Hell Bent for a Hat Trick--Part I

My son wants to be the next Cam Neely. Gerry Cheevers. Or Ray Bourque. Any of the above. As far am I am concerned, as long as he gets a full boat to a reputable university and kicks in toward my nursing home costs, any of them work.

Ice hockey’s a great sport. With its checking, slap shots, fantastic gear, and overall aggressive nature, it’s a perfect fit for a kid like Duncan. Bonus: it makes for strong ankles and thick calves (not to mention the added benefit of a set of brilliant fake teeth).

Duncan’s father played hockey as a kid. So he started Duncan’s NHL training when he was only four years old—by firing empty two-liter bottles at him. They would go out on the bumpy ice in the driveway, Duncan wearing his Winnie the Pooh boots, fleece cap tied under his chin, shuffling along on the blue ice. I was sure he’d fall and crack his head. But he slapped shot after shot past his father, yelling at the dogs when they stole the plastic Coke bottle they were using, and he always came in red-cheeked and exhausted.

By the time he was five, he had his first real stick and several pucks. We were refinishing our kitchen floor at the time so we let him play in the house—the puck made a magnificent slam against the kitchen island, his goal, whenever it slipped past my slow stick. That crack against the boards was what got hockey in his blood—that’s an ultra satisfying sound for a kinesthetic kid.

Duncan kept score on a piece of paper taped to the wall—his team was always the Bruins or the Red Wings. I was only allowed to choose a generic team, like the Eagles. He’d draw the mascot for each, and then start us off in the dining room, so we could skate into the arena kitchen as they shouted our names over the loudspeaker: “Starting center for the Red Wings…..it’s Duncan!”

I tired of this game much more quickly than he did.

* * *

Once when he was six, one of the staff at his after-school program at the YMCA asked if Duncan wanted to build a gingerbread house with frosting and graham crackers.

He just raised his eyebrows at her, hands on his hips. “No, I am going to play floor hockey with the big boys.”

Back and forth they flew around the gym, the other boys a foot taller, two or three years older. Duncan always stood his ground. He edged his tiny body between his opponents and the puck, and knocked over anyone in his way.

By summer, we bought him his first pair of skates. We signed him up for skating lessons at a local arena. At first, he edged along the boards, terrified of falling over. He barely could stand up. But after 6 or 7 times on the ice, he could shuffle well enough along. So we signed him up to play in a youth league that fall.

They gave us a long list of required equipment—chest/shoulder pads, knee pads, elbow pads, a mouthguard. Also on the list was a neck guard.

“What’s a neck guard for?” I asked at the hockey store. The teenaged clerk handed me a thin strip of fabric.

“It’s just in case someone slices a high stick and catches him in the neck.”

“Oh.”Nice.

“Just a precaution,” he added.

When it was the day of Duncan’s evaluations, we were a bit on the slow side getting him dressed. What did we put on first? Socks before hockey pants? Elbow pads before chest pads? I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to attach his mouthguard to his helmet. But a sympathetic parent helped and hooked the plastic strip to his face mask. Now, Duncan looked good. He looked serious.

There were 50 other kids ages 6-9 there. And this was just the L-O in the alphabet.

The purpose of the evaluation was to rank the kids in ability so they could make even teams. The coaches slipped an index card with his name in his helmet, so they could write comments during the tryout when he whizzed by.

When Duncan moved onto the ice, wearing his fire-red helmet, my eyes filled with tears. My little boy. Out there on cold, hard ice. Surrounded by a slew of potentially violent kids who had clearly been playing hockey for years.

He clearly was the worst skater there. While the other kids were speeding down the ice for warm-ups, he hobbled along like an old lady. Granted, it was the first time he was on skates wearing all that equipment. I expected him to give up. I expected him to pull off to the edge, crying. But he didn’t.

For one drill, they had to skate three times around the face-off circle. Once in one direction, then switch, then the third time back in the original direction. Duncan was the last to finish. In fact, he had only completed two circles when all the other kids were done and the coaches stopped watching. I thought he might just skate off, pretending he had finished the third one. But instead he started in the other direction, shuffling through his third circle, even though no one was watching.

I told him as he came off the ice that I had never been prouder of him. He was pink and sweaty, hair plastered to his forehead, exhausted.

He was now a real hockey player, and I was about to become a hockey mom.