Ice Time: A Tale of Fathers, Sons, and Hometown Heroes

Ice Time: A Tale of Fathers, Sons, and Hometown Heroes

4.5 2
by Jay Atkinson

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As kids, we all had passions — something we loved doing, experienced with our friends, dreamed about every spare moment. For Jay Atkinson, who grew up in a small Massachusetts town, it was hockey. When Bobby Orr scored the winning goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup Finals against the St. Louis Blues, Atkinson became a fan for life. In 1975, he played on the first


As kids, we all had passions — something we loved doing, experienced with our friends, dreamed about every spare moment. For Jay Atkinson, who grew up in a small Massachusetts town, it was hockey. When Bobby Orr scored the winning goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup Finals against the St. Louis Blues, Atkinson became a fan for life. In 1975, he played on the first Methuen Rangers varsity hockey team. Once and always a rink rat, Atkinson still plays hockey whenever and wherever he can.

Twenty-five years after he played for the Rangers, Atkinson returns to his high school team as a volunteer assistant. Ice Time tells the team's story as he follows the temperamental star, the fiery but troubled winger, the lovesick goalie, the rookie whose father is battling cancer, and the "old school" coach as the Rangers make a desperate charge into the state tournament. In emotionally vivid detail, Ice Time travels into the rinks, schools, and living rooms of small-town America, where friendships are forged, the rewards of loyalty and perseverance are earned, and boys and girls are transformed into young men and women. Along the way, we also meet his five-year-old son, Liam, who is just now learning the game his father loves.

Whether describing kids playing a moonlit game on a frozen swamp or the crucible of team tryouts and predawn bus rides that he endured himself, Atkinson carves out the drama of adolescence with precision and affection. He takes us onto the ice and into the heart of a town and a team as he explores the profound connection between fathers and sons, and what it means to go home again.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The more I read of Ice Time, the more I was hooked. Far more than just a chronicle of a high school hockey season, Jay Atkinson's book is an evocative, bittersweet, poetic journey of a grown man trying, as we all try, not to recapture youth but to remember the splendor of it."
— H. G. Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights

"Jay Atkinson, in only his second book, has taken himself over the top. For those who have played a sport, and — curiously — for those who never have, this ice-smooth prose will resonate in memory for a long time. About the prose: For the most part, it is quiet, but there is a subtext that renders father-son love and the hard price of victory, as well as the equally hard price of defeat. Somewhere in this book, you will find your heart joyously broken."
— Harry Crews, author of A Childhood: The Biography of a Place
The Barnes & Noble Review
Unlike baseball, hockey is a sport that rarely elicits written sentiment. Yet Jay Atkinson's Ice Time shows that hockey, like America's Pastime, is a lifelong passion that cements the bonds between father and son. Tracking the progress of the Methuen High Rangers, Atkinson pays tribute to the rugged sport in which "if you don't shovel, you can't play."

The 42-year-old author volunteers as assistant coach for the Methuen (Massachusetts) High hockey team. He is unsure of his role, certain only that he wants to give something back to his school and the sport he loves. During the season the author lives vicariously through his charges -- and on occasion laces up the skates and fires a few slap shots himself. As is often the case in these mentoring roles, Atkinson gets as much from the adolescents as they do from him. Between coaching and playing, Atkinson monitors the progress of his five-year-old son, Liam, who skates for the Little Rangers.

Characters on the Methuen Rangers include a goaltender, Dan Bonfiglio, with a pacemaker and a heartache for a girl named Emily. Chris Cagliuso and bad-boy Ryan Fontaine are the team's stars. The extent to which Ryan's slip-ups are policed indicates how seriously the Rangers take their team. The Rangers improve upon their 6-12-2 record of the prior season, and Atkinson captures their climactic run with the skill of an experienced (if somewhat biased) play-by-play announcer.

