For the first time since Labor Day weekend, my car does not have a bag of pucks, coach’s whiteboard, hockey stick and some collection of gloves, jackets, helmets and skate repair kits clanging around the rear hatch. Today ended another season of Mites hockey, my third as a team coach and fifth as a development squad coach, and perhaps for the first time I understand what university professors must feel as a stellar class of students leaves for the real world.
I started coaching travel hockey three years ago, when about half of this team were U6 Mites. They were wobbly, funny, and sometimes more concerned about whose birthday party was after the game, or if they had an itch under their helmet. Today I saw them passing, shooting, supporting each other and showing every aspect of a game that’s ready for full ice, full sized nets, and full score keeping. It was a pleasure to see these kids grow up with hockey as part of their lives.
I got to coach my first tournament – and took a silver medal. I’ve been there as a manager, and as a parent, but never with the responsibility for ensuring the team had a wonderful tournament experience. Despite losing the medal game, it was the type of bonding and mildly exhausting trip that will be etched into hockey memories.
I got to be Coach Santa and Coach Leprechaun. My repertoire is expanding, and the kids seem to love taking pictures and hamming it up with whatever alter ego is calendar-appropriate.
I had the pleasure of sharing the bench with two men who played at a high level, versus the beer league and education-through-sports casting training I’ve had. They brought an amazing mix of humility, humor and knowledge to each game.
At the end of today’s game, concluding our in-house tournament, amidst handing out medals and cupcakes, I took 30 seconds to talk about each player. It was the easiest public speaking I’ve ever had to do, and it happened without notes, because I just had to say what each player made me think.
It was a mixed year outside of Devils Youth hockey – a full season (so far) without Saint Patrik Elias, the patron saint of dangle pie in our house; a horrendous season for the NHL Devils yet one in which I still follow every game; a year in which I got to see playoff hockey in Prague and see my Princeton Tigers return to the ECAC playoffs (and win a series for the first time in nearly a decade); the first year in which I didn’t play in a single adult beer league game due to work, travel and injury schedules. But when you see 11 small players throw their gloves in the air, pile on their goalie and celebrate like they’d just won the Stanley Cup, it’s a good year of hockey.
We’re in the last weekend of youth hockey games before the Christmas break, the last few practices before the true winter stretch of tournaments and games bracketed by short days and weekends absent football. I woke up to a few inches of fresh snow yesterday, noticing the deer and rabbit tracks across the front porch, just enjoying the feeling of a true hockey morning.
I’ve been slowly reading bits and pieces of former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti’s A Great and Glorious Game and stumbled upon his perfect summation of the nation’s pastime: It’s about going home. The scoring, the imagery, even the neighborhood love we sprinkle on the grass of our city’s ball fields are all about home: home runs, stealing home, pitch reaching home plate, home team batting last.
Football, on the other hand (and not to channel too much George Carlin here) is about defense. Protect the quarterback, block for the ball carrier, defend the end zone, tough pass defense, defend our house. It is indeed a game of inches, as that’s how turf is defended, a lineman’s step at a time.
Hockey, especially on a snowy winter morning, is about going places. It’s about going to the net, going to the puck, going out when most would prefer to stay indoors in the warmth of bed and the light of a morning read. My favorite memories as a hockey parent and manager were about going places, whether it was a ride to a rink in which we lost a muffin in the luggage rack (don’t ask), or the long gentle drive to a weekend in Lake Placid. Hockey, like baseball and football, has boundaries of play, but you can play off the boundaries; even the boards take you someplace unexpected (ideally behind a unsuspecting defender).
As parents, coaches, managers and spectators, we watch as the young hockey players are forever skating away from us, coming back a little older, a little more certain, a bit more self confident and hopefully grateful for the journey.
