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When a Pickup Hockey Game Becomes a Son's Gift to His Dad

Amidst the day of sweat, sunshine, and spongy puck snapshots, something happened.

Amidst the day of sweat, sunshine, and spongy puck snapshots, something happened.

There aren't enough dollars to pay for the gift I received last week. I suspect it will yield its residual bounties in memories over time, and when I'm in hospice care hopefully some decades down the road, I have a funny feeling it will revisit me in all its textured, multicolored glory as I breathe last.

For now, though, it remains fresh.

I feel kind of fruity just writing it, but I don't know how else to describe it: This past weekend I witnessed my son feel hockey for the first time. I watched him exert himself to exhaustion, joy percolating up through him as only can happen when playing this young man's game through a child's new eyes. See also: The Assault on the State of Hockey: How Minnesota's Amateur Game is Turning Ugly

My eight-year-old is new to the frozen pond. His playing days on skates amount to the past two months on an outdoor rink in a southwestern suburb. It's usually been just him and me, passing the puck on two-on-ohs and shooting into an open chain link net, alternating breakaways on one another like we're having a shoot out.

He doesn't yet know how to stop. He can mainly only turn one way. His limbs take a beating every time he's on the ice. He always gets up.

Early last Sunday afternoon Boo and I threw our gear into the car and drove the short distance to the rink thinking it would be more of the same -- just the two of us, as the ice is most often unoccupied.

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But not on this day. A baker's dozen of men and boys had the nets stationed width-wise at one end of the rink. There were two boys skating, but the rest were outfitted in boots and sweatpants. Some wore Wild and Blackhawks jerseys.

Despite being a serious rookie, Boo is self-conscious about his developing skill set, which follows right in line with his personality. If he feels he's not good at something, it's in his second-grade makeup to be nervous. When he saw the crowd, I knew we would have to massage his comfort level.

"Oh cool, there's guys playing a game," I said trying to frame the situation positively. "I bet they would let us play if I asked them. Whatcha think? I bet it would be a lot of fun."

Beneath his dark blue CCM helmet and mask with his face mostly covered up by a black ski mask, or his "gator" as he calls it, he reticently nodded.

The guys playing consisted of four middle-aged brothers and various representatives from their families, maybe a son's friend too. There were boys in their early teens, young men in their early 20s. Everyone appeared to be playing hard without taking the competition too seriously.

As Boo and I stretched our legs, skating nearby, I asked if they had room for two more.

They incorporated us as if it was their duty, putting us on separate teams.

For the next three hours Boo crashed the net for rebounds, wiped out and inadvertently blocked shots, chased after errant pucks in the corners against opposing defensemen, and learned the lesson that keeping your stick on the ice is most crucial. About two hours in, he deflected a shot from the point into the right corner of the net about two feet high that would have eluded Carey Price.

The other players called out to him by name when they wanted to head-man a pass. They told him, "Good hustle!" and initiated high fives when he made a brave defensive play sacrificing his body whether he intended to or not.

When it was time for new teams to be chosen, some of the brothers asked Boo if he wanted to pile the sticks together in the center of the ice and toss them in opposite directions, thus putting him in charge of creating the makeshift rosters.

Amid the sweat, sunshine, spongy puck snapshots, and countless games up to five before changing ends, something happened. I saw and felt my son love hockey for the first time.

It was as true a life moment as I have been blessed to witness. As it's now a part of him, I know it's a new pure white light part inside of me too.

During one of the breaks in the action as Boo fought to unsnap his cage and manipulate his ski mask in a way that allowed him to take a few heavy swigs of water, he looked at me and said, "Dad, we gotta come here next Sunday."

It will likely be some years before he understands the gift he gave to me on the ice last weekend, but I'm already looking forward to the conversation.

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