Monday, February 20, 2012

It Can Happen To You

"I want you to enjoy this moment," I said.

"I don't know if I will," he said. "I'm nervous."

"I don't mean the game, although I want you to enjoy it, too," I said. "I mean now. Before the game. You get to feel the same things that Wayne Gretzky felt before game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. Or Marc Andre-Fleury."

"That's cool," he said.

"It totally is," I said. "And can you believe that in another few weeks, it will be two years since you learned how to skate?"

Eli 10.6 laughed. "How can that be?"

We were outside the Dr. Pepper StarCenter rink in Euless, walking slowly through the network of playing fields outside the center. In another 30 minutes, Eli needed to be back in the locker room, preparing to play in goal.

In the championship game of the President's Day tournament.

As it turns out, playing up against travel teams and enduring defeat made our likable band of misfits work harder. So much harder, in fact, that when they returned to their level in the upper house division, they played like angry bees, dominating every team they faced on the way to the championship game.

The fields were a nice place to take a walk--peaceful and empty, a nice place to have good thoughts.

"Coach wanted you to play in this game," I said. Eli alternated with another (very good) goalie.

"I don't know about that," he said.

"He did," I said. "Jared is an excellent goalie, but this is your team. Those guys love you. So do the coaches. You're every mom's son. They all have total confidence in you, and so do I."

"I'm a little nervous," he said.

"I know," I said, "but this time, it's good nervous. It's excited nervous. You know how I always talk about 'being clear'?" You're as clear as I've ever seen you. I see it in your eyes. I can feel it."

"I feel good today," he said.

"I think you'll face adversity in this game," I said. "There will be moments. I think some of your guys will be scared. But they're going to look back at you, and you're going to pick them up, and as long as you're okay, everyone else will be, too."

We kept walking, slowly weaving between the fields, all beautiful, all green. We walked past a soccer field. "I can't believe that your soccer season starts in two days," I said, laughing.

"I can't wait!" he said.

"There's nothing like a 48-hour break between seasons," I said.

"Well, it's not a break," he said. "I'm still playing hockey."

"And tennis," I said.

He laughed. We kept walking, not saying much, just being together. We stopped at a tiny jewel of a baseball field.

"I'm going to give you your three keys early," I said.

"Okay," he said. "What are they?"

"One, be clear. And like I said, I've never seen you this clear. Two, be aggressive. That's who you are. Three, be happy."

"Be happy?" he asked.

"That's right," I said. "I don't know anyone who's worked harder for this moment than you have. You always have a great attitude, you always work the hardest, and you always lead. Being in a game like this is a special moment, so be happy in the moment."

"I will," he said, hugging me. "I'm ready for the beautiful battle," he said.

I told Eli that I knew how the game was going to go. He would face between 20 and 25 shots, and his team would be ahead 4-3 late in the game, when he would make a great save on a breakaway. Add an empty netter and the final score would be 5-3.

I didn't know that the team Eli was facing had a player who had scored 13 goals in three tournament games. Neither did he.

Just before the game started, one of Eli's teammates skated back and hugged him.

The puck dropped. A kid with a silver helmet won the faceoff, and he started weaving through our players. He skated through every player on our team, slowing down about fifteen feet away from the net. Eli was in perfect position.

The kid fired a cannon shot that hit six inches below the crossbar and six inches below the far post.

Twelve seconds. Goal.

The stands were bedlam. It was crushing.

Two of Eli's teammates skated up to him and patted him on the helmet. He patted them back. Then he skated a small circle around his net, looked at me, nodded, and slapped his stick into his catching glove. He got back into his stance.

Game on.

I think I had blood in my urine by this point (symbolically, anyway). I'm very attached to the kids on his team, all of them, and I didn't want wanted to go down like this. I didn't want them to come this far to have one final, devastating defeat. In athletics, though, like many other things in life, you have to make your own luck.

There would be no luck today.

It was immediately clear that silver helmet was going to be on the ice most of the time, and he was going to be hell to stop. We didn't have a great player like him, but we had a bunch of good ones, and whenever he got the puck, they desperately tried to stop him.

He got a second shot, but he didn't have enough time to wind up for the top corner. Eli made a beautiful kick save, flicking the puck away with his pad.

Silver helmet got another shot. Eli made another save. Then another. Of the first seven shots in the game, they had six, but it was still 1-0.

Our kids were digging in, fighting with everything they had, but silver helmet was still getting good shots. Eli was having to make one crazy save after another, but when silver was off the ice, we were definitely the better team.

Near the end of the first period, we were still behind 6-2 in shots, but then we scored. Two minutes later, we scored again. And again. Suddenly, at the end of the first period, we were ahead 3-1.

Eli had faced 8 quality shots in the first period and stopped 7. I'd never seen him so fundamentally sound, and never so quick.

In the middle of the second period, with the score still 3-1, Silver got loose on a breakway. Eli skated out, then back as he drew closer. Silver deked, then deked again, and when he shot, Eli was in perfect position, the puck bouncing harmlessly off his pads. No rebound.

I saw Silver slump slightly as he saw Eli make the save, and as he skated along the back boards, he whacked his stick on the ice.

It was a battle of wills. Silver's will was huge. But he was facing a will for which there are no words.

With four minutes left in the second period, the score was still 3-1, and shots were even at 15. We could easily have been behind 5-3 or worse--almost every shot they'd taken was a quality shot--but Eli was resolute.

So was the rest of his team. Yes, Silver had at least ten shots by this point, but it wasn't because we weren't trying. Every time he got the puck, two or three of our kids would get in his way, leaning on him, forcing him away from the middle. It takes a village, so to speak, and while they weren't stopping him, they were making it much, much harder.

They were each playing great, and they were playing great together.

Silver got loose again, but two of our kids rode him to the side as he neared the goal, so he skated around and tried to stuff in a perfect wraparound, only a fraction of an inch from the post. That's where the puck met Eli's skate, flush against the post, and even as the parents of Silver's team celebrated, the referee was clearly signalling no goal.

As all this was happening, something else was happening, and it happened so suddenly: the other team was exhausted. Our angry bees had worn them down, and their defensive discipline collapsed. Goal. Goal. Goal. Three goals in four minutes, and at the end of the second period, it was 6-1.

I still wasn't breathing. Silver could score five goals in period with no problem, and even though no one else on their team was nearly as good as he was, they had several other kids (including one girl) who could shoot.

When the third period started, though, it was clear that certain truths about this moment had been set in stone. Silver was great, but he wasn't great enough. They had a player, but we had a team. And Eli, the boy I love so much, was standing very, very tall.

The goals started coming in waves. 8-1. 10-1. Finally, it was 12-1, and only one minute remained. With 30 seconds left, the other team had one last breakway--this time, it wasn't Silver--and the player bore down on Eli, the only one in his path, playing up high as always. The shot.


I was tearing up a little as the clock counted down, trying very hard not to cry. Gloria, too. The horn sounded and Eli raised his arms, stick up high, and for a few seconds, he was alone. Then his teammates reached him and he was mobbed, a giant hug from all his friends.

A game with no good luck, none at all, because none was needed.

At the awards presentation, when they announced Eli's name, there was a warm, happy roar.

Coming off the ice:

When he got into the locker room, I walked up to him and he reached out to hug me.

No more words were needed.

Site Meter