Coaching youth sports is not without its challenges. Working with under-8 hockey players in our Devils Youth program, I stress three things at the beginning, middle and end of each season: hard work, unerring sportsmanship, and having fun. If you put in the hard work and are a good team player, you improve and the fun comes along with the game. Under the USA Hockey ADM rules, we don’t keep score, assess penalties or worry about offsides – it’s about getting touches on the puck and learning the fundamentals of the game. Most of my time as coach is spent on breaking the puck out away from the net, paying attention to the low slot on defense, and passing the puck.
Each year, there’s one small moment that stands out from the rest that rationalizes the crazy early mornings, the throbbing right knee, and the unique smell of a locker room that hasn’t seen antiseptic or paint since the Clinton administration.
Two weeks ago I noticed that the youngest player on our team — whom I’ve had the pleasure of coaching for three years — had outgrown his stick. He was hunching over to control the puck, and when we did the stick-to-nose measurement his stick barely reached his chin. Today: brand new, longer Warrior stick, which of course he was proud to show me. First shift of the game, he found his way to the front of the net, got a tape to tape pass from a teammate, and ripped the hardest shot of which he was (newly) capable. Goal. From the bench (open to where the attendant families were standing) I heard his parents erupt; I saw his smile from 80 feet away on the bench. Every teammate on the ice hugged him.
It’s his first goal in a game since I’ve coached him. It won’t be his last, because he knows the value of hard work and being on the receiving end of good sportsmanship. And I know he had fun, in that one shining moment. If I contract some stomach bug later this week, it’s likely because after that play I licked his stick blade (helmet tip to Coach Scream-a-lot for that motivational act) and said “Tastes like goals. Lots of them.” And got another smile.
Here’s to the kids who work hard, every game. You make being a coach fun.
George Parros has been something of an on-going meme here in Snowman land: Princeton, NJ high school and Devils youth player, stache, good works, answer to a trivia question, and a talent deserving wider recognition. Today, he announced his retirement, nine seasons, five NHL teams and one Stanley Cup after leaving Tiger Town. He holds the distinction of being the first Princetonian with his name on the Stanley Cup (trivia question) and is solid proof that sometimes you adapt your skills to the situation. He did more for local charities and the literal face of hockey than many, and whatever scoring touch he lacked on the ice he more than compensated for with his active and thoughtful representation on the NHL player’s association, including a critical role in resolving the last labor mess.
I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Jean Beliveau, just once, a bit over ten years ago. At the time, my employer (Sun Microsystems) was a partner of the NHL’s, and I was presenting at the NHL league meeting outside of Montreal that late winter. Earlier in the day, we had a game of shinny, self-dividing into Leafs and Canadiens and skating on the Mont Tremblant pond until we could no longer feel our fingers or find the pucks we had shot into the snowbanks that served as boards. It was a Canadian moment, something outside the realm of possibility for a New Jersey kid, and despite the fact that I feel on my tail bone on my first shift and was sore for days afterward, I remember the rough feel of the ice on my skates, the need for careful passes to keep pucks in the cleared area, and the gentle attrition of our team as the cold, phone calls, or gentle conversations at the bar shortened the bench.
Two hours later, I was at a cocktail reception face to face with Jean Beliveau, who held conversation, not court, with each and every person with whom he spoke. We shared a gentle laugh about my first — and only — experience with shinny, and out of respect I elided the fact that I had skated with a Leafs sweater. I don’t think Beliveau would have minded, though, as he was the ultimate champion of the game, in all forms and all sweaters. The late Jack Falla, one of my favorite hockey authors, wrote about his extreme admiration for Jean Beliveau, and how he was mildly star struck upon meeting him in person, but there was nothing in Beliveau’s persona to engender that feeling. He seemed, always, like the kid who played shinny in the sweater of Les Habitants, who just grew into the 10-time Stanley Cup champion (in 20 seasons) because it was the most natural thing in the world.
Professional sports needs more men like Jean Beliveau, who put the game, their conduct, and their roles as ambassadors and tenders of the public trust we build around sports, above everything except having fun playing the game. Safely packed in the swag bag from that NHL meeting was a Jean Beliveau bobblehead, and I believe he would have been slightly embarrassed to see himself cast in resin. But it’s one of a few pieces of sports memorabilia that’s been on my desk for the last decade. He will be missed.
