Wednesday, January 19, 2011


We went to Laredo for a hockey tournament last weekend.

Laredo is on the Mexican border (right across the border is Nuevo Laredo), and it's less than a 4 hour drive from Austin.

In theory.

If it's raining, and misty, and sucky, it's almost an hour longer, because getting through San Antonio becomes much more difficult. "We're befumbled," Eli 9.5 said, as we drove endlessly through the rain.

Why, yes. Yes, we are.

We didn't finally get to Laredo until it was dark. I hate reaching a new city in the dark, because it's impossible to see any context. It could be Mars, for all I can tell, and it's claustrophobic as hell. So our first look at Laredo was no look at all.

Eli played at 8 a.m. on the next morning, and he was playing in goal, we left for the arena at 7 a.m. on Saturday.

In the dark.

It was raining, and a little foggy, and we're trying to drive through a city we've never seen, on a very tight time limit. It was stressful as hell, but we did find the arena, and we were the first ones from his team there.

For this tournamnet, Eli's Squirt team had split into two teams, and their first game would be playing each other. Plus, the way their round-robin looked, this game would probably determine which of the two teams made it to the finals (there were four teams, and one had no chance, while the Laredo team was almost guaranteed to make it). So this was essentially an 8 a.m. game for a spot in the finals the next day.

Eli had played two games in goal in the last tournament (if you've been around for at least a few months, you already know that). He got burned alive 8-2 in the first, and had a 0-0 shutout in the second game (but only faced three weak shots). So this was the first game he'd ever played in a tournament that was suited for his skill level, and I was hoping he would do well.

I always talk to him before I leave the locker room after helping him get dressed in his goalie gear. "Stay on your angle," I said, my hand on his shoulder. "Don't hide in the net. And don't let anything under you." I tapped him on the helmet. "Most important, though, have a great time."

I actually had double goalie anxiety for this game, because the goalie of the other Squirt team is one of Eli's best friends, and since his father was on a business trip, I dressed him out, too. And it was his first game playing in a tournament.

I would have been pretty thrilled by a 1-0 game, with Eli's team winning.

In the first two minutes, one of the other team's best shooters unleashed a surprise shot from near the face-off circle. It was the kind of shot that surprises Eli sometimes, but he went down into the butterfly and made a textbook save.

It was on.
In the first period, his team was getting blistered. They couldn't clear the puck, and the flow of play was completely against them. Eli made six saves before giving up a goal on a great shot that no one would have stopped.

I was afraid he was going to tighten up, get nervous, and get blasted. His team expected to win this game fairly easily, because they thought they had the better players, but it wasn't turning out that way.

Eli stayed on his game, though, and as he kept makings saves and the score stayed 1-0 against, the tide slowly began to turn. His team scored a sloppy goal on a mosh pit near the crease, and it was 1-1.

With about 5 minutes left in the third period, it was still tied, and both Eli and his friend had played terrific games. Now, though, Eli's team had really taken over, and they were putting on a ton of pressure in the offensive end. Then, from beyond the faceoff circle, one of his teammates (who rarely scored) took a long shot that, incredibly, slid untouched past all the other kids and into the corner of the goal.

Bang. It was 2-1.

I thought Eli might get tight, trying to hold a lead in such a tight game, but during a break in play, he heard a song he likes by Vampire Weekend and started dancing in the crease.

Hmm. Not tight.

He faced only one shot for the rest of the game. Then the horn sounded and he was mobbed by his team, both in celebration and relief, I think. I didn't quite catch the pile, but here's his team skating toward the post-game handshake:

It's hard to explain how happy and relieved I was for him. It's asking a lot for a kid to be able to handle the responsibility of being a goalie when they're so young, and the pressure was really, really on in this game. They're just little kids, but man, they care, and they wanted to win. His team would have lost without him, because he made some great saves. So he finally got to experience what it felt like to win in goal, and know that he had made a difference.

The other reason they won was the kid in the far right of the picture--#24. She's eight, she's tiny, and she has the heart of a freaking lion. She puts on her hockey gear, and she turns into Superman. She's a defenseman, and she plays harder--every second--than any other kid on the team, even Eli. In this game, she must have knocked a puck loose every thirty seconds. It was amazing.

Nice start.

The next game was against a team from Corpus Christi that didn't have enough players (some had gotten sick in the last few days), so they divided up both teams and made two new teams from them. Eli volunteered to play for Corpus, and he skated out in a maroon jersey, which was both strange and very cool.

