COLUMN: Not everyone gets a sporting chance

Tale of abuse detailed by former NHLer Patrick O'Sullivan causes reporter Nick Greenizan to look back at his own days playing youth sports.

I remember, as a teenager, a family trip to the Okanagan for my younger brother’s hockey tournament.

We’d just arrived at the hotel, and a number of other players and their families were milling about in the lobby, awaiting check-in.

There was one boy who had received a ride up with another family; it’s how he got to most games.

Sitting next to him on the lobby floor was his hockey bag and a couple sticks. No suitcase.

When queried as to where the rest of his belongings were, he said he didn’t have any. He’d just crammed a few t-shirts and a toothbrush in with his gear. This is how he planned to get through the next three days.

I don’t think he even had a jacket.

“Didn’t your parents help you get ready?” someone asked.

He just shrugged.

A few years later, near the end of one of my last years of minor hockey, I remember a distraught teammate of mine – angry, embarrassed, in tears – refusing to leave the dressing room. His mother had shown up to the game drunk and had fallen down the arena stairs in plain view of all the other parents.

I thought of both those kids last week, after reading a story online by former National Hockey Leaguer Patrick O’Sullivan, who wrote – in painful, excruciating detail – of the years of abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, a failed professional hockey player for whom nothing was ever good enough.

“My father used to beat the s— out of me,” O’Sullivan’s piece begins. It only gets worse from there.

Now, I’m not suggesting the two examples from my childhood were anything close to O’Sullivan’s experience. I know – or think I do, anyway – that they were not.

But it did get me thinking about all the teammates I had growing up – on hockey teams, in Little League and during my one inglorious year of high-school basketball – and wondering whether things were as good for them as they always were for me.

I like to think others’ parents were as supportive as mine. But you don’t always see what happens when your friend leaves the friendly confines of the dressing room – or the classroom, or the stage, or the food court at the mall – and gets into the family car. You don’t know what happens when that car pulls away, out of view. Or what happens once it arrives home.

Now, this isn’t to suggest there is a rash of abusive sports parents out there in our arenas and on our soccer fields, living their failed dreams of athletic glory vicariously through their children.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

In all my years playing sports as a kid – and a dozen more covering them as a reporter – I have met so many amazing families, coaches, managers, officials, volunteers and players that it’s impossible to keep track of them all. It really is.

The tired cliché of the out-of-control hockey parent may still get trotted out by some, but in reality, such people are the rare exception, not the rule.

But, as O’Sullivan’s harrowing account illustrates, even one is too many.

Kids – be they athletes, students, budding musicians or actors, or future Nobel Prize-winning scientists – deserve, at the very least, to enjoy what they’re doing without feeling what is, at best, pressure, and at worst, fear.

It’s important, too, not to turn a blind eye. It doesn’t take much effort to utter a few words of encouragement to a young athlete – a “good game” can go an awfully long way for someone not used to hearing it – or to offer them a ride without them having to ask, or to simply double-check to make sure they remembered to pack a warm coat.

Sometimes, helping can be as simple as asking, “Is everything OK?”

Most of the time, everything is fine. But it’s still worth asking, because sometimes everything isn’t.

Nick Greenizan is the sports reporter at the Peace Arch News.

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