As the last weekend of my travel hockey life draws to a close, I have made mental note of several things–some good, some bad, some just benign…

I say last weekend of my travel hockey life because, after I return home tomorrow, I do not plan to travel away from home for youth hockey again.  After Micah died, I decided that I wanted to continue working with youth hockey teams in his absence and in his honor.  I signed up/agreed to be a team manager for two youth hockey teams this season, and even agreed to travel out of town with them if they were willing to cover my expenses (since I did not have an otherwise good, independent reason to go out of town with either team), and as long as I was otherwise free from conflicts for those weekends.  One conflict I stated was insurmountable was Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend in January–the one-year anniversary of Micah’s death.  I need to be at home, at the cemetery, and somewhere ultimately safe for the emotional tempest that I expect to endure that weekend.  As I’ve learned this weekend, not being away from home is more than a good idea.

In between moments at the rink, talking with friends (and making the observations below) and a little late night time hanging with hockey parents and coaches enjoying life, this has been a very painful weekend.  If I’m going to write about my observations, I feel it necessary to write about my own self-reflection first–as that may help to put other observations into context.

It can start with the simple things: a nice young woman at the check-in table or the pleasant, conversational scorekeeper asking me “Oh, so which one of the kids is yours?  I don’t see a 37 LIEB on the roster.”  (I was wearing my replica of Micah’s AHU Knights jersey while at the rink.)  Or wearing that jersey realizing its a vibrant memory, a remnant of my son–at the same time, it’s like having a fancy favorite glass or mug, but nothing appropriate to pour into it, a hollow shell that symbolizes vanity and triviality.

Is this my vanity?  Spending so many hours thinking, “Well, if I don’t do this, I’m not sure who will–so I need to do it to make sure it gets done.”  Thinking that Micah will only truly be remembered around the rinks if people see his jersey on my back?  A large part of me knows that’s not true.  I still see the “37” stickers on the backs of kids helmets.  I still see the 37 practice jerseys.  I still talk to friends that tell me how much they think of Micah when they go to the rink–rinks that I’m not even visiting–with or without Micah’s jersey or my “37.” t-shirt.

Being at the rinks this weekend, watching other kids playing–some that were Micah’s friends and teammates, some that only knew him as the bigger goalie they saw while they waited for their games or practices to start–I felt his absence.  Needing to write yesterday to get through the day, I typed, “The Goalie has been pulled from the game.”  I cried.  Vanity–crying at something that I wrote myself.  The rest of the day, I consciously avoided most people, afraid that at any moment I was going to break down in tears again.  Afraid that I was going to hear a story about one of Micah’s former teammates going to Homecoming, or getting his license, or going out with his girlfriend, or getting his first job…things that Micah would never get the chance to do, experiences that I would never get to share.  Facebook posts that would never be created by a father proud of his son.

Being a team manager for your son’s (or daughter’s) team is a labor of love.  Sure, maybe there’s a small stipend there as a recognition of hard work done, but you do it because you want to provide your child the best possible experience.  Sure, if you’re good at what you do, you also want to provide the best for your child’s teammates and their parents.  But at the end of the day, when it’s lights out in the hotel room before a big game the next morning, you look at your child and think, “No matter what else happened to me today, it was all worth it because of him (or her).”  Remove your child from the picture, and it’s a job.  Sure, I love helping kids enjoy hockey and building themselves into fine young adults, but without my own child there, the sounds of the scorekeeper asking me, “So, which child is yours?” echo in my sleep.  When the trip is over, it’s not about a roadtrip with Micah, it’s about a quiet, empty car ride.  (Though I am kind of grateful that one of the other dads that I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to this weekend asked if I could take he and his son home, to avoid them trying to hassle with getting a standby flight tomorrow morning.  It will be nice to have the car NOT be empty.)

Now, what about those other observations?  I’ll start like this: a house divided cannot stand, skate or score.  The youth hockey teams that have easiest path to success are the ones where they have been blessed with holding the same large core of players together for many seasons in a row.  They know each other.  They love each other.  They can instinctively know what each other is thinking as they skate down the ice towards the net.  They know where the pass will go, and which players are likely going to skate in and get it.  They trust one another.  So, what happens when you marry two different groups of kids together?  Disaster?  No, not necessarily–but the potential for disaster is certainly more real.

