When my youngest son was in third grade, already in his fourth elementary school as we played musical houses to the tune of military assignments, an older friend on his soccer team suggested he check out the local ice rink on Fort Bragg, NC. Soldiers were volunteering their time and skills to start an ice hockey program for kids. Well, older friends are like beacons, aren't they? They show the way. Anyway, like many of his friends, he enjoyed roller blading around the neighborhood. It seemed an interesting challenge to try on ice skates.
So we signed him up for the program. On his first day at the small indoor rink, he was outfitted with the full borrowed regalia of a miniature hockey player, from helmet and protective pads at chest, elbows and knees, to a jersey, socks, skates and a stick. Then he was given the directive, "OK, now go skate." Kids of various ages were on the ice already, zipping around with various degrees of efficiency in all their gear. But our son had never been on ice skates before, much less with full body armor. An emergency one-on-one tutorial from a patient soldier allowed him to conquer moving forward while remaining upright. It didn't take long for him to figure out on his own the advantage of speed. Later in the session, after another brief but earnest tutorial, he finally grasped how to use his skates to stop instead of running full tilt into the boards.
From those couple months on the ice, under the encouraging guidance of volunteer soldiers, he developed a love of the freedom and complex skill sets of playing ice hockey. Travel soccer and lacrosse eventually had to give way while he played on the Washington Little Caps, then at his New England prep school, and finally in college. His smooth strong skating made him a standout on his teams, and his ability to read the ice like a chess game made him an excellent play maker and a team captain. I have to brag a little. You can understand.
So now he's finishing his national paramedic qualification before going on to med school. Having rejoined his UVA college team for one last year, he was selected with another UVA team captain to attend the first national ACHA All-Star Challenge in West Chester, PA, this past weekend. It didn't matter that his combined team of "southern universities" (as the big hockey guns called them) were not the tournament winners. He enjoyed the camaraderie, the knowledge that he could still assist and score against all that talent, and the opportunity to end his college playing days with a fun but selective honor.
Of course, his dad and I attended the tournament. After all the years of driving or flying to tournaments all over the country, to Canada, and to Finland to sit in innumerable ice rinks, we couldn't miss this last weekend of huddling on cold bleachers, listening to spurts of blared music while waiting for the puck to drop, and adding our voices to the collective "yays" and "ohhs" as the games surged. He'll continue playing men's hockey, reffing games, and teaching young skaters. But I'm guessing our participation, even on the sidelines, is over. Now what to do with the goal cages sitting beside the garage?
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