Blast | September 14, 2020
Hockey Forever, or for as Long as It Lasts
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In “Hockey Forever, or for as Long as It Lasts,” Jenny Shank writes about her son’s passion for a sport and what it’s like to see her child finally find comfort in his own body.
Hockey Forever, or for as Long as It Lasts
By Jenny Shank
When my son Sam is five, we try soccer. Sam skips around while the opponent, unchallenged, scores. When Sam swims, he sinks. At tennis, he flails. In kid yoga, he clowns. In gymnastics he can’t copy the instructor’s movements. When Sam is six, I coach his T-ball team. He heaves the ball with a weird sidearm and drags the bat instead of swinging it. He’ll learn, I think. But throwing and catching are so hard for him that he’s mad. He flings rocks in the outfield and knocks down bats in the dugout. Kids call “Sam!” in disgust, the way Jerry Seinfeld used to pronounce the name of Newman, the nefarious postman. I love baseball. But after two seasons, I hang up my coaching hat. I coach my daughter’s basketball team too, but I don’t even attempt that with Sam. I’ve seen him try to dribble.
Eventually, after years of searching, we learn Sam has sensory processing disorder of the sensory-seeking type. That means he has to move—run, push, climb, and play—as frequently as possible, or else his self-control disintegrates. Often kids with this type of SPD are athletically accomplished because they are so motivated to practice.
But Sam also has dyspraxia, a lifelong neurological problem that impairs coordination and working memory. The occupational therapist charts his manual coordination at the second percentile, his fine-motor coordination at the third, his body coordination at the fourth. He has trouble following multistep instructions. I always thought he had good balance, but the OT finds that when Sam closes his eyes, he falls over. His proprioception is hampered. He only knows where his body is in space while he’s moving. He has to work ten times as hard as other kids just to sit, walk, write, or tie his shoes. These simple tasks demand intense concentration. But when Sam doesn’t get enough exercise, he causes havoc, hitting us and throwing things. Fate relishes a cruel combo. Fine. He plays outside, alone.
One day, a hockey game on TV captures Sam’s attention. My husband, Julien, perks up. Hockey was his sport. We take Sam to an ice rink. Sam is fascinated with the Zamboni. He studies its every slow swoop, the ice glistening, refreshed behind it. We sign him up for Learn to Skate. He goes every Saturday, year round. He doesn’t tire of it. He asks for a birthday party at the rink and rides the Zamboni like a young Canadian prince. We sign him up for Learn to Play Hockey. He can’t follow complicated directions, but he loves to play. Finally, when he’s seven, he joins Mites, the youngest level hockey team. Every time we ask if he wants to continue, he says yes. Every day he asks, “Do I have hockey today?”
Sam learns to play hockey in a dingy one-rink facility that looks like it smells like an armpit. The water fountain breaks, and tiles fall from the ceiling. The rink’s semipro team usually seems to lose. Expectations are low all around, which always works best for us.
But the year after Sam joins Mites, his hockey club demolishes the armpit rink and celebrates the grand opening of a new facility, modestly titled the Sport Stable. They should have called it the Taj Ma-Hockey.
This immense, gleaming building contains three rinks. Lavish banners emblazoned with the club’s every achievement for the past four decades hang above the ice. There are basketball courts, three indoor turf fields, and a weight room, used for something called “dryland training.” A big-screen TV blares in the lobby. Smaller screens, mounted everywhere, list locker room and rink assignments. There’s a sporting goods store, a coffee shop—the espresso kind!—and a bar. Each of these amenities boasts its own hockey-themed name like Sticks! They host “Wine Nights” for “Hockey Moms,” the flier for which cracks Sam up every time he reads it. The Zambonis are new here, covered with ads from local merchants, race car style.
Monarch, the Sport Stable’s home-ice high school team, immediately wins the state hockey championship when they relocate from the armpit rink, as if channeling the Stable’s grandeur. The Sport Stable employs a vast, impressive coaching staff. The director once ran USA Women’s Hockey, leading America to two world-championship gold medals and a silver Olympic medal.
When Sam is almost nine, he tries out for Squirts and makes it, just barely. Squirts, the division he’s aged into, is more demanding than the Mites. We worry the place is too intense. Five hockey sessions a week seems extravagant, insane. But dyspraxics can’t learn without repetition. And when Sam comes home with sweaty hair, I know the evening will unfold gently, free of SPD meltdowns. No other sports appeal to Sam or lie within his range. Hockey is all motion, no waiting.
Only hockey. This, or nothing. With trepidation, we bring Sam to the Taj.
He’s a little awkward on the ice. His puck handling lags. He can’t always copy the fancy skating moves the coaches demonstrate. Sometimes he holds the stick with just one hand. It takes him forever to learn a crossover. In games, he hangs back, all his aggression dissipated by the Zen of ice gliding. But he can basically do it. He skates and shoots and passes. The exercise strengthens him and regulates his system, like lulling all the bees inside to calm with wafts of smoke.
