With fists, with words, with kindness
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It might have started with the hit. Some kid on the other team hit his son a little high and a little late and with a little elbow. The father looked to the refs, the zebras in their black-and-white-striped shirts, but there was no hand in the air, no signal at all that a penalty would be called. His son was on the ice for a second before he got up, skated to the bench. From the stands the father yelled, “What game are you watching, ref?” This was common. The kids were only eleven or twelve, but people took it seriously. Instead of ending it there, though, he stood up, shouted again. People looked at him. Some chuckled: Parents these days. Then he started advancing down the bleachers until he was at the glass, banging on it, shouting at the official, “You’re a stupid piece of shit, zebra! You’re a stupid piece of zebra shit!” The father made his way toward the door to the ice, the respected but easily broken barrier between fans and players.
It might have started in the truck. They were running late. His son liked to arrive an hour before game time, got anxious if they were later than that. The boy wouldn’t say anything about it, but you could smell worry on him. The father turned into the parking lot, and a tiny car — so small it seemed like his pickup could drive right over it — started backing out of a spot. It was about to hit him. He honked, and the car stopped. As this was happening, he was calm. No shouting, no cursing. “That was close,” he said. His son nodded. “Unbelievable,” he said. His son nodded again. Anger from the encounter started to creep up on the father. He shook his head. “Un-fucking-believable,” he said. “People these days just don’t give a shit.”
It might have started when he pushed down the lever on the door to the ice, opening it up. The point of no return. Calling the referee a stupid piece of zebra shit was already outside the bounds of acceptable behavior, but this went beyond that. Nobody moved to stop him because they were all equally unprepared for something like this to happen. Besides the obvious reasons, it was not a good idea for a parent to go after a referee on the ice because the referees were wearing skates and the parent — or this parent, anyway — was wearing Nike Air Monarch IVs, the brand’s ugliest and one of its most popular shoes. The shoes were not designed to be worn on the ice, and their place on his feet did not bode well for his near future.
It might have started earlier that day, at home. The cable kept going in and out. There was a White Sox game on in the afternoon, and when he worked from home, which he often did, he liked to have the baseball game in the background. He told people that it helped him focus, although this was a lie. Really it helped him feel less bored, which perhaps has a similar impact on efficiency. The television’s malfunction, he knew definitively, was detrimental to his workflow. He called the cable company and was put on hold again and again and again. When he finally spoke with someone, the answer was that they did not know what was happening or how to fix it. He should just give it time.
It might have started — or, at least, really started — when he stepped onto the ice. The two referees were not sure what to do. They had blown their whistles at the sound of the door opening and now were just standing next to one another, looking at him. The blades under their feet meant they could avoid him endlessly, but a chase would have been humiliating for everyone involved, something that might have been uploaded to YouTube and set to cartoon music. The father pointed at the refs. “Stupid pieces of zebra shit,” he said. As he advanced, everything else seemed to move farther away, like he was watching a dolly-zoomed shot in a movie.
It might have started weeks earlier, when his son began his first season of full-contact hockey. Players could now body check each other into the boards or onto the ice. In the nine-and-ten-year-old league, no checking had been allowed. It was a penalty. Outwardly the parents — or this parent, anyway — had complained about the rule. They’re so small, he’d said. How much damage could one of them do to the other? They’re bad skaters and are always falling or crashing into each other by accident. How much more dangerous could it be if they did it on purpose? But secretly parents — or this parent, anyway — found the checking ban comforting. He distrusted the other children and had no interest in seeing them get physical with his child. Before the season started, the league held four mandatory training sessions in which the kids learned to hit and get hit safely: Avoid head contact. Elbows down. Stick down. Never hit them if you can see the numbers on their back. The father sat in the stands while his son learned all of this. Most parents didn’t. The league advised against it. For one thing, the training sessions were boring. (That’s the excuse most parents used.) They were also stressful. Kids got hurt at a higher rate in training than they did during the season, because they didn’t yet know what they were doing. The fewer parents in the stands, the easier it was for everyone. Still, he was there. And he was calm. Mostly.
It might have started when one of his Nike Air Monarch IVs slid sideways instead of forward, and his other knee bent to balance him out, and his arms extended like he was on a tightrope, and for a brief moment it seemed like maybe he would raise his arms like a figure skater, but instead his legs wobbled, and, before he could process what was happening, he was on his ass. He popped back up with surprising dexterity, considering how quickly he had arrived in that compromised position in the first place. “Stupid pieces of zebra shit!” he shouted, raising his voice even further. Surprisingly nobody — not the referees nor the players nor the coaches — made any decisive move to stop him during this time. Certainly, with their skates, subduing him would not have been an arduous task. For better or worse, they were transfixed by the spectacle of his rage. The opportunity to do something was there, and then it was gone, and he was up and charging once more.
