Most Improved

January 17th, 2011

I had a moment Thursday night, at hockey practice, when I felt tears coming to my eyes. Right there in the stadium the professional team plays in, with all the parents crowded into the players bench and the little ones on the ice and the sixteen and seventeen year old players running stairs in the empty stadium.

I thought, My father will never see my son play hockey.

My father coached high school hockey, and he expected a lot from those boys. He expected them to show up to practice ready to play. He expected them, high school kids, to wear collared shirts and jackets to the rink on game night. He expected them to play hard and to shake hands at the end of the game. He expected them to take defeat with grace. He expected them to win with modesty. He expected them to be a team, to act like a team, and to win or lose as one. He expected them to respect their coaches, each other, the referees, and the opposing team. The worst penalty a player on my father’s team could get was for unsportsmanlike conduct.

At the end of each year, my father and the other coaches organized an awards dinner for the team. They’d book a room in a restaurant and the players and families would be treated to dinner. My dad would make a speech summarizing the season, and sometimes by the numbers it would have been a really good season and sometimes by the numbers it would have been a less than successful season but either way by the end of that speech those kids probably felt like Stanley Cup champions. He always found something shining about the season. There were plaques and certificates of recognition for the players, and my dad found a way to make sure each boy got something. There was recognition for the Most Valuable Player, Most Goals Scored, Most Assists, Fewest Penalty Minutes, Perfect Attendance at Practice and Games, you name it.

His favorite award to give, though, the one that meant the most to him, was Most Improved Player. This was always a plaque, and it went to the boy who distinguished himself not by points, but by effort. The kid who played every practice like it was a game. Who never stopped the drill until he heard the whistle. Who hustled back to the coach to find out what the next drill was. Who was not, perhaps, naturally talented the way some of the other kids were, but who made up for that with effort. The kid who was a workhorse. By the end of the season the Most Improved Player still might not be one of the best on the team, but he had distinguished himself by never believing that he couldn’t, one day, be one of those top players. My father truly loved those ones, the Rudys of this world.

Small Boy is a Rudy. He is not the best player on the ice. He is not naturally gifted at this awkward sport. He is not the fastest, and he doesn’t make you think: That kid is going places. But Small Boy, even at six, works as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen. He has made so much progress this year and though he is still not one of the best six year olds on the ice he is so much better than he was at the beginning of the year, and he does it by trying. He hurries to get on the ice as soon as they open the doors. He listens to the trainers and he tries to do exactly what they say. He takes the drills so seriously. He never stops halfway through, or cuts corners, or hangs back trying to be last in line so maybe they won’t get to him. If he loses control of the puck halfway through a drill he recovers his puck and picks up in the exact spot on the ice where he lost it. He’s not the best on the ice, but he’s the hardest working. Of that I am sure.

My father would be so proud of his grandson, this workhorse, and on Thursday I started to cry thinking that he will never see him, my Most Improved Player.

It’s not fair.