One day in the dead of winter, our new washing machine had stopped working.
A hole in the garage drywall just behind my son Blair’s makeshift hockey goal had exposed the water pipes to subzero temperatures and they froze, requiring a plumber to come to the house.
As the guy fixed the problem and patched the hole, he reached through an opening to the floor and picked up a hockey puck. Then he grabbed another one. And another. By the time the plumber had pulled out every puck Blair had put through the wall practicing his slap shot, the stack was at least 10 high.
Part of me was furious that my son, 14 at the time, lacked the presence of mind to think about where all the pucks he was shooting had landed. The other part relished the thought of a kid so consumed with making himself better that he never considered anything but improving his technique.
Nobody ever mentioned anything about the price of success in youth sports including plumbers’ and carpenters’ fees, but it was worth every penny.
This is a story about the cost of coming of age, which has nothing to do with money.
This is a story for every sports dad who wants more than anything to help a son who never really needs it, a story for every young athlete determined to turn adversity into opportunity.
This is a story that resonates on my 18th Father’s Day — and my proudest one yet.
Blair just stared off into space as the hockey coach told him he didn’t make the team.
He was a high school freshman who had begun skating only two years earlier, a relative hockey novice offered the chance to remain part of the program as a member of the junior-varsity practice squad. But that option went in one ear and out the other. All Blair heard was he had been cut, even if the coach never used those exact words.
The sports writer in me wanted to ask the coach what areas my son could improve most and how he came to this conclusion. The dad in me needed to shut up and support his kid on the slow walk to the car. We made the quietest, longest 20-minute ride ever from our rink back home.
That started a more important trip to a place only he knew, one of those deeply personal quests in which the journey matters more than the destination. That was the day I stopped steering my son’s life and he started driving himself toward success motivated by his perception of failure.
It turned out to be the best bad news he ever received.
Blair spent hours in the basement in the months after the tryouts, stick-handling and shooting pucks on our smooth floors ideal for rollerblading. My wife, Allison, and I marveled at the way he embraced the monotony of his nightly routine. We didn’t like the noise or nicks in the wall. But we appreciated the way he tirelessly mimicked drills he copied from YouTube or friends on his house-league bantam team, where he landed after deciding to leave the high school program that had no room for him.
As long as he finished his homework, I didn’t care how long he worked on those skills. Eventually he headed to the garage and practiced shooting into that damn makeshift goal, his misses occasionally ricocheting into walls — and sometimes through them.
A year had passed, Blair hit a growth spurt and before his sophomore year we received a release from the league that included his high school team that allowed him to play for a club team in the same conference. That the club was the hockey rival of the high school Blair attended only made his daily dynamic more interesting, especially when he relished wearing his hockey letter jacket to school.
From Michael Jordan to Mark Buehrle, Chicago has heard all about athletes who used getting cut in high school as the impetus for growth. I have written hundreds of similar stories in 27 years as a sports writer about athletes being driven by a defeat or turning a negative into a positive. But I don’t think it dawned on me until sometime during Blair’s senior season that a similarly compelling plot was unfolding under my own roof. A huge Andrew Shaw fan, Blair’s work ethic after that first hockey rejection bordered on obsessive. His focus never wavered. He developed an edge, a switch he knew how to flip on the ice.
I loved being a high school hockey dad. I didn’t love the price of ice time and equipment, the stench of a hockey bag in the back of my car or the pettiness that often pollutes youth sports. But I always will feel indebted for the way the sport shaped my son into someone physically and mentally tough enough to lead by example, not to mention how hockey’s structure made him a more conscientious student ready to attend Butler University and continue his hockey career.
Oddly, one of my most meaningful memories came his first season on the varsity team, as a sophomore, when the scarcity of ice time required us to practice one day a week at 5 a.m. I grew to love Tuesdays. I began to sense the positive effect hockey was having on Blair after going the entire year without once having to rustle him out of bed. He got up every week at 4:15 a.m., dressed quickly and looked forward to skating for 90 minutes and hitting Starbucks with me before school. A hot caramel macchiato with a blueberry muffin, please.
I cherished all the hours of car rides, often just the two of us before he was old enough to drive, listening to hip-hop on the way to games and talking about how he played after them, when adrenaline made him chattier than usual. I looked forward to dropping him off with the same advice every game, every practice: “Play hard, play smart, have fun.’’
I didn’t say much at his games, never yelled at a referee, never asked the coach why he did this or that even if I wondered. I made a point to reserve my second-guessing for my day job. I tried to respect Blair’s space, which he carved out himself, and enjoyed quietly observing the other parents expressing themselves. We had dads ejected for mouthing off and moms who could yell even louder. We usually had a ball, parents from various backgrounds and beliefs united by the common goal of wanting the same things for their sons. I will miss decorating cars for caravans to the state final and turning hotel lobbies into barrooms on tournament weekends. I will miss being complimented for how hard my son played every shift, even if that was all him. I will miss the look in Blair’s eyes that said he had something to prove every time he took the ice, because that always was his mindset.
I never skated as a kid. I grew up in a northwest Indiana town of 1,500 people who never even thought about hockey. I played college football. I always figured my son would play the traditional three sports I did, eventually choosing which one suited him best. My dad, who died six years ago, never pushed me into sports, and I vowed to take the same approach with my son. I would have laughed if you had told me the day Blair was born almost 18 years ago that he would grow up to be a college hockey player. I never even considered that a realistic possibility after he decided to exchange rollerblades for skates around his 12th birthday, something I encouraged without realizing how hockey would transform him. I underestimated my son’s resolve, something that won’t happen again.
Nothing in life humbles you more than being a parent.
The helplessness can be profound, created by a constant internal battle between wanting to make everything right and letting things take their natural course. I eventually let hockey take its natural course with Blair, never knowing where it would lead. That could be as frightening as it was frustrating, especially the night four years ago when it felt like his hockey career was over before it began.
But the kid never stopped pursuing his passion, playing hockey 51 of the calendar’s 52 weeks no matter how much I urged diversification, going from an inexperienced player who was cut as a freshman to a two-time state runner-up who played for Team Indiana as a senior. He never will forget the name of the coach who discounted him as a 14-year-old rookie, but the good memories greatly outnumber the bad. The bonds are unbreakable, the impact indelible and the shared experiences unparalleled — for me too.
I make a living using words to describe sports yet feel inadequate trying to describe the metamorphosis in my son I saw from my first-row seat. It can be hard to type through moist eyes. I will try to sum it up this way.
Thank you, hockey. Thank you for putting holes in our walls and filling the gaps in our lives. Thank you for making Blair a stronger young man. And thank you for helping so many dads like me understand our sons a little more.