Photo: Carlos Osoria, Toronto Star

This morning Steve Dangle tweeted out a link to an article on The Grid (A weekly online Toronto newspaper, I’m told – my co-workers had generally good things to say about it) titled “My son’s not playing hockey because hockey breeds jerks,” by Christopher Shulgan.

My Twitter feed was kicking it around, and seemed generally annoyed, as the knee jerk reaction usually goes when your group of people gets slighted. My initial reaction was a little different – depending on how the post is written, the guy could be making a very good point.

My second reaction was “What a troll of a headline” – it’s the sort of generalization that made me tempted not to take the bait and give the post more views, but what the hell, there actually is a little merit within. There’s also plenty of bullshit. Let’s read the post together and I’ll weigh in on what I think has value, and what’s needs to be stuffed in a rocket and shot into the sun.

***

Twenty years after leaving high school, here’s what I remember about the hockey players who went there: They actually circle jerked. One of the guys was legendary for the velocity with which he could achieve orgasm. Like, he told people. He bragged about it. That always struck me as weird. But then, the hockey players who went to my high school were weird. They had weird relationships with women, and weird in-jokes that referenced things I thought were just weird to be into. Like the professional wrestler Ric Flair.

Shulgan’s anecdotal tidbit here is the most generic piece of hockey mythology ever. “I heard the bantam team did ____” is the standard lead-in to a story like that at that age. While there might be a few derp-heavy idiot teenage boys that actually did something of the sort, that’s not hockey culture. It’s an click-whoring lede that’s already overshadowed what might have otherwise been an interesting parental point below. That paragraph is an adult playing the telephone game as a basis for making a point.

I’ve been thinking about those hockey players a lot lately because of a conversation I recently had with my dad. “Are you going to register Myron for hockey this year?” he asked.

My son is an athletic kid. He’s fast and strong and tough. He falls out of trees, dusts himself off, and climbs back up them.

You’re missing out on the chance to breed a third-line grinder, man.

He rides his bike for miles alongside me as I run along the waterfront. And I do see the logic of starting him up in hockey.

If you live in Toronto, and you want to set your athletic boy on a path that could, conceivably, lead to professional sports, then hockey seems like the smartest route to take.

It’s not supposed to be about that, of course, but okay.

Sure, soccer may be more accessible, but the spirit of soccer doesn’t pervade the air here the way it does in South America or Europe. No other place in the world has Toronto’s resources for creating world-class hockey players. After all, we’re the biggest city in the country that invented the sport.

So far, he’s making a solid case to put his son in hockey. And honestly, with hockey being as relevant here as it is in Canada, it’s pretty cool to be a part of it, especially from a social standpoint. 100% of my groomsmen at my wedding were hockey friends, and while there’s plenty of opportunity to make plenty of friends participating in other activities, being forced to interact with a large group of guys on a daily basis seems to provide a pretty good place to find buddies you genuinely enjoy.

And if Myron ever intends to play, I should start him now. Myron is six. He had fun with last winter’s skating lessons. He’s ready to get going. If we wait till he’s seven, he’ll be behind. Really, it’s this year, or never.

Eh, that’s a bit dramatic. I didn’t play until I was eight. Not that I became Gretzky, but “now or never” is a bit silly. You don’t have to make the NHL to enjoy your years of minor hockey.

But after my dad’s question, I shrugged.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Is it a money thing?” he asked.

“Naw,” I said.

So what kind of a thing was it? I flushed. To my dad, I mumbled something about wanting to spend much of this winter at ski hills, and then one of the kids distracted him. He didn’t have a chance to argue with me, to say what I know he felt: You should put your boy in hockey. It’s basically un-Canadian not to do it.

Well that’s not a great reason, but I have a question that hasn’t been answered yet, and it seems relevant: what does the son want to do? Didn’t we just hear he had fun skating last year? I recommend questions like “Do you want to play hockey or would you rather go snowboarding” to the kid. Usually a good way to figure out what people want.

But look, this winter, if I’m going to be sitting on anything cold for long periods of time, I’d rather it be a ski lift.

Right, but again, what would your son rather do?

