We are a hockey family.
The thought flashed into my head as I sat in the stands of the Big Dipper Ice Arena here in Fairbanks recently and watched Eli score his first goal ever. Eli's youth hockey group was entertaining the crowd between periods of a Fairbanks Ice Dogs Junior A game. As his mom and I cheered our approval I realized how much the game has meant to our family.
In retrospect the idea occurring to me now is ludicrous. It is ludicrous because we have always been a hockey family. Hockey has been a part of my family ever since I have had a family of my own. Somewhere along the way we kind of separated ourselves from it . . . but we are back again.
My love affair with hockey started when I first watched the Chicago Blackhawks on television. I was smitten with the way the game seemed random until you actually watched it. My family's choice of geographic locations, mostly Nebraska and North Carolina, didn't offer much opportunity to have any involvement in hockey at that time. I was mostly a TV fan.
In 1986 the Air Force plopped me down in Fairbanks and my access to hockey increased dramatically. Hockey was everywhere. There were two indoor rinks then . . . the Big Dipper and the Patty Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks plus at least twenty outdoor rinks. Each school had an outdoor rink and the Big Dipper had several outdoor rinks . . . They still do. As popularity increased over the years three more indoor rinks would open in the area. As much as hockey was available here, I was still just a fan. Then Parker was born.
My oldest son was bitten by the hockey bug hard and early. We took him to a University of Alaska Fairbanks game at the Carlson Center when he was about 18 months old. Fifteen seconds into the game a UAF Nanook slammed a University of Manitoba player in the glass directly in front of us with a huge crash and Parker spent the rest of the period inside his mom's coat. Eventually he made his way out and spent the remainder of the game howling with glee.
When we got home he started playing hockey. He didn't have any hockey equipment but that didn't stop him. He found one of my mesh baseball caps and put it on backwards. He hooked the plastic size adjustment strap under his chin and held it in place with a pacifier. He put socks on his hands and used a plastic toy golf club for a stick. He was all set. He spent hours running into the furniture and smacking a golf ball around the house. He was hooked.
From the beginning hockey was about family. Parker and I put on ice skates for the very first time together. We got on the outdoor ice at the Big Dipper and put on our brand new skates. We went on the ice together. It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't bad. It was the beginning of something beautiful. I have said many times that you don't choose hockey, hockey chooses you. Hockey chose Parker. Hockey really became a defining force for him. As a child develops into a young adult they need guiding forces. There are worse things in this world to choose for self-definition. Hockey taught him the benefit of hard work and the consequences of poor effort. I watched him learn to become a young man via hockey.
After Parker's mother I were divorced lots of things changed. Hockey stayed constant. When I started dating my wife, she bought in to our hockey family completely. She became Parker's biggest fan as he progressed through the age groups. A turning point in our relationship came when she bought him a new composite hockey stick . . . less than a month after we had a huge argument over the fact that I bought him a new stick. Parker proudly showed me his new stick while my wife gave me the International Wife Signal for "Shush . . . Not a word out of you." I could only smile.
For us hockey is also about friends. When Parker was 14 I coached his Bantam level team. His two best buddies Alex and Dylan were also on the team. Alex's dad co-coached with me. Our team was really . . . really . . . good. In the end, the weak spot in our team was the coaching . . . the kids were incredible. Parker, Alex and Dylan played on our first line. Parker and Alex were just about as good a tandem as you are going to find in youth house-level hockey. The each scored over a hundred points (goals plus assists) that season. I forget the exact numbers but Parker had a few more goals and Alex had a few more assists. They were so good together that they managed to make Dylan pretty good as well. Dylan is a big kid from Mississippi and a very talented baseball player. He played hockey because his two best friends were playing. Dylan couldn't so much skate at first. We weren't sure where to put him so we put him on a line with his two friends. During one of our first practices I took Dylan's stick and towed him over to the goal. I put him in the area between the faceoff circles and told him to stay there. "This is your house," I told him. "This is where you live." I told him to just move back and forth and face the puck and keep his stick on the ice. "Parker and Alex will find you." They did. Dylan's skills increased game by game and he scored well over twenty goals that year. Two years ago both of those young men stood next to Parker at his wedding.
Parker would ultimately pick football over hockey because of the opportunity to play in college, but he is still a hockey kid. Charlie loves hockey as much as Parker, but hockey didn't really choose Charlie. Despite natural talent and impressive speed, he found practices tiresome and games boring. However, give him a chance to lace up his skates and go slap a puck around and he is in. His relationship with hockey is different, but still intense. Eli is our hockey kid now.
A Christmas ago Parker and his wife came up here for the Holiday. We had the opportunity to get all the boys on the ice simultaneously for the first time. We drove to the Big Dipper and unloaded skates, gloves and sticks. The boys laced up their skates and stepped on the same rink that Parker and I started on more than twenty years earlier. My knees and ankles keep me from skating anymore, but I was on the ice with them. The mercury stood solidly at -8. If you haven't skated outside at that temperature you are missing the sound of steel blades on hard ice. It's different than skating inside on artificial ice. The sound is rougher but at the same time it is more pure. I closed my eyes and listened to the ice and the skating. I listened to the sounds of pucks hitting hardwoods mixed with laughs and yells and I realized that this was an important sound for my family. This is hockey.
So we are a hockey family. I guess I knew that long before Eli's Ice Puppies squad took to the ice between periods of a Fairbanks Ice Dogs Junior A North American Hockey League game against the Springfield Junior Blues. At some point we lost our way, but we are back. I smiled when I watched Eli chasing the puck. He skates and holds his stick like Parker but he is as fast as Charlie. He will find his own way. Regardless of where this leads, it is pretty obvious that hockey is in his blood. At a local restaurant after the game it was obvious that hockey has chosen Eli. "I really want to do that again," he said between French fries.
"Well, you are going to have to wait until practice," his mom told him as she wiped ketchup off his lips.
"No, not practice," he frowned. "I want to play a game . . . a real game with goalies." He stopped depositing fries in his mouth and smiled. "I want to play with the big guys. Do you think I can play with the big guys?"
His mom cringed. She is still watching some of Eli's games through her fingers as her baby flies into harms way. "Someday," she smiled. "Someday you can play big guy hockey. But you have to grow up and get bigger and that will take a while."
Eli contemplated that for a minute. "OK," he said. "I can wait until then."
Looks like we will be a hockey family for some time to come.