Ice Time conveys the author's passion for hockey, and his equally fervent desire for Liam to develop that same fire. A feeling of imminent mortality pervades the text, but what the author cannot leave on the ice he can leave for his son. "What could I pass onto Liam," Atkinson asks, "that's more valuable than joy?" (Brenn Jones)

Publishers Weekly
Until now, The Game, by Hall of Fame goaltender and president of the Toronto Maple Leafs Ken Dryden, pretty much stood alone in the annals of great hockey writing. Finally, stiff competition comes from New England author Atkinson, whose year-long study of the high school hockey squad from his alma mater is a bona-fide masterstroke. Cynics might cringe at the Rockwellian town Atkinson describes; certainly it does seem odd in this day and age to follow the antics of some 20 teenagers without one mention of pregnancy, drug abuse or violence. Yet that is precisely the lush and heartwarming portrait Atkinson paints of his hometown of Methuen, Mass., a blue-collar Catholic town split between French Canadians and Italians, where hockey is the common language and obsession. The focal point of Atkinson's book is the game itself, which the author sees as a force of empowerment, family values and community, and most importantly, joy. He strives to share this joy with his five-year old son, Liam, whose pure glee at playing the game and worship of the teenaged players of Methuen High is palpable. Atkinson vividly illustrates the mental and emotional impact the sport has on its players and offers lucid descriptions of game action. The themes of the book may seem quaint hard work, dedication, fairness, faith, camaraderie but that does not in any way lessen its impact. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Widely published three-time Pushcart Prize nominee Atkinson tells the story of the Methuen High Rangers and their quest for the Massachusetts state championship in the 2001-2000 season. Although now a professor of English at Salem State College, Atkinson decided to return to his home community and become the assistant coach of the high school hockey team on which he had played 25 years earlier. This is an observant, evocative book for all readers who remember the days of playing shinny on a frozen pond from sunup to sundown and, if the moon was full, into the night or at least until your mom called you for dinner. Following a young team's single season, it is an emotionally charged, heart-warming tale of personal triumphs, both on and off the ice, of friendship, loyalty, perseverance, and dedicated parents. Many a small town in North America can share the same memories. Recommended. Larry R. Little, Penticton P.L., BC Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Writing part memoir, part chronicle of a high-school hockey season, journalist and novelist Atkinson (Caveman Politics, 1997) takes readers along on his emotional ride as assistant coach of the 1999-2000 Methuen Rangers. Atkinson grew up in Methuen, a one-time working-class town in Massachusetts now undergoing gentrification. Here, he returns to his high-school alma mater, 25 years after he played goalie for the school team, to record the current season. Like the newsman he is, Atkinson keeps his writing of the moment, which works beautifully for this nonstop sport. Hockey is elemental to Methuen, a part of the town's collective identity, corralling entire families to sustain the expenses and long hours demanded from Methuen's still essentially working class team. But a parent could ask for no better coach than Joe Robillard-"We're here to help the kids, plain and simple"-the kind of sportsman who understands that passions are born, not made out of a parent's inflated expectations, that you must work hard for your dreams, but they have to be your dreams to begin with. As Robillard puts his team through their paces, Atkinson laces the narrative with his personal experiences with hockey-from the pure, near-ancestral, qualities of pond hockey, through his high-school days, to his current old-man's league-and proud, big-hearted stories of his five-year-old son's early hockey experiences. Atkinson has evocative power, whether it be in describing the olfactory insult of a hockey locker room, the ebullience that attends a sharply played game, the sound of skates, cutting over ice, echoing off a far hillside, remembering the dedication of his father and hoping he can measure himself by thatstandard, or detailing the tribulations of high-school life: parents with cancer, loser friends, making mistakes and making amends, and hormones, hormones, hormones. An artful class portrait of a town seen through the lens of a game, a tight-throated personal journey back into youth, and a keen description of the life force that hockey can be.

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Crown Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt



I had two upbringings. Coming of age in Methuen, Massachusetts, a small, bowtie-shaped community on the New Hampshire border, my buddies and I went to public school, attended Mass on Sundays, and joined a benign paramilitary organization known as the Cub Scouts. For fun, sometimes we threw rocks at cars or rode around on our Stingray bicycles, singing “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees!” Among the densely packed three deckers, in a neighborhood bounded by asphalt, we played football and baseball on the street, sewer cap to sewer cap. As far as we knew, this was life.

