It wasn’t until 2011, when we moved to a suburb outside of St. Louis, that I took my oldest son to his first hockey game. Thing #1 was 10, we tried everything at this point to find his interest, baseball, soccer, fencing, swim team. It wasn’t until that fateful evening in December 2011, when he saw the St. Louis Blues play the Chicago Blackhawks that he looked at me with the look of wonder and said, “What IS this? And why am I just seeing this now?”
Oh don’t get me wrong, he had seen hockey on TV before. His father is (well, was) a Hartford Whalers fan until they moved and became the Carolina Hurricanes. I am a tortured St. Louis Blues fan, but Thing #1 has never actually witnessed a hockey game in real life. He had only been on skates one time when I took him to open skate when he was 4 after the 2006 Olympics. As we all know, there is no comparison to watching a Hockey game on TV and actually being there. There is nothing like hearing the spray of the snow off a skate, or the banter between players. You don’t get to hear the grunts or the sound of the glass swaying from a big league hit. The deafening sound of the Goal Horn in your ear or the sound of your fellow fans jumping to their feet all cheering in unison when your team scores.
He was into it. He was asking questions about hockey with an enthusiasm he never had about baseball, soccer or ANYTHING.
“Mom, what’s this penalty thing?”
“Why are there only 4 people on the ice now?”
“Wait, they can just hit the guy that has the puck? “
“Whoa!!! That one guy just laid that other guy out and he just got up back up and kept skating!”
“Why did that guy get 2 minutes but the other guy got 4?”
“Is that guy bleeding and still skating?”
So many questions I had to explain: icing, off-sides and why some face- offs take place in other spots on the ice. I have never seen this level of excitement in my son. He was hooked, I was exhausted and surprised that I was still able to answer 90% of his questions. I guess I really did pay attention in gym class.
-STL Blues v. CHI Blackhawks 12/3/2011- He was still shorter than me-
It wasn’t long after the game that we took the family to open skate at the local ice rink. It was pretty apparent in the 1st 30 seconds that watching 30 men skate a lightning speed on NHL ice made for some unrealistic expectations of my 10, 8 and 4 year old. I was the only one of the 5 of us that could actually skate. This was going to take some time. Thing #1’s hopes of being able to get on the ice and snow spray his sister, were crushed in 2.2 seconds. At this point, I think he would have been happy to just stand up on the ice without falling. This is going to take a long while.
Thing 1 did learn how to skate. Mostly because his little brother learned before he did. Which is a completely different story for another time. While it took him a little longer than his brother….. and his sister to get the hang of it, our local youth hockey club was happy enough to find a team for him to play in the fall of 2014. He had just turned 13, so the coaches were really struggling to find a team for him, since this is the year where kids start checking. This is the year where youth hockey suffers the greatest numbers of attrition simply because of the checking factor. However, most of these kids have been skating for at least 5 years. So this was going to be tricky. The USA Hockey rules sometimes will allow a younger player to play UP with the older kids, but an older kid can never play down. So even though Thing 1 was a true beginner, he had to suck it up and play with the Bantam level kids (14U). Tricky was an understatement.
— 1st day of tryouts 2013–
The leadership from the local team were excited that they had a new player and yet a little nervous that they had a new player. I thought for sure as soon as he got on the ice with these 13 and 14 year olds that have been skating since before they could write their name, he would get discouraged and quit. Maybe it did discourage him, but he never showed it. He got on the ice for practice, he skated, fell, tripped over his own skates and every time he got back up. The kids were actually helpful, I saw a few of them pull him over after a drill and showed him what he could do better. It made me feel better knowing that they were actually willing to make him better, instead of making fun of him.
–Notre Dame Tournament 2017–
So here we are 7 years after that 1st NHL Game. Four years after he learned how to skate well enough to play on a team. Thing 1 is 17 years old now and starting his senior year of high school. I knew this would not lead to any college scholarships or post-high school NHL draft days. You will never hear this kid’s name on July 1 of any free-agency year.
I didn’t know where this would lead him when we started this endeavor and I still don’t know what path he will choose. I do know this, even as the least experienced skater on the ice, he has ended up a better person. Not because he scores goals, because he doesn’t. Not because he skates fast or can puck handle, he can’t. He is a better person, because he stepped on the ice when other kids his age would not have even attempted it. He is a better person, because he took that hit, that bruised his shoulder and he got back up and skated the remainder of the game. He has learned to deal with playing through pain (both physical and mental), being taunted by kids on other teams (and sometimes his own teammates) for his behind-the-8-ball skills. He has learned how to take disappointment of losing a game or being the reason they missed a pass, a hit or even a goal. Then take that disappointment and use that to get better at the next practice.
One could say that we were late to the party for youth hockey in America. But I, as a parent, was not late to the party in using this experience of this great game to mold my son to become a man and a decent human being. To me that is worth 10 Stanley Cup Championships and any NHL free-agency contract.