A Sign of Belonging

Hockey team jacket

What’s the significance of a team jacket? Belonging.

Ryan will play hockey this winter on a town-based team in a middle-school league, continuing in a program that started this past spring. The idea is to serve as a feeder for our town’s high school program, which has struggled with low numbers of experienced players in recent seasons.

Ryan enjoys this program much more than the team for which he played last winter, where he struggled to find acceptance to the point that it began to damage his interest in the sport.

There has been nothing like that this time, and Ryan enjoys hanging around his teammates when he sees them in school or at public skating sessions. This is new; in past hockey seasons, he showed up for every practice and game but had little interaction with teammates at, or outside of, hockey events. This year, he identifies as being part of the team in a stronger way than ever before. He talks about his “teammates,” what they like, how they act in the locker room, etc., in a way that makes it clear he feels very much included (even if he, thankfully, sits out some of the more sophomoric hi-jinx).

This week, there was a development that I’m pretty sure will only help to cement those feelings of belonging.

What was this monumental occasion?

An order form.

For team jackets.

With the team name on the back. And his name on the front.

We asked Ryan if he wanted to order one and received an enthusiastic “YES!” in reply. Riley is insanely jealous. She is playing soccer on the middle school team and was already in envy of some of the other sports that have personalized jackets.

What’s so big about a jacket?

Nothing. And everything.

It is, after all, just a jacket. But it’s so much more than that. It’s tangible proof of belonging. It’s an outward sign of athletic ability. More importantly, he wants to show people he belongs.

I remember my first sports-team jacket, of the local hockey club I played for. I probably got it right around Ryan’s age. It had the name of the team on the back and my name on the front. My mom dutifully stitched every tournament patch on it. I wore it EVERYWHERE. It was a physical manifestation of self-esteem.

I remember ordering an old-school varsity jacket in high school, after I earned my first letter in football. I was a special-teams scrub on a terrible team, but I couldn’t wait to get that jacket and wear it proudly around school to announce that I. Belonged.

Ryan’s enthusiasm to do the same is a little thing and a Not Little Thing at the same time. It’s normal, and yet it’s extraordinary for a child that has at times struggled to understand the world outside his own bubble. If he’s like me, he’ll wear it (likely little more than a windbreaker) all winter long.

Ryan has earned the right to wear that jacket, through dogged participation and hard work. And I can’t wait to see him put it on and wear it to school.

Thirteen Words That Saved the Day

Hey, You Suck

Ryan does the goal song chant with a friend at a in April, 2013.

Friday was a bit of a debacle in our house.

We were already over-scheduled, with games and appointments for both kids, topped off by a Devils home game. Veronica had everything timed to the minute, managing both kids’ schedules with a plan that would get them to the Prudential Center in time for puck drop. I had the easy part — meet them there on my way home from New York City.

Everything looked like it would work, until it didn’t. I was a few minutes from setting out for Newark, looking forward to a pregame adult beverage at the plaza outside the arena, when I received a text from Veronica. Riley took a soccer ball off the face in her middle-school game and had a bad nosebleed. Veronica was racing to get home from a doctor’s appointment with Ryan when she received word.

It was pretty clear Riley was out for the Devils game. I sprinted out of the office with just enough time to catch a train for home instead of Newark, where I could at least pick up Ryan and take him.

We didn’t want two tickets to go to waste, so Veronica started sending a flurry of texts to see if a couple of Ryan’s friends might be able to go. Ryan does not have many friends but we’ve had successful outings to games with a few boys. It’s something we remind him of when he laments about the number of friends he has.

A few texts later, and she had everything arranged. As I walked up the street to our house, there were three boys waiting in Devils jerseys. It was 6:30, later than I like to leave for a 7 p.m. game, but luckily the Devils had a pregame ceremony scheduled for Friday that would allow us to make it on time. More importantly, we told Ryan about it in advance to head off any worries about being late.

We were fine on time — until we hit a street closure that blocked our normal route to the garage where we park. Next thing I knew, we were crawling in rush hour traffic in downtown Newark, heading away from our intended destination as the clock ticked towards 7. Ryan was nervous but I assured him we would make it for puck drop.

We caught a break at the next light, doubled back to our lot, found a spot and sprint-walked for the arena a few minutes past 7.

We were in our seats by 7:15, time to catch the last few minutes of the ceremony. Because of the rush, Ryan had no time for dinner before the game so we planned to get food at the first intermission. I usually try to avoid buying arena food because of the cost, but this was a special occasion. But there was a problem. The large concession area directly behind our seats shut down some time during the first period due to a fire, causing a ripple effect of absurdly long lines at all the other stands. I promised Ryan to get him food, but that was before I found a 20-minute wait for pizza, and a “burger with fries” that came with chips (which he wont’ eat) instead. By the time the second period started, I still hadn’t returned with any food. I went back to the seats to reassure him and then headed out again. The period was almost half over before I returned with the only thing I could find that he would eat and that wasn’t at the end of another impossibly long line: a plate of fries.

