It was my fault. I made that known to the coaches. They could hang the loss on me.
The first Saturday morning of December brought about Alex’s turn between the pipes for the Red Wings. Thanks to my mix-up involving practice times, the poor kid never got a chance to hit the ice in all the goalie gear. Two evenings of intense dry land training is, alas, a poor substitute for the real thing. If Alex had been starting in net for a ball hockey game, he would have rocked.
Instead, he had his world rocked.
On this Saturday morning seemingly every puck found the back of the net. The first goal was a deke, which I warned the kid about, advising him not to bite on the shoulder drop, but what does Dad know? 1-0 Bruins.
No problem. Forget that fancy crap, Alexander was ready to stop some actual shots. C’mon, take your best aim and come out firing.
Which the Bruins did. And with great success. The first six shots went up on the big board as goals.
With each puck that eluded him, Alex looked over to me with a quizzical stare, as if to say “This isn’t supposed to be happening this way”. I finally had to leave my perch along the boards, because I didn’t want the Wings’ coaches to think I was coaching him during the game.
Technically, Alex did everything right. His stance was pretty solid, the glove hand up just high enough, the stick blade flush with the ice. He stood on his skates like he’d been playing the position for years, when most kids this age struggle to maintain their balance. (Hint: since kids at this level don’t usually wear goalie skates, make sure the blades are dull. Better for balance. But, make sure you get them sharpened afterwards. More on that in a moment).
It’s when he was forced to move that things fell apart. Sort of like Carey Price a couple of seasons ago.
I beat a hasty retreat up the stairs, and sat with the wife, who never likes it when her baby is in net. It was 4-0 after one period, and only because the Bruins could only muster four shots.
If the young guy in net for the Wings last week was back between the pipes for this game, and Alex had been back out on the ice with Jacob, then the Wings would probably have been the team up by four. More importantly, if Alex had received the benefit of a practice in net, then chances are only the deke would have eluded him. Yup, they can hang this loss squarely on me.
When the first two shots of the second period also went in, including a painfully slow R.A. Dickey knuckleball from the corner, I wanted to scoop the boy up and take him home. He discovered that I had moved up to the gallery, and after each goal, glanced up in my direction. Trying to burning a hole through me? Piling on the guilt? Maybe, but I think he was just looking for support. The sixth goal that went in was a good one, and I gave him the double thumbs up. Hey kid, we’re in this together.
The parents were subdued; most of them had seen their sons go through the same rough patch when it was their turn on the docket. The Bruins’ parents celebrated the first few goals with understandably unbridled passion, but as the totals piled up, they pulled back on the reins somewhat. The gesture was appreciated.
I love goaltenders. Was one myself, though never at a high level. Loved putting on the equipment. Loved the anticipation of a shot, or reading a passing play. Lived for the scramble around the net, trying to pick up the puck through a sea of bodies.
My favourite move, more successful than you’d think, was made during such a scramble. Down on the ice, the puck on the opposing forward’s stick as he skated towards the seemingly open cage. He’d fire a shot, only to have my glove hand dart out of nowhere, and snare the puck. Without fail, every time that happened, the aggrieved party would spew forth a litany of swear words as they skated up to me, pointing out I was lucky they had shot it into my glove.
Sure buddy, whatever you think. Just keep falling for it.
(Apparently I’m not the only one who never got over my love for the crease; a couple of weeks after Alex’s turn in net, Sidney Crosby put on the gear in an organized ball hockey game in Ohio Township, Pennsylvania. He backstopped the Pilots to a 4-0 win).
Playing the position spoke of something deep within my psyche, a definite saviour-martyr complex.
For no matter how well you play in net, no matter how heroically you fling yourself at the puck, the best you can do is keep the game even. Your play can never give your team the lead. Yes, a few goaltenders have scored goals, but they’ve all been into empty nets…when their team’s were winning.
“Don’t worry fellas, I’ll hold off the Jerries until reinforcements arrive. You lads get the heck out of here! Don’t worry about me”. Stiff upper lip, stolid British reserve, and all that sort of stuff. Which is the mindset I was hoping Alexander was drawing from as the score piled up.
The upside of all the goals against was confirmation that Alexander wasn’t going to be a goaltender. No need to worry about costly equipment that had to be upgraded every autumn, no need to fret about our son being the last line of defence, and the glares and whispers and knowing glances from the other parents.