Early on, I realized he was going to get a ton of ice time, because the Corpus coach was double-shifting him almost every time. That was great, and even better, they would talk every time he came off the ice. It was like they'd been together for years, and I knew that Eli was really enjoying the game, because even though it was unofficial, he was playing like it was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

His team was behind 3-2, but they scored twice in the last five minutes to win 4-3, and Eli was jubilant. He was taking off his Corpus jersey after the game, talking about how beautiful it was (they really are completely striking), and his coach said "We have one extra. You can keep that one." It was an incredibly nice gesture, and a good example of how friendly and supportive the hockey community is down here.

Here's a picture of Eli in a jersey that he really treasures:

By the time they finished their third game (against their hosts Laredo, and they lost 6-4), it was already dark outside, and we hadn't left the rink all day. "I'm never going to see this city in the light," I said as we made our way out to the car.

Eli hadn't expected to play goalie for the rest of the tournament, but the #1 goalie was so mad after giving up 6 goals (5 of them to the same kid) that he didn't want to play goalie against the same team in the finals. [A sidenote: when they played Laredo, the fellow sitting in the row directly below us was the uncle of the kid who scored 5 goals, and he was a tremendously nice person. He was very proud of his nephew, but not in an arrogant way, just the kind of warm pride that that everyone feels for their children. We shook hands after the game, and I totally enjoyed talking to him.

Everyone I met from Laredo was like that. They were all very proud of their hockey teams, but they were always warm and gracious, and treated all of us like family.]

So I had to try to prepare Eli to be goalie when 1) he hadn't expected to play, and 2) wasn't looking forward to playing against the team that had scored 8 goals the last time he faced them.

"This is what sport is all about, little man," I said as we ate dinner. "It's about challenge, and it's about trying harder than you thought you could. I know you can do it."

"I know, Dad, but they beat me last time," he said.

"Sure," I said, "and tomorrow is a different day. You're a better goalie than you were then, and you won't be surprised by their star. You guys have played them three times in the last two months--there are no surprises left."

On the way out of the restaurant, he stopped and got a peppermint. "Starting now, we're positive," I said. "That's an enthusi-mint you just picked up. Can you taste the enthusiasm?"

"No," he said, and he started laughing.

The next morning, right when he woke up, I said, "I have an idea. Every time you feel any kind of fear this morning, I want you to think about something positive. Think about Fleury making the save at the end of Game 7 against the Red Wings, and remember the announcer saying, 'Fluery with the save!' "

"Dad, I really like that," he said. "That's a great idea."

It's right here that I'd like to say that he played in goal, stood on his head, and they won the tournament. What happened, though, couldn't have been more different. For one thing, he didn't play in goal. They decided to use the third goalie, on the premise that since he was relatively inexperienced and played very deep in the crease, he would be less susceptible to the multiple deke moves that Laredo's star player used. Since Eli is considered one of the best defensemen, they wanted him skating to help control the flow of play.

And he had a great game, for a while. They were behind 2-1 near the end of the first period and he had made a ton of plays. Then he took the puck away from a Laredo player and they wound up falling in an awkward heap, with the Laredo player on top.

That happens about 100 times a game.

Eli didn't get up, though, lying face down on the ice. I still wasn't concerned, though, because kids always get up. They stopped play, and as the referee skated over to check on him, I was sure he'd get up.

He didn't, though. He didn't even move.

Then his coach started running across the ice, and it was a bad, bad time. Eventually, he was able to stand up, but he couldn't put any weight on his right leg, and with a coach on either side of him, they helped off the ice.

I walked down to the front row of the stands, which were right behind the bench, and I tapped on the glass. He turned around, and I put my hand on the glass. He nodded, and I could see that he was crying. The coach pointed down to where the players go off the ice, and I made my way over there to help him.

One of his coaches is a bear of a man, and as he stepped off the ice (with help from his coaches), he looked at him and said, "Want a ride?" Together, we carried him back to the locker room.

Remember what I said about Laredo? There was a medic there within two minutes of us getting back to the locker room. It was unbelievable. He did a complete structural check of Eli's knee, took him through range of motion tests (which really, really hurt, but Eli did them), and said that all of his ligaments and tendons were intact, and his kneecap wasn't dislocated. He also said that the area just above and behind his knee was extremely tight, and that it was really going to hurt if he didn't gently move his leg up and down. He warned us not to keep his leg extended for long periods of time, even though that would feel like the least painful thing to do.

