Fifty-Six to Four: The Tears of a Sportsman

 

Billy CropAt his natural position, no one in the league was his equal. He was what hockey folks call a “stay-at-home” defenseman, a player who specializes in using his physicality, vision, and disciplined play to neutralize the opposing team’s offensive star. He had always been one of the smallest players on his team, but he compensated for his modest stature by playing with a bulldog’s tenacity. He was fearless and the fans loved him for it. Opposing centers hated his miserable guts, but to the people in the stands, he represented everything beautiful about the game.

Ohh, did I mention he’s eight-years-old? Gonna be nine in January.

Facing elimination, his team needed a big day from their shut-down defender. They had drawn the Rangers, the best outfit in the league, led by an astonishingly talented center who could seemingly score at will. Despite giving up six inches and two years to the Ranger captain, it would be his job to keep the great star off the board. If he could do it, his team had a chance. If not, the season was over.

Of course, that was before the goaltender quit.

The team had faced the Rangers before and it had gone badly. Following the loss, the boy who had signed up at the beginning of the season to play goaltender announced that he would never again endure that relentless barrage. If called upon to tend goal, he would refuse to take the ice. And, true to his word, the team’s starting goaltender didn’t even show up for the elimination game against the Rangers.

Without his starting goaltender and with no back-up goalie on the roster, the coach was reduced to asking for a volunteer. Who would be willing to step between the pipes? Who would face down the dreaded Rangers?

*****

With a single exception, every team that takes the field, the ice, or the court will end its season in disappointment. When the last shot is taken, when the last whistle blows, there will be just the one champion. That champion will dance and jump and hug and cry, overcome with the ecstasy of hard-fought triumph. But for every other team, the season that began with dreams of glory will end with the grim misery of having been tested and found wanting.

If the pursuit of glory is the only aim of sports, the sheer volume of grief at the close of every season would leave sports a monstrous barbarity, a grotesque mix of cockfighting and The Hounds of Zaroff, a blood sport practiced only by the desperate and the depraved. Decent people would recoil in horror at the thought that we would subject children to an activity that by design will leave many of them in tears. It would be denounced as voyeuristic, ritualized child torture, and there would be a national movement to see it banned forever.

It is precisely this thinking that has given rise to the now ubiquitous participation ribbon. Unable to see the true virtues of sports, transfixed by the transitory, but inevitable disappointment of the athlete in defeat, the well intentioned medicate away the sting of loss by recasting it as a perverse subspecies of victory. By cloaking failure in the trappings of glory, they reinforce in the child the adult’s secret belief that sports is about winning and that anything other than winning is unacceptable. The result is children who not only mistakenly believe they are winners, but mistakenly believe that a winner is the only thing it is okay to be.

But sports is not about victory. It is not about glory. The trophies and attaboys that you get for winning a title don’t make all the years of losing worth it. The brutal utilitarian calculus that pits the ecstasy of the winner against the accumulated grief of the many, many losers doesn’t add up; someone standing on the podium, smiling and contented, doesn’t offset the oceans of suffering that victory wrought. Not even close.

Sports is about adversity. Not about overcoming adversity, but about confronting it. It is about learning how to win with grace, but more importantly it is about learning how to lose without despair. It is about coming to realize that it is the effort, not the outcome, that makes us noble; that the more forlorn the hope, the sweeter the struggle. And it’s about knowing your daddy is going to take you for ice cream when it’s over, no matter what.

*****

My son raised his hand. As a father, this is both exactly what you want him to do and something you want to race out of the stands and tackle him to prevent him from doing. You want your child to have the courage to step forward and confront a challenge that you know is more than he can handle because his teammates need him. But at the same time you want to spare him the trauma of being flayed alive by a team that has already driven one goaltender to shamefully desert his post(s) and is about to enfilade your little boy for what will no doubt be the longest three periods of his little life.

He had tended goal a handful of times before, usually filling in for the same wayward goaltender whose absence was often without leave, but never in a critical game against an overwhelming opponent. The maniacal bulldog known for his fearsome play as a defender would never let on to his teammates that he was nervous, but a father picks up on these things. I could see it in his eyes; he was petrified.

And so I did what any good father would do in that situation. Dads? What did I do?

That’s right; I bolted for the far end of the rink and started scouting the other team. Based on the little I could learn from watching the Rangers warm-up, I made a few quick notes about the tendencies of their top players, then scrambled back to share my feeble scraps of intel with my doomed child before the horn sounded and he was tossed to the lions.

