Monday, November 08, 2010

The Tournament

Eli 9.3 had a hockey tournament in Corpus Christi this weekend.

Corpus Christi, at its very (and rare) best, is a low-rent version of San Diego, and it was indeed at its best--clear skies, highs in the mid 70s, and light winds.

The arena the kids played in was also spectacular.There's only one rink in Corpus Christi, so that's where they played--seating capacity 8,100, and almost brand-new, the same arena where the CHL team plays.

Eli has only been skating for seven months, so to go from nowhere to playing tournaments so quickly was quite a move. Even better, he was the back-up goalie and was going to get to play two games in goal (out of four). In the other games, he was going to play as a defenseman, which was a good fit, because his shot is still pretty weak, but he's a good decision-maker in terms of passing.

This tournament was a "rec team" tournament, which is basically a starting level. I think the team he's on is also called a "house team." No one gets cut, and no one has to be selected through tryouts. Everyone gets to play.

In spite of that, he has some excellent players on his team, and in general, the skill level is much higher than I expected. It looks like hockey.

He played as a defenseman in the first game, and even though he's had very little instruction about positioning, he had a terrific game.  I basically told him to stand a few feet inside the blue line, keep the puck in the zone, and not let any opposing players break past him. He kept the puck in the zone constantly, was a general nuisance on defense, and also made two outlet passes that were perfectly placed and led to immediate goals.

One game, two assists, and a 4-0 win. Plus his goalie only faced five shots (11:00 periods).

Hey, this isn't so hard.

Eli was really looking forward to playing goalie in the second game, and I was really looking forward to seeing him.

About 15 minutes before the puck dropped, though, I heard the coaches of the other team talking in the hallway outside their locker room. They were talkingabout strategy like it was the Stanley Cup finals.


As it turned out, this was a travel team from the previous year that didn't travel anymore. In other words, they were basically playing down at least one level.

As my friend Ben Ormand says, let me just go ahead and rip the Band-Aid off: Eli got hammered. 8-2.

It was so painful to watch. The other kids skated circles around our kids, it seemed like they had a breakaway every couple of minutes, and they had one kid in particular who was a little superstar: he scored five goals.

Eli tried. Man, he tried. He had 18 saves out of 26 shots (remember, these were only 11:00 periods,so that would be like facing almost 50 shots in a regular NHL game), but he also gave up several soft goals because he was so flustered. He didn't get mad, and he stayed focused, but he was miserable. I saw him looking up at the scoreboard several times, just hoping that the game would end.

We had 5 shots, by the way.

It hurt to see him suffer like that. It hurts now, just typing it, so I can only imagine how he felt. He did make some truly beautiful saves, but there's no way to sugar-coat eight goals.

I met him when he came off the ice, and he cried for about a minute in the locker room, but then he went back to being who he is, which is this unreasonably spectacular kid. They had an indoor pool party at the hotel, everyone had a great time, and by the end of the day, he was already talking about getting revenge the next day, when they would play the same team again.

This was insane, because all that was going to happen was a second ass-beating. There was no reason to think anything was going to change.

Overnight, though, something did change: the other team's superstar left.

During warm-ups, I looked for their star, but he was nowhere to be found. Not playing. This totally changed the flow of the game, and what also changed was that Eli's team was much more determined than the day before.

We scored first, and shots were about even through the first period, which was hard to believe. In the second, it was 1-1 and we were starting to leak fuel--shaky on defense, losing confidence, looking ready to crumble.

Tha's when his team cleared a puck out of their defensive zone, and Eli chased it into the offensive end. It was a singular moment, because he was leading the charge for the first time. He got the puck, passed it to a teammate who was in position to shoot, and skated to the net.

The puck bounced off the goalie, right to Eli 9.3's stick. And he buried it.

Cue goal celebration (the chainsaw), cue me high-fiving Gloria in the stands, and cue his entire team in a wild celebration.

That was the first shot he'd ever taken in a real game. Shooting percentage 1.000.

With that, his team took over. They led 4-1 (he also had an assist) before a late, scary flurry of goals from the other team made the final 5-4.

It's hard to explain how happy I was for him. He was always a finisher in soccer, but I never thought he would be able to translate that to hockey, given that he was starting from zero. But the moment came, the biggest moment of the game, and he was still the finisher.

That was the loudest locker room I've ever been, and also the happiest.

In the final game, Eli played goal, faced only three shots, and they tied 0-0. For the day, he had some crazy goalie version of a hat trick: a goal, an assist, and a shutout.

Little big man.

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