For years, I sat and watched the train wreck that has become youth sports in this culture. I shook my head with disbelief as kids (and their parents) committed to play a sport not just in season but year round. I watched as kids had practices or games four and five days a week, as they traveled to tournaments throughout the state and out of state, and as they burned out of a sport they once loved. I watched as some parents tried to live through their kids, as they complained venomously about coaches and referees, and playing time. I watched all this and thought that the train had come off the tracks.
When all is said and done, Minnesota is a hockey state. This means that youth hockey is probably the most organized, the most competitive, and the most out of whack. I figured I was safe, however. Paul was seven and had only been on ice skates a couple of times and with not very impressive results. He just didn't seem that interested in skating. I was smiling and thinking, "At least, we can avoid hockey." This was great news to my wife Jennifer who really hates being cold. To put it mildly, the thought of standing in ice arenas for years to come did not make her particularly happy
What we didn't know was that Paul had secretly taken to teaching himself how to play hockey on roller blades in his buddy Billy's garage. One day he came up to us and asked if he could go to the open skate at Orono Ice Arena. It was a free skate that served as a precursor to signing up for hockey. I figured this was a great idea. He would try skating again, not do so well, and then decide - once and for all - that he did not want to play hockey. Imagine my surprise when he stepped onto the ice and glided gracefully from one end to the other, adeptly used his hockey stick. As he came off with a huge smile on his face, he asked me, "Dad, can I please play hockey?" At that point, it was all over but the crying for Jennifer and me.
I have watched Paul start as one of the worst skaters on his team - most of the other kids had been playing for two years already. He kept working, accepting where he was, and stayed positive. I have to say, in that first year, watching him fall and get up and fall and get up was both very painful and made me very proud.
Fast forward and now he just finished his second year of Mites. He has become not one of the very best players, but a pretty good player. He was good enough to get asked to play in a spring league called MASH and also on a AAA team. I have watched all the things I had cynically anticipated - lots of ice time, overzealous parents, and the beginning of all the politics that surrounds who makes what team. I can tell you, it is not pretty and I know that the ridiculous factor will only increase as Paul gets older.
And yet, there I was this weekend watching his games. On Sunday, Paul's team was playing in the third place game. They were losing 5-2 with 3 minutes and 29 seconds remaining. They never gave up, pulled their goalie, and proceeded to score three goals in succession. With each goal, the kids erupted into a monkey-pile on the ice. The parents cheered and whistled and high-fived each other. I can honestly say that I have never enjoyed watching a game so much. That's when it struck me - there are moments like these when youth sports are joyful and exciting and beautiful for everyone involved...for kids, for parents, and siblings and friends. These moments are precious. Does it make everything worth it...probably not, but that is like comparing apples to oranges. What I do know is that for a few moments this weekend, it felt extraordinary. This is not something I take for granted anymore, especially as I get older.
Paul's team lost in overtime on a wonderful play by the opposing team's centerman. I think it was harder on the parents than it was on the kids. But we all smiled contentedly albeit a little tired and stepped back into our seemingly ordinary lives.
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