Grandpa, I Feel Like a Star

Have we really come this far?

No, really. Let’s think about this for a moment. It’s Jan. 2, 2012. That would make it just over three years since Ryan first put on a pair of skates and a hockey helmet. Three years to go from that first cautious step out onto the rink to playing hockey in front of 47,000 people.

Winter Classic
Yes, that is my kid in front of 47,000 fans.

How did we get here?

I mean, three years ago he had never skated because I couldn’t get a skate onto his foot. Having taken up hockey myself at age four shortly after seeing it played for the first time, I encouraged my son to try it himself as soon as he showed an interest in the game. But trying to slide his foot into a skate boot was a non-starter. His body would go stiff in resistance and he would immediately ask me to remove it. The same with a helmet. He could barely tolerate a bicycle helmet, but a hockey helmet with a full cage enclosing his face? Forget about it.

So I forgot about it. Before I had kids, before diagnoses and PDD-NOS and autism and ADHD and Asperger’s were even terms I understood, I had always assumed my children’s early childhood would be spent shuttling them to and from various ice rinks at insanely early hours in the morning. That is what my parents had done for me and I just assumed I’d do the same for my kids.

But ours was to be a different path. Dreams of sharing sports with my child faded quickly after the first diagnoses, only daring to reinsert themselves into my subconscious many years later. Even after Ryan showed an interest in hockey — as an observer, mind you — and quickly blossomed into a full-fledged fan. Even after he tried playing other sports. There was always the issue of getting the skates on his feet and the helmet on his head. Can’t very well become a hockey player if you can’t accomplish both of those.

And then, something changed. Parents of a child on the autism spectrum know that you can’t really plan the breakthrough moments, and that they have a habit of occurring when you least expect them. Such was the case when my son came to me those three-plus years ago and indicated a desire to learn how to skate. After double-checking that he understood this meant actually putting skates on his feet we headed to the local rink the following weekend.

I didn’t figure we’d be there long. I wasn’t sure we’d actually make it on the ice. The only similar experience to draw upon — a birthday party at a roller rink — had not gone well. I got the skates on his feet for maybe 10 minutes. But the poor child could not so much as stand up in them. It was like balance was a foreign concept. After a few minutes of holding him up while he attempted to walk around the rink in skates, we gave up. The skates came off and I was relieved to be done with the stares from other kids and parents.

But once again, my son surprised me. He got on the ice and balance was much improved. He lasted a good half-hour before the first complaint about his feet. And he smiled the entire time. He said he wanted to take lessons.

First Time Skating
First time on the ice. What you can't see are the smiles.

I think my wife paid the bill before he got off the ice. Two sets of lessons followed. It should be noted that Ryan’s younger sister sister Riley, a neuro-typical child in every way, bailed out of the lessons as soon as she realized her parents wouldn’t be coming onto the ice with her, meaning big brother was out there on his own. I’d sit nervously in the stands, watching for any sign of detachment or distress. I was probably too focused on those to notice the progress he was making. Not my fault — I was born to a mother who views the glass as half-empty. And leaking. Just ask her.

Barely six months later, Ryan came to me and said the words I thought I’d never here.

“Dad, I want to play hockey.”

Mad scrambling and Google searching followed, and I discovered a developmental program that would allow you to try out the sport without any commitment. You could even borrow a full set of equipment, thereby saving hundreds of dollars if Ryan decided it wasn’t for him after the first session. Again, my child surprised me. He tolerated the equipment, full of tight straps, a claustrophobic helmet, and tons of Velcro. In other words, sensory alarm bells galore. More importantly, he was able to follow the drills. Once I started breathing again, I looked out at him and saw something new.

He was free.

No anxiety.

No hyperactivity.

No tics.

Balance and coordination in reserve.

I had read about this effect in an article about a special hockey association. About how children on the spectrum really seemed to respond to the sensation of gliding on the ice, much in the way that many seem to be calmed by surfing. I don’t know if I believed it at the time. But to watch my son out there, calmly following the instructions, not getting lost in the drills, doing his best, not showing any signs of anxiety or fear, was to become an instant convert. Playing this sport would not be a burden. It would be a release.

First time playing hockey
On the ice. Free.

Hockey has been nothing but a wonderful experience for my son. It has given him confidence and attachment to other boys that play. It has brought him into contact with wonderful, patient, kind instructors and coaches.

And on Jan. 2, it put him at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, on the kids auxiliary rink in front of 47,000 fans at the NHL Winter Classic. How we got there is a story for another post. An invitation was extended, a child was excited, and his parents spent the next six weeks worrying.

Would he be OK out there? Would he cause a disruption? Would the crowd or the noise bother him? Or the cold? Could he tolerate wearing skates and all that equipment for six straight hours?

Let’s see. Yes, no, no and no, no, yes.

Ryan smiled through the entire experience. I could see his smile right through his facemask in pictures I took from 100 feet away. My wife and I fought back tears. My parents sat through bitter cold and wind for four hours to watch him play for a few minutes each intermission. I think even his sister Riley was proud.

Leaving the Ice
His day done, Ryan heads to the dressing room.

And when it was over, when I asked him to respond to the numerous congratulatory emails his grandpa had sent him, this is what he wrote:


Kid, you were a star.

I’m just your jealous dad.


35 thoughts on “Grandpa, I Feel Like a Star

  1. I still have the game saved so Ryan and I can go over it together. (Of course you know I only watched the parts with the kids skating.) As proud as I am of all Ryan’s accomplishments and how he really does work thru things. I am as proud of the rest of the family and how you three support and encourage each other in helping Ryan and his challenges, the family dynamics and everything the rest of the world has no idea goes on in a family with autisum. I am thrilled that you have started this blog!


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