The Right Choice

Ryan celebrates
Ryan (foreground) gets his money’s worth on this celebration.

Ryan has spent the winter playing both street and ice hockey on separate teams. We debated whether the commitment would lead to over-scheduling but have mostly avoided conflict. The few times the schedules overlapped, we chose ice hockey, based on the logic that ice hockey costs a lot more.

If we let Ryan choose, there is little doubt he’d pick street hockey. His ice hockey team has struggled all year. He is still a novice player. But at street hockey, all that time spent on the ice and in our backyard pays off. He’s one of the most valuable contributors on his team.

It was the street hockey playoffs this weekend, and we had conflicts both Saturday and Sunday, so we let him pick. His choice was obvious. On Saturday, Ryan scored twice and played solid defense to help his team to an easy win in the first round, setting up a Sunday game with the first-place team.

Ryan was fired up. As each of his teammates arrived, he asked them “are you ready?” He was feeling good after the two goals on Saturday, but we cautioned him that he needed to concentrate on defense first. He tends to go goal-hunting any time he scores, and sometimes forgets to pay attention to his defensive responsibilities. His coach, who knows Ryan from the summer, told him the same thing.

The game began and it was obvious that Ryan was listening to instructions. His positioning was nearly impeccable. He was defensively aware. He almost entirely avoided joining the offensive rush forward. He kept his head on a swivel, looking for opposing players “hanging” behind him for an easy offensive opportunity.

Ryan’s body language showed how engaged he was in the game. Knees bent, feet shoulder-width apart, stick on the ground. Perfect athletic position.

It was a tense, tight game. We watched Ryan intently. His understanding of the game has grown so much. He reads the play, going to where the puck will be, and not where it is. He understands defensive positioning. He communicates with his defensive partner.

The things that hold him back on the ice — namely, that he is a novice skater compared to many of his peers — aren’t in evidence when you remove ice from the equation. He is aggressive and confident and a leader among his teammates. His shots are hard and accurate, honed by hundreds of hours of backyard practice.

Ryan’s team fell behind, 2-0, late in the second period. Ryan showed some frustration after the second goal and we tried to keep his spirits up from the stands. We knew the next goal was critical. Ryan’s team desperately needed a score before the period ended to give them some confidence heading to the third.

The puck came to Ryan with a lane to shoot. He fired a hard, low shot that was stopped, but the goalie left a rebound for Ryan’s teammate to bang home. There were less than 30 seconds left in the period. Ryan’s team had a chance.

They came out firing in the third, but missed on several glorious chances. Finally, with four minutes left, they tied the game. The last four minutes were nerve-wracking, as Ryan’s team fended off a last charge.

Ryan came out for his final shift with just under a minute left. For the first time all season, I pulled out my phone to film. I told Veronica I had a feeling. I was almost a prophet, too, as Ryan got a clear shot off in the final seconds, but the goalie made the save.

The buzzer sounded: sudden-death overtime. Veronica and I were nervous. The team played so well. They were blown out by this opponent earlier in the year and it took their best game just to reach OT. We both feared how Ryan might react if they lost.

Ryan was on for the start of OT. I kept filming.

In 15 seconds, it was over. There was a mad scramble in front and one of Ryan’s teammates poked home a rebound, touching off a wild celebration.

We watched Ryan throw off his gloves and celebrate with his teammates. Once again, he wore a smile you could see through his mask — all the confirmation we needed that choosing street over ice hockey was the right decision.

Ryan’s team will play for the championship in two weeks. I thought of how far we have come, easily visible through the lens of street hockey. Ryan was gone from a tentative kid whose attention sometimes wandered and who had trouble emotionally processing losses to a valuable member of his team.

He understands the game. He understands how to use his body. He is a valuable teammate. He acts appropriately before, during and after games. His enthusiasm is contagious. His smile, electrifying.

Perhaps most importantly, he is as proud of himself as we are of him.


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