Monday, March 25, 2013

I've Paid My Dues Time After Time, Well, Not Really


 When my son started playing hockey this past fall I was happy that he wanted to give it a whirl and hopeful that he would enjoy my favourite sport. And he did, falling head over heels for the game, this despite being, um, well, not very good. He was the smallest player on the team and the weakest skater and he would touch the puck once or twice a game. Jenn hated it, hated seeing him struggle so obviously. It was like watching one of those shows like The Office where you cringe at what is going on but can't pull yourself away from it.

 The boy is laconic, one word answers are his forte, if he were ever to make the pros he'd be the perfect interview, no Crash Davis training needed there, so when I asked him if he had fun and he said 'yes' and what he thought about hockey he would say 'good' but he would say both with a stone face that would make Dion Phaneuf jealous and I worried that he was just going along for the ride, just trying to please me.

 Except it became clear that he did love the game and that he was having fun and soon he was asking me to sign him up for next season and hockey camp and summer hockey and the whole deal. And when winter came to Toronto and they put ice down at the park one street over we started going over to skate and play some shinny and then all of a sudden when the Sharks hit the ice every Saturday morning the boy was in the play more and more, getting to the puck, going to the net, banging along the boards.

 And he wasn't alone. For most of his teammates it was their first crack at organized hockey. There is a three goal rule in the league so each player is allowed a maximum of a hattrick in the game and in the fall one player, a fantastic skater and stickhandler who could put the puck top corner, would invariably score three goals by the second period and then the team would get reeled in and lose 4-3 or 5-4. Their goalie struggled, the D was a bit of a mishmash and up front there was a lot of try but no finish.

 And then one by one they began to get it. They learned their positions and the simple truths about the game - keep skating, stick on the ice, go to the net - and suddenly they began to tear through the league. They won their last five games and while the team's star was still scoring his three goals his teammates were also scoring. Whereas players once put their head down and went solo and stuffed it into the opposing goalies' pads now their were passes and rebounds and accurate shots from the slot. The only weakness was a goaltender whose confidence was clearly shot. While his teammates would score seven or eight he would allow four or five and usually the majority of those were, erm, not so great.

 And then just before playoffs started a practice and the coaches (who were fantastic) worked with everyone on defending and with the young keeper on some basics (and some encouragement) and so when the round robin came they kept on rolling and other than one stinker in the first game the young goalie was solid and so there were three more wins to make it eight in a row and to clinch a trip to the championship. The last of these wins was over their main rival and eliminated them and so the final was to be against an opponent who they had beaten every time, a team that had managed to score a lot against them but who had also allowed a ton. So things were looking good.

 Except in the round robin game against that same team there had been times where it had been the goalie and good luck that had stood between them and a poor result and so when my son smiled when he heard the opponent I reminded him that that same team had beaten their rival to get in and that in one game anything can happen.

 The morning of the game the boy was calm and I told him what I tell him before every game - do your best, go to the net, stick on the ice, have fun - and he just nodded and said 'I know' and then he got his helmet on and went out with his teammates. The coach, a good friend of mine, was a wreck and once they dropped the puck I wasn't much better.

 It was a funny game, a typical hockey game really. The boy's team played a perfect game basically and yet the game was in doubt. Everyone contributed from the top of the roster to the bottom, as it should be and, on this day, as was necessary because their opponent, while overmatched, was tenacious. While the Sharks' superstar scored early on the rest of the game he was shut down and while his line's forechecking (that's my boy!) kept the other team bottled up on every shift that was all he would get on this day.

 But the coach's son (and my son's buddy) scored in the first to make it 2-0 and then again in the second to make it 3-0 and it looked like they were home and cooled finally after that one. The defence shut down the other team almost completely and when they did break through the little goalie turned everything aside.

 But its hockey. When it was 2-0 a puck squirted out front to their winger who had the whole open net only to see it bounce over his stick and away from harm. So while the boy said later that on the bench that after the third goal he began to think that they could do it behind the bench and in the stands the nerves were still jangling and when they scored with seven minutes left to make it 3-1, well, I was a bit of a wreck and on the bench my son said that his nerves returned as well. (As an aside he said after the game that he was nervous before the game but once it started he just played and forgot about it - just like a pro ;) )

 They have a buzzer system, its a three minute shift at a time and so the boy and his linemates were on the bench for the last six minutes. The other team barely got over the red line and then there were three minutes left and they pulled their goalie and the Sharks got a penalty and so it was six players to four for the last two minutes and so we waited and waited and waited and watched as three boys and one girl cleared the zone and then cleared it again and then pushed their last attack to the boards, stops and starts, no lazy looping turns, and pursuit until the buzzer went and gloves and sticks flew into the air and they poured off the bench to hug and chase their laughing goalie around as they tried to pull him down to pile on top of him.

 And so my son, in his first year of hockey, is a champion, the same number of times as I have won in ~ 30 seasons or so of playing. The little bugger. ;)

 But all kidding aside what an introduction to the wonderful game of hockey. Tremendous coaches, a team on which every player got better and learned and had a great time and finally a championship of which every player could say, honestly, I was a part of it.
 It will be tough to top based on the smile on my son's face which has been there since Saturday morning. But he'll try.

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