Making the Team

Ryan at hockey tryouts
Somewhere out there: Ryan prepares for his tryout.

I left work early last Wednesday. Ryan and I had a special appointment: a hockey tryout. His winter ice hockey season was coming to and end, but there was an opportunity for the season to continue.

Ryan has never wanted to play in the spring league, and we’ve never pushed, figuring the risk of burning him out was too great. But this was different. For the first time, our town is putting together a team to enter in the league at the rink where Ryan plays. The town is trying to get more kids into the hockey pipeline to feed our struggling high school program. The combination of possibly playing for the town, and knowing one of his friends was also trying out, had Ryan enthusiastic about the whole thing.

I took him to the rink and he raced off to get ready. I tried to size up the attendees, who were from all age levels. There didn’t seem to be too many kids Ryan’s age. I hoped there would be enough to form a team.

It wasn’t so much a tryout as an evaluation. Because I’ve been through it a few times now, I wasn’t nearly as worried as I have been at similar situations in the past. But still, I eyed kids with equipment bags and jerseys from local travel programs and I worried. Ryan is a house league-level player. If this was going to serve as a second team for mostly travel players, he wouldn’t be a good fit.

The kids took the ice and any fears I had disappeared. Ryan was with a group of mixed-age kids, bantam and peewee. There was a variety of skill levels, from beginner to more advanced, but only a few kids who were obviously better than Ryan. He was in the top half skill-wise, maybe the top third. I relaxed and watched him go through the various drills with enthusiasm. When they scrimmaged near the end, I could hear him doing play-by-play reaction to the goals and near-goals. I could explain that to the coach later. He was having fun.

At the end, the coach gathered all the kids at center ice to speak to them for a few minutes. I stood up to hear, but from the bleachers I was out of earshot. I ran over to meet Ryan coming off the rink. Sometimes he struggles, or plain forgets, to relay these coach messages to us.

As Ryan hurried past me to get to the locker room with his friend. I leaned into the open door to speak to the coach. I wanted to know what came next. Was there another tryout? Would we be waiting to hear if he was good enough to make the team?

The coach saw me speaking to Ryan as he left the ice. As I suspected, Ryan had little to tell me about the coach’s center-ice speech. I opened my mouth to ask a question, but the coach cut me off.

“Make sure you sign him up,” he said. Before I could react to hearing that, he continued with “I need him!”

And that, my friends, is what I call a good day at the rink.

Ryan’s ice hockey experience has been categorized by coaches who embraced his place on the team and cheered his progress. He even became a valuable contributor on his peewee team last year, scoring five goals and earning the most improved player award.

But this was something different. A coach telling me that he needs my son on his team? How do I put hearing that into perspective? Let me try: I’m pretty certainly absolutely sure that’s among the most awesomest wonderful amazing things anyone has ever said to me about Ryan.

I don’t care that the team isn’t likely to be very good. I know that Ryan will be welcomed, and his hockey career will continue another season. Our goal has always been to continue to find a place for him to play where he’s comfortable. I want him to be able to play the game for fun as an adult, something that has been incredibly enjoyable for me the last few years.

We take Ryan’s hockey one season to the next. We evaluate where he is skill-wise, and the options available. We consider his development, sure, but also his comfort and his safety. We make sure he still wants to play. And we cross our fingers and hope for a good fit.

Being part of a team has been beneficial for him in so many ways. The locker room is full of social challenges that he’s had to learn to navigate. It also presents the opportunity to make friends with kids with a shared interest. He’s had to learn appropriate team behavior. It has helped foster his independence. It has helped with his self-confidence. The rocky moments have been far outweighed by the positives.

Now, we will enter a new phase. A town team, where he already has a friend on the roster. A path that, who knows, could see him play in high school one day. A coach who wants needs him on the team. The winter season ended yesterday. The spring season begins tonight. Bring it on.

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