The fairy tale ending … was not to be.
Ryan’s house league team earned a spot in the peewee championship game Sunday with a dominating performance in its last round-robin playoff game Saturday. Ryan enthusiastically returned to the rink Saturday afternoon for a spirited practice. The team was ready. He was ready.
And yet, the title would not be theirs. Ryan’s team lost by the narrowest of margins in a game that came down to the fifth and final attempt of a shootout.
But this is not a story about loss, for I could not imagine being any more proud of my son or his teammates had they won. The boys played their tails off. Ryan was held off the scoresheet, but he played one of his best games of the year.
Sure, I was bitterly disappointed. I wanted the win for Ryan, for the coaches who volunteer so much of their time, for his teammates. The end of the season, and Ryan’s aging out of peewees and into full-checking bantams, hung over the game like a giant, unanswered question.
We didn’t want that question to intrude on our safe space that is this team and this coach. It felt an awful lot like watching Ryan graduate from elementary school — tremendous pride mixed with a nagging concern about what comes next.
Veronica and I were both incredibly nervous watching the game. But it was a different kind of nervous: one born of a fear of the outcome of a tense and meaningful game, not of how Ryan would fit in.
When it was over, when the final shootout attempt had been stopped, when the opponents celebrated and Ryan’s team gathered to await the handshakes, we searched our son’s face for signs of disappointment, but found little.
As Coach M took the microphone to call his players up to receive their silver medals, Ryan stood with his teammates awaiting his turn. He waved to us. When his name was called, he burst into a wide grin. He stood patiently while the rest of his team, and then the entire opposing team, went through the ceremony.
Then the house league director took the mic and announced that he had one more award. I stepped on the ice and zoomed in with my camera. Veronica and I knew what was coming. So did some of the other kids. Ryan did not.
“The trophy for the most improved peewee player goes to … [Ryan].”
I swung my camera around to find Ryan, but my eyes found him before the lens did. As a result I don’t have a photo or video of the look on his face. That’s OK. As I told him on the ride home, if I live to 100 years old, that image will be indelibly seared on my brain — a look of surprise, joy and pride rolled into one gigantic smile. Ryan burst forward to grab his trophy and sprinted back to his teammates as the entire rink applauded.
I knew it was coming because Coach M had told me in advance, and I’m glad he did. I might have gone down in a heap on the ice otherwise. As it was, I barely fought off the tears that welled in my eyes and the heaves that grew in my chest. Indeed, I am fighting off tears as I type this morning.
Riley was with me on the ice. She shouted when her brother’s name was called. She gave him a big hug and asked to see his trophy. It is sometimes hard for her to appreciate Ryan’s on-ice success and we are always wary of the imbalance of attention that autism sometimes forces upon our family. But this was not some token congratulations. She was genuinely proud of her big brother, and it made the moment that much sweeter.
When the photos were done and I had the chance to thank Coach M, I struggled to find the words to express the enormity of our gratitude for the way he
coached included Ryan the last two years.
He cut me off.
“The look on his face when his name was called, did you see that?” he asked. “That’s what it’s all about!”
I assured him that I had, and found my voice enough to thank him and to tell him just how much these two seasons meant.
“Whenever we have had rough patches, there was always hockey,” I said. “And all our highest moments have come through hockey.” I told him there was no way I could ever repay the debt of gratitude our family felt, but he cut me off again.
“Ryan has taught me so much,” he said. “Especially this year.”
I went to shake his hand, but ended up in a tight embrace as we both felt the tears welling up once more.
Ryan lingered with his teammates in the postgame dressing room — a rarity for him. As is their regular practice, Coach M had Ryan assist him with announcing the shots on goal total for the game — unnecessary this time because the big-game atmosphere of the final had included a PA announcer giving the shots total after each period. It was as if they did this just for Ryan.
Then Coach M gave his postgame speech. He thanked the boys for their effort and told them they had played great and should feel very proud. He then announced he was stepping away from coaching to focus on the administrative side of the program.
Even though Ryan has aged out of playing for Coach M, it still added to the feeling of finality that dogged at my happiness. I thanked him and the assistants again and exchanged one last round of hugs.
Coach M’s announcement made me think of the pregame talk I had with Ryan in the car. Ryan was all business. He didn’t want to listen to any music so he could concentrate on the game.
Recalling a YouTube video I had seen of Ray Lewis addressing the Stanford basketball team, I paraphrased for Ryan. I asked him if he knew before the game that he would never play hockey again, would it change how he played?
He assured me it would make him play harder. I told him to play that way, and we then went over some specific areas for him to focus on as we always do.
After games, we always talk about things he did well and things he could work on. But on this day, as we went back over our list of pregame talking points, he had done them all to the best of his ability.
I was bursting with pride as I ticked them off for him. For about the fifth time since the game ended, I fought back tears. I told Ryan that I loved him and I couldn’t be any prouder if he had won and scored the game-winning goal.
I asked how the award made him feel and be answered just as I hoped he would.
I then asked if he had any idea the award was coming (I thought a teammate might have tipped him off).
“Yeah,” he said. “When they called my name.”
That’s my son. Ever the literal thinker.
And so now we skate, figuratively, into the unknown. This sport, this program, this coach have all been such incredible blessings in our lives. Somehow, we will find the right path to continue.
I am confidant it won’t be Ryan’s last game, but if it were, he left it all on the ice.
Ray Lewis would be proud.
I know I am.