The last two seasons were not kind to Devils fans. After starting the 12-13 campaign in a nosedive, only to pull up with a glimmer of playoff hope before skidding off the end of the season’s runway, 13-14 wasn’t much better: inconsistent play, lack of scoring, sometimes muddled defense and an overall lack of coherence. I was hoping the ownership change would shake things up, and based on the first day of free agency, I am insanely thrilled I renewed the season tickets this year.
Martin Havlat is not a young gun, but he brings a great chemistry with Elias and that’s likely to translate into a better locker room environment. Put him in the right system with the right coach and he’ll score goals, move the puck, and create excitement. Think Jagr five years ago, and then add Jagr and Elias to the mix, and you smile.
I’m also impressed that the Devils didn’t bend and sign Brodeur. I sincerely, honestly, thoroughly hope that Marty decides to retire, rather than suffer through the ignominy of a few weeks of free agency. If you don’t have a deal early on, you’re not getting a deal, and if he waits for an early season injury and comes back to the game after an extended hiatus, it won’t be pretty for anyone. Marty is one of the all-time best, his number should be raised to the rafters amidst much fan adulation and maybe some more Elias sniffles, and that’s that. I also see this as a sign that the Devils ownership is committed to building a team, rather than replaying historical cards that held value years ago.
Then there’s one of my favorite players: Mike Cammalleri. His Canadiens player shirt was the first bit of non-Devils team wear I purchased. He’s tough, gritty, energetic, funny, and a nice guy to boot (yes, I’ve met him, and he impressed the daylights out of me by giving his father a hug before he greeted any other guests including his girlfriend). Think David Clarkson but with significantly better hands and speed. Before any criticizes his two tours through Calgary, note that the Flames were unable to produce much with Jarome Iginla either. Put Cammalleri on a line with Elias at center and you’ll see some of those fancy passing plays turn into goals. Like Gionta, he plays bigger than he is, and every time he played at the Rock, he was on the scoresheet. Maybe the place likes him already.
Free agents have a tantalizing effect on fans: they look shiny, exciting and new, and as the season unfolds you see exactly what your ticket, food and parking dollars are funding. A healthy and head-intact Ryan Clowe, a Michael Ryder with someone who can feed him the puck, and a feisty Cammalleri reshape this team with lots of potential energy – if it produces chemistry, fun, and some wins, we can still be cheering loudly for hockey in May.
Everybody has heard the story of putting in the big rocks first – set priorities so that you take care of the most important things with urgency, and then fill in the small interstitial spaces with the lower priority or importance tasks or items. Stephen Covey has popularized the story so it must leap out of the pages of apocrypha.
The biggest rock for a youth hockey player is actually the smallest of melons: protect your kid’s head first. I’m regularly surprised by the number of young hockey players who have expensive carbon fiber sticks but helmets that don’t fit well or aren’t top of the line. Here are my big rocks, most to least important, for youth hockey equipment:
Helmet. You get exactly one head and one set of adult teeth. Protect them. Spend the most on a helmet that is well padded, comfortable, and most important, well within the timeline set on the safety sticker on the back. Yes, helmets “wear out”, the protective cushions lose their spongy benefits, and they need to be replaced. Don’t buy one used or take a hand me down unless it fits all of the above criteria. For kids with awesome flow, curly hair, or both, invest in a lightweight under-helmet cap. Keeps the hair from being pulled and out of the kids’ eyes.
Skates. They make everything else happen. If they’re too loose, too tight, or not sharpened, then your skater will struggle. Definitely buy them used, and as your kids’ feet grow, keep an eye on the skate fit and feel.
