Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Tournament: Part Three

Eli 14.1 carried his gear into the rink for the finals.

We watched a game together for a while, then I left him with one of his friends. I've consciously tried to gradually step back as he gets older. There are things he has to do on his own.

I walked around the rink and saw a nice spot where he could do his stretching warm-up. Didn't mention it to him. I have to trust him to find a good spot on his own.

He did.

When he came out on the ice, he was electric. I've never seen him look as quick taking pucks in warm-ups.

The other goalie was very, very good, and the teams seemed similar. I expected a low-scoring, tight game.

Eli looked like he could play two games, or three, and no one would ever score on him. About halfway through the first period, though, one of his defenseman had the puck behind the net and tried to skate up the center of the ice.

He hadn't gone ten feet before he was stripped, and a kid ripped a shot past Eli from about three feet above the top of the crease. No chance.

This defenseman had played great all weekend, and it was his only mistake in five games. But we were behind 1-0.

The longer the game went on, though, the more apparent it was that Eli was in control. He looked so confident, so absolutely certain.

There were no second shot opportunities. Zero rebounds.

His team was still behind, though. They had plenty of chances, but nothing would go in. The other goalie was very, very good, and while he was giving up rebounds, his athleticism helped him recover.

The crowd started to grow. There had been maybe a hundred people at the start of the game, but now it looked like there were twice that many, at least. The Midget finals were next, and all the players from those teams were dressed out and lining the glass, watching.

1-0. End of the second period.

Eli knew that if he gave up another goal, the game would be over, and the third period was his best. And his team was playing furiously in front of him, but they still couldn't score.

With just over two minutes left, he wound up out of position for the only time all day, and a shooter had the puck on his stick from a few feet above the crease with a wide-open net in front of him.

Game over.

Then I heard the puck hit the boards, and realized that the shooter, in the pressure of the moment, had shot wide.

It was loud in the rink, very loud now, and soon after that missed shot, Eli's coach motioned him to the bench.

Goalie pulled. Ninety seconds left.

I felt so bad for him. What a tournament he'd had.

Then we scored.

One minute left, and I still don't know what happened, but somehow we poked a puck in. And with that, it was 1-1.

Regulation ended. Eli had given up 1 goal on 25 shots.

Overtime began and ended.


By now, the crowd seemed absolutely huge.

The shootout was a minimum three rounds, and the other team shot first. The first kid made an excellent, quick move, but Eli was sitting there waiting for him.

And the second kid. And the third. Eli looked like he could stop as many kids as they sent out there. He looked towering, and still as quick as he'd been when he skated out for warm-ups.

We couldn't score, either, though. So close several times.

In the sixth round, the other team scored. I couldn't believe it.

Neither could Eli. He looked at the puck in the net behind him and slowly sank to the ice, face down in front of the crease. Stretched out, I had the quickest flash of The Iron Giant, because goalie gear turns children into giants.

I hurt so much for him. What a game he'd played. I still see the little boy inside him whenever I look at him, but today, I saw the man in him for the first time.

It was a moment I'm sure I will never forget.

After what seemed like the longest time, he got up, and he stood blankly by the net, waiting for our shooter to end the game.

The shooter skated in... and scored.

It was tied again.

I didn't exactly know how Eli could stop the next shot, but he did.

Then Eli's teammate skated down, did a little deke, and scored.

Game over.

It was pandemonium. The crowd exploded. Eli threw his glove and blocker in the air as high as any person could ever throw them, and his whole team raced to get to him first.

I wasn't fighting back tears when it looked hopeless, but I had to fight hard to hold them back when they won. He had played so well the entire game, but the one moment when he failed, his team put him on their backs and carried him home.

Sometimes there are larger truths.

I don't know if I've ever seen a bigger smile on his face:

When he came out of the locker room, he was beaming, carrying his gear like it was as light as paper. I hugged him as hard as I could and didn't say a word.

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