Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Every team that wants to play travel hockey in the DSTHL (Dallas Stars Travel Hockey League, which is the only travel league in Texas) goes to Dallas for a huge tournament over the Labor Day weekend. Every team plays four games, and there were roughly 30 Peewee teams in the various divisions (Gold, Silver, Bronze).

The tournament results have a huge influence on what division a team winds up in for the season. There's AA, A, B+, and B. I'm not sure that's what they're called, but that's the skill level.

Teams that wanted to play AA entered the Gold Division. Then there were about 16 teams in Silver, and those were the teams that wanted to play in A league. The top half of that division would wind up in A, with the bottom half in B+. Roughly.

Last year, the travel team (Eli was on the development team, not the travel team) played in A and got pounded. They were something like 4-20 in league, and the one team behind them in the league table beat them in the first round of the playoffs.

Knowing that, I was just hoping the kids didn't get pounded. 2-2 would be fantastic, a strong start to the season. I just didn't want them going 0-4.

What I like about this team is that they have 15 kids who can skate. There are no slowpokes or unskilled kids, no one you have to hide. There's no superstar, either, but I'd rather have 15 kids who can skate.

Even better, the other goalie on the team is terrific. There is no doubt in my mind that he'll play D-I hockey if he keeps playing. He's huge, he's fundamentally sound, and he's quick. Not as quick as Eli, but his size is a tremendous advantage. Big goalies make kids miss the net entirely. Plus, his dad is the goalie coach, so he's getting constant reinforcement when it comes to technique.

As an aside, that same goalie coach has meant everything to Eli. Coach has worked so hard with him, constantly praises his effort, and often mentions how proud he is of him. He's a good, good guy, and he's a terrific teacher.

I was a little worried about Eli. I didn't think he was practicing that well, and when he doesn't practice well, he doesn't play well. He was being an excellent teammate and leader--I think he has a good chance of being an assistant captain, which is very unusual for a goalie--but I didn't think he was sharp.

I thought that Eli would probably get the easier games out of the four-game set, since he was the new goalie, and I was right. What I didn't expect was that the easier games would be routs. Much to everyone's surprise, Eli's team is very, very good. Eli gave up 4 goals in 2 games, with one deflected off his own defenseman and one shoved in by a kid with his glove (referees didn't see it, and the game was out of hand, so it didn't matter). The final scores were 9-1 and 7-3.

Really, though, he didn't look that good. At least, he didn't look like he does when he's playing well.

In the fourth game, his team beat a AA team 5-2, which was truly shocking. And incredibly, that put them in the semi-finals with a 4-0 record in pool play.

I thought the coach might give the playoff game to his teammate, since he'd been on the team for several seasons. But instead, he stuck to the rotation, and it was Eli's game.

He came in from stretching with his team on Monday morning. "We're playing a AAA Squirt team," he said, and his voice had an edge. Sometimes the highest-level teams in an age group will play up one level, and this was a Dallas team that didn't even play in the travel leagues last year--they're strictly an "invitational" team, which means they go play tournament showcases all over the country.

What that means is much, much more ice time than our team, and much more specialized instruction. Plus, that team had probably been playing together for years, since the highest-level teams tend to stick together. Half of Eli's team was new.

There was one advantage, though. They weren't going to shoot as hard as a Peewee team.

What I expected to happen was that we'd skate fairly well with them in the first period, but their discipline would mean they'd have to skate less (because they'd rarely be out of position), and by the third period, puck possession would have turned totally against us, because the kids would be so tired they couldn't skate well anymore.

That was pretty close, but I forgot about one thing: the kid between the pipes. You know, your adopted son. With ten minutes left in the game, his team had been outshot 29-13, but they were ahead 1-0, because he was pitching a shutout. And it was a beautiful shutout, too, a remarkable combination of rock-solid technique and unbelievable athleticism. He was doing it all.

Sadly, the last ten minutes were a disaster. Our kids just totally lost control of the space around the net, and the refs called the tightest game I've ever seen (total penalty minutes in first 4 games: 14. Penalty minutes in last game: 20). So the other team was on the power play (including two five on threes) for most of the last period. They scored five times in the last ten minutes (Eli could have stopped at least two of those, so he didn't play any better than the rest of his team in that stretch), and the final was 5-2.

They were outshot 40-17.

He walked off, nearly crying. "Don't have your head down," I said. "That was a phenomenal effort by everyone, including you."

"I have to finish games like this," he said. "I've never won this kind of game."

"You're going to," I said. "You'll get in better shape, you'll get tougher, and you'll pull it off. And you're never going to forget it when it does happen. Now go in there and don't let anybody be down--you guys had a great tournament." He gave me a sad smile, I patted him on the helmet, and he walked to the locker room.

It's tough, being a goalie. If a wing plays two great periods, then has ten bad minutes, he's not going to remember those ten minutes. For a goalie, though, those ten minutes are everything. They're hard to escape. So part of growing up as a goalie is learning how to frame a game fairly, thinking about what went right and went wrong, and moving on.

It's a lot like life, really.

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