Nope, our kid is being beaten in net like a rented mule, to quote Mike Lange.
Except that suddenly he wasn’t anymore. Amazing what two saves in-a-row can do for one’s perception.
As the Bruin cut to the net, no doubt with visions of easy goals dancing in his head, Alex moved with him, maintaining his stance, and steadying his glove hand. The first shot went off his chest, and the rebound went off his catching glove.
Just like we practiced on the street.
The crowd politely applauded, with some of the Red Wings’ parents shouting out encouragement to the beleaguered netminder, particularly Maureen, who never gives up hope. After the play went up the ice, Alex looked up, searching the seats until he located us. I gave him the thumbs up as he flashed the biggest smile I’ve seen since his first hat trick a couple of weeks earlier.
I’d love to say that the Red Wings rode that momentum all the way back to force a tie, and Alex shut the door the rest of the way, but that’s not how things work. The Bruins put four more goals past the kid, though after the first six shots went in, he stopped 9-of-13. Okay, not a stellar save percentage by any measuring stick, but certainly something to build upon.
Without his wingman, Jacob became a one-man wrecking crew, almost singlehandedly pulling the Red Wings back into the game. He wheeled and pivoted and scooted his way through the Bruins’ hordes, the only Wing who regularly lights the lamp.
With less than two minutes to play, my wife turned to me, and expressed relief that the ride was almost over. Even better, she added, there was no way he’d be playing net again. Not so fast, I replied. Over the last half of the game, as he got his feet and his confidence, Alex actually looked pretty good out there. It’s not all about the final score at this age, because that’s not really the final result. It’s all about potential, and ability. Alex has both; to what degree remains to be determined.
So don’t think your son won’t be strapping on the pads again. We’re not out of the woods just yet.
As the coaches walked back to the dressing room, Coach Calvin said pretty much that. “He looked pretty good out there. Stayed on his feet. Do you think Alex would like to play goal again”?
Without a doubt. Geesh, he was ready to go again the next day at practice, but we had to skip that one to attend the annual Ross Petty Christmas Pantomime in downtown Toronto.
Which meant the next practice was Monday night with the Select team. Picture night. The team very generously asked the kids who were call-ups to pose for the official team picture. A very classy gesture. Alex was pumped to be included, and I’m now convinced of all the sports he plays, his time with the Select team is what he treasures the most. Four games, one goal, one assist, one minor penalty, probably a -8. Still, not bad for a Select rookie still learning his way in this crazy game.
Trouble was, I forgot to get his skates sharpened following Saturday’s turn in net, so when Alex took to the ice Monday evening, he looked like Bambi, trying to stand up for the first time. He’d take two steps, and fall to the ice. Understandably frustrated, he shot me the dirtiest look I think I’ve ever received.
I was tempted to pull him from the practice after Coach Mike yelled at him for not hustling during a drill, but the kid was trying very, very hard to skate with dull blades. Broke my heart to see him out there. I filled in one of the assistant coaches on the details, and he looked at me like I was crazy. I was ready to get the hell out of there, having had my fill of kids’ sports, and other parents, for that week, but Alex spoke up, and in effect, reminded me that it wasn’t about me.
Even with almost unmanageable skates, Alex wanted to stay with the team. Wanted to participate in the practice. So we stayed. He stumbled, and I felt totally useless for a second week in-a-row.
Speaking of crazy games, and parents, I really thought that when we signed up Alex for Sunday morning indoor soccer, it would be a welcome respite from the pressure of Rep. Baseball, and hockey.
Nothing appears to be further from the truth.
The Grey team he plays for were winless going into their match the first Sunday of December against the Green team. Alex didn’t start the game in net this time, and ended up scoring a very pretty goal to put his squad up 1-0 at the half.
Somehow, in my early morning stupor, I ended up pitching my lawn chair in the midst of the pack of Green parents, not the Grey parents. There is no doubt some unspoken rule about these things, not that anyone’s ever spoken about it to me.
The greatest thing about soccer is, I played it one summer when I was eight in Calgary.
Which means I know nothing about the game, and don’t profess to. Did diddly squat out there. And outside of the World Cup, and the Euro Cup, I never watch the game. Oh, I have major respect for it, and think it’s a great game, but it’s not in my blood. Which is perfect for Alex; he can play the game unencumbered by any unrealistic expectations on my part. I just sit in my lawn chair, and read my Sunday Sports section, occasionally looking up when the parents make a lot of noise.
