Saturday Afternoon — It was a play typical of youth hockey and not atypical of any other level of the sport.
The puck was in the corner as were nine 9-10 year old players, their sticks clattering away, their bodies bouncing and banging against each other. Forwards were in there, defensemen were in there, it was joyous chaos.
And then the puck came loose and found its way to the one forward doing what he was supposed to do, hang out in front of the net.
When the puck came to him, he slammed a one-timer low glove side. The goalie made the save with his left leg pad but the rebound went right back to the stick of the shooter.
Before the clattering horde could envelope him the young man slapped at the puck once again, this time chipping it over the goalie’s pad and into the back of the net.
The shooter lifted his arms in triumph and shouted at the top of his lungs. His teammates embraced him as the crowd erupted with a roar and even the opposing teams parents clapped. It was not the game winning goal for a championship but rather the first goal scored by that player in a real game ever and everyone was happy for him.
Except the goalie. The goalie was pissed.
If you walk into any one of the three Bangor area arenas – Sawyer, PIA or the Alfond – chances are pretty good you’ll see a Needham on the ice. It might be Bob who went to two Frozen Fours with Colorado College and made it to the AHL with the Hershey Bears before moving to Maine twelve years ago to start a family and work as a CPA, either coaching one of his four sons or playing in a Men’s League. It might be Denise, the former nationally ranked figure skater and current Lead Pharmacist conducting a power skating session for Brewer High School’s hockey team. It might be Zach or Dom playing for the Maine Junior Black Bears Tier III (Travel) Peewee team or Nick playing for the MJBB Mite Majors.
But if you had been at Sawyer at about 4:45 pm last Saturday, you would have seen Matt and his Silver Squirts team taking on the MJBB Blue team and you might have wondered, as his Mom, Denise, said, “what a kid who can barely skate, always finishes last in every race and asks the same question 75 times” was doing out there. The answer is, he was playing hockey. And it says many good things about the sport and those involved that he was in front of that net and had a chance to make that play.
Matt will never play Division I hockey or compete in the U.S. Nationals. Just don’t tell him that. He loves sports and aside from hockey he participates in football, baseball and track. His brothers might run faster than he does and play at a level he’ll never achieve but Matt plays with unbridled enthusiasm. Every at bat is a chance to hit a home run in the World Series, every race is a chance for Olympic glory, and every shot is for the Stanley Cup. And here’s the thing about Matt, he can shoot. Much like myself and some of the old guys I play with on Monday Nights, we may not be the best skaters, but we know where to go to get shots. Matt knows it. Get to the front of the net and be ready. Stick on the ice. Eye on the puck.
My son, Zane, knows it too. He was the goalie.
Zane has known Matt for about six years through various youth sports. Like Matt, he will most likely never play Division I hockey or make an Olympic team. His dad was an All-Star first baseman…in Little League. Now he’s a playwright, English Professor and BDN blogger. His mom was a cheerleader and modern dancer in New York who plays tennis, teaches yoga and works as a naturalist at Fields Pond Audubon. He has a brother too, Augi, in Learn to Play.
Zane can run. He qualified for states in the 400 last summer as one of the youngest in his division. He can climb and ski and swim. He’s a grade level ahead in math and an accomplished artist who likes to make comic books with his friends. Much like his dad, though, he’s a pretty bad speller and up until this year he has been an indifferent skater except those few times in Mites when it was his turn to put on the goalie pads.
Moving into Squirts, his Nana bought him a goalie stick and his dad went into debt for all the gear (see previous article). He took some clinics over the summer and began to dedicate himself to the craft of keeping pucks out of nets.
Its hasn’t been easy. Earlier this season if one shot got by him several more would follow. The physical tools were coming but the mental side was crushing him. Ken Dryden wrote in his book, The Game, that, “…the demands on a goalie are mostly mental…the biggest enemy is himself.” In those early games Zane would get mad, but it was always at his own failings and more than once he tried to skate to the locker room under the devastating belief that he’d let everyone down.
But then something happened a few weeks ago. Maybe it was talking with some of the UMaine Black Bears or the clinic with two former Bruins and the confidence he gained from stopping a shot from a guy who once scored in the Stanley Cup finals. Maybe it was the Christmas Eve family skate or just getting a week off. But something clicked in Zane and he learned to let the one that got in go, and stop the next one. Two wins followed and then two losses but the losses were more impressive. Outshot by considerable margins, he kept his team in the game by keeping himself in the game.
Zane disagrees with Dryden’s take on motivation. Dryden wrote that, “[The Goalie] is driven by the penetrating hatred of letting in a goal.” For Zane it’s fun to make saves, to help his team, and to take pucks off his helmet. But still, there’s something of Dryden’s view in him. If a puck goes in, Zane does get mad but not so much at himself anymore.
On Saturday, Zane got mad because he let in a goal. He was mad that his team had left a player uncovered in front of his net. He was mad about the celebrating that happened and he was mad his team was losing. But then he let it go and went back to keeping his team in the game. It was just one goal. He’d made the first save but got beat on the next shot from a kid who could shoot pretty good.
And in that thought lies what, for me, made it a special moment. Special because it was otherwise unremarkable. Zane was mad that a player on the other team scored on him, not that Matt Needham had scored on him. Zane saw Matt as a player, not as a kid who needed special treatment or consideration. Which is exactly how Matt sees himself. He’s a player.
For this view of the self to occur, Denise and Bob had to take a chance. They had been worried Matt wouldn’t be able to keep up and that he would get hurt and so while his brothers progressed through the age levels playing games and going to tournaments, Matt stuck with Learn to Play. But this year they gave him his shot.
Long involved with the Maine Junior Black Bears, they trusted the organization to adhere to the philosophy put forth by USA Hockey. At the Tier IV (House) level, every kid plays, every kid learns, every kid has fun. It’s not about wins and losses its about every kid getting a chance.
This philosophy was put into practice by the Silver head coach, Steve Van Dolman who hates to lose but hates the thought of a kid not getting his chance even more. The Silver team plays three forward lines and Matt is out there as a winger every third shift.
And it continues with parents understanding this philosophy and not getting all bent out of shape about skill levels and final scores but helping to share the ideals of participation and positive support with their kids.
Ultimately, it comes down to the kids. It was his teammates that consistently had Zane’s back when he was letting in ten goals a game knowing they bore a good deal of the responsibility and it was his teammates that mobbed him when he earned his first win, a 3-2 nail biter, against the MJBB Navy team where the Blues got outshot about 25-5.
And it’s Matt’s teammates that never treated him as someone who shouldn’t be out there, that showed him where to go and kept passing him the puck. And when he put that puck in, they were more happy for him than if they had scored it themselves.
For most, the competitive sporting life is a short one. There will be days ahead for all of our players save for a very, very few when they will not make the team. There will be the sour moments when they are told they are not good enough to play.
This inevitability is what makes youth sports so very special and why the effort on the part of organizations, coaches, parents and kids to be inclusive so very rewarding. Many other sports and organizations embrace this philosphy. It’s a shame that some do not.
Every kid deserves a chance to take a shot or make a save. They’re ready for it. Zane’s glove is up. Matt’s stick is on the ice.
Picture of Matt courtesy of Denise Long Needham.
Picture of Zane courtesy of Holly Twining.