Thursday, March 29, 2012

"I've Forgotten What Normal Tired Feels Like" (part four)

Sunday, 6:30 a.m.

The first game on Sunday was a rematch with McAllen, but this time, Eli wasn't in goal. I thought this was the game they would lose, given how the other goalie played on Saturday.

Plus, McAllen's coach. Their coach was amazing at making adjustments between games. It should be almost impossible to coach up 10-year-olds between games, but he does it, and he does it in the fairest way possible--no triple-shifting his best kids, no yelling, just coaching.

Combine that with a pre-dawn starting time, and it looked to me like Eli's team was ripe for an ass-kicking.

Then, as it often happens with 10-year-olds, nothing went to form. Our defense was terrible, but the backup goalie was terrific. Our best defenseman, who I've never seen have a bad game in two years, was awful. Eli's Squirt Hall Of Fame mode had disappeared, even though he was still making excellent decisions. Overall, though, they looked as bad as they looked good before.

And yet, they were ahead. 3-0, by the end of the second period, and coasting. Here's the thing about coasting, though: it can turn on you very quickly.

And it did.

Suddenly, our goalie was sketchy again, and McAllen was scoring. Since kids had been coasting, they couldn't turn it on again.

It only took about ten minutes. McAllen started scoring--and scoring--and suddenly, they were ahead 4-3. Our kids looked like they were in shock. And there were only three minutes left.

There's this kid on the team name James, and he's not a great skater, but he has great stick skills, and he's smart. So while everyone else was waiting to lose, James got a loose puck, skated down, and blasted a beautiful shot to tie the game with two minutes left.

At this point, I was actually rooting for a tie. It had been a tight, dramatic, hard fought (without the actual fighting) game, and I wanted everyone, including McAllen, to have something good to feel about.

The horn sounded and I was relieved. Our goalie had been a little shaky, but he's a great kid, and he played well enough to win. Our team would still win the tournament if they beat Laredo in the next game. McAllen could feel good about coming back to tie.

Then kids started skating back to the bench. Somehow, and it looked entirely impromptu, there was going to be a shootout.

Oh, hell.

Well, this was going to be a disaster. Our little goalie just couldn't defend dekes well, which is what most kids use in a shootout. They had three excellent players to use as shooters. So did we, but McAllen had a better goalie.

It was a strange format, too. Three shots by each team, and if it was still tied, that was the end of the game.

We went first, and our best deker skated up like he was in molasses and barely got a shot off. Disaster.

Their best kid (who had the heart of a lion--he's amazing) stated on our doomed goalie--and didn't deke. He pulled up and shot wide of the net.

Our next kid skated in and got off as bad a shot as our first kid. No chance.

Then McAllen's second kid skated in--and didn't deke. He also tried to go high, and missed the net. Incredible.

It was like watching a game in Backwards Town, where everything happened in reverse.

Third shots. Our kid went high, and their goalie made an excellent save. I was holding my breath, hoping that our goalie could stop the last shot. He'd be the hero, and he's such a nice kid.

The McAllen skater came in and started deking. But our goalie went with him, and the shot went off his pads.

Tie game.

"I think that's the most exciting game I've ever seen you play in," I said to Eli as he skated off. "Well, second-most exciting, anyway."

"The Brahmas," he said.

"That's right," I said. "Thirty-five saves."

"What a great game this was," he said. "Even though we played awful."

"You're in goal against Laredo," I said. "Win and you win the tournament."

"We're not losing," he said.

They only had about 45 minutes between games, so they sat in the stands for a few minutes after getting out of their gear. Eli had even less time, because he had to get in his goalie gear. He got dressed and did a few of the things he does to prepare--like juggle--but clearly, he wasn't focused like he has been in the past.

It looked fairly straightforward, though. They had dominated this team the first time, and our kids were excited about possibly winning the tournament, so they were going to play hard.

So when they were behind 1-0 after the first period, it was painful. It was particularly difficult to watch, because they had all forgotten how to skate. They couldn't skate, they couldn't clear a puck, and they had totally forgotten even basic strategy.

"What is happening?" Gloria has, remarkably, turned into a hockey fan, and even she could clearly see that they had collectively lost their minds.

"I don't even have a guess," I said, "except that they're nine and ten. But they're really leaving Eli hanging out there."

Laredo had four shots in the first game. They had eleven shots in the first period of this game. I lost count of the breakaways. Eli let in one shot he could have stopped, but he made several excellent saves, keeping his team in the game.

Then they woke up. It was still ugly, incredibly ugly, but they started scoring. At 4-1, Eli let in another goal, another one he could have stopped. Not playing much after the Dallas tournament (mostly because he was sick one week) clearly had affected his sharpness, but he was still stopping some high-quality, hard shots.

Eli has this bond with his team, a bond that I've never seen another kid have. Whenever a new shift came on the ice, three or four of the five kids would skate over and tap Eli on the pads or his helmet. I haven't seen any other team ever do that with their goalie, and it only happens when Eli is in goal. I never had that experience at his age, of being on a team where kids respected and trusted me. It's shaped him in different ways than I was shaped, good ways, and I'm glad.

He stands tall.

Like I said, it was ugly, but there wouldn't be any more drama this time. They went up 8-3, Eli let in one more goal (patting his chest to acknowledge to his defensemen that he had screwed up), and they won 8-4.

Celebration. Picture from a lousy angle:

I was waiting for him when he skated off.

"Hey, in your first tournament game ever, you played in goal against Laredo, and they humiliated you. And then you worked and worked. Now, in your last tournament game as a Squirt, you played in goal against Laredo, and you won. It's the hockey Circle Of Life," I said, and he started laughing.

"Dad, look at my stick," he said. I looked.

"I know you're only 10, little man," I said, "but that stick's been through some wars."

I'm already looking forward to the next one," he said.

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