“The center, #18, is the one you have to worry about. He’s real good with his stick, but if you watch him, he always goes high glove side when he shoots from distance. If he’s in close, he’ll give you a single deke to the backhand; watch out for that. But away from the net, it’s always high glove. The one big kid, taller than the rest, has a booming shot, but he can’t stick-handle. He’ll rip it from wherever he gets it, so be ready. The other kids don’t get much on their shots, so stay low on them. But mostly, you’ve gotta watch that high glove side with #18. Take that shot away and you’ll do just fine, kiddo.”

He nodded gravely, said nothing, then took his position in the crease. I stayed by the boards rather than return to the stands, in keeping with the age-old parenting principle that one should be as close as possible to their children when they are being beaten to a quavering pulp.

It took eight seconds. Off the opening face-off, the Great 18 chipped it to himself one stride behind and one to the left of our center, split the winger and the right defenseman, and uncorked a slap shot possessed of such awful violence that it makes you wonder if maybe the boy needs some kind of counseling. High. Glove side. 1 – 0.

They say that even as your car is flying off the cliff and you are plummeting, screaming, to your death on the rocks below, there is a part of your brain that registers just how beautiful the sunset is on your way down. I think that’s probably true, because while most of my brain was in full panic mode — We’re going to lose 225-0! — there was a part of my brain that was thinking, “I am the greatest scout in the world! Maybe I could get a job with an NHL team. That’s silly; they’d never hire me. I’ll start out scouting for a minor league team or a college team, maybe one of the European teams, then after a couple of years, I’ll make the jump to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Note to self: renew passport; learn to speak Russian.”

My son turned and looked at me. A long moment passed. I prepared myself for the possibility that he was about to run screaming from the rink, out into the dark night, never to return. But he didn’t. Instead he raised his glove hand and waved it up and down at me as if to say, “My daddy is the greatest scout in the world! He should get a job with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Note to self: Remind him about his passport and that he needs to learn Russian.”

What followed was epic. Over the ensuing three periods, the Rangers fired 56 shots. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the finer points of the game of hockey, an NHL goaltender will face an average of 30 shots per game. NHL games consist of three 20-minute periods. My son’s league plays three 10-minute periods. Meaning these Rangers were firing four times as many shots per minute as the New York Rangers.

Meanwhile, my son’s team managed four shots. Not four shots per minute; not four times as many shots as professionals. Four shots total.

My son was under withering fire the entire game, but if you will permit a proud father to say so, he played brilliantly. By the end of the game, the phenomenal #18 had scored five goals, but fans of both teams were cheering wildly for the little lunatic goaltender who managed to hurl himself in front of 50 shots and kept answering the bell time and again, even after the outcome was long settled.

It was exactly like the final scene from Rocky IV … just changed so that Ivan Drago kicked the living crap out of Rocky in front of Rocky’s father.

But even with the crowd cheering him on, the pounding was too much. Though he never let up, not even for a second, giving every last ounce of himself trying to stop every shot, even into the waning moments of a game his team couldn’t hope to win, I could see from where I stood along the boards that under that huge goalie mask, he was crying. His team was about to be eliminated and he couldn’t do anything to stop it.

I stood at the door and waited for him to come out after the game. He was drenched in sweat, with a look of heartbreak on his face that revealed before he opened his mouth that he blamed himself for the loss.

“I played bad, huh?”

I wrapped my arms around him and gave him an enormous bear hug (renew passport, learn Russian, burn sweat-covered shirt). “Couldn’t you hear everybody cheering? You were amazing out there!”

“I was?”

He smiled a little. Then he smiled a lot. As we made our way to the car, we talked about how everyone there could see how hard he was playing and how proud I was of the way he faced down terrible #18 and never gave up even when the game was out of reach. How that’s why everyone was clapping for him at the end, even though he wasn’t able to stop the superstar every time.

He understood what I was saying and he believed it. In defeat he learned a critical lesson about sports — about life — that victory could never have taught him.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, he was quiet; he was thinking about the game, and the cheering crowd, and what I had told him about courage and effort. Finally, he said,

“Umm, dad?”

“Yeah?”

“Next season I want to play for the Rangers.”

He got a large vanilla ice cream.

Published in Sports
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  1. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Awesome.

    • #1
  2. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    Epic.  Thanks.