In the summer of 1968 just after I turned 11, my father got a new job and we moved across town to Central Street: larger, more well-appointed homes, vast lawns that doubled as playing fields, and within a half-mile radius, two small ponds and a tree-lined swamp. When the leaves fell off the trees and November passed into December, the swamp froze over, and I was introduced to a different world from the one I had known. Here the sport of choice was ice hockey (and when the ponds melted, street hockey). Dad bought me a pair of skates and a straight-bladed Victoriaville stick. I was in business.

But what sets hockey apart from sports like football and baseball is that you can’t simply go out there and play. Of course you’re welcome to try, in the sense that, theoretically, you can climb into the family jalopy and enter the Indy 500. It’s just that your chances of being competitive are pretty slim. To excel at hockey—to sail over the ice throwing body checks, dodging your opponents, and blasting the puck into the net—you have to first master the rudiments of skating. An odd and esoteric skill, perhaps, but one that’s completely necessary.

Most of the kids in my new neighborhood had been skating for two or three years, and some had been lacing up the blades even longer than that. They swooped across Lynch’s swamp in graceful arcs, like they had a special dispensation to reduce gravity. Eventually I gained the courage to join them, wobbling around in a little half-circle as players from both teams whizzed past on either side. But there was something strangely invigorating about all that cold clear air, and the echo of sticks and pucks against the snow-padded hillside.

One night a certain kid failed to show up, and they asked me to play goalie. At the end of the swamp closest to the streetlight, there was a “net” that someone had knocked together from two-by-fours and rusty chicken wire. I was handed a pair of battered sofa cushions for leg pads and an old catcher’s mask and first baseman’s mitt, and directed into the crease. The game began and one of the players on the other team streaked toward me. He rifled a shot on goal, and I came sliding out and knocked it aside. My teammates cheered, as the loose puck was gathered up and they all went zooming the other way. Using the blade of my stick, I cleared ice shavings from in front of the net, like an old pro. In that instant, I discovered my passion for the sport.

As I worked on my skating and played hockey for hours at a time, I found my knack for the game increasing. We played every day after school and I would clomp home from the swamp wearing rubber guards over my blades, and my mother would spread newspapers under the kitchen table so I could have dinner without untying my skates. Then afterwards, I would go back out and play another game in the moonlight. Once you get the hang of it, hockey is a fantastic, leg-burning workout, the puck zinging up and down like a giant game of pinball. You receive a special kind of thrill from making a velvety pass, or blasting an accurate shot on the fly. And there’s nothing like the quick geometry of a carom that goes from the blade of your stick into the back of the net.

From Lynch’s swamp we moved on to the dank, cavernous rinks of the North Shore, huge, corrugated-metal sheds that resembled airplane hangars. By the age of 13, I was one of the goalies for a team called the Methuen Flyers, in a men’s league where most of the players drove cars spray-painted “Colt-45” and drank beer and smoked cigarettes in the locker room. There were bloody fights on the ice, in the stands, and outside in the parking lot. The games were usually played after midnight and I was scared to death, but my pals and I were hockey fanatics. Several nights a week, we’d gather in someone’s living room to watch the Boston Bruins slug it out with other NHL teams on Channel 38. Urged along by the Bruins popularity, we became the first generation of Methuen rink rats.

Unlikely as it may sound, the explosion of hockey in towns like Methuen can be traced to a particular moment. In what has been called the most famous hockey photograph ever taken, 22-year-old Bruins’ sensation Bobby Orr is depicted scoring the winning goal against St. Louis in the 1970 Stanley Cup Finals. Half a second after being tripped by St. Louis Blues defenseman Noel Picard, Orr was captured flying through the air, his stick raised, mouth curved into an exultant ovoid. Many New Englanders remember that image the way they recall where they were the day Jack Kennedy was assassinated. More than any other single moment in the history of sport, Bobby Orr’s goal led the way into hockey for a massive army of players and fans. If Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships, Orr’s feat gave birth to half a million shin pads and twice as many bumps and bruises.

