Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Precipice (part two)

Before I talk about the fourth game, I wanted to describe what our routine is like during a hockey tournament. Most people come and go based on when their games are played, but Eli 10.3 just wants to watch hockey. If he plays two games in a day, he'll watch three or four more. So we basically spend all day at the rink, leaving for brief periods of time to eat.

It's good time, even though it's tiring. Eli is never more relaxed than when he's watching hockey, and he's never happier.

Game four was on Sunday morning, and they faced a team from Fort Worth. Yes, it was another travel team, but they were one of the weakest teams in the pool, and Eli was in goal. Combined, I figured that gave us a puncher's chance.

"Three keys," I said to him in the dressing room. "Be aggressive and stay on your angle. Be clear. And stay in a powerful position on the ice, so that you can make more than one move."

"I feel really good today, Dad," he said.

"I love you and you should be proud of what you guys have done this weekend," I said. "Nobody's played harder. Enjoy the beautiful battle and remember how far you've come. A year and a half ago, you were learning to skate at spring break. Now look at where you are."

"I can hardly believe it," he said, laughing.

Usually, I can tell in warm-ups how Eli's going to play. Before the final game against McAllen two weeks ago, he didn't look sharp. He still played well, but there are times when he is absolutely dominant, and he wasn't like that in the final.

For this game, though, in warm-ups, it was the sharpest I've ever seen him. No one could score, and he was stopping an assortment of shots with almost no time in between. "He's razor sharp," I said Gloria. "He's going to play really, really well."

How well? In the first period, he had 14 saves. Yes, he gave up one goal on a rebound, but after getting outshot 14-3 in the period, his team was only down 1-0.

In case you're wondering, the length of the periods was 13 minutes, so those 14 saves represented 21 in the regular 20 minute NHL period.

In short, he was busy.

The second period started, and he was still red-hot. As he made save after save, the crowd noise started building. He was stopping everything: breakaways, point-blank shots, shots from range, wraparounds, high shots, low shots. He was a human action figure, Stretch Armstrong with a mask.

Our kids had been skating hard the whole game, but somehow they found an extra burst near the end of the second period. For the first time in over two games, they scored, and a minute later, they scored again. Incredibly, after two periods, the score was 2-1, and Eli had 24 saves.

Third period, though, had been a minefield in previous games, and the other team came out with wild energy. Within two minutes, they scored on a high shot that went just over Eli's glove and shoulder (even though he was standing). A minute later, they scored again, after Eli made a nice save on the initial shot, but couldn't get to the rebound.

It was 3-2, and it looked like it was going to get ugly.

But it didn't. Eli started making save after save--again--and they stayed in the game. He even made glove saves on two mid-air deflections, and I still have no idea how he tracked the redirect and adjusted his glove in time.

More and more people had wandered into the rink, and by this point, there were well over 100 people watching the game. And every time Eli made a save, they pounded on the glass. It got louder and louder, and still he roamed the crease with absolutely no fear, looking faster than I've ever seen him.

With two minutes to go, and the score still 3-2, I started to resign myself to a close loss. It had been a brilliant effort by everyone, not just Eli, because all of his teammates had skated their guts out. Sure, it's tough to lose four games in a row, but they were all going to be so much better after the experience.

I was already thinking about what I would say to Eli. It was a loss, but if it was possible for a 10-year-old to be transcendent, he had been. He had 35 saves in all, and most of them were highlight reel quality.

With just over a minute left, the coach pulled Eli to add an extra attacker.

Then we scored.

The arena collectively went insane. We were giddy. And 57 seconds later, the game was headed for a shootout. "We're going to win," said one mom, "because we have Eli in goal." That's what everyone thought.

Except me.

I knew the truth: that in House league, there are no shootouts, because there's not enough time. Ice time is always apportioned down to the minute, so when regulation time is over, the game is over.

Shootouts are very different, tactically, from regulation time. It's a version of chess on ice, really, and there are specific techniques that aren't instinctive--they have to be learned.

None of which Eli 10.3 had learned yet.

We shot first, and missed. Their player came down, deked about three times on Eli, and scored. I was afraid that he would be nervous--because he wasn't prepared--and lose his aggressiveness, and that's what happened. Instead of being disruptive and challenging, he just let the shooter do exactly what he had planned.

But our next kid scored, and their second skater hit the post, even though Eli was beaten, and when our next kid also scored, we were suddenly up 2-1. If Eli stopped the next shot, they would win a thrilling and unbelievable victory.

The shooter skated forward, and Eli came out, but I saw him retreating too quickly. The shooter deked left, then right, then shot along the ice. Eli went down in the butterfly, but he went laterally instead of diagonally to the post, and his left skate finished inches from reaching the puck as it slid past him.


In another 45 seconds, our kid missed, their next shooter scored on yet another deke, and the game was over. Eli lay face down on the ice, crushed by what he had almost done. The other goalie on his team, who had played defenseman in this game, was the first one to reach him, and he helped Eli up and put his arm around him. And his teammates skated up and consoled him.

I headed back to the locker room because I knew he wouldn't stop as he came off the ice. When he walked in, he took off his Captain America mask, jersey, and shoulder pads. Then he sat down in his red goalie pants and suspenders (he has suspenders because he's too skinny to keep his pants up). He had been so big on the ice ten minutes before, so much larger than life, but with his gear off, he was still a skinny little boy. He sat on a bench in the corner, leaning back against the wall, big tears running silently down his face.

It was enough to break your heart. I know it broke mine.

Tomorrow: the aftermath.

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