    (PS. Had a similar experience coaching my sons’ hockey team.  We went undefeated in the regular season.  Lost the championship game because I played everyone equally, my star players and my weaker players alike – whereas our opponents played their big star the whole game.  Life ain’t fair, said Jimmy Carter once.  ‘bought only thing he got right.  Hope your son keeps loving the game….But somehow the league needs to even the talent.  That was a big problem in our league – lots of participants could not see the logic of having balanced teams.)

    • #2
  3. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    I loved this story. Your son will go far in life.

    • #3
  4. Garret Hobart Inactive
    Garret Hobart
    @GarretHobart

    Manfred Arcane:Epic. Thanks.

    (PS. Had a similar experience coaching my sons’ hockey team. We went undefeated in the regular season. Lost the championship game because I played everyone equally, my star players and my weaker players alike – whereas our opponents played their big star the whole game. Life ain’t fair, said Jimmy Carter once. ‘bought only thing he got right. Hope your son keeps loving the game….But somehow the league needs to even the talent. That was a big problem in our league – lots of participants could not see the logic of having balanced teams.)

    Thanks, Manfred.

    No risk of my kid losing his love for the game.  His room is full of hockey trophies, and he usually falls asleep wearing either his Henrik Sedin or Henrik Zetterberg jersey (the boy’s into Henriks ….).  And like I said in the piece, he’s of that strange breed that is naturally drawn to defense, so he isn’t even your typical glory hound; he just genuinely loves to play.

    Though I’ll be honest, lately, I can’t get a bat out of his hand.  He’s still wearing his Henriks everywhere, but where I once heard pucks slamming against the wall in my basement, now the sound drifting up the stairs is the ping of an aluminum bat.  When the NHL is back on the ice at the end of the month and the MLB playoffs are over, he’ll probably find his way home to his first love.  But if not, my next piece may have to be about Little League.

    • #4
  5. Garret Hobart Inactive
    Garret Hobart
    @GarretHobart

    Z in MT:I loved this story. Your son will go far in life.

    Lord willing, friend.  Lord willing.

    • #5
  6. livingthehighlife Inactive
    livingthehighlife
    @livingthehighlife

    Awesome story!

    • #6
  7. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    Fun stuff. Thanks for posting this.

    • #7
  8. kelsurprise Member
    kelsurprise
    @kelsurprise

    This was such a great read.

    I’m going to print and send to my dad.   And I’ll bet he shares it with my nephews.  Not because they need it – – I’ve seen them play enough sports now to know that – – but because they’ll love it too (especially our lone fledgling hockey enthusiast).

    Thanks.

    • #8
  9. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Terrific post. Just terrific.

    • #9
  10. Austin Murrey Inactive
    Austin Murrey
    @AustinMurrey

    Fantastic post – it needed a comment instead of a like!

    • #10
  11. jmelvin Member
    jmelvin
    @jmelvin

    Excellent!  Thank you for sharing this.

    • #11
  12. Buckpasser Member
    Buckpasser
    @Buckpasser

    GH,

    What a great story and a one of those memories you will be re-living every time your son passes another milestone in life.  My son played hockey in So Cal and AZ and was slight in stature.  When he started playing everyone wanted to play on offense so the coach asked for volunteers to play defense and my son raised his hand even though he was one of the smallest players.  I asked him about it and he said: “you stay on the ice longer on defense”.  Smart kid.

    • #12
  13. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    [standing ovation]

    Yer Son saved 51 of 56 shots; about 91%.

    NHL League average of shots saved is Right about 91%.

    Be sure to tell Yer Son He most certainly did His job.

    • #13
  14. Garret Hobart Inactive
    Garret Hobart
    @GarretHobart

    Buckpasser:GH,

    What a great story and a one of those memories you will be re-living every time your son passes another milestone in life. My son played hockey in So Cal and AZ and was slight in stature. When he started playing everyone wanted to play on offense so the coach asked for volunteers to play defense and my son raised his hand even though he was one of the smallest players. I asked him about it and he said: “you stay on the ice longer on defense”. Smart kid.

    Smart, indeed.

    • #14
  15. Ball Diamond Ball Inactive
    Ball Diamond Ball
    @BallDiamondBall

    Got me.

    • #15
  16. Garret Hobart Inactive
    Garret Hobart
    @GarretHobart

    Jimmy Carter:[standing ovation]

    Yer Son saved 51 of 56 shots; about 91%.

    NHL League average of shots saved is Right about 91%.

    Be sure to tell Yer Son He most certainly did His job.

