Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Precipice (part one)

This is the last hockey story this year--promise.

We went to Dallas last weekend for another hockey tournament.

In Laredo, it was a "house" tournament. House players don't play in leagues outside their own program, at least not down here. Everyone gets to play, and the atmosphere, while it can be intense at times, is still somewhat casual. Your team doesn't have enough players? Well, you do have to forfeit the official tournament game, but we'd be happy to loan you a few of our players and we can still scrimmage.

That was Laredo.

When we pulled into Dallas, then went to the ice rink Friday morning, the first thing I saw was a dad reaming out his ten-year-old son in the pro shop. "You were on the first line to start the season," he said, speaking in a low voice. "Then you got moved to the second line. Now you're on the last line, and do you know why? Because you don't backcheck, and because you don't skate hard enough."

I think I know why--because dad's a douchebag.

Welcome to the big-time. How disappointing.

We continued to look at items in the pro shop, and Douchebag Dad continued talking. "Are you just going to throw away all the time you put into this?" He challenged.

That was my depressing introduction to the world of travel team tournaments.

A travel team tournament is a galaxy away from house tournaments. All these teams travel, they almost all have three full lines, and they've been practicing together three days a week for the last three months, plus playing league games every other weekend.

Us? Our team is the top 15 kids in the house program. They had four practices before the tournament. They also had regular house practices, but only four practices where they could practice with each other and work on tactics, etc.

In other words, all signs pointed to an ass-beating.

However, that was okay. If these kids had all gone to Laredo as a team, they would've won every game by five goals and learned nothing, because their bad habits wouldn't have mattered. In this tournament, though, bad habits would be exposed, and the whole point of this "House+" team was to create an environment where the kids could get better.

Eli was thrilled, of course. In Laredo, there were about nine teams in three divisions. In Dallas, there were six teams in his division alone, and 14 squirt teams total. Adding up all divisions and ages, there were at least 40 teams. Even better, since the Austin squirt and peewee travel teams were also there, and he has friends on both teams, he had even more friends to hang out with.

Their first game was Friday morning. They were in the "bronze" division, and in the squirt age group, there were bronze, silver, and gold groups. Basically, "B" league travel teams played in bronze, "A" played in silver, and "AA" played in gold.

Well, except for us. Our team was playing up to be in the bronze division. Way, way up. It was the equivalent of a YMCA soccer team playing in a Select tournament. Even tougher, their first opponent was an "A" league team playing down.

Eli played as a defenseman in the first game, and it was ugly. Kids weren't in the right places, there were lots of breakaways--it was an 8-2 disaster, and it wasn't nearly as close as the final score. He only made one mental mistake-- getting beat to the inside in a 1-1 situation--but twice he was in position to intercept centering passes and the puck bounced over his stick (and both turned into goals).

After the game, kids were mad, especially the goalie, who struggles with his emotions when things aren't going well. Most of the kids are used to dominating House league, and they were in angry shock over the new reality. Eli went around and quietly talked to almost every kid, encouraging them. The ten-year-old who acts like a grizzled veteran.

Game two was Saturday morning, and Eli was in goal. And he was hot. It was a shooting gallery, but he was playing even better than he had the weekend before. After one period, he had 12 saves, all of them on close range shots, but the score was only 1-0.

It was still 1-0 after the second period, even though we were getting outshot 3-1. Then legs went dead, kids couldn't keep up anymore, and the third period lasted a long time. Eli gave up three goals in the period, two of which were stellar shots.

The final was 4-0, but he had 29 saves and had been terrific. A goalie parent from another team stopped after the game and said, "Boy, he can really play."

Kids were disappointed in the locker room, but it was different this time. They played much better, the game had been close for a long time, and it didn't feel hopeless all. Eli was down, but he rallied the troops again, and nobody looked defeated.

While he was taking off his gear, his coach came by and handed him a patch. It was for Player Of The Game, and when Eli realized what it was, it was like his coach had handed him the Stanley Cup. He was so proud.

Two hours later, they played their third game, and Eli was a defenseman. It went much the way of the second game--hopelessly outshot, terrific goaltending, and only 1-0 at the start of the third. Eli had his best game on defense ever, stopping a ton of 1-1 and even 2-1 situations, protecting the goalie, and sweeping away rebounds.

The third period, unfortunately, was almost identical as well, with the other team scoring three goals and a 4-0 final. As soon as the game ended, though, Eli skated off the bench and went directly to the goalie, putting his arms around him and talking to him. Yes, he'd given up four goals, but it was the best game I've ever seen him play, and I think that's what Eli told him. It was a singular moment in that most kids will tap goalie on the pads or make some kind of minimal gesture in a loss, but Eli stood with him for a good 10-15 seconds with no one else around.

Even though we were generally getting our heads handed to us, it was remarkable to see the improvement from game to game. Better discipline, Harder skating, and a degree of tenacity that you just don't expect from 10-year-olds. I couldn't imagine anyone wanting to play them, because the amount of work it took to score each goal was off the charts.

0-3 in the tournament, outscored 16-2, but they had one more game, and it was against the second worst team in the division.

That game was really, really something.

Tomorrow: game four.

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