In November 1974, I was a senior when Methuen High School announced the formation of its very first varsity hockey squad. Coach Bruce Parker’s tryouts, which were grueling and lasted a week, attracted twice the number of players who would make the team. (There were ten goalies vying for what turned out to be four spots—including my childhood rival, Mike Lebel, an agile six-footer with blazing red hair.) During the initial practice, I finished last in a long, lung-searing drill and while I leaned against the boards, gasping and sputtering, Coach Parker, a noted disciplinarian, boomed out, “Welcome to high school hockey, Mr. Atkinson.” Being singled out was embarrassing, but it also gave me hope: the coach knew my name and was charting my progress, however meager.

On Friday afternoon, the roster was posted on the door to the Athletic Department office. Running up to examine it, some kids whooped and cheered, and others turned away with drooping faces or kicked at the wall in disgust. When I finally approached and saw my name next to the number 28 that I had been assigned to wear, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. (Almost a third of the varsity came from our little neighborhood; Mike Lebel and some of the rest came from the west end of town, and Hank Marrone and Ronnie DiCenso and the other Italian kids lived in the east end.) Twenty hockey players would wear Ranger jerseys for the first time—and I was one of them.

My memories of that season are indelible. Methuen’s new high school and rink were still under construction, and that first year—my only year, since I was a senior—training was held before school in the morning. In darkness we rode a silent, chilly bus from our locker room beside the football stadium to the rink at Brooks School in North Andover. By 5 a.m., we were on the ice for practices that turned some kids’ stomachs inside out. (The basketball and wrestling teams practiced at 2:30 p.m. in the high school gym, a comparatively luxurious arrangement.) But these sacrifices made the hockey team an elite group, and the envy of many of our classmates.

We only won five games out of twenty-one in 1974–75 and my ice time was limited, since I wouldn’t be returning the next year. But I can’t think of that season without thinking of my father, Jim Atkinson. Over the course of my career, he spent as much time in rinks as I did, although he never played hockey and didn’t have an athletic bone in his body. My dad was a big, bearded man with a funny, toe-stabbing way of walking, flat-footed as a duck, the kind of guy who wore linen suits and drank vodka-cranberry year-round. A little too short for his weight, too loud on the telephone; nearsighted, flatulent in the evenings, but calm, principled, punctual, and true. Rushing in the dark to various rinks and back home again, we used to talk about hockey, about how I was doing in school, my girlfriend, a little bit of everything. In fact, when I started to get into trouble as a teenager and my father nearly kicked me out of the house, riding to hockey games together was about the only time we did talk. I understand now that Jim Atkinson came to love those crummy old rinks because they allowed him to stay close to me. He was a pretty smart guy that way.

I picture my dad in the bleachers, wearing the blue-plaid Nova Scotia tam he always brought to my games. It’s the very early hours of the morning—there’s nobody in the rink except the players and a few parents—and he’s sitting there blowing on the hot edge of his tea and watching us limber up. The referee floats out from the timekeeper’s box, the game starts, and the players go charging back and forth. Suddenly the other team races into our zone and somebody cranks up a shot. I jab at the air, the puck goes thwack into my catching glove and from the shadowy region beyond the glass, I hear, “Way to go, Jay.” It was always good to have him there: my witness.

My old man died in the summer of 1983. He was buried on the Fourth of July, a bright, temperate, almost iridescent day, the kind of day when we were young my father would pile us all into the car for a drive to the beach. I got home just as the afternoon began to lose its hard currency and the stubbled lawns were diffused into particles with the passing of daylight into dusk. The bigger houses along the street, set back and framed with hedges, were still. On either side, giant shade trees doubled in the shadows and left the substance of everything in doubt except the single white line that ran down the center of the road. Somewhere over the housetops a band was playing, drumbeats rattling over the shingles and dormers. Less than a mile away, at Nicholson Stadium, the fireworks began as small, shivering lines of red, whistling up into the night sky.

The windowpanes shook all along the porchfront. Then there was a long sputtering trail of sparks and boom—See ya, Dad. See you after midnight, loading up our old station wagon with my goalie stick and pads. See you outside the locker room, winking at me as the players clack over the rubber mats and dart onto the ice. See you in the lobby of all those seedy rinks, jangling your car keys and stamping your feet, no good reason to be freezing your ass off at 2:30 in the morning. No reason at all, except for me.

