I know how valuable youth hockey can be because I went to Andy Stein’s funeral. The Steins live across the street from us. Andy coached hockey.
He died in 2016 of brain cancer, and there were hundreds at his funeral. The Glenbrook North hockey team came in uniform. I listened to his twin sons, Ben and Jared, eulogize him and thought, grimly, “I’ve wasted my entire life by not coaching hockey ...”
So thank you Rich Cohen, whose new book “Pee Wees: Confessions of a Hockey Parent” body checks that sort of thinking, hard. It’s a Dantean journey through all nine rings of frozen youth hockey hell.
If it seems an odd choice of reading material for me, remember Cohen is author of a string of captivating books from “Tough Jews” to “The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse.” I’ve read nine and read this book because reading Rich Cohen’s books is what a person who likes reading books does, whatever the subject. It’s almost a duty.
Spoiler alert: Nobody comes out well. Coaches, parents, kids with the signal exception of his own son, Micah, and his teammates. But most of all, himself.
Cohen, who played hockey during his golden North Shore youth, is every angry, stymied hockey parent who ever pounded the glass, albeit with a self-analytic gear most lack. An adult who cares far, far, far more about any given hockey situation than his kid, who just shrugs and plays, as kids tend to do.
Cohen has two trademark go-to moves. The first is the telling fact. He sets the hook early with professional evaluators hired, not to help coaches pick a team, but to provide cover from parents irate at try-out results.
“The evaluators had been brought in to give the organizations plausible deniability,” Cohen writes. “It was something to point to when a parent complained. ‘It wasn’t us. It was them.’”
The second is taut, solid writing. Just his descriptions of the weather are a treat. The book is arranged by months. February is “mostly a never-ending tundra of pain. some days are bitter, others more bitter still.”
The weather established, then comes hockey, a meat grinder of tryouts, practices and games, injuries, emails, arguments and numerous plays, some in great detail.
The last Cohen book I read was “Herbie,” his tribute to his father, and given that the jaw-dropping fact there is his dad submitting applications to law schools on his behalf without telling him, it is heartbreaking to see Cohen fall into that trap, such as on the arduous early morning drives to distant away games.
“I am particular about music on such trips, toggling between a handful of satellite stations, playing the Beatles, Tom Petty, Frank Sinatra,” he writes. “I instruct my son with my selections, tell him, ‘These are the things of my world. You can accept or reject them. Either way will work.”
What does Micah want to hear? Who cares? The question never arises. It made me want to remind Rich of Bruce Springsteen’s sage advice about parenthood: “You are their audience. They are not meant to be yours.” Passed along with love, since there is still time.
The book I read before “Pee Wees” was “Death by Water” by Kenzaburō Ōe, and just as I wondered whether the Nobel Prize winner is critiquing the weird, passive, deeply sexist elements of Japanese society, or merely manifesting them, so I puzzled whether Cohen navigates the dark depths of youth hockey or flounders in them.
“Pee Wees” is the perfect book for two groups of people: those who are involved in youth hockey and those who are not. The former will delight in seeing their struggles reflected and nod knowingly. And the rest, like me, will feel a rush of relief at having been spared the ordeal.
Maybe. When I finished Cohen’s book, I phoned Andy Stein’s son Ben, 26, to make sure I wasn’t mistaken about his view of hockey.
“I’ve played my entire life, and I can genuinely say hockey has made me the man I am today,” said the assistant varsity coach at Glenbrook North. “Learning how to tie a tie to go to games, being taught tough love. My coaches always yelled at me but never with bad intentions but to correct mistakes. At the end of the day, my coaches wanted the best for me.
“Sometimes people lose sight of what’s really important,” he continued. “Everybody wants to win, is happy when they win. But the coach’s job is to prepare kids for the next level of hockey and life. Hockey has taught me that life is not always fair. You win and lose. You look back on the losses and correct your mistakes. That goes back into life also.”