Ever since Ryan began playing organized hockey two years ago, I have feared the beginning of this season.
The year Ryan started as a peewee, the sport’s governing body in this country, USA Hockey, made the controversial decision to remove checking from the peewee age group. A generation ago, when I was a youth player, a similar debate pushed the start of checking back from an even younger age group to peewee.
I did not get involved in the debate. I simply exhaled in relief. If full contact hockey was the only option for Ryan as an 11-year-old we quite likely would have signed him up for special hockey instead.
Special hockey is an incredible program. I watched a few games. I spoke with parents, coaches and administrators. I just did not feel it was the best program for our child.
Checking would have changed the equation. Ryan’s hockey development was several years behind his peers simply because he started so much later. I wanted him learning the game’s fundamentals. I wanted him learning how to be part of a team, the value of practice, hard work and shared sacrifice. I wanted him learning to understand the shared joys of success and the shared hurt and responsibility of losing. I wanted him to face the social challenges of being in a locker room full of boys his age, knowing he had the benefit of a head start in conversations via their shared interest in hockey.
I did not want him spending his time learning to protect himself. I did not want him to be afraid of getting hurt.
Bumps and bruises are one thing, and learning to deal with those is a valuable life lesson. But concussion awareness has changed everything. I feared that one big hit, delivered cleanly but to an unsuspecting Ryan, could not only cause a serious injury but drive Ryan’s love of the sport right out of him.
Once checking was no longer an issue I knew Ryan had two years to learn the sport without worrying about serious injury. I put my fears aside, but knew they were out there, waiting to be revisited in a couple of years’ time.
Mostly I tried to ignore them, even as his last peewee season progressed. Ryan improved in all areas. His skating is miles better than two years ago. His stick-handling and shot have also improved. The most progress of all is with his “hockey I.Q.” He scored five goals last year simply by being in the right place at the right time.
Veronica kept pressing me. What was I going to do about next year? I didn’t have a good answer. I kept saying “we’ll figure it out.”
After the last game of the season, one of the coaches approached me. I could tell he felt awkward about what he wanted to discuss.
“How would you feel about having Ryan play one more year of peewee?”
I’m pretty sure he could tell my answer by the relief on my face. He shared my concerns about the possibility of injury. At this point in his hockey development, Ryan skates with his head down when he has he puck. The problem with starting checking at 13 is the kids delivering the checks are a lot bigger and stronger than if they were 11.
I told him I was hoping the program would be amenable to that. We agreed to revisit it over the summer.
Summer has come and gone. A few weeks ago I reached out to Ryan’s coach to make sure everyone was still OK with the plan. We discussed it with Ryan. He does not want to play in a checking league. He’s afraid of getting hurt. He wants to stay in peewees.
And so tomorrow I will take Ryan to evaluations, where he will skate as an overage peewee. Like many aspects of his development, this one stings a little. Of course I want him to be on par with his peers. No parent is completely happy when their child doesn’t keep up with “typical” development paths.
But if I’ve learned one thing on this autism journey, it’s that worrying about “typical” timelines is fruitless and the cause of unneeded stress and heartache.
My son is finding his own path. Hockey is a big part of that. It teaches him teamwork, discipline, responsibility. It helps develop his coördination and strength. Most important, it boosts his self-confidence.
If the price for continuing all that is keeping him back a year, then sign us up.