The next thing to learn is to skate on your sides, from inside to outside and behind, depending on what you need to do. You can start learning this by lifting your skate and sitting back while standing still. On the ice rink in Queens or at my dad’s pond and even a few times on the little koi pond in our community garden, which froze nicely when it was cold, Raffi and I stood opposite each other and raised our hands like lions and pounding back and forth from foot to foot and roaring at each other. It was our fringe work. Occasionally he fell and rose again in the manner of textbooks.
But beyond that, it gets too complicated. Furthermore, you had to start moving. Ideally, your feet should protrude slightly and push from the inside, first skating from one and then the other. This is easier said than done. I would try to explain it, and Raffi would get frustrated. I would try to make him wise by doing this, but he did not like it either. He would inevitably end up in tears – out of anger at his slow progress or because he fell and hurt himself, or maybe just because he was cold. Sometimes, especially on the ice rink in Queens, he would lie on the ice and start eating snow. “It’s disgusting,” I would say, because people always spit and blow their noses on the ice, but that would only make him want to do more. At that point, I would feel like I had reached the end of my pedagogical potential when it came to Raffi and ice hockey.
How did others do it? My own father was an amateur boxer in Moscow and stayed in shape until middle age, but he never put me under pressure to do sports and did not send me to the garden to improve my game. He certainly enrolled me in all the teams and he drove me to all the games, but later, when I was in college, and spent 30 hours a week in the football team to pick up weights and exercise and watch movies – all for a sport I was too small and too slow and too talentless to play at university level – my dad persuaded me to quit. I told him that I’m thinking of quitting, that I find it difficult to play football and keep up with my classes, but that I have an idea, a hypertrophic version of Coach Kojoyian’s old idea, about how the virtues of male fighting were central to one’s education. My father rejected it. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘after the war, many of the men who returned, who were very physically brave in the fight against the Germans, proved to be moral cowards in the face of political pressure’ – from Stalinism. My father, who beat out anti-Semites in the streets of Moscow, thought that moral courage, which could not be cultivated on a soccer field, was far more important than physical courage, which probably could. A few weeks later I went in to the coach and stopped.
Of course there are other types of fathers and more talented sons.
In the world of hockey, Walter Gretzky is by far the most famous father, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 82. As a youth in Ontario, Walter was a promising hockey player, but he was too small and skinny to make the leap to the pros. After high school, he went to work for Bell Canada and set up phone lines. He was married young. In 1961, when he was 22, he and his wife Phyllis had their first child, Wayne.
The story of Wayne Gretzky’s youthful achievements has been told many times. Walter put him on skates when he was 2. Wayne seems to like it. On Saturday nights, the family goes to the farm of Walter’s parents and watches ‘Hockey Night in Canada’. Between periods, little Wayne liked to grab a small stick and practice on his grandmother. The winter that Wayne became 4, Walter built him a track in the backyard. At 6, Wayne tried for the youngest local hockey team – for 10-year-olds. Wayne made the team. In the first season, as a 6-year-old, he scored just one goal. Four years later, as a ten-year-old, he scored 378. Eventually he would achieve every conceivable record.
In Canada, Walter, or ‘Wally’, is almost as famous as Wayne. After all, you could not get up and become Wayne Gretzky. But you can become Walter Gretzky – that is, a man who encourages the talent of your descendants, who is prone to it, who does enough to continue it without destroying it. And the question becomes: How much did Walter Wayne push?
Here the narratives become contradictory. Wayne, in his autobiography, says that from a young age he was hockey-mad, that he would not stop skating and that Walter ultimately had no choice but to build a track in the backyard. But Walter admits in his autobiography that he bought their house not long after Wayne was born, specifically because it had a flat yard on which he could one day build a job. There was a clear push and pull – a driven father, a child who was gifted prematurely – and at this distance it is impossible to know which of them dominates.