Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Main Camp

Main camp. For a USHL team.

That's a big deal, right? A chance to make a USHL team? Well, not all is as it appears, my friends.

30 players would be rostered at the end of camp. There were 120 skaters and 16 goalies in camp.

It was easy to figure out that there was a main camp, then a MAIN camp inside the main camp. The real main camp consisted of returning players, draft picks, and players on the protected roster. That represented about 40 players, maybe 45. The team would basically be picked from those players.

Sure, a kid outside that group might crack the roster. Conceptually.

No matter. You don't go to one of these camps as a relative outsider and make the team. You go to play your ass off and hope that a scout from another team (plenty of scouts there) notices you. Plus, since Eli 16.10 is a 2001 birth year, you want to make an impression for the 2019 camp, when you're old enough to be taken seriously.

I wanted to string this all into a nice narrative, but it's impossible, because everything was so fractured. Four games in three days, Eli playing half of each, and when I say "games" I mean "scrimmages". Roster distributions such that three out of four games he played were wildly non-competitive.

So, let's just count them down.

Game one (Thursday). In half a game, he faced 22 shots (his own team got 6), gave up 5 goals, wanted 1 back, and played really well, even though the numbers didn't show it. He made at least half a dozen highlight reel saves, because he had no defense in front of him. Good puck control, good technique, and 3 of the goals were bar down.

Give kids at this level wide-open, uncontested shots from in close, and they're going to score.

"Man, you've improved. Four years ago you were getting shelled in 'B' league in Texas, and now you're getting shelled at a USHL camp, " I said. "Too soon?"

I didn't actually say this, but told Eli on Sunday that I almost had. "That definitely would have been too soon," he said, bursting out laughing.

Game two (Friday). Again, a wildly non-competitive game. He faced 20 shots, gave up 4, and wanted (maybe) 1 back. Made another set of beautiful saves in crazy circumstances. "I've given up nine goals in two games, and I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like I've actually played pretty well," he said.

"You have," I said. "You gave up four, and the other guy gave up six."

The crazy thing about Friday was that they moved kids around to different teams after the game, and Eli's new team played the very next game. So he finished a game, stripped off his jersey, put on a different jersey, and walked back onto the ice.

He was playing the second half in this game, and the first half was pretty even--we were only down 2-1 at halftime. So I had hopes, although I was wondering how much energy he'd have left.

Plenty, as it turned out. A hell of a lot of energy, and he was unbelievable. 14 shots, no goals, no rebounds. Difficult shots, but not constant. Terrific scrambling on a few wild plays. When he plays well, really well, every movement he makes is sharp, not rounded. It's hard to explain in words, but it's easy to see, and he snapped everything shut and looked impossibly good.

His team won 4-2.

"I ride on the competency of my teammates," he said, laughing.

One game left, on Saturday morning, and he was on the same team, so things were looking good. Except they moved two of his competent defensemen to another team, and there were only two defensive pairings.

The game started at 8 a.m., and after five minutes, it was 4-0. In the wrong direction. Those new defensemen, who were skating in the same pairing? In 6 shifts, they were -4.


This was a goalie's nightmare. No team in front of you, the other team happy to pile it on. Mentally, it's a staggering burden.

I thought they would score 10.

They didn't. Incredibly, and I don't even know how, Eli clawed his way into the game. He raised his level of play, then raised it again. Pucks were sticking to him like glue.

They did score 1 more, on a pass to an uncovered player at the far post where he had no chance, but that was it. To anyone who understood the position, it was a hell of a performance.

The other goalie on his team was Canadian and had been called up to the OHL for a cup of coffee last season (didn't play, but was on a roster).

He gave up 9.

That's how much of a disparity there was between teams. And he was good, too.

"Well, I came here and played my butt off," Eli said after the last game.

"You did," I said. "And you made some lifelong friends." Eli burst out laughing, because I was talking about the referee.

There was a referee who Eli talked to all weekend (scrimmages being much less formal than games), and they got along. Both were laughing every time they talked, and they talked a lot. Incredibly nice guy. After Eli's shutout, when his team was in line congratulating him, the referee got in line behind them and tapped Eli on the chest with his fist. "Was there a referee in your handshake line?" I asked.

Eli started laughing. "There was! He was the best ref ever!"

That's a nice way to end this story. Not with making a USHL team, but with his personality.

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