I looked up in enough time to see Alex dribble his way through the Green gang, and pot his goal. Only the second goal the Grey guys and gals had scored all season.
But apparently I had that all wrong. According to the parents of the Green group, who were gathered to my left, and to my right, (and behind me, and sometimes in front of me), that kid in Grey was lucky to score that goal. The tall English guy who uttered those words looked a heck of a lot like Stephen Merchant, and just happened to be the father of the Green goaltender.
(Hmm, imagine kids’ sports with no parents watching, and no parents coaching their own kids).
Nothing his kid did was wrong, then again, nothing was right either. Merchant was on him constantly, coaching from the sidelines like the friggin’ FA Cup was on the line.
The chirping from the Green parents was unlike anything I’ve yet experienced in organized hockey, or baseball. I’m told by those who know better, that the verbal sniping in hockey gets worse as the level of competition increases, but for now, these parents were the most obnoxious. Endless chirping about the inferior opposition, endless coaching from the sidelines. It was so shamelessly overt, it was amusing to watch.
By the time the second half began, Alex was back in net. About five minutes in, the Green team scored to tie things.
You’d have thought it was 1966 in England all over again.
Granted, the Select parents cheered when their little guys finally broke through in that game in Downsview against Humber Valley, but the game was already well out of reach by then. This was different. This was personal. The Green parents wanted the win so badly. And now so did I. In my three years of watching Alex participate in kids’ games, never did I want his team to win so badly, just to shut up Merchant and his minions.
You’ll get no argument from me, the Green team were superior to our guys and gals in Grey. Not by that much, but enough that everyone seemed braced for the next Green goal. Merchant paced up and down the sidelines, telling anyone who would listen that it was only a matter of time until Green scored again. “We’re going to win this, I just know it”, he said more than once.
Except nobody told that to one of the smaller players on the Grey side. Number 6.
With less than five minute remaining, the ball came loose to the right of the Green net, and Number 6 pounced on it. There was nowhere to go with it. He was surrounded by every other kid on the field, with the exception of the goaltenders, and I had to squint hard just to make sure they weren’t also in that scrum.
Looking around for options, and realizing there were none, Number 6 teed up the ball, and kicked it in the direction of the Green net. He got all of it, and said ball sailed over the heads of the Grey team, over the heads of the Green team, and over the outstretched hands of Merchant Jr., landing with a satisfying plop in the back of the net.
There was stunned silence on the part of the Green parents. Me, I had to restrain myself from standing up and pumping my fist ala Bernie Nicholls. Instead, I merely smiled, gave the thumbs up to Alex in the Grey net, and averted my glaze back to the sports section.
The Grey team hung on for the win, and the Green parents collected their kids, and god knows what they did on the way home, maybe stopping off for extra soccer lessons, or made them run laps.
Alex was pumped with the win, happy about his goal, happy about his saves in net, all those accomplishments wiping away the previous hard day’s night in net.
A week later, the Red Wings lined up against the Flyers, as it was time to face opposing teams for a second go-around. Last time they met, the Flyers ran away with it 17-3. Then again, Jacob wasn’t at that game.
This time around, the Wings made it clear right away that things were going to be different this time around. Jacob led the way as the Boys in Red bashed and smashed their way to a 5-3 lead halfway through the game.
It was a relief to see Alexander out there again, and yes, with freshly sharpened skates. As he has been wont to do this season, it appeared that he slept walked through the first period. I couldn’t figure out why. The boy and I spend Friday afternoon together. Went to see “Wreck It Ralph”. Loved the subtle Metal Gear Solid reference. Then went shopping for Christmas presents for Mom. I managed to get Alex to go to bed around 8:30 that evening.
He should have been fully rested, and raring to go. So what was going on?
There were tantalizing signs of life. Alex picked up a nice assist on the fourth goal by Jacob. The puck skipped towards the Flyers corner, and Alex outskated everyone, picked up the puck, looked for a lane towards the net, couldn’t find one, so he passed it in front. Goal.
A couple of minutes later, he woke up.
The puck squirted free from a centre-ice scrum, and Alex took off like he was suddenly Pavel Bure. There was no way even the Select kids on the Flyers squad were going to catch him in time. With his head up, Alex snapped a shot that went through the legs of the Flyers goaltender, who had surrendered four previous goals, but had also made a number of impressive saves.
