A few months ago I wrote a column about my son starting to learn the game of ice hockey, and my ill-fated first attempt at skating. It’s update time.
I can now skate with speed and without falling, perform some basic maneuvers and pass a puck and shoot with some level of accuracy. Skating backward is still coming slowly. I can turn around and sort of waddle my way in the opposite direction.
But no one cares about that. Let’s talk about the kid.
He’s doing well. Fast skater. Fast stopper. Can swivel and skate backward on a dime. He handles a puck decently for a beginner and is starting to launch wrist shots that lift off the ice. He joined the local 8U travel team and is having a lot of fun.
I’m so glad he’s found a sport he enjoys and is learning how to bond with teammates while they are all learning to build each other up. It’s an amazing thing to witness. I experienced some of that in my own youth sport endeavors, but hockey is a different creature. There’s a deeper bond over the uniqueness of the sport, especially in a region where NHL fandom is fairly healthy but rinks are sparse. There’s also a base layer of respect because everyone knows it’s hard enough to learn how to skate, let alone add hand-eye coordination and motor skills in using a carbon fiber twig to cradle a small disc of vulcanized rubber and move with it, eventually making it go where you want at the velocity you want. Did I mention all of this is happening on ice? That stuff we scrape off our sidewalks so we don’t fall and kill ourselves?
While all of this is nourishing for the soul, I’ve also been handed a healthy dose of “careful what you wish for.”
Our house has become a training course, where the little guy constantly works on his handling, using a street hockey ball (which is nearly as hard as a puck) that he inevitably shoots at high speed in a random direction. It’s amazing he hasn’t broken anything around the house yet. A few days ago he put a hard wrist shot off my nose while I was sitting on the couch. As I was gripping my face, the kid approached me and said “I didn’t get you in the forehead, did I?”
“No, you didn’t,” I said with an inflection of sarcasm that eluded him as I clutched the stinging bridge of my sniffer with my thumb and forefinger. He then fired another one that hit the wall just above my head, nearly cracking both.
“Hey! OK! You’re done for a bit!” I said. He dejectedly threw his stick to the floor and huffed off. After a few minutes he was stick-handling in another room as if nothing had occurred.
I love hockey. I love skating with my kid. I couldn’t be prouder of him. But I didn’t realize just how much it was going to consume all aspects of our lives when he got the hockey bug. There are worse things. Still, it’s been an adjustment.
The biggest curveball was when he told me he wanted to learn the position of goalie. My heart sank. Visions of my son as a speedy sniper who racked up goals and assists while maintaining a glorious flow atop his crown momentarily dissipated with a dark cloud of smoke. Then I thought it over.
He had just seen one of his teammates in goalie gear for the first time. Maybe it was the equipment that intrigued him. A few minutes later, though, there he was, standing in the crease in his normal gear, encouraging other skaters to try and get one past him, which several of them did. This pattern replayed itself at a few practices and during unstructured ice time.
The coach told me they could always use someone who was interested in playing the position. I learned from hearing a few of the older kids talk that finding a player crazy enough to want to have pucks shot at them wasn’t always easy.
I was still kind of bothered by it, though.
When I first started watching the NHL, goalies were superstars on par with their skating teammates. There was Patrick Roy, Andy Moog, Grant Fuhr, Felix “The Cat” Potvin, Dominik Hasek, Curtis “Cujo” Joseph and many others. In the 1990s and early 2000s, a hot goalie could win you a Stanley Cup, even if you didn’t have a talent-laden roster.
That feels like a long time ago. Today, goalies remind me more of place kickers in football, which I know is an unfair comparison. However, like kickers, net minders have always been specialists and a breed apart, and these days they seem quirkier and more replaceable, with a few exceptions. They don’t bark orders to their teammates and jaw at opponents like Roy did. They don’t jump into fights like Potvin did. They don’t project that aura of invincibility.
Nowadays they’re back there, and you just kind of hope they stop enough shots and don’t get spooked. They’re celebrated to a degree when they win, and dumped under the bus when they lose. This is all armchair analysis, of course. But to me as a fan it seems like a high risk, low reward position.
Delusions and projections of a professional career aside, there are more realistic concerns. When a fellow father of a goaltender saw my son in the team’s goalie gear, he laughed and told me to prepare to empty the bank account if the kid stuck with it. Hockey equipment is expensive. Goalie equipment is nuts.
But what could I do?
In his first game between the pipes, the kid let in a ton of goals. It was bound to happen. The mighty 8U Morgantown Blades were a force to be reckoned with. But he made a lot spectacular saves, too. He skated in the second game against them and did fairly well. The next weekend we traveled to Athens, Ohio, where he nearly pitched a shutout in goal during the first game. Again, he skated in the second.
I thought the duck-in-a-shooting-gallery experience from that first game against the merciless Morgantowners might’ve dampened his spirit for manning the lonely end of the rink. It did not. Nothing has. The kid wants to be a goalie, and I’m stuck wondering what I’ve started.
Then, my wife nudges me and says “Hey, he’s 8.”
Ah, sweet, rational perspective. How I’ve missed you. What’s that? You can’t stay? That’s fine. I’ve got to drive the kid to the rink right about now anyway.