The “phenoms” stand out at an early age. Distinguished by their natural grace, their genetically superior muscle-twitch reaction, they are instantly recognizable by their innate talent. The “pluggers” are an unknown quantity when young. We see the heart and the will, the good humour, the work ethic…but the talent? It may show itself slowly and painfully. A perceptive, wise and patient coach might tease out nascent abilities; a dull-witted taskmaster can stunt emerging gifts.
My son, age 11, was a plugger. A defenseman, he had an unfortunate habit of pinching in. When the puck popped loose from the scrum in front of the net, as it did 99% of the time, the opposing team’s forward, fleeter of skate and with softer, more able hands, scooped up the puck and zoomed down the ice, voiding the good guys’ efforts. The star of the hockey team, a forward, was two years younger than the rest, and the coach’s son. He dazzled spectators with his advanced skills.
The coach, frustrated by Ben’s seeming inability to absorb instructions – even when repeated endlessly and at great volume – said “Well, if you are going to play offense, we’re going to put you on offense! You’re now a winger.” Happily, Ben’s cheery disposition only allowed him to see this as some kind of promotion. All the adults knew better.
Ben struggled mightily in his new role. The coach did not explain his new duties or provide tips. Ben tried to copy some of his NHL heroes, not realizing how unsuited and unprepared he was. The puck slid, bounced over or was stolen off his stick with monotonous regularity. He chased and was outpaced; fore-checked and was deked; stick-handled and was mugged; tripped, bumbled, stumbled, fumbled, and lurched down the ice.
And started to score. The goals and assists came irregularly at first, then with increasing frequency. Every one of them was ugly and improbable. Every one was notched into his stick by his proud (if incredulous) dad. Then came the away game that I couldn’t attend, laid low by the side effects of chemotherapy. An unintelligible cell phone call came. “What? What?” I ask. “He did it! Ah-ha-ha-ha! A hat trick! Oh, you shoulda been here!” my husband jubilated.
That week at practice, the chatter hummed about Ben’s epic performance. It was viewed as a minor miracle, a never-to-be-repeated fluke. There were no expectations of the young warrior, no pressure to extend his scoring record. Everyone saw it as Ben’s highlight of the season.
Sad I had missed my boy’s moment of glory, I looked forward to the weekend’s home game. Saturday arrived. I watched as the puck was dropped. Then came Goal #1…#2…#3! The sparse crowd roared. My tears came. God, I wanted to throw my hat. But, bald as a billiard ball, I just couldn’t do it. So I cheered and cheered and wept.