Thursday, November 14, 2013

Chapter 40: Game Day!

Hockey Guy Part 4

It's a great day for hockey.  It's game day.  I'm excited, can hardly wait.  Today will be filled with silly superstitions.  There will be things I always do on gameday and things I never do.  My buddy Dave, is coming over.  I'll have the laptop with the hdmi cable set up so we can watch on the big screen.  Hopefully the internet connection will be good and the broadcast will be at least acceptable.  All I ask is that I be able to tell what's going on.  It doesn't have to be high def quality. I just want to be able to follow the game.

Last weekend, the kickoff weekend for the season, I was unable to get a video feed for the first period.  I had the radio broadcast.  My son's team, which had an uncharacteristic losing season last year, has some pretty low expectations for this season.  Two and a half minutes into the game they scored a powerplay goal against the favored visiting team.  I had yet to hear my son's name on the broadcast.  I wasn't sure what line he was on.  Seventeen seconds later I hear the announcer proclaiming another goal and he's shouting my son's name.  Well, I missed seeing it, but I was so happy to have that first one out of the way.  I think this season may turnout to be much better than last for both his team and for my boy.

I started this blog, this story of my life as a hockey player, coach, ref, dad and fan in the middle of this past
This was not the Jaguars team mentioned above.  This
is the miracle Jaguars State Champions from the next season
summer.  It was the height of the off-season.  It was also in the midst of an identity crisis for both my son and myself.  I started writing, pretty much as therapy for myself to deal with the prospect that the dream may have ended.  After many amazing and successful years of supporting, watching and encouraging my son through youth, prep school and junior hockey he ran into a brickwall last year, his first year of college.  It was the first negative experience he'd had since a miserable year as a first year squirt with the La Jolla Jaguars when he was 10 years old.  That team had JT Osborn(Western Michigan) Jon Parker(WHL and Rochester Amerks/AHL),  Garrett Taylor(WHL and USHL), Brandon Calrson(USHL and Univ of Alabama, Huntsville) and others who went on to play junior and ACHA club hockey.  I coached….for part of the season.  I told this story earlier, but there were a number of problems that year.  

First, the club made us take on too many kids.  So even with a core of great talent, we were only competitive on days where some of the lower level players were no-shows.  Next, we had a devil child on the team.  He disrupted everything.  Finally there was me.  I’d just gone through a hockey camp as a participant with my son with a guy who taught old school hard core, no-nonsense discipline.  Still glowing from the effect he had on me, I ended up smacking one of those little shits in the helmet after he pulled a bone head move on the ice.  That pretty much ended my youth coaching career for a few years until that blew over.  9/11 had just happened.  I ended up having neck surgery a short while after that.  The team was terrible..we tried to get a release and transfer Max back to his previous team, the San Diego Gulls, but there was a bureaucratic hangup and that didn’t happen.  Speaking of the Gulls, you have to see this. The team may have won four games all year.  It was a difficult year for sure.  

That was followed by ten solid, fun, successful seasons.  There isn’t one that I don’t look back on and feel anything but pride and satisfaction.  The last year of juniors was one of the best.  The team was successful. Max was a team leader and near the top of the league in scoring.  He was getting plenty of notice from colleges.  The D1 opportunities never really happened.  I kept hoping.  He took recruiting trips to a number of top rated D3 schools.  There was plenty of interest from many of the coaches in the Boston and surrounding areas as well.  

I'm torn on how to proceed with the rest of this story.  Up until now I think you would say this has been a fun, hopefully interesting and light hearted tale of our journey.  As we start to bump up against the present day I'm not really sure how to relay what has been happening lately.  I do not wish to come of as petty.  I don't want to bad mouth anyone and yet I'm baffled with some of what has gone on in the past year.

I'm a big boy.  I think I know about as much about hockey as anyone who has played at a decent level, coached, reffed, broadcast and videoed many games, has attended tryouts, games, showcase camps and festivals as all of the above.  Yet, last year left me dazed, frustrated and helpless to do anything about it.  All I could do was listen and advise when asked.  

I also don't want to call any unwanted or unnecessary attention to my son as he fights to find his way through what has been a struggle and a tough period in his life and hockey career.  I've thought about, written and rewritten the following account a number of times trying to decided to include or exclude names and specifics.  I've decided to leave out personalities and just go with the story.  You can obviously tell from some of the pictures I'm including who the involved parties are, but I've decided to keep it fairly general.  

This is a story of D3 college hockey and the recruiting/over-recruiting situation my son found himself in.

The most persistent, most aggressive and most promising of these opportunities came from one school in particular.  It was arguably one of the most successful D3 programs in the country.  The coach called Max a lot.  He was constantly pressing for him to commit.  He had a reputation as a real hard ass/hard core coach.  That appealed to Max.  He responded well to that kind of leadership.  Pat Norton at Tilton was fairly demanding.  Bill Flanagan of the Cyclones was “off the charts” intense.  He’d heard from people about this coach's reputation and he found it appealing.  He thought it brought out the best in him.

The coach also called me.  We had a nice conversation.  He was very friendly and open.  I was invited to call him anytime with any questions I may have.  I never spoke to him again.  Not even when we bumped into each other a few times the following season.  He looked right past me on those few occasions.  

It was a very tough decision, but in the end he committed, with great enthusiasm to this school and this coach.  He and nine other freshman forwards.  Max felt confident that he would have the chance to contribute and be an impact player and he was excited for what was next.  He spent the summer working out and skating.  He showed up and skated with the team in the captains practices.  He seemed to do well in the preseason conditioning reaching personal bests in bench pressing.  He passed the strength and fitness testing with flying colors.  Some didn't and they sat until they did, including their incredibly talented starting goalie.
The preseason came and he did well in the exhibition season.The first game of the season was upon us and he was a healthy scratch.  Well, there were a lot of freshman to test and he got to play in the next game.  He took two penalties in that game, not something that will impress this coach.  They were aggressive plays and not bad penalties. While these penalties didn’t sit well with the coach, he sat well as a healthy scratch for the next few games.

