Several years ago, we attended a first communion party for the son of one of Veronica’s good friends. It was a beautiful party, most notable for us because Ryan surprised us by tolerating it without issue and because Riley, then perhaps three, asked a stranger who turned out to be a surgeon in his fifties, to dance. May she always have such good taste.
The other thing I remember about the party was a toast given by the host. He talked passionately about how when you start a family, you’re lucky if you get just a few such occasions — a wedding, a bar mitzvah, a first communion — when extended family and friends gather for a special life event.
And although he was talking about planned family gatherings, I have kept that thought in my mind over the years, using it to remind me to appreciate truly special days that happen along, sometimes when you least expect it. Days like watching your son skate in front of 47,000 people. Or being in the arena with your entire family when your kids’ favorite team clinches a berth in the Stanley Cup Final in overtime against their most-hated rival. Or taking your son on an ambitious road trip and watching him sing your college’s fight song.
Sunday was one of those days.
I had high hopes for the day going in, but I really had no idea. Ryan had his second hockey game of the new season at 9 a.m., and then he and I were set to go to our second New York Jets game in three weeks.
After a trying week, I was determined this weekend would be better. No yelling. No meltdowns. Saturday went smoothly, between Ryan’s hockey practice, doing some hurricane prep around the house, and watching college football (with Ryan, I might add). It was a good enough day that I tolerated Michigan’s loss to Nebraska rather well.
Ryan was in a great mood Sunday morning, more excited than usual for his hockey game. His team won its first game last week as he recorded an assist. Sunday, he was expecting bigger things.
“I’ve got a feeling I’m going to score my first goal today,” he told me. Boasting was out of the ordinary for him. He recorded just a single assist all last season, another one of those special days I will always remember.
I smiled and told Ryan the same things I always do. Try hard, do your best, have fun, pay attention, pop right up when you fall down, drive to the net when you don’t have the puck. There’s a quote from NHL player Brooks Laich that we like to recite:
If you want money, go to the bank. If you want bread, go to the bakery. If you want goals, go to the net.
Ryan is not skilled enough to stick-handle around people. If he was ever going to score, it would be by being in the right place at the right time.
As we walked into the rink, Ryan ran ahead with his hockey bag while I carried his stick. I was inspecting the blade, deciding if it needed a new tape job, when the team’s assistant coach saw me.
“Does he have a couple of goals in that stick today?” he asked.
I smiled at the polite hockey banter. “I don’t know,” I said.
The game began and both teams were short a couple of players, which meant lots of ice time for everyone. Ryan doesn’t always push himself when he gets fatigued, so I was hopeful that he’d carry his weight since everyone would be tired.
He was up to the task. He jumped into the play and skated with abandon. On one of his first shifts, a pass came to him right in front of the net and he got a good shot off, forcing the goalie to make a difficult save. Veronica and I groaned. I looked across the rink at his coach, who threw his arms up in the air and let out an “ohhhhhhhhh.” Coach M. told me when he drafted Ryan back on to his team, “he’s scoring this year.” He wanted it for Ryan as bad as Veronica and I did, as bad as Ryan wanted it himself.
A few minutes later, it happened. Ryan’s teammate shot from the corner. The goalie made the save, but the puck dribbled through her pads. Ryan, who had gone to the net with his stick on the ice, was right there to poke it home. The shot may have traveled two inches, but it was a thing of beauty. Veronica and I screamed. We watched Ryan celebrate. Coach M. was jumping up and down with his arms in the air shouting “Yes!” The goal gave Ryan’s team a 1-0 lead, but no matter what happened the rest of the way, this game was going to be special.
The other team tied it up, then took a 2-1 lead into the third period. That’s when the day went from memorable to truly amazing.
Ryan’s team broke out of its own zone and suddenly had a three-on-one. Ryan was on the opposite wing from the puck, and he did what he’s been taught to do. He drove to the net. The opposite winger shot the puck, but the rebound bounced right to Ryan and he made no mistake. He buried it in the center of the net the way a good goal-scorer should. He celebrated wildly. We were in shock. Did that really just happen? This was the stuff of Matt Christopher books. My son, the hero of the game? It sounded like fiction — but it was true.
Ryan’s team held on for the 2-2 tie. I couldn’t wait to greet him in the locker room. He was so jubilant coming off the ice. Coach M. just shook his head. He was grinning from ear to ear. The assistant who had greeted me at the rink entrance said “I told you so!” Other parents offered congratulations and handshakes.
They knew what it meant. They knew.
Ryan shows up for every practice, every game, with the same enthusiasm and effort. He may finish last in just about every drill, but he is always smiling. He loves the game with a purity that is hard to miss. He earned those goals. He was in the right place at the right time with his stick on the ice, and when the puck found him, he knew what to do.
Coach M. congratulated the team and told the kids how they all played well — and they had. Ryan asked when he would talk about his goals, bringing laughter to the room. Coach M. saved some special remarks for Ryan. Just as he had on the occasion of Ryan’s first assist, he gave him both of his goal pucks, which he had made the sure the referee retrieved from the net. Ryan dressed quickly and ran out of the room with his pucks to find Veronica and Riley, leaving me behind to carry all his gear. I didn’t mind. I thanked Coach M. and the other parents. I told them I’d work on Ryan’s modesty.
When I got back to the rink lobby, Veronica was near tears. Ryan was holding his goal pucks, telling her how he was sure he was the game’s number one star. He was floating. Congratulations were pouring in on Veronica’s phone after she texted updates to family and friends.
We still had the Jets game to go, but this day was already an all-timer, one of those few that you get if you’re very lucky. I know I will never forget it, and I’m sure Ryan won’t as well.