There are over eighty kids on different Squirt teams at the Sport Stable. We counted when the rosters were posted, to determine how much cover we had. There are three Aidens and a Caden on his team. We should have named him similarly, for camouflage. Still, maybe the coaches don’t even know his name and Sam can enjoy his dazey hockey bliss-out in peace, without sticking out as particularly unskilled, making his way to the top of next season’s cut list.
“Sam likes the sensations of hockey,” I say. “He doesn’t care about the gritty specifics.”
I make a practice of trying to understand Sam’s sideways brain. Sam likes the ice, freshly glossed. The slide of his skates over the smooth surface. The little curls of ice his blades shave off. The cool air rising off the rink. The cavernous ceiling of the arena. The stick in his hand. The clatter of the pucks and sticks against the ice. The majesty of the Sport Stable. The happy bustle and good vibe there.
When the expensive Boulder Bison jerseys arrive, Julien spreads them out on the carpet in our living room. They are shiny and regal with an embroidered bison patch. Julien ties the laces at the throat, smooths them with his hands. He doesn’t even have to speak for me to know what he’s thinking. “I would have loved this when I was a kid,” he says.
For a moment, each of us silently reflects on his gothic-horror childhood with a schizophrenic mom, which involved no music lessons, sports teams, fancy jerseys, birthday parties, or motherlove.
“It isn’t fair,” I say.
“If I’d had coaches like Sam’s, I would have been a pretty good hockey player.”
Julien started hockey at twelve, on a rough-iced indoor rink in New York whose shed-like enclosure was so flimsy that once someone flung a stick and it broke through the siding to reveal the light of day. “I started too late,” he says.
“You would have been great,” I tell him.
“Sam can’t even appreciate this.”
“I know,” I say. “Aren’t we lucky that we can spoil him with things he can’t even appreciate?”
As the first game approaches, Julien worries that Sam still might not understand offsides. “If he screws this up, his team will be mad at him, because he’ll keep getting penalties.”
Julien wants me to show Sam a video because I am the Sam whisperer. Or the closest thing we’ve got to it. “I coach baseball and basketball,” I tell Julien. “I don’t know hockey.”
“Hockey is really simple. There are only like three rules.” Julien looks terrified that the coming game will hold the charlatanry of our parenting up to the light.
I can’t convince Sam to watch Julien’s video, but I draw a misshapen hockey rink on a piece of paper. Are they oval? In any case, there are three important lines, I think. (There are actually five.) “Look,” I say to Sam. “The puck always has to cross this line first, before you can skate past it.”
“Okay,” he says.
“If the puck leaves this area—” I have no idea what any of the lines are called, so I just point, “You’ve got to skate out too, or the ref will whistle at you.” And your dad will have an aneurysm, I don’t add.
“Okay,” he says.
The first game comes. Sam’s team wins because one kid scores five goals. Sam doesn’t do anything spectacular, but he doesn’t get called for any penalties. It is a joyful relief.
In the third game, Sam scores a goal. A very Sam sort of goal. Julien witnesses it and texts me. “Sam may have scored. Trying to figure out what happened.” Clearly, to the average spectator, it didn’t look like your orthodox goal. But I’d be surprised if anything Sam ever does is orthodox. Sure enough, on the team website, Sam’s name is credited with a goal. I ask Sam about it.
“I was trying to get out of the way, because I thought Aiden was coming to get the puck,” he says, his brown eyes growing wide as he tells me the story. “But he didn’t come get the puck. So I just kind of put my stick down, and somehow it went in.” Sam is still surprised about how his attempt to flee resulted in a goal.
Getting out of the way is one of Sam’s prime survival techniques. He knows his hands don’t work as well as the other kids’ hands. I have seen him, in a game of dodgeball in which all the other eight-year-olds were boldly vying to catch and throw, instead run, evade, and hide, staying well clear of all the action, until he was the second-to-last kid standing. Because he can’t throw well, he can never win, but he can at least delay losing. I like to think he gets this from my grandpa Harry, an infantryman who survived a 120-day span of various battles in World War II in which he was engaged with the enemy for 99 of them. Nazis shot him twice in four days, but he survived.
Later, Sam reads the tag on his jersey and confronts me. “It says OT Sports. Did you put me in an occupational therapy league?”
“No, that’s just the brand name. It stands for overtime, probably.”
“Look at me,” he says. He’s watched a video on YouTube about how to tell if people are lying to you. “Your eyes are wide. You’re lying.”
“I’m not lying. You’re on a regular hockey team.”
Sam plays four games. The season is underway. We think maybe he can skate through, unnoticed.
One evening after practice, Julien and Sam arrive home and realize that Sam left his new fleece jacket in the locker room. Sam screams. “It’s going to be lost! Stolen! I’m never going to get it back!”
