Some 20 years ago, the Ryans became a hockey family.
My parents dressed me in rented gear in front of the fireplace at home, ferried me to the rink and watched me fall further in love. My middle brother joined for a spell, and my youngest caught the bug early on.
He played his final game Feb. 28, falling by a few goals to a team that haunted my high school hockey career.
Our parents drove us to thousands of games, shelled out thousands of dollars and did essentially everything possible to support our love for the game. It took us to Minnesota and Buffalo, Cincinnati and Chicago, Detroit and Ontario, Canada, more times than I can count. Our winter weekends were spent on the road. Mom went through lots of warm coats.
Now, after about two decades in artificial iceboxes, my parents have to find something else to do in the winter. Skiing, maybe?
Six years removed from my last competitive game, many of the memories from my dozen seasons run together. But plenty remain as stories I’ve told since.
There’s the one time Dad and I flew to a tournament, and my gear got lost in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. He forced $20 on the airline employee who found my helmet, gloves and skates, and we rushed a rental car to the rink just in time for our first game.
I’ll never forget the unadulterated joy of accomplishing my only childhood dream, winning a state championship, in my last season of youth hockey. I haven’t watched the video in years, but I can still hear Mom yelling “anything is possible!” from the stands while Dad’s old video camera shakes and we celebrate a crucial goal in the waning moments of a semifinal game. We took a tour bus to nationals.
Frozen by a mix of anticipation, fear and excitement, I remember standing outside a dressing room several months later, waiting to hit the ice for my first high school game. A team captain asked if I was nervous. I replied that I was, big time. “Me too,” he replied. “That’s why we play the game.”
That’s one of the reasons, of course.
There’s the friendships forged in too-small dressing rooms and during early-morning skates, the way you really get to know someone when you spend hours in back of his dad’s truck on the way to practice twice a week.
It’s the mid-rate hotels where teens played hockey with foam balls in the hallway and parents took Jell-O shots. The blizzards Dad drove through. The egg sandwiches Mom made. All the times we dragged Chris along, and how he was a good sport despite time spent on a passion he didn’t share.
It’s air mattresses on the floor, VHS tapes in an old TV in Dad’s truck, broken sticks and skate sharpening cards.
It’s boxes of dusty medals and youngsters learning to play while wearing our hand-me-down gear.
Being five years apart, Jack and I never played on the same team. So the vast majority of the skates we shared were on the lake behind our house over Christmas vacation. At first, Dad would clear the ice for us, hauling the snowblower down the hill and toiling through the morning so we could play after lunch. We started to help at some point, skating back and forth with brooms and shovels.
Our hometown gets so much snow that we could keep the rink clear for only a few days or weeks at a time, but it was a boy’s dream to skate a few yards from his back deck. We’d find pucks in the sand when the snow cleared, remnants of another season passed.
I saw Jack play only a few times since moving away from home. But I could hardly contain myself when Mom told me he scored a hat trick a few weeks ago, netting his final tally on a breakaway that ended the game in a mercy.
The kid got good. I’m sorry I missed it.
Mom called on the way to Jack’s final game this season, putting me on speakerphone in the truck as Dad drove north to Sault Ste. Marie — or The Soo, as it’s known colloquially. I asked if it felt weird to be heading to what would presumably be their last game, and Mom admitted being a bit sad.
“It’s the end of an era,” I said. She agreed.
She said someday they might have grandkids to watch. Between us three kids, it’s not a poor possibility. But our hypothetical offspring could fall in love with soccer or, as Mom jokingly suggested, ballet. She ended up with three boys, mind you.
Whether those hypothetical kids choose hockey, ballet or something different altogether is insignificant, though. It’s not so much the medium that’s been such a blessing in our lives for about two decades; rather, it’s been the time spent together, supporting a shared passion.
While our collective career has run its course, the Ryans are still a hockey family.
Regular Postscript will return next month. As always, thanks for reading.