Thursday, April 28, 2016

Detroit, One More Time (part four)

The second game was on Saturday, and it was an odd one.

Eli's team won 1-0, and he left with a 1-0 lead halfway through the game, but he only faced 7 shots, and gave up several rebounds.

Saturday night, though, things got interesting.

They were playing a local AA team that was strong, and they had a huge number of fans with them. Eli's team skated out like they knew they were going to win.

They then proceeded to lose.

Eli came in halfway through with a 0-0 score. He faced 15 shots and gave a clinic. Zero rebounds. Totally in control.

Then, with three minutes left, a kid skated across the hashmarks, went around three of our players, and flung a shot at the net as he went sideways. It was blocked, but quickly wound up right back on his stick. Since he had been skating sideways, the angle had changed, and he shot again and scored.

They lost 1-0. Eli had played his best game of the tournament.

He was a little down after the game, but his team still won their pool, which meant they were playing in the semis Sunday morning.

"Uh oh," he said as he scanned the standings in the pools. "Do you know who we play tomorrow?"

"Who?" I asked.

"The number one 16u team in the country," he said.

"That's a forty shot game," I said.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "Maybe in half the game," he said, laughing.

"Well, you came here to play for it," I said. He laughed.


It was calm.

Eli felt good. He'd be playing the first half of the game, and everyone knew his team, even though it was very good, was badly outmatched for this one game. The other three teams in the semis were all legitimate 16u teams, but his team didn't have even one sixteen-year-old.

"Suicide mission," he said.

"Right?" I said. "But you had an entire season of these games last year."

"Oh, yeah," he said. "If there's any kind of game I should be prepared for, it's this one."

I thought about all this as he went into the rink. In the last six weeks, he'd faced huge moment after huge moment, and none of them had been bigger than he was. But this was facing the best team in the country in an older division.

If there was ever a time when he'd crack, it would be now.

Talking to him, though, and watching him, he didn't look fragile. He was composed.

He looked ready.

He looked even more ready in warm-ups. "He's already dialed in," I said to Gloria, because I can usually tell.

When the game started, it was quickly apparent that his team was never going to have the puck. And they didn't, but Eli battled.

And battled.

His team was outshot 23-5 in the first half of the game. It was a barrage.

Eli gave up three goals, but very few rebounds, and he made some tough saves look easy because he was so fundamentally sound.

I was stunned. This was an even higher level of competition than he'd face in 15u, and he was still fine out there.

Happy, really.

He has big letters on each side of his helmet that spell "TEXAS". Letters almost three inches high. Near the end of the first period, the referee skated over to get the puck from him and said, "Hey kid, where are you from--Alaska?"

Eli looked at him and said "I'm guessing you didn't get any reading comprehension awards in school." Then they both burst out laughing.

Oh, and guess what? I taped most of his action, and you see can quite a bit in this 90-second video:
Eli in Motown 16u Semis.

I missed the third goal, and I missed the first five or six saves when the game started (then I realized I could just lean my phone against my drink cup and let it record). I got most of it, though.

When he skated off at the end of the game, I knew he'd done it. I didn't know if he'd have an offer from either team, but I did know he'd done everything he could possibly do.

When he walked into the lobby, I gave him a big hug. "I don't even know what to say," I told him. He smiled.

Our plane was leaving in four hours.

I quickly talked to his coach. He said he would have a decision within a day or so, that he was glad Eli had come and that he had played well.

I texted that to the second coach. I figured a day or two delay was okay.

It wasn't.

The coach said he wanted Eli, but that he felt like Eli wanted to play for the other team and was just using him as a backup in case he didn't get an offer from the team he'd played for this weekend.

I told him we were coming by the rink where his team was playing to talk to him before we left for the airport.

It was the same in person. I really, really like this coach, and I sympathized with him. He was right--he'd been very patient, and Eli hadn't committed yet. He said that he needed to know before Fall tryouts, which started on Monday, because he needed to know if he had an open goalie position or not.

That was fair.

I texted the coach he played for and just told him the truth. We drove to the airport and I hoped he would get back to me quickly.

We were eating in the airport when my phone buzzed. The coach texted back and said that his situation was complicated, that Eli had a good offer, and that he should take it.

Lots of coaches would have kept him on the hook--most of them would--but this guy was honorable, and he was looking out for Eli instead of himself. I found out later that Eli was one of three goalies that he liked for the final goalie position on the team, but he didn't feel right having Eli pass up an offer from a program he respected in exchange for no certain spot on his team.

That's a good man.

We finished eating quickly, and there were still about ten minutes before we boarded. "Let's call coach," Eli said, and I dialed the number and handed him the phone.

"Hi Coach, it's Eli," he said, and then he walked off a short distance.

So much went through my mind in this moment. I remembered putting on his goalie gear hundreds of times. Just a little guy, but already so determined, so certain.

All the extra workouts he'd done, when the rest of the rink was empty.

Hockey had given him some of the best moments of his life, and some of the worst.

Come on, man. One more great moment. Kick in that door.

A few seconds later, he looked up and gave me a thumbs-up with a big smile on his face. Then he walked over and handed me the phone. I thanked the coach.

Gloria had walked over and was talking to him when I hung up the phone. "So it's done," I said.

"It's done," Eli said. "The sweep is real," he said, and he laughed.

We stood in the airport in a little circle, the three of us hugging. I always thought I would cry if this happened, but I was too tired to cry.

I was not, however, too tired to smile.

Eli had just signed with the fifteenth-ranked team in the country.

Hello, Michigan. We're on our way.

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