Halfway through Pee Wees, Rich Cohen notes that Ridgefield, Connecticut, houses 13 places of worship ranging from various Christian churches to a couple of synagogues. But the de facto 14th is most important: the Ridgefield Winter Garden Ice Arena, a hockey cathedral where you must take the Lord’s name in vain if your son (or daughter) is screwed by the opposition, referee, teammate, or, most likely, a hockey parent, “the most terrifying of monsters.”
Few books about sports so perceptively capture the culture and reveal sports’ unique ability to serve as man’s salvation. Bill Barich’s 1980 classic, Laughing in the Hills, about the horse-racing world, had me checking my soles for horseshit in Chapter 1 and reconsidering my waning faith in a higher power by Chapter 2.
Rich Cohen’s equally compelling Pee Wees recounts the 2018–19, 50-game season of the Ridgefield Bears Pee Wee A team, comprising 12 11-year-old boys (one of whom is his son) and three girls (one of whom is the team’s biggest player), where parents’ unfulfilled dreams seek reincarnation and redemption in the next generation. And while the Nutmeg Hockey League prohibits on-ice contact for pee wees, no such rules exist for their elders.
That’s not completely true. Before the season, parents are asked to sign a pledge which promises, among other things, “to neither throw items from the stands … [nor] engage in taunting or fisticuffs.” There’s also the “twenty-four-hour rule,” mandating that parents wait a full day before discussing a game or game decisions with the coaches. Turns out, kids follow rules better than parents do. You only need to look at the rink’s parking lot to foresee the impending drama. “We are trying to acquire status through our children,” Cohen writes, which explains why the rev in the Nissan Altima’s four-cylinder engine drowns out that of the V12 powering the canary-yellow Lamborghini parked next to it.
“If He Could Play, You Were In”
While relinquishing control and stature to your children is a perilous endeavor, it’s inevitable—youth hockey, the great equalizer, expedites the process. A son’s demotion from the first line to the third line determines which parents close down the hotel bar at tournaments and which ones turn in early. “The parents divided into cliques … the blessed and the damned … if he could play, you were in.”
Most captivating is Cohen’s precision, his unflinching eye for every lace-biting detail of the game even from his vantage point behind the rink’s Plexiglas: “His strategy looked complicated from a distance, as if he were describing his honeymoon itinerary,” Cohen notes about Coach Pete’s tactics scrawled across a dry-erase board. Understandably, Coach Pete is preoccupied for much of the season after his father, a local financial bigwig, is convicted on wire-fraud charges. The situation is made worse when Coach Pete’s replacement is a parent of a kid on the team—the parent-coach, a role whose sole qualification is being uniquely unqualified for the task.
Cohen is consumed by this world, perceiving details only a real sports parent recognizes: rumors of fake birth certificates so the mustachioed defenseman could dominate his “peers”; parents timing their kids’ (and other kids’) on-ice shifts to determine whether they should steamroll the coach in the parking lot; a memorable run-in with a hockey legend (in Cohen’s case, Mark Messier) at an unmemorable rink; Long Island hockey moms asking whether the opposition’s kids attend “fuckhead school”; the wooden-rubber-band-gun fights in Lake Placid hotels during the Can/Am classic, a rite of passage for all youth-hockey players. Hell, I still have my six-band pistol from the 1996 tourney.
Rumors of fake birth certificates so the mustachioed defenseman could dominate his “peers,” Long Island hockey moms asking whether the opposition’s kids attend “fuckhead school.”
At its core, Pee Wees is a story about a father trying to reach his son (and perhaps his younger self) through the game. “I was now my father. My son was now me.” A familiar tale and the makings of a great tragedy. Describing parents’ frustration at their kids’ on-ice performance, Cohen writes, “You can yell, but they can’t hear you.” As the season rolls on, Cohen breaks the 24-hour rule, confronting the coach after a game. He endures sleepless nights, allowing the Bears’ wins, losses, fortunes, and injustices to dictate his moods. And yet he’s fully aware: “I knew I should not care this much. I knew I had lost perspective. I knew none of it mattered.”
While some might view this as a cautionary tale about youth hockey, I say that caring that much is the game’s most convincing selling point, its very appeal. Good luck finding another youth sport that can stir the emotions Rich Cohen reveals on every page of Pee Wees. Something that causes you to lose all perspective? I call that a blessing. Shitty things, like death, are for gaining perspective.
The Bears’ season doesn’t end with a championship and subsequent (Jack and) Coke-soaked celebratory pizza party. It ends with a loss—as most things do. Winter’s hockey rinks make way for spring’s baseball diamonds. And while Cohen “glimpsed the emptiness that awaits every hockey-loving hockey parent,” the Bears’ growl endures. Five-foot-three winger Roman captures it best: after a tough defeat and subsequent intra-team dustup in the locker room, he addresses his teammates in his underwear and prescription goggles: “Who wants to fuck me? I’ll fuck anyone who wants to fuck me.”
Let’s dance, Roman.
Bill Keenan is the Chief Operating Officer for AIR MAIL. He played pee-wee hockey for the Connecticut Yankees and the New Jersey Rockets and is the author of Odd Man Rush