Tenacious, Yes, but Forget the Lipstick
Palin's Background As a Hockey Mom Puts a Spotlight On Intense Culture

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 6, 2008

At her daughter's school in Silver Spring, three people asked Colleen Thompson about her lipstick one day -- not that she was wearing any.

But she laughed, knowing that as the presidential election has veered into the final stretch, her world as a hockey mom is getting a lot of attention: a subculture of mothers who pass large parts of their lives watching their kids fly across frozen arenas flinging rubber pucks.

In the laugh line of her speech at the Republican convention, GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin described the difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom.

"Lipstick," she deadpanned.

In other elections, the political spotlight has fallen on NASCAR dads and soccer moms. This time, the governor of Alaska has magnetized a lesser-known subspecies of the American electorate. She introduced herself as an average hockey mom and gave them their due in her debate Thursday night with Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.).

So it is that Thompson, 43, a mother of three hockey players who never wears makeup, has been fielding jokes about her makeup. "This moment is kind of fun," Thompson said, pointing out that public notice of hockey parents tends to lean toward brawling dads.

Some say hockey moms (and dads) are not very different from other passionate sports parents. But others say that hockey in the Washington region stands out for its high cost, the long-distance travel required in highly competitive leagues and the intensity of the family lifestyle that often can go with it.

"The hockey mom seems to be the soccer mom on steroids," offered Matthew Grose, general manager of the SkateQuest rink in Reston, where an hour on the ice costs $325 and teams are run in large part on volunteer hours that parents put in.

As in other sports, hockey has its share of parents who are too loud, argue with referees, lobby coaches for extra playing time and proclaim their children's futures in professional leagues. Still, Bob Weiss, executive director of the Montgomery Youth Hockey Association, said that "95 percent of the parents at a game are respectful of the game and the opponent and the referees."

Some mothers have embraced the sport so fully that they have taken classes offered by the Washington Capitals to learn the fine points of the game. Some buy season tickets. In Reston, a group of moms has hit the ice themselves, forming their own team.

"Everything revolves around the hockey schedule," said Ingrid Constantine, 45, a Reston mother of three, including two hockey players. "I can't plan my piano lessons or my religious education classes until I know my hockey schedule."

Dinners and holidays get sacrificed as the season picks up. Julie Butler, 44, a Rockville mother of three, recalled the "many Thanksgivings when we had to eat at 2 so we could leave by 4" because there was a tournament the next morning in a distant city.

Penny Skarupa, 46, mom of two hockey players in Rockville, said this year's Thanksgiving will be celebrated in a Boston hotel because her 14-year-old daughter has a tournament there that weekend; extended family members are joining them, too.

When it comes to Sunday church services, another mom jokes, "We all pray to the hockey god."

Most kid sports have weather cancellations, but rarely does hockey. Susan Farha, 52, said that once, after a big snowfall, she made it to the rink, only to discover an unheard-of cancellation. Still, she felt triumphant. "I stood there and thought: Oh, I am such a hockey mom."

Theresa Thompson, 38, a Manassas mother of three hockey players, said her family skipped their beach vacation this summer, opting instead for a trip in January to Minnesota, where her children will play pond hockey and see elite college-level games. "My middle child wants to move to Canada," she said.

Hockey moms talk about weekend practices as early as 6 a.m., sitting bleary-eyed in the bleachers with coffee in hand. They talk about the extreme odor that seems to attach to their children's often-damp gear, which no amount of soap or washing gets out, and the cold stands where they sit and watch.

"I wear thermal underwear from September to May," Thompson said.

With all there is to do, said Kelly Tierney, 39, of Arlington County, a mother can find herself with little time to herself. "I would love to have time to put on lipstick on a daily basis," she said.

Into this way of life and intensity has come a big gust of political wind in the candidacy of Palin.

Across the country, more than 350,000 youths 19 and younger play organized hockey, including 9,200 in Maryland, Virginia and the District, according to USA Hockey, the national governing body for hockey in the United States.

Palin's eldest son, Track, played hockey through high school. Plenty of hockey moms see her as one of their own. Yet, in the Washington area -- not a classic northern outpost for the sport -- hockey moms are of many political persuasions.

Thompson said she is an undecided voter and might or might not vote for the ticket of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Palin, but she said that Palin's strength is that she appears authentic. "She seems not as polished, just sort of off-the-cuff, more true to herself," she said.

Farha's son, Griffin, is a goalie on the Churchill High School team and plays AA travel hockey. A day after the Palin speech, she decided to create her own bumper stickers: "Hockey Mama for Obama."

She gave 50 of them to like-minded friends and ordered another 50.

"It just came to me one day in the shower," said Farha, of Potomac. "I wanted people to know that not all hockey moms necessarily agree with Governor Palin," she said.

How Palin's vision of pit bull hockey moms fits into the hockey world of Washington is debatable. Chris Kelly, president of the Reston Raiders, jokes that "anyone who doesn't think hockey moms are pit bulls hasn't been around this club."

But not all hockey moms see such ferocity in themselves. Reyne Salacain, 46, an Ashburn mom of two hockey players, puts it this way: "I was kind of thinking more of the dog I have, a retriever. You go and get things all the time, and you're warm and friendly."

No one seems to doubt that a life of hockey requires a certain tenacity.

With three seriously hockey-minded children, Colleen Thompson said that in the past year she has been to 160 hockey games. Maybe 180, she amends.

"Too many," she said with a laugh.

Thompson has two part-time jobs, as an office manager and a Realtor, which allow her to take long tournament weekends when they come up.

The odometer in her Toyota Highlander reads 57,800 -- nearly all "hockey miles" -- logging not only local play in Rockville, Bethesda, College Park and Laurel, but also trips in the past year to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Rochester, N.Y., New Jersey, Connecticut, North Carolina and Florida.

Last year's cost for four travel teams her three children played on: about $40,000, including out-of-town travel expenses.

There are nights when she finds herself driving down an interstate with sleeping players in the back seat. Sometimes she asks herself, bemused: "What are we doing on this road right now? This is insane. This is too much."

There is a toll.

"My house is a testament. It's falling down around me," she jokes. Laundry piles up. Dinners are simple. "There's lots of rotisserie chicken and salad-in-a-bag."

Her children sleep or do homework along the way. All three -- two teenage sons and a preteen daughter -- are also committed to academics, she said, and do the work it takes to get A's in spite of hockey's considerable commitment.

How hockey became such a force in their family life is not quite clear. Her husband played pond hockey growing up, but she knew nothing about it the day she walked into the Gardens Ice House in Laurel with her sons, then ages 4 and 5. "That looks like fun," she recalls thinking. "We should let them try that."

Her sons, R.J., 16, and Kevin, 14, have played hockey ever since, and her daughter, Meghan, 12, started almost eight years ago. She and her husband, Peter, sometimes have to split travel duties, although it is easier this year, with both sons playing for DeMatha High School.

Thompson acknowledges it can be a violent game and recalls instances in heated games when one son or the other was down on the ice. She could barely stand to watch. "Is he up yet?" she has asked another parent before she looked. But her children love the game and have never considered giving it up.

A few nights ago, Thompson did some online research on pit bulls, wondering which of their traits were the same as those of a hockey mom. She read that they were tenacious but adaptable working dogs.

"I guess in a way that's what hockey moms do," she said. "You see your kid and you see something they are passionate about, and you just try to facilitate that."

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