I helped him take off his gear while a nice lady went to get us some ice. He was in plenty of pain, but mostly, he was disappointed that he was out of the game. He was giving it his all, and how he couldn't give anything.
Another lady came into the locker room and gave him his medal (all the kids got medals), because he wasn't going to be able to go on the ice for the post-game presentation. He put it around his neck and smiled. "My first hockey medal," he said. "I worked a long time for this one."

"You did," I said. "You've worked hard. And I'm really proud of you." I was trying hard not to cry.

We had ice within five minutes, and he sat in the locker room with a bag of ice on his knee, waiting for his team to come back. Every once in a while, we'd get a score update--Laredo had scored just after he left the game, then it was 3-1 for a long time.

By then, Gloria had gone to Walgreens and found one of those ice bags with a cap, and we had ice in a cooler, so he had plenty of cold on his knee to relieve swelling. Plus, Gloria also had brought children's Advil on the trip, and he took some right away.

Laredo scored once more near the end of the game, and the final was 4-1. Every kid came over to check on Eli as soon as they came into the locker room. It was both very kind and very hard at the same time, because he wanted so much to be out there with them.

A few minutes later, one of the parents of the kid who played goalie came over. "Did you hear Eli talking to Mark before the game?" I shook my head. "Mark was really, really nervous, and Eli came over and said, 'Mark, they've never seen you before, so they have no idea good you are. They're going to be really surprised, and you're going to have a great game.' Then he helped him decide which goalie stick to use. He was talking to him just like a coach would, and he was so smooth and confident that he totally settled Mark down, and then he couldn't wait to play. I've never seen a kid his age do anything like that."

That's your collectively adopted son, all right. Even when I think I know everything about him, he manages to surprise me.

Again, it seems like you'd know where this story was headed, but you'd be wrong. I carried him up the stairs and into the stands, and the three of us watched the Mites play in their final. Everyone came over to check on him, including the Corpus coach, who said how much he appreciated Eli's effort from the previous day.

About halfway through the game, we took off the ice and he flexed his leg very slowly. "It hurts, but I can do that," he said.

After the game, we stopped to eat lunch before driving home. "Dad, I swear I think I can walk," he said.

"Are you sure?" I asked.

"I think so," he said.

"Well, give it a try," I said.

He did, and he was limping, but he could walk. "I can," he said. "Let's go." We ate lunch, and he kept moving his leg every few minutes, carefully flexing it back and forth.

On the way home, we had to pass through a Border Patrol inspection point. Yes, a knuckhead in our lane (one of only two) got stopped, which made our line halt for at least fifteen minutes while over a hundred cars streamed through in the other lane.

We finally got up to the Border Patrol officer, and these aren't guys you want to mess around with--they're stern, and they are all business. He looked into the SUV and said, "Are you both American citizens?"

"Yes," we both said.

"Is there anyone else in the vehicle?" he asked.

"Hellooo," Eli 9.5 said from the back seat. The BP officer leaned forward to look into the back seat. "Hi there," Eli said, and he waved.

The Border Patrol officer's face broke into a big grin. "Drive through," he said.

On the way home, he alternated ice and leg flexing. "Man, I'm so sorry you didn't get to play the whole game," I said.

"Me, too," he said.

"Sports is about a lot of things," I said, "but one of them is learning to how to handle disappointment. Sometimes, you can't control what happens. Even Sidney Crosby--he had to come out of Game 7, remember?"

"He did!" Eli said. "I remember!"

By the end of the day, his limp had gotten much less noticeable, even though I expected his leg to tighten up overnight. When he woke up the next morning, though, he wasn't even limping. "I feel fine," he said.

"You're like Spiderman," I said.

"Maybe I can still go to practice tomorrow," he said.

"When you feel no pain, and you can run and cut on dry land, then you can skate," I said. "Not until then."

That night, he went to the cul-de-sac, and he ran and cut without incident. "Any pain at all?" I asked.

"None," he said. "Practice tomorrow?"

"Looks like it," I said, "as long as you promise to stop if you feel any pain."

"I will," he said. "YES!"

Here's a picture with his second place medal:

He practiced Tuesday night (after going out for early skate, which he always does, even if he has late practice) and was all over the ice making plays. "I felt great, Dad," he said as we drove home.

Me, too.

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