5-3 Red Wings. Alex’s seventh goal of the 2012-13 season, eighth when you count his goal with the Select team, and the fourth straight game he had scored a goal in.
He had another glorious chance later in the third, but the Flyers netminder made a fine save on the backhand. He also robbed Jacob about a half-dozen times, and Jacob already had seven goals.
With just over a minute to play, the Red Wings clung to an 8-7 lead. The Flyers pulled their goaltender, and it worked, as they got the equalizer.
And then clearly not satisfied with that, with less than a minute remaining, they pulled their goalie again.
I thought it was a bush league play, even for Novice 7 & 8 year old hockey. At this stage, with an extra skater out there, the odds were considerably in their favour that they would pot another goal.
And what would that prove? Where’s the sportsmanship lesson in that?
Not unexpectedly, the Flyers dominated play during those frantic last seconds. The Red Wings were unable to clear their zone, and the game only remained tied due to some poor shooting by the opposition. Finally, the puck came free along the boards, and once again, Alex had nothing between him and the yawning wide open cage at the other end of the rink.
Trouble was, time was rapidly running out. Displaying a maturity I wasn’t sure he yet had, Alex quickly sized up the situation.
“Seven seconds remaining…I won’t get all the way down the ice in that time…I’m also being pursued by about three Flyers…can’t let them get the puck back…”.
So he shot it. Any other time of the game, it would have been a poor decision. An automatic icing.
Not this time.
The puck slid wide right, but in that time, with the Flyers in hot pursuit, the clock ate up its remaining seconds, and the game ended in a draw.
I would have loved to see the Flyers empty net stunt blow up in their faces. The coaches’ faces, that is. They made that decision. It’s not the kids’ fault. Never is.
And then the world fell apart in Connecticut.
Everything, and I mean everything, is rapidly put into perspective when an unthinkable horror like that sweeps across our collective consciousness. Walking briskly to pick up my eight-year-old from Grade Three at the end of that day, it was very, very difficult to hold back tears.
I wanted to reach out and hug every kid that ran past me in the schoolyard, all of them thankfully oblivious to the heart shattering news. The sound of their laughter, the smiles on the multitude of faces I have watched grow up for the past half-decade, all suddenly looked very much like close family members to me. Alex emerged from the crowd, both shoes untied, jacket half done up, his Toronto Raptors hat on backwards. A complete mess. A wonderfully beautiful mess of an eight-year-old boy, whose biggest concerns were if he could play video games this weekend (no), and if we were still going to see Psy perform at the NFL game in Toronto (yes).
Saturday morning, Alex and the Red Wings faced the Sharks, and this one was over pretty much from the get go. The Sharks pumped 17 goals into the net, with only Jacob being able to respond for the Wings. Alex had two shots, and late in the game, had a clear cut breakway, but fired too soon, sending the puck skittering just wide of the right goal post. Afterwards, he said he thought the defenseman behind him was about to catch up.
No matter. Good try.
In the dressing room, as my wife handed out the weekly snacks rations, Coach Calvin wondered why the team had so little zip for this game. They were outnumbered, as once again about a third of team didn’t show up. It was just one of those games.
The other reason is that seven year olds should not have to be playing hockey against eight year olds. They should have their own league to develop in, but that’s how things went this year. That was a big mistake.
As the final buzzer sounded, I rushed back to the Number 3 dressing room. I wanted to be there when the boys in red trooped back into the room. As I held the door for them, I gave each player the thumbs up, particularly the young man who had played net, never once complaining. Just like Alex two weeks previous, once he found his feet, the saves began to outnumber the goals against.
I wanted them to know, to be reminded, that this is just a game. Sure, you go out there and try your best, and sure you want to win. Who doesn’t? But that ain’t the whole picture. Never is, never has been, never will be. There are many different ways to measure success. The politically poisoned atmosphere we have constructed for ourselves these past few decades in North America is predicated on Total Victory. I don’t win until I totally destroy you. And pro sports had run with that. “In Your Face, Second Is The First Loser, If You’re Not Cheating You’re Not Trying”, and other toxic bromides like that.
There is a grace to all things, there is an honour in all endeavours, regardless of the outcome. Looking around during kid’s sports, I often fear we have lost that. Too many parents living through their children’s athletic endeavours, which is an understandable siren song to be lured by, as I have found out myself. Let the kids play the game. Keep your yelling for the TV screen.
Whatever your personal beliefs, may you all have a wonderful holiday season.