It might have started on a soccer field when his son was six. Soccer is not the contact-free sport it’s often portrayed to be. His son, streaking across the field as well as any young child could, blue jersey shining in the sun, was stopped abruptly by an opposing player in a red jersey, who seemed to appear out of nowhere and collide with him. Both children fell to the ground crying. Most spectators were nonplussed, but the father was not. It was apparently not in his DNA to see the situation as anything other than one child making a choice to endanger the child he cared about most. He ran onto the field, beating the coach to the fallen kids. There was panic and a little anger in his eyes as he scooped up his son and walked away slowly. Before this moment, parental overprotection had seemed to him a bizarre phenomenon. Kids learn when things go wrong. They learn when they get hurt. What he had taken for granted was that his child’s learning would be more important than his child’s safety. Sometimes it wasn’t.
It might have started when he caught a glimpse of the hockey coach’s face. He did not know the man well, though he had entrusted him to keep his son safe at practice and during games. There was shock in the coach’s expression, and some other emotion that the father could not exactly place. He felt, for a moment, what it was like to be in the car crash that everyone slows down to see. Feet churning underneath him, he looked away and plowed forward, committed to taking action, determined to do what the coach wouldn’t.
It might have started when he was a child. He’d played hockey on the same rink where his son was playing now. It was dingier then. The suburb around it was much nicer these days, and this was why he had stayed in the area even after his income had exceeded his parents’ by a tax bracket or two. The rink was also the root of many anxieties that he could never get away from. He’d wanted to be good at hockey, quietly dreaming that a scout might be sitting in the stands and offer to sign him on the spot, no matter his age. But this didn’t happen, because he was bad at the game he loved. He stopped playing in middle school, before everyone got bigger and the game got dangerous. It didn’t seem worth it. He took up cross-country instead. Still, being back in that rink, which had grown nicer along with the suburb, made him feel like the not-good-enough player he’d once been, and he wanted better for his son. Wanting better for his son, of course, meant wanting better for himself, too, because when you’re a parent, those things are the same. In every bad game his son played, he saw a reflection of his own bad games, and in every success he saw what he’d hoped to accomplish as a kid. He knew it was a cliché (and bad parenting) to live vicariously through your child, but his feelings were his feelings, and when his son got hit a little high and a little late and with a little bit of elbow, he felt like he had been hit, too.
It might have started as he reached the referees, a journey that seemed like it had taken hours but also like it had taken no time at all. “Stupid zebras!” he shouted once more. “Pieces of shit!” The referees, standing next to one another, remained unmoved, with blank faces, and though they had received training for their job, the training had not covered situations like this.
It might have started earlier during that very game, when his son had driven an opposing player into the boards. A clean hit, but hard. The thud echoed around the rink, and the glass wobbled. A few parents clapped. The hit was textbook, not just for show. A lot of players think checking is about putting the other guy on his ass, but it’s not. It’s about getting the puck back, which his son did. And it’s about making something of that opportunity, which his son did, too, sending the puck across the ice, right onto his teammate’s stick. His son skated into the offensive zone, and his team scored. Already this season his son had made a few assists. He seemed like a natural. And the father was proud of his son, though a feeling of discomfort lingered. One reason he was proud of his son was that the boy had committed an act of violence against another person. And the father struggled with this.
It might have started when the father drew his fist back, his eyes staring at the referee to his left. “Stupid piece of zebra shit,” he said as his fingers and knuckles sped through the air toward his adversary’s cheek. He made contact, but too high, against the ref’s helmet. His hand began to bleed. The pain and the sight of the blood startled him, and before he could bring his fist back for another punch, he was tackled by the referee to his right. On the ice for a second time, the father did not spring up. His cheek rested against the cold surface. He was yelling no more.
It might have started when he went to his first Chicago Blackhawks game. He was ten. The team was doing well that season. It had been more than twenty years since the Blackhawks had won the Stanley Cup, but that year they had as good a chance as any team. Entering Chicago Stadium, leaving the punishing Midwest February cold behind, was something he would never forget. The building was almost sixty years old and would be torn down in less than ten years, but to him it was unblemished. Their seats were in the nosebleeds. The stadium — the Madhouse on Madison — shook. The energy was powerful, unique, total. Early in the second period the Blackhawks’ star player, Denis Savard, took a hit from St. Louis Blues defenseman Lee Norwood. It came a little high and a little late and with a little elbow. No penalty. And the crowd erupted. All around, a chorus of curse words rang out, words he’d heard before and others he’d never heard before. He felt a mixture of horror and glee. His father looked at him and smiled.
Later the police will arrive, and he will have to speak to them about his behavior. The referee he hit will request that he not be arrested or handcuffed or charged, and the father will try to thank the referee for his mercy and receive no reply. The rink manager will tell him he is no longer welcome at his son’s games or practices, or inside the building for any reason — at least, until things calm down — and his son will ask a teammate’s father to drive him home.
Later that week, he and his son will sit down to talk about what happened. He will apologize, and his son will forgive him. The father will know that, in the eyes of his son, he will be forever changed, and he will have to accept that. His son will call him, with a smile, a stupid piece of zebra shit, and they will both laugh, and then he will look down at the table and then up at his son, and once more he will say, “I’m sorry.” “I know,” his son will say, and they will sit in silence for a while, and it won’t be over and it won’t ever go away and it won’t ever happen again.