Sunday, August 2, 2009

The littlest Shark

This summer, I signed Josh up for Mini Mites through our local hockey association, which offers a weekly scrimmage geared toward 5–6 year olds. I really debated whether to let him play now or wait until he was officially 5. But after the first drop-in session, Josh was hooked.

He’s younger and smaller than all the other kids. He sometimes has trouble following complex drills. And he often pops off the ice to complain of a phantom pain. Needless to say, all the other parents know who he is. And they also know who his mom is.

Several parents have asked how old Josh is when I inevitably pass by them to loosen his skates or adjust his knee pads. Some smile cordially when I answer somewhat apologetically and defensively, “He’s only four.” Others simply turn their attention back to the action on the ice. And those seeds of initial doubt sprout roots and grow with each inquiry. But at the end of each session when Josh steps off the rink shouting, “I love this place!” I am renewed in my conviction to let him play if only because it seems to truly feed his soul. And I am fortified by his seasoned coach—who demands respect and focus while doling out consistent and equally measured encouragement—when he starts each session by reinforcing that the boys are there first and foremost to have fun.

So I sit through each scrimmage, silently and fervently rooting for the littlest Shark while simultaneously justifying his ice time to myself and wondering if eventually the coaching staff is going to recommend we wait a few more months and try again. But they say nothing more than “See you next week,” when they pass us in the locker room. And the other parents say nothing either. And we show up, week after week, to pile on his gear, lace up his skates, and send him out to center ice as he smiles and wields his big stick.

This particular Sunday morning, after a late Saturday night and with an excruciating pain in the ball of my right foot (which I would later find out was caused by a tiny piece of glass), I was a little on edge. Josh decided to skip his first shift, opting to silently stay seated on the bench and leaving his darks team short-handed. I then opted to forgo my usual rink-side seat in favor of a warmer birds-eye view from the lobby.

No sooner did I get settled in the last remaining booth when I noticed the other parents looking around and motioning to me. Then I saw Josh hobbling toward the steps. I leapt out of my seat and back into the cold to find my little Number 20 complaining that his feet hurt. I sighed and asked him what he wanted me to do about it. He shrugged his shoulders. “How about we take off your socks?” I asked, presenting a somewhat unorthodox fix to an imagined problem that I could quickly implement yet might just have a placebo effect. The idea was just crazy enough to intrigue him. “OK!” he agreed. So I pulled off his skates and socks and laced him back up as fast as possible. “Now get back out there for the WHOLE scrimmage,” I said as I patted his butt and pushed him back to his team’s bench. He wobbled away, and I slinked back to the lobby.

Miraculously, my booth was still vacant, so I slipped back into it, leaning my forehead on the window and resting my chin in my hands. I watched Josh skate to and fro, sometimes following the action of the puck, other times moving in a game all his own. I watched him fall and get back up. I watched him fight to play Center with the other, much bigger kids. And I watched him play goalie with reckless abandon, armed with nothing more than his gloves and his grit.

With about ten minutes left in the game, Josh skated down to the net his team was scoring on and planted himself in front of it. The puck was at the other end of the ice. Mini Mite hockey is played on a shortened rink in consecutive two-minute shifts. Every kid plays every second shift. They all get the same amount of ice time. Scores are not tracked. And infractions such as offsides and icing don’t exist. So Josh’s strategy was actually a clever one. He was gassed from chasing the puck from end to end, and he was desperate for a goal. So he simply skated to where he wanted the puck to be and waited. And eventually, the puck landed right on his stick. He swatted at it, and the goalie stopped it. It bounced back to him. So he swatted at it again. And it went in the net. The ref (who is the head coach dressed in zebra stripes for authenticity) blew his whistle and pointed to the back of the net, and Josh lifted his stick into the air, pumped his other fist, and skated toward the bench.

I whispered “YES!” under my breath, silently clapped my hands, and grinned from ear to ear. Finally. Finally. Finally. And not until I was just starting to exhale and settle back into the game, did I hear the clamor. This was not the collective sound of polite clapping that traditionally followed any one of the 15–20 goals scored per game. This was a loud roar, combined with delighted squeals and the thunderous booms of hard shoes stomping metal bleachers. This was swift and forceful applause, and there was no mistaking it was directed at the little Shark that could.

As Josh skated a victory lap to the bench, bumping gloves with as many teammates as he could reach, I wiped away tears, overcome and completely surprised by the support. How worried I had been about my son’s impact on all the other kids’ Mini Mite experience. And how wrong I had been about their parents’ judgments of my decision to let Josh follow his bliss. They weren’t lamenting his participation at all; they were wholeheartedly rooting for him.

When the final buzzer sounded, and the parents and kids darted to and fro looking for one another, I headed down to the ice, toting the empty duffel bag I was about to fill up with sweaty pads and gear. As I stopped to motion Josh toward the locker room, a mom I didn’t recognize put her hand on my arm and said, “I just have to tell you that when your son scored, I cried. I was so happy for him!”

I looked back at her and squeezed her hand. “I did, too,” I admitted as the crowd surged between us. Just then, I looked up and saw Josh’s coach following him off the ice. When they both reached me, Coach Bill kneeled down, which made him the same height as Josh on his skates, and said, “Hey buddy. That was a great goal!” Josh beamed. “The other coaches and I were so excited about that goal that we made you star of the game,” he continued. “And we’re giving you the game puck.” He placed the dark blue puck in Josh’s small hand, and Josh looked up at me with his mouth hanging open.

“What do you say?” I asked in my usual mom tone. What do you say when a group of people collectively display such an overwhelming amount kindness and support?

“Thank you,” Josh said quietly as he ran his finger over the bumpy edge and leaned back into me.

“You’re welcome,” Coach Bill said as he tapped his helmet and got to his feet. Then he leaned over to me and whispered, “When he scored that goal, I was SO pumped up.”

All I could do was nod and smile…and remind myself that sometimes it’s wiser to trust my fellow Moms and Dads than my own perception. It seems community is not dead. Hallelujah!

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