A brief story… A few years back, Micah played on a team that was a hybrid pulled together from primarily three different organizations.  Each group of players–and their parents–had a very difficult time putting aside their old associations and trying to become part of the new one.  This was vividly demonstrated on a trip to Flagstaff for a pair of league games.  The games were scheduled on a late Sunday morning and a mid Sunday afternoon, so families could just drive up early Sunday, play the games, and go home with no additional hotel expenses. I drove up that Sunday morning (having had an ASU game to announce the previous evening) with Micah.  As the team is warming up for its first game, one of the parents, a friend, approached me to ask what I brought for the party between the games.  The look on my face must have said it all.  I asked her, “What party?  I haven’t received any kind of notice that so-and-so was throwing a party.”  The friend pulled out her phone and looked carefully at the email–it was only sent to 11 of the 17 families on the team and the head coach.  My email address was not included.  Five other families were similarly not on the email.  My response was to quickly make plans to have the other families stick together and go get lunch.  I hate exclusion.  In seven seasons as a team manager, I have never sent invitations to only a select group of recipients for a party, lunch, dinner or any other get-together.  Even if I KNEW someone would not accept the invitation, I still believed it was important for everyone to feel like they belonged.

Back to the present, I observed a similar rift existing on one of my teams.  As easy as it would be to say, “Who cares?  I don’t have a kid here–I don’t need to worry about this,” that’s not me.  I want to have any group I’m part of be inclusive, not exclusive.  I want to help the coaches find a solution to bring the team together.  But I feel hindered by not “having any skin in the game.”

I sometimes wonder if parents realize that when they don’t work to erase the divide themselves, their kids get the message, repeatedly reinforced, that it’s okay to segregate themselves.  They (we?) are all one team.  We all have one goal.  No one needs to become BFFs and have weekly sleepovers, but on and around team events, everyone should be making an effort to erase old boundaries and allegiances and create new ones.  Their old teams don’t exist any longer–they’re gone.  What exists now is this team, this one group of 17 kids and their associated parents and families.  They must come together to have a successful season.

Now, on the flip side, my other team…smaller, to be certain…something different happened.  Maybe it’s because the kids are older, and with that additional age comes a different perspective on hockey and the future.  There was no division.  Before my eyes, parents of kids coming from multiple organizations sat around and talked.  After our first game, the coach didn’t ask me to set up a team lunch, a dozen different parents asked me if I could coordinate something for everyone.  There was unity after a few short hours together–and the kids reflected that unity on the ice.  No, the record was not much better over the tournament weekend, but the kids played like they had been together for years, not just for half a dozen practices.  Not a single kid blamed another kid for a loss.  Not a single parent called out another parent or kid for favoritism.  Everyone celebrated together, everyone suffered together, everyone had a bright outlook towards the future together.

I want both my teams to experience that togetherness, optimism and support.  I want to see the fantastic kids — from all groups — supporting each other, wanting to hang out with each other, regardless of what colors they wore last season or who their coaches might have been.  In my weekend of darkness, I knew that this ray of light could exist.  I have friends in both groups–and I know both groups have great parents, great hearts and the same driving desire to see their kids happy and successful.  I just hope they can seize upon those commonalities quickly and help the team become one.

And, no observations about the weekend would be complete without comments about:

  • Oh my God, was the officiating horrible?  Those of you that know me know that I don’t often complain about refs–you’ve all heard me say that refs are bad everywhere (tongue firmly in cheek).  BUT…I had never before in my hockey life seen an open ice Checking from Behind called as a five minute major and a Game Misconduct without a punch being thrown or a player being injured.  There was a bump, a mean look, and a whistle…and midway through the first period, one of the team’s top skaters was gone for the game (and the next).
  • This will be the first, last and only time that these teams ever participate in this organization’s tournaments.  For the first 36 hours, there were no scores posted at the rink or online for the Bantam A and High School division games played out of the Iceplex.  The only personnel the organization running the tournament had at the rink were two teenage volunteers (and for a little while, the organization registrar who was doing her best to help out, but was there just to make sure rosters and binders were properly checked) checking team binders and stickering scoresheets.  When a parent jumped onto the ice during a high school game, and a second tried to follow him out, poking his head onto the ice to scream obscenities at the refs, there was no one at the rink to deal with the problem.  No crowd control, no backup for the poor scorekeeper or the refs (yes–they were bad, but things quickly became a safety concern), no one to answer questions…
  • Finally, congratulations to the Bantam AA team that is cruising to an easy sweep victory over the Bantam A division.  Good, close competitive round-robin games: 8-0, 8-2, 8-0, 6-0.  I’m sure they’ll proudly display their Bantam A Championship Banner at home.