Sticks On The Ice

If there were a “Hockey Mom of the Year” award, there is no question I would never be nominated for it.

When it comes to attendance at games, mine might be rated a B-. I’ve never signed up to be the “Team Parent,” even though my youngest son has been a hockey player for–oh, 10 years now. (And my older son, a college freshman, announced in mid-November he was going out for club hockey at school, after having played for three years in his elementary days. A hockey mom of TWO?) Not once have I been the penalty box monitor, scoreboard operator or game announcer–though my hockey aficionado husband has done all of the above, along with coaching, and then some.

I’ve put in my fair share of time in the arena’s concession stand, to be sure, but my enthusiasm for sweaty, malodorous hockey gear (and the sheer quantity of it all, lugged around in oversize bags that could easily hold a stowaway player or two), not to mention for shivering in the stands in under-heated ice arenas sometimes colder than the great Minnesota outdoors, is lacking a little punch.

Still, my relief at seeing another five-month hockey season come to its close was surprisingly moderated somewhat by my presence at the local league’s capstone, the Sunday afternoon hockey banquet. Seeing 150 kids, ages 4 to 18–still gung ho and lit up about hockey, after hours and hours spent on the ice in the preceding months–listen attentively to their coaches recount season highlights confirmed that supporting our son in his winter sport of choice was indeed worthwhile.

While most youth sports require sacrifice and volunteerism on the part of parents and players, hockey seems to take a special degree of involvement, at least in this region. Facilities without adequate and reliable funding require constant monitoring, fundraising drives and volunteers. Those who spearhead such efforts sometimes go unnoticed, although their tireless commitment to the cause is typically second to none.

In Worthington, along with the extended Ahlberg and Johnson families, one hockey clan worthy of praise is the Nickel family. On Sunday, Nickel patriarch Jim (and his equally dedicated late wife, Deb) was deservedly singled out as the recipient of the Worthington Hockey Association’s annual volunteer “Playmaker Award.”

Not only did Jim and Deb initially commit two of their three sons to the hockey program when they were youngsters (with the third soon following his brothers to the ice), they got behind it in every way possible. The award presenter mentioned their work at fundraising, at advocating for an indoor ice facility (and later, expansion and improvement of the arena their labor and co-guarantor participation helped make possible), at flooding outdoor rinks in freezing temperatures at midnight, and more.

He said the Nickels had given and given–of their time, energy, significant financial donations and offspring–and “never asked for anything in return….but quietly made a difference.”

The Nickels, active community volunteers in several other endeavors, also led by example, as evidenced by the fact that each of their three sons has returned to the Worthington area to work, raise their families and….coach hockey! Elder brothers Trevor and Chad co-coached the inaugural year of the girls U12 team, spurring them to a winning record as they went, while brother Jeff is a coach of the Mini-Mites. Nine of the 10 Nickel grandchildren are on one WHA team or another, with the 10th (who remains free of the family franchise only due to a health condition) being a frequent, happy participant in “open skate” sessions.

It was moving and inspirational to witness Jim accept this award, as the hours, days and years he and Deb so readily gave to the hockey program flashed before my eyes. Smelly skating socks and breezers aside, an activity to which good people are willing to give of themselves so selflessly must have many redeeming qualities.

Here are a few to consider: wholesome exercise, skill-building, supervised “play” that doesn’t involve personal electronic devices, and lessons in physical conditioning, teamwork and overcoming defeat.

No, I’ll never be crowned Queen of the Hockey Moms, but I can think of far worse ways for kids to spend a Minnesota winter than skating their hearts out on the ice.