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There’s a lot of hustle to Rich Cohen. It’s evident when you see the amount of press that he is getting for his latest book, Pee Wees: Confessions of a Hockey Parent, which was published in January 2021 via Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
It’s evident too in the way he talks about Pee Wees, laying it all out there, answering many of the questions again and again in interviews, sometimes starting a response before the query is even finished.
But it is most evident in his passion for hockey, which is very, very real, a conversation turning from over-involved parents to watching the Black Hawks at Chicago Stadium.
The back catalogue for Cohen is incredible too, with plenty of New York Times bestsellers: Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams; The Avengers: A Jewish War Story; Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football; Sweet and Low: A Family Story; When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead (with Jerry Weintraub); The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones; and The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse. (See www.authorrichcohen.com)
He always thought he had a hockey book in him, but didn’t think it would be this deeply personal.
“I always wanted to write about my own experience playing hockey, that was always in my head, and it came up again and again, in different things I wrote,” began Cohen, who has freelanced for plenty of publications, and has done hockey pieces, ranging from Zach Hyman and his kids’ books to the gangster-funded Danbury Trashers of the UHL. Growing up in Chicago, Cohen played hockey, in part, to avoid his father, Herb Cohen, who was heavily into coaching basketball. (Herb is the subject of the next book by Cohen, as his father was one of the world’s top negotiators, and his book, You Can Negotiate Anything, was a #1 bestseller.)
Blessed with three sons, it was the youngest, Micah, that took to hockey. Rich Cohen didn’t realize how it would affect him.
“I found all old emotions that I had experienced as a player came back, which surprised me,” he said. “I’m a very different kind of person and hockey player than he was. Every time before I played, for about two hours before the game, I felt like I was going to vomit. And he never felt that way. And then I felt that way, when he played. I’m like, this is nuts, this is feeling somebody else’s pain.”
Or, as he writes early in the book, “I knew I should not care this much. I knew I had lost perspective. I knew none of it mattered.”
What follows is a wild ride, through a season of hockey for a pee-wee team, the Ridgefield Bears, based out of Fairfield County, Connecticut, an affluent suburb of New York City. It’s at times engaging and enraging, raw, funny, poignant, and educational. The reader becomes immersed in the highs and lows of the team of kids previously unknown to them. Unlike a traditional hockey book, you don’t know what’s coming, making it more fictitious than fact. Though Cohen gives you warning: “Now I’d be that most terrifying of monsters, a hockey parent,” and you meet “the crazies” and other obsessive hockey parents.
Originally it was going to be a book about his son playing as a squirt (the level below pee-wee). Cohen got the okay from his editor, and then it just didn’t happen. The pee-wee level ended up being a better story, which was luck. But what the parents went through wasn’t that different. “Emotions are so intense, the parents are under a kind of pressure that isn’t a real pressure, but it feels real when it’s happening,” mused Cohen.
Comparing it to his previous books, Cohen is convinced that there was actually more raw information available to him, through the streams of the games, parents who shot the action, emails, and most importantly in this book, the phone messages.
“I was in a fury the whole season, and I was texting my wife constantly, and texting other parents, writing emails, and getting emails,” he revealed. “I had a vast, vast stream of historical information on not just that season, but basically every season.”
The lengthy drives to games across New England and further result in some lovely, lyrical takes on the interstates, the cute little towns, the arenas. Cohen sang the praises of satellite radio. “We’d listen to these hockey games on the satellite radio as we drove to these tournaments. When you listen to a game on the radio, it’s a totally different experience, and you imagine it really vividly. ... It’s almost more exciting.”
What Pee-Wees isn’t, though, is precise about personal information. These are, after all, mostly girls and boys who are under 12 years of age: “Names of people, teams, and places have been changed, ditto dates and details.” Cohen explained that he “disguised” both the other players and their parents. “If you imagine, when you make paper mache and there’s a real thing underneath and you’ve laid different things on it to change it,” he said. “It’s amazing how much of our identity is changed by names, just changing the name.” (Some of the names were changed to his own hockey-playing pals from his youth, he laughed—“I also did it to see if those friends who I’m still good friends with, and say they read everything I wrote, actually are reading everything I write.”)
“The feedback has been hugely, overwhelmingly positive, especially from the people from that team, or who played on other teams with my kid and the kids that I grew up with,” Cohen said. “I think the reason is because all the stuff I wrote is true. And I don’t just mean the actual details, I mean, the emotions, the ups and the downs. It’s this kind of thing where we all feel it, and we all experience it, but nobody says it out loud, nobody puts it in words. And there’s a bunch of reasons for that, one of which is people are scared to put it into words, for all the reasons you’re asking about, did I disguise it—because it’s risky, and it’s scary. And you don’t want somebody get mad and not about me, but take it out on my kid.”
Cohen looked into some of the other books about hockey parents, like Bob McKenzie’s Hockey Dad and Ken Campbell and Jim Parcels’ Selling the Dream, but they didn’t mirror his experience, in part because of the growth of hockey in the United States.
“I felt like the book that I wanted to read for solace and for health didn’t exist,” he said. “I was looking for something particular to my generation. And there’s been a big huge change in American hockey since I was a kid. There’s a smaller group of us who grew up playing in a pretty intense environment, and a lot of the parents that are involved in hockey now didn’t play hockey, because hockey is a huge growth sport here, as people go away from football, for fear of concussions.”
A memoir peppered with altered facts and background on people, places and things, Pee-Wees does stand on its own, travelling through the seasons of the game, wrapped up as parents are in “The blur—the excitement, stresses, and satisfactions of a hockey parent.”
“The hockey season is so long, that it does become an experience of weather. You experience it as weather, which used to be only the case with baseball, spring, summer, fall, and the season’s over. That’s like hockey for me,” said Cohen. “We start in the very hottest part of the summer, and we go through the entire winter, and the darkest part of the year, and we come out in the spring.”
With deft stick-handling, Cohen takes the reader through “the bleak stretches of the season” and onto much more. “I wanted it to be about one season, so I wanted to be about time. Especially for kids, unlike older kids, these kids physically, they’re changing so much, and they’re growing so much, and so much happened in the course of the season—I wanted to try to capture it.”
Spoiler alert: He does.
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