Photo by Samantha Gades on Unsplash

By Beth Johnston

Sports have always been a part of my life. My dad was a high school history teacher who coached JV basketball and football. I grew up as the oldest sibling and only girl in my family, with two younger brothers. Both played a variety of sports, including junior football, baseball, gymnastics, wrestling — just to name a few.

Girls’ sports were limited. I was a cheerleader in high school. We cheered for most of the high school sports at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor. One of my favorites to cheer for was hockey. One time, I was talking to my friend and not paying attention to the game. A puck came flying off the ice and hit me in the eye. This happened right before the homecoming dance, so I had a beautiful black eye for the dance. This was the very first lesson hockey gave me: always pay attention!

Fast forward to my life as the mom of three boys. I really didn’t have any choice but to be immersed in sports. My boys were involved in travel soccer and hockey. My oldest two boys took the travel hockey route, my youngest did the travel soccer route. How we got to hockey, I’m not sure, but I do know it changed our lives on many levels. 

My oldest son started mini-mites in 1996 and he still plays today. Hockey requires commitment and perseverance. There are early morning practices where you get up before dawn, pack up the gear, and head to the rink. When the boys were little, this often required helping them get all their gear on too. Fortunately, little boys don’t stink as much as big boys do, but my boys always hated when it was my turn to take them to a game or practice because I couldn’t tie their skates tight enough.

Hockey is a very physical game. You have to work hard in practice and in games. You can’t give up because your team depends on you. Your team becomes a family. 

Hockey has a lot fewer players than football, so your teammates really depend on you to do your part. If everyone is playing as a team, it becomes a force to be reckoned with. There are five other players out on the ice with you each time you go out for a shift. If you play your position, pay attention, “see” the ice, and hone your stick and puck handling skills, everything runs like a well-oiled machine and you win.

But sometimes you lose. Maybe the other team is just better than yours, or your team has an off-day, or not everyone is doing their part. Losing is part of the game. It becomes a lesson in and of itself. If your team has bonded and become a family, your teammates have your back whether you win or lose.

My oldest son decided he wanted to play goalie. In this position, you are the hero or the heel. As a parent, I always felt ten times worse when my boys were hurting. My heart would hurt for my son when he lost a game as a goalie and he felt responsible. But moms are moms, and kids know we’re always going to be in their corner; it means so much more when the support comes from a friend or coach. I can’t tell you how many times my boys’ teammates could say or do something to make them feel better after a loss. It was heartening to watch these boys lift each other up, kid around, and stick up for each other. Now, mind you, they were boys, so there were times tempers flared, but it was all part of learning how to become a team player.

When hockey teams travel together, the bonding extends to their families. We traveled to Toronto, Chicago, and cities all over Michigan for tournaments. You really get to know people when you travel with them. We all had the common bond of attending the hockey games of our boys, but this extended beyond the rink as we ate, slept, and entertained each other on road trips. I have such fond memories of our hockey road trips. I’ve learned that hockey is a small world.

We became so entrenched in hockey in our house that when the USA NTDP (National Team Developmental Program) for hockey came to Ann Arbor in 1997, we became a host family. We hosted a senior in high school from Sheboygan, Wisconsin the first year and a junior from Alaska the second year. This enhanced our hockey connections and hockey travel. In 1998, my ex and I traveled to Bern, Switzerland to watch the USA team and the player living with us at the time. Our hockey family grew with the addition of these young men who lived with us and the other billet families.

Having a hockey family proved especially important in 1999 when my ex and I separated. I became the housing coordinator for the USA NTDP in Ann Arbor, placing players with local families and checking in with them to make sure all was going well. 

In 2001 my divorce became final, but a custody battle ensued. My boys and I moved from Ann Arbor to Pinckney. In addition to being a single mom of three boys ages thirteen, ten, and eight, I had a full-time job as a school principal in Pinckney and a part-time job with the USA hockey program. As you can imagine, life was stressful and busy. That same year, I was diagnosed with kidney cancer. My hockey family pitched in and helped in more ways than I could list here. 

They often helped me get the boys to their practices and games. If the boys were with their dad, I would still go watch them play. This would’ve been much more difficult without the support of many of the team families who would sit with me in the stands. My heart would begin pounding when I walked into an arena during and after my divorce. My ex and I had a very contentious and bitter divorce, which would often create a high level of discomfort if we were both at an event. There were always a few hockey parents who understood what I was experiencing, and would come sit by me or invite me to sit with them to ease my anxiety. I will be forever grateful for this seemingly small act of kindness.

I had become close to the coach of the USA NTDP, Mike Eaves, and his wife Beth when I was the housing coordinator. They watched our dog once when the boys and I went on vacation, they invited me to Thanksgiving with them when the boys were at their dad’s, and they checked in on me often, even visiting me in the hospital when I was recovering from my cancer surgery. 

Beth Eaves provided a lot of emotional support for me. She began sending me a Christmas gift every year, knowing that the boys were too little to get one for me, and every other year they were with their dad and I was lonely. I would go to USA games with her, and when her boys went on to Boston College to play hockey I would travel with her to games that were within driving distance. One of her sons, Patrick, went on to play professional hockey. Through my friendship with his parents, we became close. He and his dad have often offered the boys and me tickets to college and professional hockey games through the years. Now that Patrick is a dad, his kids refer to me as “Nanny Beth.” Divorce for me was often lonely and stressful; the Eaves family became one of my lifelines. I always felt included and cared about.

I guess the point of all of this is that being part of the hockey world has been a true gift in my life. Not only did it teach my boys many valuable life lessons, but we also learned as a family the true meaning of being part of a sports community. 

A community is a group of people who share something in common; our common thread was hockey. The strong sense of connection still gives me a sense of comfort, friendship, and moral support to this day. They say that it takes a village to raise a child; I’m glad mine was a hockey village.

Beth Johnston

BIO:

Orenda Travel was founded by Beth Johnston, a luxury travel specialist who believes travel holds the unique ability to change lives. Our custom-crafted itineraries speak exclusively to families’ unique needs, passions and sense of adventure. 

Beth was born and raised in Ann Arbor, MI and currently resides in Pinckney, MI. She is a retired elementary educator from Ann Arbor Public School (13 years) and Pinckney Community Schools 17 years). She is married to her husband, Dan and has three sons from her first marriage (ages 30, 28 & 25), a daughter-in-law, with a grandbaby on the way, and 3 step-children. 

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Beth Johnston | Luxury Transformational Travel Concierge

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