August 28, 2013

The Goalie Mom: Sometimes, the pads never quite fit

By April Bowling

This is probably the only time you’ll catch my writing in Brion O’Connor’s goaltending column. Why? Because I’m writing about the end of my son’s goalie career. And he’s only 8. After this, I can’t imagine I’ll have much to write about between the pipes.

For those of you who’ve read my Hockey Mom column in the past, you might already know the history. For everyone else, my then-7-year-old son, Sam, shocked us at the beginning of last season when he declared that he wanted to play in goal for his third season as a Mite. 

I guess it wasn’t a huge shock. He had rotated through goal the previous year and seemed to like it, but no more than he did every other position on the ice. In fact, I was suspicious that it had more to do with wanting to avoid skating than it did with a true desire to tend the net. He’d been disappointed not to make the Mite 1 team and felt his skating skills were to blame. So being my son — instead of committing to work harder and get better — his first instinct was to hide from his weaknesses.

The apple, as they say, does not fall far from the tree. So in this case, it wound up between the pipes.

We insisted that he continued to skate out, but he spent the majority of the first half of the season as goalie. He won. He lost. He made big saves. He let in some easy goals. He began going to Brion’s goalie workouts, and he L-O-V-E-D every second of it. 

And I H-A-T-E-D it.

I hated watching him out there as the final backstop. When the team wins, there is at least one goal scorer to share the goalie’s credit. When the team loses, it’s hard for the goalie not to feel the greatest burden, since every other player on the roster equally shares the failure to score enough goals to win.

Can you tell I’m not a team sports kind of athlete?

But actually, I think this quote attributed to former NHL goalie Arturs Irbe sums up what I felt every time Sam went out there (even if he didn’t feel it):“The goalie is like the guy on the minefield. He discovers the mines and destroys them. If you make a mistake, somebody gets blown up.”

No pressure there! As an aside, after revealing this attitude, I’m thinking after he reads this column Brion would never let me have his column space again even if I was still the mom of a goalie.

Despite the pressure — or maybe because of it — I started to take a curious pride in his resiliency. I might be distraught over a loss, but he seemed to rebound pretty quickly. I might be overjoyed at a win, but he just shrugged it off. There is something so admirable to me about that kind of mental toughness that I began to be OK with the thought that maybe, just maybe, I was going to have to live with many more years of Sam behind the mask.

And then just as quickly, he decided being in net wasn’t his thing. And it was right after we bought goalie pads, to boot. 

Another boy had been splitting time with Sam in goal, and while he was skating out, Sam began scoring. A lot. Then he got moved from wing to center, which initially he hated for the defensive responsibility, but then began to relish for the opportunity to drive plays. He’s always loved to defend the puck and pass at the right moment … now his skating abilities had caught up with the plays he was devising in his head. Or at least close enough.

Sam also noticed something else. The boy he was splitting time with in net was a better goalie than he was, and their team was winning more. “Maybe I’ll just play backup goalie,” he said. And then, just like that, he never played goalie again.

I will concede the point that he is only 8 and still has another year of Mites. So maybe he’ll go back to goal at some point. But I have a mother’s hunch that it won’t happen. He was hiding in goal, as odd as that seems to those of us who would avoid that spotlight like the plague. But Sam would rather bear the brunt of isolation than become what he perceived to be a liability to his team. As soon as he was able to practice enough to do what he really wanted to and be good at it, he skated right out of the net.

Of course, part of me is oddly disappointed. And so is Sam, if only because he won’t get to hang out with his beloved Coach O’Connor as much anymore.

But just like Sam going in goal wasn’t my choice to make, Sam leaving it isn’t my choice either. In fact, I haven’t even weighed in on either decision.

I see my place as a hockey mom as supporting Sam’s choices. Sometimes that’s just a quiet drive after a tough loss. Sometimes it’s seeking out the right coach or camp. Sometimes it’s offering advice when it’s asked for, or maybe even when it isn’t. But Sam’s decisions in hockey, just like they someday will be in life, are his alone to make. Ultimately, his mom is just along for the ride.

So while we may meet again, for now I’ll say goodbye to my favorite goalie. OK, Brion, now you can have your column back.

April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.

Twitter: @AprilBowling68