Today, I have a 5-year-old son named Liam who’s been playing hockey since before he could walk, with an upturned laundry basket as the net and a spatula for a stick. Liam is a little over three feet tall, with hair a dirty gold color and earnest brown eyes, a snub nose, and full lips. His closet is already packed with various hockey jerseys, and he sleeps beneath a framed photograph of Bobby Orr, in the home whites of the Boston Bruins, his hair a-flutter as he soars up ice. Around here, Orr is the alpha and the omega as far as hockey players go. And although he hasn’t played in more than twenty years, the former Bruins’ defenseman is my son’s hero. An apparition on grainy old videotape, Bobby Orr is just the sort of mythic figure a boy should look up to. He was a superior presence on the ice, no scandal ever tainted his career, and my mother loved him—in that maternal way that icons should be loved.

Once or twice a week, Liam and I turn up for public skating at Methuen High School, cruising in a giant circle while kids of all ages go waltzing past. Three years ago Liam started out on double-runners, pushing a milk crate around the ice, and soon could glide around the rink unassisted. But his skating prowess aside, it’s in the breezeway at home where my son’s immersion in the sport has really taken place. After supper most evenings, we carry out the net and plastic sticks and Liam dons an array of miniature equipment. Each game begins with the lights turned down and the singing of the national anthem. I’m the goalie, the referee, and the play-by-play announcer, but Liam’s the star.

Lately I notice that my son’s technique is improving, and it won’t be long until I have to make an effort to compete with him—first a small one, then more and more, until soon enough, no amount of whirling and scrambling on my part will be sufficient. Because, of course, as Liam discovers his game, I’ll lose mine. I still play hockey a few times a week during the winter and stay in pretty good shape year-round, but I’m 42 years old and feel my love of hockey being threatened by life’s responsibilities as much as the creaking in my knees. Liam’s growing interest in the sport makes me realize that it’s time to give something back: to my hometown, my old team, and to the local kids. So a quarter century after I took off my varsity jersey for the last time, I’m returning this year as a volunteer assistant with the Methuen Rangers and enrolling Liam in the youth hockey program.

As a community, Methuen is split between old habits and loyalties, and the dubious promise of something better. Pull off the highway into Mamma Mary’s restaurant and you’ll find Charlie Bonanno at the grill, serving up his famous omelet-on-a-toasted heel. The place looks like a Sicilian funeral home with its blood-red wallpaper and carpets, faux Tiffany lamps, and a smattering of bad oil paintings. Ranged along the counter, slack-bellied tradesmen discuss the upcoming mayoral race and which of two Italian-American candidates they will vote for. One of the regulars seated there announces that his son will play for the varsity hockey team this season, the others murmur and nod, and Charlie throws another heel onto the grill.

With a population of 40,000, this is small-town America, where everyone not only knows your name but they knew your father’s and your grandfather’s name and what they did for a living and who they chummed around with. Hockey is part of Methuen’s culture, where fathers and mothers work extra shifts to afford their kid’s ice time and frayed hockey pants and tattered gloves get passed down from sister to brother. And though hardly anyone learns the game outdoors these days, the districts that produce the best players remain intact: the Italian east end, the west side with its town forest and lake, and the area around Central Street.

But like a lot of New England towns with open space, Methuen is growing and gentrifying; three-hundred-thousand-dollar homes are popping up like mushrooms, and the character of its blue-collar neighborhoods is disappearing. While Charlie Bonanno serves up homemade sausage to his clientele of plumbers and roofers and stonemasons, a fleet of Volvos and BMWs sail past on Merrimack Street, their occupants scarfing down bagels and yakking on their cell phones. At the local grocery store, these young Rockefellers stalk around like whippets with their bony jaws and high-haired, slender wives. All they care about is money and golf.

Methuen still draws most of its hockey players from among the sons and daughters of the firefighters, electricians, postal workers, and schoolteachers who live in modest one- and two-family homes and have traditionally made up the largest segment of the town’s population. Oddly enough, a significant number of Methuen’s best athletes don’t even play sports in high school. Instead they get after-school jobs, not because their families are poor, but simply because they have grown up with the habit of work. Like their parents, they see regular employment (certainly not basketball or football, and sometimes not even college) as the way to get ahead.