Because of his SPD, Sam’s nervous system is always cranked to eleven. The slightest derangement of the universe triggers his fight or flight response. When Sam freaks out, he breaks things and throws things. Food hits the floor. Chairs crash. He’s ripped a hole in the window screen, broken the fence, trashed a photo he didn’t like of him and his sister. After years of effort, he doesn’t bite us anymore and hits us less, but his freak-outs are still alarming. The more exercise he gets, the fewer freak-outs occur. We finally learn they aren’t personal. And Julien and I will do anything to diffuse them.
Though it’s late and he hasn’t had dinner, Julien leaves to fetch the jacket. When he returns, I can tell something is wrong. He looks shaken but tells me he’ll talk about it later.
When the kids are in bed, Julien whispers the story to me. “I thought the jacket would still be in the locker room, but Coach Jill had it. She asked, ‘Are you Sam’s dad?’ I felt like I was falling.”
“So she knows his name,” I say. These coaches are good.
Julien nods. “She told me, ‘I’m having trouble reaching Sam.’”
This meant she thought he was goofing off. There’s always the risk that someone will interpret Sam’s slow progress and intermittent attention as insolence or laziness.
“I panicked,” Julien says, “but I used my Toastmasters skills.” He’s been going to club meetings for years and has finally conquered his fear of public speaking. “I tried to tell her about him. Maybe you can e-mail her?”
“Sure,” I say. Most adults who interact with Sam eventually turn to me for an explanation of his being.
I Google Jill. She placed fifth in the 1986 U.S. Figure Skating Pairs Championship.
She is an expert, a professional. She has the snapping eyes and elfin, tousled haircut of a go-getter. She might not understand us bottom dwellers, clinging to the underside of hockey like barnacles to a swiftly moving ship. I met her once, when I was five minutes late getting Sam from practice. He was trying to be a tough guy but wavering near tears. “He was really worried,” Jill said, with an alarmed look.
Julien presses his hand to his forehead. “When I was talking to Jill, I felt overwhelmed with sadness and shame.”
“I go through that too,” I say. “For me it was worst when we found out he couldn’t read.”
If it’s possible for a person to be made of books, then I am made of books. Reading is my love, my profession, my therapy, my life. When I enter a house with no evident books, I’m suspicious of it. I stick close to the exit. So when it looked like reading might not come to Sam, I despaired. I wept. And then I worked. I brought him to specialists and found him a reading tutor. I hired an occupational therapist for his handwriting. I spent hours every day searching for books he might like and reading with him. I took more jobs to pay for it all.
Somehow, I taught him to read.
“The sadness is part of this,” I tell Julien, “But you don’t need to feel shame. This is nobody’s fault. Think of how brave Sam is, to go out there on the ice, when everything is so much harder for him.”
“But are we crazy? Signing him up for this elite hockey club?”
“He wanted to do it. He tried out. They let him on the team. We’re hurting no one by taking up the last spot on the lowest team.”
When Julien reads the e-mail I write to Jill, he cries, even though he rarely cries. I don’t know if he remembers how often he told me, when I was crying over the reading thing, that it was going to be okay. Julien had trouble learning to read and nobody even noticed, much less helped him. One day he picked up The Hobbit and that was all it took. He painstakingly worked his way through Bilbo Baggins’s quest, the sentences making more sense as they accumulated behind him.
Every year we discover some new, basic thing that Sam can’t do. He can’t open the snack wrappers in his lunch. He can’t cut pancakes or carve soap with a knife like the other Cub Scouts. We become grievously alarmed. And then we work on it.
I hug Julien. “Sam doesn’t have a terminal illness. He’s just terminally Sam. He’s doing better than a lot of kids with SPD.” SPD often accompanies more serious concerns—autism, chromosome disorders, early onset puberty.
Sam’s condition, by contrast, seems almost comic, like a wise guy was sitting around a bar deciding what maladies to dole out and went, “Oh, I’ve got a good one! This thing where you have a compulsion to play sports but you’re no good at them!”
Jill never answers my e-mail, and I take that as a good sign. She’s sensitive enough to know something is different about Sam and compassionate enough to want to help him. Still, it’s clear we can never hide out among the normals. We will always be caught.
Sam will play hockey for as long as he loves it, for as long as the team lets him, for as long as we’re willing to haul him to the Taj five times a week. It won’t solve everything. It won’t take all the despair away. But when he’s on the ice, in motion, Sam’s padded legs crouched as he glides, the cool air moving across his neck, he can feel where he is in the universe for once and go quiet inside. So, for a moment, I can rest quiet inside too.
Jenny Shank’s novel The Ringer won the High Plains Book Award. Her stories, essays, satire, and reviews have appeared in the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Guardian, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s, the Toast, and Barrelhouse. Her work has been honorably mentioned by The Best American Essays, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and her mother. She teaches in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, and she tweets @jennyshank.
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