My boy’s already a good enough skier to be comfortable on intermediate runs. I’ve got some trips planned—to Blue Mountain, maybe to Tremblant or Burlington, Vermont. This winter I figured we’d tackle black diamonds. He’s also bugging me to teach him how to snowboard. Dude, I’ve been dreaming of snowboarding with my son since I was 20 years old.

20? Damn.

Tangent here, but serious question: do they let six year olds on black diamonds? Irrelevant to the conversation, I know, just curious.

Even if we didn’t prefer snowsports, I would never push my son to pursue hockey.

We’re getting that.

I spent some years playing the game, and I do enjoy the occasional round of shinny. But spending long hours drinking bad coffee on cold fibreglass benches in dark arenas? Not exactly a pastime that, as a time-pressed parent, I’m excited to pursue.

Am I crazy here or is the focus here on the wrong thing? “I prefer participating in sports over watching, so I’m going to keep my son in sports where I get to do stuff too.” Oh and also, hockey players are jerks.

And I just can’t shake the sport’s lingering association with the circle-jerking dicks at my high school.

There are, if you don’t mind avoiding the literal translation here, “circle-jerking dicks” at every high school – its not confined to any particular “subset of humanity.” Hell, it’s not even confined to high-school.

In fact, that’s the root of my problem with the sport. It’s not that I don’t want my son to play hockey. It’s that I don’t want him to become a hockey player, to become part of that peculiarly jock subset of humanity.

Call me crazy for kicking this around, but what about doing a little parenting? Explaining to your son the difference between right and wrong? My mother, likely reading this today, would almost certainly agree with Shulgan. She was married to an NHL hockey player for many, many years, and a lot of the guys my father called teammates were cocky. She was desperate for me not to grow up cocky like other hockey players, so she talked about it with me often. Over-confidence, a lack of humility…these may be things hockey (or sports in general) instill in kids that needs to be quelled. And while I’ve got plenty of personal issues, I think I’ve been pretty good at keeping “cocky” out of my personality traits, thanks to my mom’s parenting.

If you don’t want your kid to be a circle-jerking dick, it’s not that hard to keep him from being one. And judging by the amount of thought and attention our author is putting into doing that, I have to believe he’ll succeed. His son has a dad who cares. That usually helps.

Is it the long hours spent in locker rooms? The culture of the sport? The inherent violence that breeds among its players an allegiance to the team that supercedes all else? Whatever the cause, hockey has an asshole problem.

Allegiance to teammates is a gateway to circle jerking. Or something.

So this winter, I’m going to concentrate on avoiding feeling un-Canadian because I haven’t put my boy in hockey. Actually, I’d argue that there’s something patriotic about it. Yeah, you know what? Hockey might be a profoundly Canadian activity. But so is the act of despising the asinine aspects of hockey behaviour.

The latter is actually kind of true, I think there’s plenty of Canadians who get annoyed by your prototypical “hockey player.” But that this post could be summed in a tweet (“Not putting son in hockey, knew a circle-jerking hockey player once and I prefer skiing/snowboarding“) sullies what could have been a quality observation.

***

So let me try.

I’m not trying to say that Shulgan is wrong, regardless of how weak his point is. I mentioned the whole “cocky” factor that comes with being a hockey player, and that’s a very real thing. You end up cocky not just because you’re very good at a very difficult sport, but because there’s strength in numbers. You’re a part of something.

People have asked me if it was hard, socially, that I played on a handful of teams over a three year span at one point, and I always point out that it’s made easier by the fact that you have 20 built-in friends right off the top. Of course you won’t get along with everyone, but you always have buddies. If someone talks down to you, you’re never lacking for back up or support. That, I think, is why guys feel powerful, and part of what breeds your standard “hockey player.”

The culture, as I’ve written (and spoken on), can be homophobic. It can be misogynistic, and it can help push along  some bad seeds.

But just because you’re exposed to those elements, as you might be in the real world, doesn’t mean they’ve got to be stitched into the fabric of your being. A parent still has the ability to use the negative events as teaching moments, and I think that’s a far healthier environment than heading into the real world having been sheltered from idiots and assholes. They exist everywhere (pull together 20 skiiers and I’ll find some too), so it’s good to learn to deal with them at an early age.