Wheeled hockey bag. I am going to incur the wrath of hockey purists everywhere for this, but I am a big believer in smaller players wheeling their own bags. If they can skate on the ice with all of the gear on, they can take it to the car in a wheeled bag. Weighs the same, and you get some leverage from the bag with wheels. It is the first step in hockey player responsibility – from there you go to making sure everything is in the bag, to the kids dressing themselves. For parents who don’t want to take the extra three minutes for their own kids to wheel their gear out (vs having it carried by an adult), you miss the best time of hockey practice: When you get to ask (not tell, not correct, not coach) what was the favorite part of practice, and what your little Jagr liked the best. Use that extra three minutes to form your kids’ best early hockey memories.
Protective gear. Individual fit and preferences vary, and like skates, they outgrow it quickly. If their gloves are too big they’ll be dropping their sticks (or gloves, but not in a five-for-fighting way).
Stick. Yes, it’s last. No beginning player is taking a slap shot (they don’t do that for a few years), and most are learning the basics of a wrist or snap shot. Wooden sticks work wonderfully well (even seemingly alliterative models like the Jagr Junior). If you have $400 to spend on hockey gear, $100 of that goes to the helmet, $120 to skates, $140 for protective gear and a bag, and $40 for two sticks. Don’t cut them both; leave one full length until you see how much your mite grows. Tape up the blade, and put a nice knob of tape on the butt end of the stick (little hands with gloves have trouble picking up anything laying flat on the ice; the tape knob lifts the stick up enough so little fingers can grab it when we ask them to put their sticks along the boards, or when they inevitably drop them mid-drill). Use pink tape or camo tape or skull tape or any other flavor of hockey tape that you like – this is supposed to be fun.
Apologies for abusing my minimally competent knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet, but I’m at a loss for a more respectable post title.
[Updated/Edited July 22: OK, only #4 is right. Kovulchuk is the A-Rod of the NHL, and should be pilloried accordingly. Yes, his “retirement” helps the Devils out of a cash flow problem now and in the waning years of the CBA, but basically, he’s a selfish, greedy player, now demonstrated on and off the ice.]
Kovulchuk is going back to Russia. His contract is void, with 11 years left on it. After all the strum und drang over the terms and conditions, the final cut was foreshortened by a decade: he’s leaving early.
Here is my purely speculative thinking on the situation. I know nothing, I am merely attempting to read the tea leaves left in the Russian room (even my word ordering fails at punnery here). Below are my stabs at four explanations, in what I think are the likely order; there may be more than one reason in which case they are presented with Gartner-esque probabilities of 0.5, 0.3, 0.15 and 0.05.
Explanation #1: Kovy really wants to go back to Russia, to represent his home country in the Olympics, perhaps to raise his family there, or to be with his own family. Sometimes Occam’s Razor slices the news along the simplest explanation lines. The impact on family, particularly an ex-patriate family, cannot be underestimated in professional sports. Based on my 38 seconds of more than arms’ length interactions with him, Kovy has strong family feelings (I write that looking at the signed t-shirt I received for supporting Kovy’s fundraising for the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv families). Petr Nedved’s wife nixed a centering role in Edmonton, and Janet Gretzky brought the Great One out of the Great White North. It happens, and we should respect it.
Explanation #2: He’s hurt, and the nagging injury that slowed him in the 2012 Cup Finals hasn’t fully healed. Rather than facing a potential “unfit to play” issue, everyone saves face through retirement, and any injury spectre doesn’t impact his future signing ability with the KHL. “Retirement” is another way of saying “I cannot play at the level the fans and I expect, and I’m going to stop instead of not playing at 100%.” If this is the case, Kovy should be held up as an exemplar of good behavior, of proper sportsmanship, and of being one of the only athletes who actually do something good for the fans. There are precedents for athletes retiring for non-sports reasons. Kovy could well be the anti A-Rod.
Explanation #3: The team is facing such a cash flow problem that it can’t be sold “as is”, and removing the Kovulchuk contract is the only way someone with an operative hockey operations plan will buy the Devils from Vandebeek. I’ve alternately thought this was the first reason, given the post-draft timing and recent rumors about the impending sale. Sadly, if there’s even an element of truth to this explanation, then the Devils will replace Kovulchuk with someone from my beer league (contract value: -$420, we pay to play).