The whole experience annoyed me and I was in a pretty sour mood as I sat down to watch the rest of the second period. Then I looked over at Ryan, interacting with his two friends. I asked him if he was enjoying the game, and his answer pretty much made everything that happened the past few hours irrelevant.

“This is a great game because I’m here with my two best friends.”

Thanks for putting everything into perspective, kid.

Chasing Perfection

Ryan's autographed Joe Pavelski jersey

Ryan’s Joe Pavelski jersey, newly modified.

If we’re lucky, we all get a few magical, red-letter days. We’ve had the good fortune to experience a few of those with Ryan over the last several years, and many have been documented on this blog.

Trying to repeat the experience can be tricky. The reasons why are obvious: part of what made the original experience so exceptional is its uniqueness and rarity. Meaning both that it might be difficult to repeat and, if it isn’t, the original experience might somehow be cheapened.

Ryan’s favorite team, the San Jose Sharks, just finished their once-annual swing through the northeast. It was on this trip last year that Ryan had the opportunity to meet the team, thanks to the efforts of a friend who works there and the generosity of the players and the public-relations staff.

With the team in town to play the Devils on Saturday and the Rangers on Sunday, we had long-planned to attend both games. I wasn’t planning on any extra curriculars this time. But last week I heard from my friend, who was putting the wheels in motion for another visit.

And so it was that Ryan and I found ourselves driving the Prudential Center early Saturday for the Sharks’ morning skate. He was dressed in his Joe Pavelski teal jersey, having already filled his Joe Thornton model with autographs last year. We picked up passes at the staff entrance and made our way into the mostly empty arena bowl to watch practice. The team’s radio announcer, Dan Rusanowsky, there among the gathered media to make notes for that night’s game, stopped by to say hello. He went out of his way to greet Ryan last year in Philadelphia and did the same this time.

Ryan and Dan Rusanowsky

Ryan and Sharks radio announcer Dan Rusanowsky

He quizzed Ryan about his favorite players and the times he had seen the Sharks play. I resisted my urge (I’m still working on it) to facilitate the conversation. Ryan didn’t need my help. He spoke easily with Rusanowsky, asking him about a player who was no longer with the Sharks and telling him about games we attended last year. Rusanowsky even asked for a picture with Ryan.

Morning skates are brief, and after 30 minutes the players started heading off the ice. The team PR person suggested we make our way to the tunnel outside the Sharks’ dressing room.

Ryan and I looked at all the equipment the team brings on the road — extra skate and stick blades, helmet parts, skate sharpeners, etc., while waiting for the players to finish dressing and exit the room.

The first to emerge was forward Tommy Wingels. Ryan recognized him immediately. Wingels, in a pattern that would repeat, didn’t wait to be asked. He approached Ryan with a smile, a handshake and a warm greeting. He signed Ryan’s jersey and posed for a snapshot.

Next came Ryan’s favorite, Joe Thornton, along with long-time Sharks star Patrick Marleau. Once again, both approached and said hello. Marleau even addressed my son by name.

Ryan with Tommy Wingels, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau

From left, Tommy Wingels, one super-happy Ryan, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau

“Hey Ryan, how are you? Can I sign your jersey?”

I was flabbergasted. I think Ryan was as well. Marleau chatted with Ryan for a moment while others signed, and then he, Thornton and Wingels all posed with Ryan for a picture.

Wingels complemented Ryan on his jersey, and when Pavelski exited the dressing room a minute later said “Hey Pavs, looks like they’ve been giving away your jerseys again.”

Ryan and I laughed. Pavelski approached, signed, and posed for a picture, and then told Ryan “I saw you in the stands, thanks for coming out,” which only added to Ryan’s smile.

In between packs of players, Ryan and I chatted. “Can you believe Patrick Marleau knows your name?” I asked. “Can you believe Joe Pavelski noticed you in the stands?”

Ryan and Joe Pavelski

Ryan was complemented on his jersey choice by Joe Pavelski.

Other players came out and the same scene repeated. The opposite of put out, each approached to offer a smile, a handshake, an autograph and to pose for a photo. In these interactions, I noticed the same thing I saw during that magical day in Philadelphia.

Far from nervous or shy, Ryan was at absolute ease. He chatted comfortably with players. He complemented them on their performances in recent games. He even asked one player he didn’t recognize his name, and then quickly referenced something that player had done in a game a few days ago. I would have apologize to the player, but it was obvious he was not offended.