    I conveniently didn’t mention the two goals scored by players other than #18.  :)

    • #16
  17. Paul Dougherty Member
    Paul Dougherty
    @PaulDougherty

    Nice story, well written. One note, don’t let him fall for playing goalie full time. Stay at home defensemen are cool… and have friends.

    • #17
  18. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Brilliant, thanks for writing this!

    • #18
  19. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Garret Hobart: Note to self: Remind him about his passport and that he needs to learn Russian.”

    Classic

    • #19
  20. Knate Member
    Knate
    @Knate

    Beautiful and True.  the best combination.

    • #20
  21. Frozen Chosen Inactive
    Frozen Chosen
    @FrozenChosen

    Great story!  I hope he keeps his passion for sports as it will give you many happy moments watching him play as he grows up.

    At the beginning of my son’s junior year in High School, he was unexpectedly called up to the varsity team.  His first chance to pitch came in relief with men on first and second and only one out.  He proceeded to walk his first batter with 4 straight head high fastballs (mighta been a little pumped up).  That loaded the bases with one out and me thinking this will be the shortest varsity pitching career in school history.

    Fortunately the coach left my son in for the next batter who he induced into hitting a weak grounder back to him which he calmly threw to the catcher for the force out at home with the catcher then throwing to first to complete the double play. Inning over. Son pumped.  Dad relieved.

    • #21
  22. Garret Hobart Inactive
    Garret Hobart
    @GarretHobart

    Paul Dougherty:Nice story, well written. One note, don’t let him fall for playing goalie full time. Stay at home defensemen are cool… and have friends.

    Funny.  When he just started out in hockey, he wanted to be a goalie, but I discouraged it, partly for that reason.   You end up Goldberg from the Mighty Ducks movies.

    • #22
  23. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    I’m not a “sportler” (as my mother would say) — don’t know a stinkin‘ thing about hockey (that’s what you’re writing about, right?) — and, yet, this is the most delightful writing I’ve read on Ricochet all year.

    Thank you for the chuckles and the life lesson, Garret. More, please.

    • #23
  24. Garret Hobart Inactive
    Garret Hobart
    @GarretHobart

    Son of Spengler:

    Garret Hobart: Note to self: Remind him about his passport and that he needs to learn Russian.”

    Classic

    Blagodaryu, moy drug.

    • #24
  25. Garret Hobart Inactive
    Garret Hobart
    @GarretHobart

    Frozen Chosen:unexpectedly called up to the varsity team. His first chance to pitch came in relief with men on first and second and only one out. He proceeded to walk his first batter with 4 straight head high fastballs (mighta been a little pumped up). That loaded the bases with one out and me thinking this will be the shortest varsity pitching career in school history.

    Fortunately the coach left my son in for the next batter who he induced into hitting a weak grounder back to him which he calmly threw to the catcher for the force out at home with the catcher then throwing to first to complete the double play. Inning over. Son pumped. Dad relieved.

    Ohh, yeah!  I get more into these things as a dad than I ever did as a player.  It’s a constant battle to contain myself on the sidelines  —  a battle I win, mind you; I’m not that guy …

    • #25
  26. Garret Hobart Inactive
    Garret Hobart
    @GarretHobart

    Western Chauvinist:don’t know a stinkin‘ thing about hockey (that’s what you’re writing about, right?)

    Water polo, actually, but close enough.

    and, yet, this is the most delightful writing I’ve read on Ricochet all year. Thank you for the chuckles and the life lesson, Garret. More, please.

    You are sincerely welcome, W.C., and thank you for saying so.  More to come.

    • #26
  27. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    I played competitive hockey until I reached my early thirties. There is a strong work ethic in hockey. I had some success and received an offer from a semi-pro team. Family obligations, my daughter had just been born about 2 weeks after the offer was made were more important. I was a defenseman like your son. Sounds like he loves the game and I wish him all the best. Hockey was and is the sport I love more than any other. In fact the NHL season starts today. Tell him all that matters is that he gives it his best effort in every match when he steps out onto the ice.

    • #27
  28. TG Thatcher
    TG
    @TG

    Great story, Garret, thank you!

    • #28
  29. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    The thrill of victory.  The agony of defeat.  The long hours of practice giving up things you could be doing to instead improve yourself.  The moment you realize that it’s all about the joy of taking the field against a worthy opponent.  That you are going to do your best.

    • #29
  30. Mike LaRoche Inactive
    Mike LaRoche
    @MikeLaRoche

    Like!

    • #30
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