Mohawks, hotels and Subway: the great hockey tourney escape

I love hockey tournaments. Not to play in them, but to go to them as the van-driving hockey dad.

Sean and I enjoy the moment after his team won their division in a Pittsburgh tournament. Sean scored four goals, and the team came together to play their best hockey of the season.

Sean and I enjoy the moment after his team won their division in a Pittsburgh tournament. Sean scored four goals, and the team came together to play their best hockey of the season.

My favourite thing in the winter is take my boys to the arena: I coach the minor midget house league team that my 15-year-old son Corey plays on in Guelph, Ontario, and 13-year-old Sean plays on the city’s minor bantam A rep team. For a golfer, hockey is a wonderful way to manage winter.

For few hours that I’m at the rink, I am completely consumed by hockey: standing around drinking coffee and talking about hockey, watching hockey, and thinking about hockey. And again like golf, especially among the dads, there appears to be an unspoken rule that you do not talk about work, or anything of consequence for that matter. For a couple of hours, we have escaped into hockey.

With hockey tournaments, especially those that require a long trip and staying over in a hotel, everything is geared around the games, of course, but there’s even more of all the great stuff that I enjoy about being a hockey dad.

Our most recent tournament was the Three Rivers Cup Hockey Tournament in Pittsburgh on American Thanksgiving. Sean and I traveled with Andre Labranche and his son Cody for the six-hour drive.

Dads along for the ride

For anyone who travels a fair bit for work, eating in restaurants and staying in hotels is no big deal. But during a hockey tournament, the eating-out and hotel experience is a lot like vacation; and as dads, we’re just along for the ride and a good time.

For us, and most of the team, it was concentrated guy time. Apart from when Sean was at the rink, or roaring around the hotel with his buddies, we were together, although usually with other fathers and sons. As the parenting books attest, having one-on-one time with a kid—meaning without a sib—is really important. At 13, he’s also enjoying his independence. Now he can bugger off with his friends without me hovering around.

It was neat to experience each other in new settings, like sitting at a large table in a restaurant with four kids and four dads. I get new insights into him as I watch him interact with his teammates, and he may see me in a different light as I carry on with men who are not related to us.

When the boys are off the ice, I get a kick out of just watching them together. In a tournament, I sense the boys have a greater feeling they are part of a team, especially in their matching black Guelph Storm wind breakers, white shirts, black pants and ties, which signals to the world they are on a team. In a Subway restaurant, there was so much joy in being together that they were leaning into each other as they huddled around tables gorging on 12 inches of squishy white bread and meat.

Boisterous boy energy is a wonderful thing, and it flows freely in a hotel because the dads have allowed the usual domestic rules to lapse.  The boys throw themselves into every activity, bursting in the room announcing plans about going swimming or that they are going to play Xbox in someone’s room. They travel in packs around the hotel, and teammates who don’t normally hang together—usually because they live far apart—often mix in new combinations.

One of my favourite memories from Pittsburgh was opening a hotel room door to find two boys on their knees engaged in a vigorous game of mini-sticks, two sitting at the end of their respective double beds with video game controllers, and four others draped over the beds doing a version of play-by-play on the game.

The full Mo’ or the Faux Mo’

Just like in the playoffs, for some tournaments there’s a team-bonding hair ritual. Sometimes it’s getting your hair dyed the team colour, or having your number carved into your hair. For this tournament, it was a Mohawk. Only three kids went with the full Mo’ with the sides of their skulls shaved, while a few went with the Faux Mo’—very short on the sides leading to a spiked peak moulded with gobs of gel.

After our first game in Pittsburgh—a convincing 6-0 win over local Alleghany—about six team members and their parents invaded a hair salon to the obvious chagrin of an older couple awaiting their turn. Daniel hopped into a chair and a young lady began cutting away his thick black hair with a trimmer; Daniel beamed and his buddies cheered as large chunks of hair fell to the floor.

Dana, mother of Skyler, watched the proceedings and declared that if the boys won the tournament, she’d show up with a Mohawk at their next game. Talk about incentive.*

There are parts of tournaments aren`t so great: all plans for frugality are quickly forgotten and money flows freely out of your hand like grains of sand. Just trying to navigate around a confusing and unfamiliar city like Pittsburgh in search of suburban arenas can be frustrating, even with GPS. One dad became so lost that a kind female police officer whom he asked directions just said “Follow me“ and she gave him a police escort. And, some of our hotel neighbours were not particularly fond of boys running down the hallways yelling their friend`s names.

There can be hours to kill between games at these suburban arenas, and there’s not much else to do other than go to a mall. But the mall hang-out isn`t so bad if you settle in with an interesting dad or two over a coffee. When else does a working person have about two hours to sit in a comfortable chair and talk about anything and everything? The conversation can go places you don`t get to in arena corridor chats.

Tournaments also bring the parents together. With the extra time that you`re together, you tend to mingle with folks you don`t normally hang with during regular season games, and our team is blessed with great parents, siblings and extended family.

Beer and hockey talk

Like the boys in Subway, the big boys also savoured their time together. On our second night, there were about 10 guys packed in one hotel room with about three coolers filled with ice and cans of beer. The conversation was loud, gregarious and mostly about hockey. It was fun just to watch and listen to the men enjoy each other`s company, free from any real concern.  One of the dads kicked us out after an hour so he could go to bed. That was a good thing; I could have easily over-served myself and paid the price the next day.

The team played well throughout the tournament, due perhaps to their increased connection with their teammates and a bit of us-against-them rivalry against two American teams, winning one and tying one. They also put in a solid effort in a tie against Aurora, Ontario. Their record was good enough to propel them into the division final against Aurora.

The lads played their best game of the year in the final, passing confidently, moving the puck smartly out of their own zone, skating with energy and purpose, and playing hard for 200 feet. They won 3-0, threw their sticks and gloves in the air at the buzzer, and gathered gleefully for the wonderful ritual of the team photo with the trophy.

Even if they didn’t win, the tournament would have been great. But winning sure made for a sweet conclusion to another great escape.

*Good to her word, Dana showed up at the next game with her hair gelled into a Faux Mo’ and received an ovation. She said it took her five handfuls of shampoo to get all the goop out. Now that’s being part of a team!

About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!