Explanation #4: He’s the A-Rod of the NHL, with all invective, derision, and scorn heaped upon him. I really don’t think this is the case; he’s a significantly harder worker, a better team player, and a more honest and less self-centered person than that. Turning your back on what you wanted — a $100M+ contract in a major market with a contending team — doesn’t make sense unless there are complicating factors.
Rueing Clarkson’s departure doesn’t help; Clowe and Ryder will replace Clarkson with proper coaching (watch him as a Shark, not a Ranger — Tortorella managed to even make Brad Richards suck). Time for the Devils to invest in some up and coming talent — who heard of Matt Moulson before last year? And if the Devils front office wants to regain some fan cred, why not offer 75% off jerseys (basically: at cost) if you trade in a Parise, Kovulchuk, or Clarkson sweater for a Schneider, Henrique, Elias, Clowe, Ryder or M. Brodeur?
About 11 months ago, giddy after the Devils OT win over the Rangers to move on to the Stanley Cup Finals, I decided that Ryan Carter’s moustache needed its own web site. The turning point for me was in Game 5, which I was forced to watch at the Sports Page in Mountain View, California (a dive bar that used to be a true dump before it was given the implicit upgrade of being near the Googleplex). Carter scored a monster goal and I tipped the bartender an integer multiple of the price of the Mountain Dew I used to wash down the remainder of my garlic fries as a thank-you for putting the game on just for my cheering pleasure. Carter’s playoff ‘stache was a statement, a symbol, a beacon of hope, and quite possibly an entire 11th grade English essay waiting to be written. In my case, it led me to stay up until 2am creating a web site in its honor.
Fast forward one foreshortened hockey season, and there is no playoff joy in New Jersey, no Devilish moustaches to rival that of our own mascot, nothing to do but jeer the Rangers and wish for hope to spring eternal in Boston. I’m retiring Carter’s stache-site, and present my attempts to write under a more amusing “nom de stache.” At this point, I’ll do anything for a hockey laugh.
Better Than A Beard (May 26, 2012)
Hi, I’m Ryan Carter’s moustache, and I’m going to the Stanely Cup Finals. Who needs a beard when you can rock the upper lip like me? I’m the most famous 16 hairs in hockey.
I’m the Frosty the Snowman of the hockey springtime: here now, down the drain only when the time is right.
My Favorite Moustaches (May 26, 2012)
Best moustache on the team: NJ Devil, by a longshot. I mean, our mascot has a porn moustache that’s nearly 3 feet wide. Clarkson might be second.
Best moustache in hockey: George Parros, Anaheim Ducks. Long before it was fashionable, and he does good charity work. Makes me proud. Certainly the most erudite stache on ice.
Best LA Kings moustache: Wil Wheaton, Kings fan, actor and writer. Love that guy (I’m a huge fan of Eureka and the Guild, okay? Need to watch something on those cross-country flights).
Fear, Stick, and Poke (May 26, 2012)
What I’m afraid of: high sticks (need to shave to get stitches in there, ask Zubbie), Gillette, Shick and Norelco products.
What fears me: Are you kidding? Henrik Lundqvist is going to have bad dreams about my hirsuite heft in front of him all summer long. 4th line on the ice, first on the upper lip.
Christmas in May (May 26, 2012)
Two of them, actually.
May is the best – for me, it’s that time of year when you’ve survived the first round of the playoffs, you know you’re not going to be some short-term, hair today-gone tomorrow affair, but the real deal. A playoff beard for those making a statement, or incapable of making more facial hair. Either way, when the rest of the world is cleaning up for the beach or graduation or whatever other warmer weather pursuits entertain, I’m looking to go public. Not like Facebook, of course.
