Some combos just can’t be beat. Chocolate and peanut butter. Coffee and donuts. In sports, there have been many perfect duos: Stockton and Malone, Jordan and Pippen. In hockey there was the “Hull and Oates” show in St. Louis in the 1990s. Today, there is Sidney Crosby and, well, pretty much anybody.
You can add a duo to that list: Ryan and me.
My son and I have been skating together many, many times. We have played hundreds of games of street, video game, Nok, and air hockey. But only twice — twice — have we had the opportunity to share a sheet of ice, in full hockey equipment, with sticks and pucks and goalies.
The first was the most memorable Father’s Day of my life. The second was this week, at a team-ending celebration for Ryan’s house league. One of the parents organized a team party, renting a local rink for 90 minutes. The first half was an open skate, the second a parents/kids pickup game.
We arrived just as things were getting going. Ryan was very anxious about the schedule, this being a weekday night. He was concerned about being out past bedtime, despite my assurances. He was worried about what time the pizza would arrive and how long it would take us to get home. But as soon as we walked into the rink and he saw his teammates on the ice, playing tag, he raced to put his gear on and join them.
Before long, he was right in the middle of the games — chase, tag, throwing hockey gloves at one another. His social deficits weren’t evident. Neither was his tic — which has been very frequent of late. His anxiety? Gone.
I retreated to the locker room to put my hockey gear on and prepare for the second half of the skate. I turned a few leisurely laps talking to one of Ryan’s coaches, thanking him for the season. I barely had to watch Ryan, who was still happily engaged with his teammates. He disappeared for a few minutes to inhale three slices of pizza before it was time to return to the ice for the pickup hockey game.
We donned helmets and gloves and organized the kids into teams. I made sure I was on Ryan’s team. Someone threw a puck into the corner and we were off.
I remembered how quickly the time passed the last time we did this, and I was determined to enjoy every minute. Each time Ryan and I had a shift together, I brought up the rear on defense so I could watch him do what he does in every game — go to the front of the net and wait for rebounds.
That strategy, entirely successful during his season, was less so in a free-for-all pickup game. so I decided to help out. Every time the puck came to me, I carried it into the offensive zone and tried to feed him a pass in front of the net.
The first few tries failed, but on about our fourth shift, I finally connected with him on a pass right in the slot, the prime scoring area. Ryan slid it past the goalie for a goal and we high-fived.
So what if the goalie was eight years old and we were playing a very disorganized, about eight players per side game? Nobody was keeping score? Pshaw. Ryan was.
On our drive home, I asked him if he remembered that I had assisted on his goal. He did. I asked if he remembered that we also connected for a score the last time we played a full-ice game together. He recalled that one as well, putting a perfect topper on a perfect night.
Observing Ryan in everyday social situations can be very difficult. I worry about his every interaction and how it will be perceived. I see his tic, hear his too-loud or scripted replies and look for mocking reactions from his peers. I see his anxiety and feel powerless to help.
But on the ice? All of that melts away. I see no anxiety. The tic disappears. His enthusiastic exhortations of his teammates and celebrations of goals fit right in. I see a boy happily at play in his element. To watch my son play hockey from up close like that brings me such incredible joy and satisfaction.
To connect with him on a goal and hear his celebration in the midst of all the chaos?
I don’t know when we’ll next have the opportunity to share a sheet of ice. I hope it will be soon. I know I will treasure it.