Melt the ice, toss the sticks in a bin, hang the skates in the basement, wash and store the pads, put away the helmets and tape and cups until next fall, hockey season is over.
The end came for us, the Blues, this past weekend with a stirring run to the semi-finals of our local Maine Junior Black Bears Squirt Friendship tournament. A team that went 3-15 in the regular season finished 3-3-1 in their final stretch with impressive performances in all their games and concluded with the traditional goalie smother.
We are told and so we pass along to our kids that participation in a sport is not about wins or losses but about fun and learning to work together and improving ourselves as players and people. But wins feel better than losses and cheers sound better than groans. There are moments, however, away from the field of play, away from scoreboards and posters in the stands that reveal the true essence of team sports and the remarkable young girls and boys that play them.
Once such moment occurred just prior to the second game of our Saturday. The morning match had been a see-saw, back-and-forth tussle with the Gladiators of Lewiston in which the Blues had come out with a 7-5 victory and thus secured a spot in the championship rounds. That evening we would face the heavily favored Maranacook Black Bears a team that, though we’d given them some trouble, had defeated us twice earlier in the season. Still, the kids were playing their best hockey of the year and as Ken Dryden said, “I hope, because there is always a way.”
The thoughts of one young man, however, were far away from the impending clash of bruins. I saw Nik, already in his shin guards, hip pads, and skates with his head bowed down into his chest protector. When I went over to check on him I saw red rimmed eyes and tears.
“My father’s in the ER,” he said.
Jonathan Bates is a career Army man currently with the National Guard. That morning he helped run the scoreboard as he had done many times during the year. That evening, as we would find out later, he was having an emergency hernia operation.
“Um,” I stammered, “where’s your Mom?”
Nik looked away. “She had to stay with my sister. I came with Coach Dave.”
At that moment I didn’t know what to do. Thoughts of a game were far away and yet a game would be played. Nik found a place on our top defensive line. He’s tall for a nine-year old and fast. He hustles after the puck and throws himself in front of shots from the slot. He not-so-secretly wants to try being a goalie next year, something his dad tried to discourage for all of the obvious reasons but was slowly coming around to accepting because he loves his son, can see the passion he has for the sport and wants to support him as best he can.
How do you tell a kid it’s going to be all right when you have no idea it’s going to be all right? A quick conference with my fellow coaches, Dave and Russ, revealed little about what was wrong with Nik’s dad. We only knew he was very sick and had gone to the hospital. We didn’t know about the hernia yet. I thought-heart attack-because that’s what happened to my dad.
I wanted to send the kid home or to the hospital. I told him he didn’t have to play. He could sit on the bench and watch if he wanted to. I was not going to tell him his dad would have wanted him to get out there and do his best or something like that. I’m sure it was true. I’m sure Jonathan wanted him to not worry about his old man and get out on the ice and have some fun but fun wasn’t on Nik’s face at that moment. He couldn’t help the tears from welling up or his mind from racing to some hospital room and all that a young man might think of such things.
I stood back. All around me kids were putting on their pads and parents were helping with skates. In a moment Zane would need help with his leg straps, the ones that go down around the back of the skates which are darn hard to reach. Watching Zane this season has made me think about my own father and how he must have felt watching me play baseball or football or basketball those many years ago. To see a child give great effort is wonderful. To see that child excel is even better. To see them fail hurts us to our core. But to not be there for my son would be the worst. I have to go. I have to help. Like Jonathan, they’d have to put me in the hospital to keep me away.
I looked back down at Nik. I had a thousand things to say to him but none of them felt like the right thing. But then, I didn’t need to.
Chase Campbell is our captain. The only 10-year old on the team when we started and the only second-year player he was a natural choice by Head Coach Dave Miller. Chase could have played travel like his older brother but a scheduling snafu kept him in the House league which he, most of the time, dominated.
During the Friendship Tournament he scored ten goals in four games, eleven if you count the one he accidentally put in our own net. Assigned to a d-pair with Nik, there were times when Chase had the puck that the opposition seemed to simply melt away and all that was left of them after his rush was a confused goalie face-down on the ice and a puck in the back of the net. He was the kid on our team that every other coach told their kids to keep an eye on.
I will confess now that at the start of the season I had my doubts about Chase. I did not doubt his ability but questioned his work ethic and desire to help out on defense. This was based on a season three years ago when he was seven. SEVEN! How many seven year olds even know what defense is? I’m an idiot. I was wrong and that was proven over and over again during the season.
When Zane or Emma were getting shelled in net, it was Chase that went over and got them to pick their heads up. When a player needed some encouragement to keep his feet moving, it was Chase that got in their faces and told them we needed them. He was named the Dunkin Donuts Sportsperson of the Month for December. He designed practice drills and showed the other kids how to pop the puck around a defenseman by bouncing it off the boards. He brought the music to the locker room and led the dancing afterwards, win or lose.
It was Chase that put his arm around Nik and spoke to him.
I don’t know what was said, and it was not my place to listen but there, in those few minutes, was the essence of sport. It was a young man being there for another young man in words only they can know. It was a teammate helping his brother up from the ice. In terms Jonathan would certainly understand, Chase would not leave Nik behind because there is always hope that everything will be all right.
Soon, Nik looked up. He smiled and laughed a little. He put his jersey on. Chase cranked up the tunes and in a few minutes would lead us all out onto the ice.
Over dinner on Sunday, we asked Zane his favorite memory from the season. He said, “Getting that first win and that happy feeling…and getting smothered by the whole team.”
We asked Augi, who participated in the MJBB Learn to Play and Atoms program, the same question. “Skating with Colin and Collin and Carmen,” he said and went back to his soup.
I can imagine, if we asked Nik his favorite part of the season, it was probably when his dad came home the next morning.
It’s been a long season, six months but what the heck else you gonna do in the winter? There has been trial and triumph along the way but it’s been a great season. The best ever because of the players and the parents, like Jonathan Bates and Nate and Courtney Campbell, who raised those players and the siblings who ran around the rink and our coaches, Dave and Russ.
Now, it’s on to baseball!