Proud Hockey Mom
Friday mornings became painful.  I would wait for his text after 9:00 am pacific time, noon on the east coast, when the coach would post the roster for that night’s game.  More often than not he wasn’t on the list.  I flew out the week before Thanksgiving to watch a few games.  My daughter was with me.  We went to a couple of road games.  He played in both.  On his first shift he came down with the puck, made a great play and hit the post.  So close.  His team ended up losing 3-2.  The coach wasn’t happy.  The next night they won.  We headed to New York and met up with my wife and went to my brother’s in Manhattan for Thanksgiving dinner.  On Friday we drove up to Vermont to watch a tournament.  We sat in the stands, with my son, and watched his team get beat.  The next day we watched his team win in the consolation game, again with Max in the stands.  

He didn’t play much after that either.  He came home for Christmas, then flew back Christmas night to join the team to prepare for their tournament over New Years.  He didn’t play in that either.  Nor for the next few games.  They faced a top NESCAC team a few weeks later, the team who’d beaten them 3-2 at the earlier tournament.  Max got to play in that game.  He had two goals and and assist and nearly had a hat trick. They won easily.   The team spent a month on campus with no school.  I think he nearly went stir crazy.  I think that was the last game he played for the season.  

All those seasons of my feeling badly as I watched other dads suffering as their sons sat came flooding back to my memory.  All those dads protesting that their kids weren't playing had more to do with politics than their kids skills levels.  Now I was the one silently suffering. Wondering what was going on that the coach didn't see my kids potential.  I can only imagine how hard it was for my son.  

This was another difficult year for sure. It was heartbreaking watching his spirit fade. It was a frustrating and confusing situation.  I understand there are some players better than others.  Everyone reaches their maximum potential at some point.  But something just didn’t make sense.  I knew my son had the skill to play at this level.  He had the work ethic and the character.  He had the drive.  But his value was never realized.  I don’t think I was just some proud pop who was looking with a skewed fatherly perception.  I knew many of the freshmen that came in with his class.  A few of them had outstanding seasons.  Just as many played nearly every game and without much impact on the scoreboard.  I understand there are intangibles.  But I’m a hockey guy.  I get it. But I didn’t get this.  It made no sense.  It still doesn’t.  

There were questions about what to do.  I’d suggested around Thanksgiving that it was pretty obvious his coach didn’t value him and that he might want to think about transferring.  He told me on two separate occasions that he would stick it out, he was in the right place and it would be better next year. I remember being impressed with his maturity and loyalty.  Unfortunately it didn’t seem to go both ways.

The boys were told the team would not be bringing in many if any forward recruits.  The team only lost a couple to graduation and they had this huge freshman group already.  Then, one by one new recruits were committing…I think there were at least four new forwards coming in.  Again, the handwriting was on the wall.  But it took until the end of the year before he really got the message that he was fighting an uphill battle. It turns out this type of over recruiting is not unusual. It happens at this school regularly.  It happens at others as well.  It seems to me to be a flaw in the system that deserves more attention.  

Transferring colleges is an ordeal.  It created a lot of stress and uncertainty and made for pretty much the worst summer ever.  It started with an NCAA form called a “conditional release” that allows the student/athlete to contact the athletic directors at any school.  Once the release is received, the player is then able to confidentially contact the coaches at each school.  A number of the schools and coaches contacted let him know that they were fully committed and there was no room.  His top pick wasn’t looking good.

The coach told Max he’d love to have him, but that he was awaiting word from one final recruit.  If that player committed, then there would be no open positions.  If he didn’t then he could fill that spot with Max. The coach knew Max, had recruited him the previous year, but he had to be loyal to the player he'd been recruiting for over a year.  That showed integrity.

This all took place around the 4th of July.  Two weeks later that kid did indeed commit.  The coach let Max know.  He was crushed.  That was about the time I started writing this story.  For the first time it looked like my son was ready to hang em up.  He said the dream was over.  

This was something I was just not prepared to hear.  I did a little snooping and found out that while the coach had fulfilled his recruiting, Max was welcome to go ahead and transfer, go throughout the tryout process and take his chances.  Best players play.  His interest in this school, this coach and this hockey program were sufficient for him to take that chance.  Since he made that decision things have fallen nicely in place.

Brad Holt #21 back row
Me #12 Standing left end
I said I wasn't going to be specific or name names. But there is one person who was a big part of this decision who I'd like to acknowledge.  Specifically, Brad Holt.  You may recall Brad was my teammate at Uconn and is the head hockey coach at the University of New England in Maine..  His dad was the legendary UNH coach, Charlie Holt.  Brad and I have stayed close, especially in the years since Max headed off to New Hampshire for prep school and Juniors.  Brad was one of Max's biggest supporters. He may have watched him play more than any other college coach over those years.  He was extremely helpful in advising Max on how to sort through the transfer experience and was super supportive of his decision.  He would have loved for Max to play for him, but he was selfless in his support and advice.  Again, I was blown away by his integrity.

It's early in the season.  Things could barely have gone better so far this season.  I couldn't be happier.  We are planning a trip back for Thanksgiving.  It's been really nice to wake up on game days and not have to stress out whether he's going to be in the lineup or not.  It's nice to see him be able to make a contribution.  I will continue to write about this journey and our experience as my son continues his relentless and unwavering march toward the beer leagues. 

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