No matter the age, from peewee to the NHL, many hockey practices end the same way — with a shootout contest. The players take turns skating in alone against the goalie. If you score, you remain alive and get back in line. If you miss, you head to the dressing room.
I’ve watched Ryan take part in many of these end-of-practice contests. When he was younger, he would often ignore all convention of a breakaway, which is supposed to go quickly and take no more than a few seconds to complete. He would slow down, wait, wait, wait, wait and wait some more for the goalie to commit (and that commitment would sometimes be to face another shooter after the impatient coach sent the next contestant) before shooting. If he scored, even if the goalie wasn’t even paying attention to him any longer, he’d celebrate with his typical joyous explosion and get back in line.
As he got older he usually adhered to the accepted rules of a shootout, but I missed his old, cunning ways. I don’t think he’s ever won a shootout contest, but sometimes he surprised me by lasting for a few rounds, particularly after the thousands of pushups and hundreds of hours spent shooting pucks at the backyard net manifested in a stronger wrist shot.
Ryan had practice yesterday. I wasn’t there, as Veronica took him. Normally I don’t hear anything about practice beyond a “how was practice?”, “good” exchange. Not yesterday. Yesterday, Ryan had something he wanted to tell me.
In fact he wanted to tell me so much that he sent a text. Ryan doesn’t text unless he has a purpose. To us, “pick me up now.” Or to his friends, “are you going skating tonight?” Veronica and I loved it when, during the NHL season, we noticed him texting with his friends from the stands about the Devils games we attended. But most of his text communications are out of need.
So when I received Ryan’s text yesterday, its meaning was enhanced by the knowledge he wanted me to know something immediately.
The text came when I was on the train home, after a difficult day at work. I was in a bad mood until the second it arrived. When it did I’m sure my fellow passengers wondered where my extreme smile came from.
“We had a shootout I scored over and over again and coach said I was filthy,” read the text.
“Nice!” was all I could think to send back. But I was beaming.
“Filthy,” in hockey’s unique lexicon, means really, really good. It’s usually used to describe a high-skill play. It’s two steps above “dirty,” one step above “nasty,” and one below “raunchy” in describing a moment of freakish athleticism. Alex Ovechkin’s goal in Game 1 vs. the Rangers? Filthy. His goal in Game 2? That one was raunchy. Have a look:
You get the picture. It’s a high, high complement.
And here’s what made it so special. Ryan earned every one of those shootout goals. Every ounce of his hockey skill is a product of hard work, dedication, focus, and perseverance. He possesses those traits in buckets, certainly way more than I ever did. I’ve told him as much.
It’s no accident those qualities, all components of a singular focus and obsessive pursuit of a singular, intense interest, are the strengths he brings to the table as an athlete. He has willed himself to become a better player not in spite of autism but because of it, using the traits that can cause difficulties in other areas of his life and turning them into strengths he can use in pursuit of his goal.
And that, to quote a hockey term, is filthy.