As the last players walked past, we headed for home. We still had two Sharks games to attend. Saturday night (4-2 win vs. the Devils) went better than Sunday evening (4-0 loss to the Rangers), but really, any games I get to spend with Ryan are a win.

Sharks at Devils

Ryan during the Sharks-Devils game Saturday night.

And meeting the players — again? My son gains so much self-confidence from these opportunities. After we got home from the arena Saturday morning, he actually sent the picture of him with his favorite Sharks to two of his friends via text message. OK, so maybe we encouraged him to send it, but we weren’t responsible for what happened next. He spent the game Saturday night exchanging texts with both boys, one of whom was also there. They arranged to meet up after the first period.

Sunday at Madison Square Garden, when the Rangers scored I looked at Ryan to gauge his reaction. He was already on his phone, sending a text to one of his friends. Ryan stayed positive throughout the  game, even in the final moments of the loss. He kept cheering and never took off his Sharks head hat. He even won over what can be a tough Garden crowd, with several fans admiring his hat and his autographed jersey.

Every time Ryan got a high-five from a stranger; when a Devils fan on Saturday night told him, incredulously, in the corridor “I see you here every game in a Devils jersey!;” when we were stopped by some Rangers fans and asked to pose for a picture in Penn Station after the game Sunday — with each of those moments, I reminded Ryan that sports are social.

With Ryan at MSG

With Ryan, still smiling despite the result, at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.

“How often do you have conversations with or give high-fives to total strangers?” I asked.

By now, it’s a question he’s used to but it’s a lesson I want to reinforce. Sports provides an obvious common context between groups of strangers that paves the pathway for easy social interaction.

Sports are social. Period. Full-stop.

Our weekend with the Sharks ended with a 1-1 record, another autographed jersey, more memories for a lifetime, and for me, the repeated joy of seeing Ryan at his happiest, in his favorite environment, and among his people. Hockey people. And if you’ve been hanging around here, you know what I think of hockey people.

We chased perfection, and we achieved it anyway.

Ed Note: I would like to offer my sincere and heart-felt thanks to the San Jose Sharks organization, team management, public relations staff, players and coaches, for making Saturday morning possible. You are a credit to the NHL and the entire sport of hockey.

Photo Friday: Sharknado 3


Ryan in his Sharks hat

Hey Jumbo – Ryan is ready to watch you play this weekend.

No time to write this morning. That’s what midnight beer-league hockey will do to you. We have a BIG weekend planned. The San Jose Sharks have come to the northeast, and we’ll be seeing them live against the Devils on Saturday and the Rangers on Sunday. So Ryan’s choice for “hat day” at school was an easy one.

Have a great weekend, everyone. Go Sharks!

Goals: His vs. Ours

city-on-the-horizonGoals can be a tricky thing. Their very nature implies looking ahead, sometimes way ahead, and that’s something we mostly try to avoid around here.

Of course, for as much as we try to live in the moment, it’s impossible to avoid completely looking ahead, and that’s where things can get complicated.

There is a giant caveat to this idea, however, and it’s this: if the goals are Ryan’s, as opposed to our goals for him, it completely changes the equation. Ryan set a goal to get stronger this summer, and achieved it through daily work and dedication. He has a goal to play hockey in high school and is attacking it in the same way: by diligently practicing the skills at which he needs to improve.

There is a significant event coming up at the end of this school year for which we would love Ryan to take part with his classmates. Veronica and I have discussed it, but only briefly, almost as if we don’t want to discuss that which makes us uncomfortable. If it were today, he probably wouldn’t take part. But it’s not today, and June is a long way off. Lots can happen between now and then.

Yesterday, for the first time, Ryan’s attitude towards the event showed signs of changing to the point where he might make it one of his goals to take part. He’s gone from outright dismissiveness to mild curiosity to (now) possible interest.

From what we know of our son, if this becomes something he wants to do, he will find a way to make it work. We will help him get there, of course. We might even give a gentle push in that direction. But we have learned that he has to be invested in a goal before a push from us, no matter how gentle or firm, is going to matter.

From experience, many times over, we know that pushing him to pursue one of our goals for him is a recipe for frustration and failure. Whether it’s riding a bike, or learning to control a habit or behavior that made us uncomfortable, none of these saw progress until they mattered to Ryan. And once they did, the development came quickly.

So I will hope, and encourage, and maybe even nudge, Ryan in the direction of this school event. We will do whatever we can to help nourish his interest, and if it grows, we will involve all the necessary people to give the support that will make it possible.

But only if it matters to him.

It’s a lesson learned through lots of trial and error, emphasis on the latter.