Close runner-up: November. Exactly six months away. Start of hockey season, when normally I’d be in hibernation, forgotten on the other end of vacation, camps, and early season predictions by The Hockey News that are completely useless. November is the more formal name for Movember, the annual campaign to raise awareness for prostate and other men’s cancers.
For me, it’s like Christmas in June, because May is more like Christmas. Henrique said that last night on-ice? Rook steals all my lines.
Kovy the Krank (June 1, 2012)
Yeah, yeah, yeah, Kovy is just hilarious, sticking a tab of smelling salts right there in front of me. I’ve never been shoved into a urinal cake, but you get the idea. Pungent stuff. Harsh. Tangy. Kind of like Josefson’s gear. You spend your whole existence under Carter’s nose, you pick these things up.
The practical joker on this team was Gomez. Never played with him, but he thought he was pretty funny when he tried giving Patty a haircut. Look where that got him — Gomez has no hair now and scored one goal in what, a hundred games? Not that I’m wishing anything bad on Kovy, he’s a good guy, and he’s here for the duration, but these little stunts go both ways.
I’m getting Master Carter to replace Kovy’s pre-game playlist with the very best of Verka Serduchka:
Jump, jump indeed – what goes around the bench, Kovy…..
One At A Time (June 6, 2012)
One game at a time.
One shift at a time.
One shot at a time.
One facial hair at a time.
The difference in Game 4? Henrique decided that I’m the epitome of power, and trimmed up to match up. And he scored another game winner.
Brothers In Arms (And Lips And Hair) (June 7, 2012)
As a player, or at least part of a player for part of the season, I’m not supposed to “make friends” with the media. Unbiased communications and independent thought and transparency and other SAT words (hey, I know the SAT, I went to Minnesota State Mankato, or at least Ryan did and I made the rare appearance at a frat party…).
But I just love Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record. He’s frank and funny and frankly funny most of the time. I wouldn’t mind having a locker stall next to his. If he could skate, that is. He’s like a rare combination of John Scalzi and, well, Bob Woodward. And he most definitely appreciates the finer strands of facial hair.
Must-read post-game commentary on Henrique following me to moustache-ville. Then again, if someone said highlighting your hair would bring luck, Henrique would do that too and then go score another big goal. Oh wait, that was Elias like five years ago. Both good guys, both came up big last night.
What I need to know is: Why isn’t anyone interviewing NJ Devil about his ‘stache? Right — he can’t talk, he’s the mascot. Like those body puppets in Disneyland but with a totally bad-ass attitude and cheerleaders who follow him around (so totally not LA it’s laughable). He started this whole thing in 1999, the year the Devils decided he needed to look more like Tom Selleck and less like a normal mascot.
Not Buying It (June 7, 2012)
Not hockey related. Mostly not.
A very hip Euro-bud (not Patty, Sykie, Zubie or anyone else wearing horns, k?) pointed me at a goatee shaving template. People are that spastic?
Then I thought about all of those Rangers fans leaving the Garden during the playoffs, and it kind of made sense — if you’re drunk enough, I guess a little plastic screen to keep you from looking like you were the subject of a frat prank is useful. And it probably prevents some folks from accidentally shaving off their noses, although the way the Garden smells, being nasally challenged might be a suitable win.
I Am Not Afraid (June 9, 2012)
I have no fear (mostly because I have no glands to generate whatever hormones are associated with fear, being made of hair, that is). But I have no fear of ending up in the wastebasket in my bathroom, or washed down the drain with some Barbasol. I am a bigger stache than that. Lo, though I skate through the San Fernando valley of overpaid acting talent and bad officiating, I fear not, because Gionta is with me (and he’s way bushier).
But seriously, the way people are carrying on about the 3-1 games advantage you’d think we were Napoleon planning to invade the KHL. The “1% chance of winning after 3-0” and “9% chance after 3-1” deficits are historical averages, not representative of a game played in the here and now. You can’t even look at it like a series of coin flips, hoping it comes up heads four times in a row. Coin flips are independent, the next doesn’t care about the results of the last (except in some weird sci-fi stuff that Zubie reads on trips to Canada, but that’s another story).
