Ryan is an all-star.
OK. He’s not technically an all-star. It’s a “select” team. And we have a conflict and he’s not even going to be able to take part. But there is a select team from his house league being put together for a weekend tournament a couple of hours away, and he was invited to take part.
I checked with the coach, who also happens to be his regular coach. I’m sure that’s not a coincidence. But I wanted to make sure this wasn’t just a courtesy invite. The play would be faster. Did he really think Ryan could keep up? I asked him to be honest. He was. He told me the level of play would be a good challenge for Ryan. But he also said that with three goals on the season, Ryan deserved a spot.
As I mentioned, we have a conflict and Ryan won’t be able to take part. But the invitation alone was an all-star moment. When we told Ryan about it, his face lit up in a broad smile that we don’t get to see as often as we would like. It was a face of pride and self-confidence.
We’ve seen the look before. After his first two goals, and after his third. After his street hockey team won the league championship.
That smile, that confidence, THAT is why he plays hockey.
I am so grateful to Ryan’s coach for that moment. I have tried to explain to him how much it means, and I hope he understands. He has been a blessing in our lives since we first met him in the fall of 2011.
The coach loves having Ryan on the team and treats him like any of the other kids. Our relationship began with a lengthy phone call in which I described Ryan’s strengths and challenges and he asked all the right questions. We could not ask for a Ryan to be handled any better. As the coach and I have gotten to know each other — as two life-long hockey geeks the same age, we have plenty in common — he has made the effort to learn more about Ryan’s autism so he can better understand him.
As Ryan’s second season approached, I (half-jokingly) asked the coach how much I could pay him to make sure he again selected Ryan for his team. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust the other coaches to handle him as well, but this one was so perfect that I didn’t want to start over with the unknown. He laughed, but the words that followed weren’t humorous. They were kind and sweet and incredibly meaningful.
He told me that as long as he coached hockey, Ryan would always have a place on his team — because of his effort and his love for the game. The coach sees the same pure joy that I see when Ryan plays. How he celebrates every goal scored in every mundane drill like an overtime series-clincher. It’s irrepressible.
The coach told me he had learned more from Ryan than any other kid he had ever coached. He said “he has changed my life.”
Right back at you, coach. Words cannot express the appreciation we have for people like you — but Ryan’s smile can.