Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Eli 12.4: Adversity (part three)

I was hoping that Eli 11.4 would have some easier games in the Thanksgiving tournament, even though that's very much against my basic instinct for him to be continually challenged. I was concerned that he was so demoralized after the San Antonio game that it would be hard for him to recover.

Or maybe, in truth, I was the one that was demoralized. Sometimes it's hard to separate that out, to remember that he loves this and can process it in different ways than I can. It's hard for me to expect a twelve-year-old to be resilient, to shake off a bad game, even though I know he's made out of 100% specialtonium.

Plus, and this is most important, the process is more important than the outcome. No matter where he ends up in hockey, it's going to be at a higher level than anyone could have ever expected a kid from Austin to reach. He will have learned how to translate caring into effort, which is something many adults don't even understand.

The road itself is the destination.

His first game was against a team from Houston, the same team he played so many times last year. They'd added a few high-level players, but they played in a travel league one league lower than Eli's team, so I thought he might have an easier time of it, for once.

I was so, so wrong.

From the opening puck drop, they dominated. We were on our heels the entire game, just trying to hang on. We were getting outshot 2-1, and our shots were of lower quality as well as quantity.

I wanted Eli to be able to get his confidence back, but I realized after the first ten minutes that he had never lost his confidence. One game after the worst game he'd played in over a year, he was putting on a goalie clinic.

This team put every conceivable shot on goal. Slap shots from the point. Wrist shots from the slot. Passes across the crease to the far post for one-timers. Wraparounds.

He was dialed in like I'd never seen him before. No wasted motion. Electric reflexes. Flawless technique. He demonstrated almost every move a goalie has to make, and they were all explosive and precise.

On one shot from close range, the puck deflected off a player only a few feet in front of Eli and redirected toward the corner of the net at high speed. That's an automatic goal, and I was already writing it off as one of those things that just happens when Eli just happened instead--his glove flashed out and swallowed the puck.

There was no way to make that save, no way at all, but he made it look easy. And he made everything else look easy. Sometimes the sign of a goalie playing really, really well is that he makes every save look routine.

In the end, he faced 35 shots and stopped 33 of them. His team only had 19 shots, and most of them were weak, but they escaped with a 2-2 tie.

In terms of technique and control, it was his best game ever.

He skated off the ice. I tend to hang back a bit after he plays well, so he can soak in all the affection from his teammates and the parents. I want him to enjoy the moment with everyone, and he knows I'm there. When he came out of the locker room, I put my arm around him as we walked down the hallway.

"Did you collect any money for that, or was it a free clinic?" I asked. He laughed.

"You were definitely diggin' the scene with a gangsta lean," I said. He laughed again. We both love that song. Who doesn't love Curtis Mayfield? [As it turns out, everyone loves Curtis Mayfield--but it's not his song. It's William DeVaughn.]

He played again the next day, against an "A" team from Kansas. I knew it was going to be tough for him to play as well as he had the day before. It would be tough for anyone.

It was not, however, tough for him.

He faced 23 shots this time, many of them from in close. His athleticism and reflexes dominated the game. In one sequence late in the game, there was a quick shot off a rebound, and his glove was waiting for the shot. For this save, though, his glove was just off the ice, much lower than it would normally have been.

He was so dialed in that he saw where the shot was going before it even left the shooter's stick. It was so freaky that the crowd for the other team actually groaned when the puck disappeared into his glove.

The shooter just stared.

In the end, it was a 23 save shutout. A jewel.

"That was some crazy Kung Fu action you pulled out there," I said. He obliged with some fancy moves and sound effects. "Yes, like that," I said. We laughed.

The best part of all this? He wasn't surprised that he played so well. He expected to play well. He believed that he would play well.


I don't know whether he'll make it to where he wants to go in hockey. I do know that for the entire weekend, though, he looked like a kid who was going to play at the highest level someday. There is a long distance between possible and feasible, but he walked down that road like he belonged there.

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