thought about it, the more I remembered that the best seasons are not devoid of heartache, but that feature just enough to keep things interesting. In that sense, a painful loss was not what tainted our season, but somehow enriched it.

None of this entirely registered until the next morning, after I was forced to drag my son out of bed before dawn for another game (The joys of squirt hockey scheduling: a championship game at 9 pm, then a non-league game an hour away at 8 the next morning). When we entered the locker room, there was music playing and players strapping on shin pads and hardly a mention of the night before. Then we went out and played the game and won by five. It reminded me of another hockey metaphor I could wear out with my boys: you can always sit around and feel sorry for yourself. But you might feel better if you hop back over the boards and try again.

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Sam Weinman is the author of Win at Losing: How our Biggest Setbacks Can Lead To Our Greatest Gains and the digital editor of Golf Digest.