Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Detroit 2013 (part two)

Many times, stories follow predictable, familiar arcs.

Sometimes, though, they don't.

Tuesday morning, after off ice training, I asked Eli 11.11 how he was feeling. "Great," he said smiling. "Just watch me."

After six hours at the rink yesterday, plus an hour of off ice training already, I thought he'd be tired. It was hockey tired, though, and to him, that's a great feeling.

As soon as he started skating in drills, I could see a difference from Monday. He was working every bit as hard as Nick, and he was crisp. He was the second fastest kid on the ice, even though at least a dozen kids were older than he was, and his technique was tight. It's one thing to be sloppy fast, but he was precise fast.

I have this rush of emotion when I watch him in moments like this. Man, he's worked so hard. The idea that a kid from Austin could be a high-level goaltender is ludicrous, really, but even though he knows that, he's never let it bother him. He doesn't take impossible things personally--he just sets his mind to do them anyway.

What sets him apart from other people, even grown-ups, is that sometimes he does.

At various points during the morning, both camp directors stopped and talked to him on the ice. It's another thing I appreciate about this camp--the directors are so involved, and they care about everyone, from the best goalie to the worst. They respect that everyone, no matter their skill, is trying to improve.

At the end of morning skate, I was at the top of the stairs, watching from a landing. One of the camp directors (the goalie coach for an OHL team) walked up the stairs, and I went over to say hello. "It's nice to see you again," he said. "You're Eli's dad, right?"

"Yes," I said.

"We need to change his camp next year," he said. "He needs to be in the Elite camp."

I'm surprised my jaw didn't break when it hit the floor. I had hopes that by the end of the week, he would at least be in the conversation to get invited, but I didn't really see a clear path from point A to point B. I just had faith in Eli to find a path when I wasn't sure one even existed.

When I told him, I'm sure that no kid ever had a bigger grin on his face in the history of the world.

The next morning, he said he was a little sore. After twelve hours in two days, it was understandable. I didn't know how he'd respond to the Elite camp invitation, either. We talked during breakfast.

"Now that you're in the Elite camp, do you know how you got there?" I asked.

"Hard work," he said.

"That's right," I said. "You have an elite attitude. And if that ever changes, I'll be the first one to let you know."

He laughed. "I know you will," he said. "But don't worry. This is just going to make me work harder."

I watched all of his ice time, but during off ice, we went to get various supplies at a Walgreen's next to the rink. When he walked in from off ice that morning, his face was red, and so was everyone else's.

"How was it?" I asked. "Did they take it easy on you?"

He laughed. "We walked across the street to the track and ran a mile." Holy crap. It was so hot and humid that morning.

"A mile? Really?"

"Not straight though," he said. "We ran a lap, then did twenty push-ups and sit-ups, then ran another lap, did more push-ups and sit-ups, and kept going like that."

That sounded very tough, and I knew he was tired and a bit sore. "Well, so how'd you do?"

"I won," he said.

"You beat the other three kids in your group?" I asked. "Great job!"

"No," he said. "I won. I beat everybody. I beat Nick."

He doesn't surprise me often, not anymore, but I didn't even know what to say. That wasn't even something I considered possible. "That's incredible! How did you beat him?" I asked.

"I went out with the fastest group on the first lap," he said (who were all at least fifteen except for him). "After three laps, only Nick and me were together. Halfway through the last lap, I kicked, and he didn't come with me."

"How much did you beat him by?" I asked.

"About ten yards," he said.

I don't know if Nick saw Eli, with his big heart, running beside him on the last lap and decided to let him have a moment of glory. It wouldn't surprise me, because like I said yesterday, Nick was a terrifically nice kid.

It wasn't the most important thing, though. What really mattered to me, what was most important, was that Eli's tone of voice told me that while he was proud, he didn't think he'd done anything impossible. It was his attitude that made it possible in the first place, his refusal to lag behind with the younger kids. And at some point in that race, he didn't hope to win--he expected to win.

That's the kind of attitude that takes a person to special places.

Later that week in off ice, one of the kids called him "a frickin' Kenyan," and Eli had a big smile on his face when he told me that.

On Friday, I stopped Eli's favorite instructor as he came off the ice. He plays Division I hockey in New York, and while Eli liked everyone, this person was special. I thanked him for the time he'd spent with Eli and said how much Eli enjoyed working with him. He shook my hand and said, "I was going to come and find you today. Eli is a great goalie, but he's a better person."

I know Eli wants to be a professional hockey player, and I would be so happy for him if he somehow (against all odds) makes it, but that's not what matters, really. He is a kind and generous boy, and if I can somehow help him stay that way as he gets older, then he will have a special influence on people, just like the people at Bandits have on him. He will carry that kindness with him, no matter what he decides to do or be, and he will help other people be kind, too.

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