Underneath all this, hockey is ingrained into Methuen’s collective identity. Alone among the major sports, it often requires the commitment of an entire family for an individual player to excel. The equipment and ice time are expensive, the hours at the rink are long and late, and it takes many years for a kid to master the elements of skating and team play.

Because of the requisite dedication, it tends to be a sport that people stick with. In my heart, I believe my son will become a hockey player and that he probably already is one. After all, I learned the benefits of teamwork and hustle and persistence and made most of my deepest friendships at the rink. If Liam does decide to play, I’ll be there to lug his equipment, offer a few tips, and provide him with encouragement, just as my father did for me.

The pinnacle for most local kids is to finish his or her career playing for Methuen High. Over the years, the Rangers have produced a handful of prospects who’ve gone on to play for colleges like Plymouth State and Babson and St. Michael’s. But mostly they graduate to the industrial leagues around Boston, or to Sunday night pickup games with their old buddies, where the goalies are suspect and the players end up reminiscing and drinking beer in the high school parking lot. However, the current Ranger hockey team is loaded with experience at just about every position: an all-star goalie, tons of speed, and a handful of dangerous goal scorers. After twelve years of playing together and the rising expectation that this will be a benchmark season, these kids have something to prove.

I have often fantasized about going back to high school, to take one more shot at that defining period in my life. This book details my return to Methuen High after twenty-five years, in order to discover what it was about my experiences there and on the ice that shaped me and my future. At the same time, I examine a group of teenagers and their parents and coaches, revealing in their quest the struggles that kids and parents everywhere must contend with. My intention is to usher readers back to a galvanizing experience, when dreams were born and life was a vague corridor that waited mostly up ahead.

So as the Methuen Rangers set out on their quest, I’m poised on the brink of middle age, my hometown is filling up with strangers, and my young son is just catching on to the sport that will help determine his identity. As an assistant coach, I’ll be there to see the most talented Ranger team in over a decade go through the crucible of tryouts and cuts, the big games, the bus rides, and to relive that one year that helped make me who I am today.

Meet the Author

Jay Atkinson is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Caveman Politics. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe and Boston Herald and has been syndicated by the New York Times. He teaches writing at Salem State College and lives in Methuen, Massachusetts.

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Ice Time: A Tale of Fathers, Sons, and Hometown Heroes 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've read this book the last few years at the beginning of the hockey season. Motivates me to get out there and enjoy my son playing hockey at basically the same age. Like the setting in Massachusetts even though I don't live there. I think it describes how teenage sports in America now are. I've coached kids in this age range for most of the last decade mainly in football but this is pretty much spot on to how they all act. Reminds me a lot of Friday Night Lights... kind of maybe the hockey version of it. Albeit I like it much better than that!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ice Time tells a touching story of recapturing youth and being a true role model. After returning back to his hometown, Jay Atkinson began to volunteer with his old hockey team at Methuen High. For author Jay Atkinson hockey was his youth, it meant everything to him and helped him grow into the man he became. At the time the book was written, Atkinson was 42 years old with a 5 year old son , he used his volunteer time with the Methuen Rangers to teach his son why hockey was so important to him. He hoped the same sport that brought value and joy when he was younger would soon be passed on in his family legacy. Prevalent themes throughout the novel are discipline, father-son relationships, and the love of the game. The only objection I was the author getting distracted in his writing and often going off on a tangent. However, I enjoyed the non-censored simple tale of Methuen hockey and although Atkinson started out volunteering was to teach the kids, he ends up learning more about himself and being a role model then he ever thought he would. Ice Time is an inspirational story about the great sport of hockey and the impact it continues to have on kids of all ages.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Jay writes with a style so descriptive, that you can picture it in your head so vividly, you would think that you were watching a movie. Jay outdid himself with Caveman Politics, and did one better with Ice Time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a former high school hockey coach and retired teacher, this is a must read for coaches, teachers and parents. Times have changed in the last ten years and parents must understand their roles in todays society and cannot expect teachers and coaches to do the job that is theirs alone.