Successive hockey games are dependent trials. You win one, get the other guys off their stride, playing your way, making adjustments, and you improve your chances of winning the next. So if it’s 3-1, then it’s 3-2, guess what? 3-3 looks a lot more reasonable. One game, one period, one shift, one shot at a time.
Want to be afraid? If this series goes the distance, Game 7 will be made into the newest Hollywood horror flick called “Wednesday the 14th”. If Goon got to production, so can this one. I, of course, will have a cameo playing myself. Don’t tell Ryan that means I’m sticking around for the off-season. He’ll be afraid (and itchy).
Down The Drain (June 15, 2012)
“Ignominy” is such a great SAT word. Really is. And I even had a new definition for it: ending up in an interceptor pipe in Southern California, getting washed out with the sewage, loose hair and bad movie ideas that spring from the Hollywood Hills. Sigh. It was a great run, and I’m proud of my teammates for what we accomplished, as well as for truly appreciating the beauty of the singular stache when the playoff beard seems overdone.
To the fans: thank you for cheering until the last horn. For those of you (especially the ladies) who sported moustaches, I’ll only repeat what my mom said: Don’t do that to your face or you’ll look like that for the rest of your life. But stache-bearing fans are always welcome at our games. To Kevin Clark, the best arena announcer of any sport, I know my name doesn’t give you much to work with unlike a Zubrus or that eye-chart Kovulchuk, but thanks for belting me out with the pride and energy you bring to every day of your job.
July 1st I’m a free agent, but that’s a business for agents and laywers and GMs and other non-mustacioed people. I think this team has another deep run in it, and there’s nothing I would love more than to re-appear, Tony Blundetto like, on a moist April day in Newark. For now, kids, get those beach bodies in shape, forget about (hockey) life for just a little while, and don’t forget to wave those towels.
With apologies to Trey Anastasio and Phish, today was a trip up and down the number line.
It was the last day of Mites hockey, completing my first year as coach. It’s been deeply satisfying watching these young players progress through the year as players and teammates. I got to work with other coaches who donated their time and patience in copious quantities. We had an amazing group of parents who got their kids all over NJ, frequently before 8:00 am on a Sunday morning, and who cheered, supported and encouraged good sportsmanship in all the right quantities. As I thanked my team last week, after our last tournament game, it was a pleasure to borrow a few hours a week of their lives — as the saying goes, the days are long but the years are very short, and each hour shared with a sports program is a gift to be valued.
Watching the parents and their kids I was reminded of a weekend exactly a decade ago. Bubba was wrapping his second season of travel hockey, competing in a tournament in Lake Placid. With banners, t-shirts and Olympic ephemera reminding you of the Miracle on Ice and the emergence of a particularly American strain of hockey, it’s easy to wish for big things. We found ourselves competing in the bronze medal game; only the winner would take something home other than a lot of memories.
Bubba’s team lost in double overtime.
About an hour into our 5-hour ride home, with Bubba being quieter than usual, I reminded him that with tryouts coming up for the next season, he’d had a chance to “trade up” for jersey #26, the number-sake of favorite Devil Patrik Elias. I had been late to the game (literally) on the day jersey numbers were chosen, and Ben got a second choice. There are so few points of personal selection when it comes to jerseys – the team crest is something you work for; the name above your digits is given to you by heritage, but you get to pick the most obvious part of the design.
“I’m going to keep #8, Dad” was Bubba’s reply, “it’s my number now too”. As all twenty readers know, #8 has been “my number” since 1972 when I became a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Willie Stargell, and it has graced nearly every jersey for which I’ve had the honor of choosing the number. Of all of the moments of 10 years of club hockey and 4 years of high school hockey, from state tournaments to rivalries to the birth of long-term friendships, that ride home remains my favorite.
To quote Jodi Picoult, sometimes the miracle is the thing that didn’t happen.