Posted by: getthenac | August 20, 2010

A Tribute to “A Tribute to Hockey”

From Wayne Wood:

This wonderful story by Dena Gassner of Franklin, Tenn., is about her son’s experience as the manager of his school’s hockey team. It was originally printed in “Breaking Ground,” a publication of the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, produced by our colleagues at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.

A Tribute to Hockey

By Dena Gassner

Several years ago a young man with a disability was media fodder for his brief touch with stardom achieved by hitting several three-point shots for his high school team.

The moment was tarnished for me because I am a cynic. All I could think was, “Why wasn’t he on the team for real?”

Others thought it was so great. I felt like Scrooge. I could not overlook the fact that this kid had donated four years of his life to this team, hauling water bottles, dealing with stinky uniforms and doing the beck and call of his entire team all the while spending his nights shooting free throws on his garage door hoop. But he wasn’t good enough for the team. The fact that his father was the coach made it even more disappointing for me. He should have been “out there”, a full team member. Not relegated to “water boy”.

Imagine then, one chilly night at home, my son Patrick in his room watching TV.  Some unfamiliar noise was coming from the room. Usually I hear Patrick’s “play by play” practice monologue where he talks about the movie like he is in dress rehearsal for that moment when someone, anyone, would call him to go out. Instead it sounds like…. sports. Sports? My son, the Pokemon king, watching sports? My son, who, when asked, can tell you how many minutes, the producer and the director of every one of his nearly 300 movies? My son, whom no one in their right mind would compete with in movie trivia, is in his room and I hear… sports?

I knock gently and then open the door to see him watching a strange, gladiator-like event with men dressed in pads and carrying big sticks. Wait; I know this… it’s HOCKEY. Shocked, I ask,

“Hey, what are you watching?”

“Hockey”.  Ask a stupid question…

“I didn’t know you liked hockey.”

“My teacher, Mr. Green, likes the Predators. It’s cool.”

About two months later, my son comes home from school and says they are looking for a manager for the high school team.

“You want to do what?”

“I want to see if they will let me be the manager of the hockey team.”

Ugh, my son relegated to “water boy”. How humiliating. How degrading. Weren’t there so many other more important things we needed to work on? What about tutoring, and therapeutic horseback riding and social skills?

Sighing, with all my “self-advocacy” blood boiling, I sent the email to the team mom. She says, she’s not sure it’s a fit. She’s worried about the fact that it’s very smelly and, well, this is hockey—there’s a ton

of cursing.

I notify her that those issues are ok for us. Patrick lost his sense of smell during seizure days (thank God for that… it is the smelliest sport known to man since the uniforms are never really clean after game one). And I am a pretty “out there” mom. Cursing is part of the social world. In fact, Patrick’s need to point out cursing had been such an issue for him that we started giving him curse words for his birthday. (By this call, he had “earned” two of his own.)

Ms. Cynical wasn’t totally happy but if Patrick wanted it, I was going to stack the deck in his favor. I made arrangements to meet Coach at the Mall. Patrick does better talking when he doesn’t have to make eye contact and he can move so it would be a walking interview. I attempted (in vain) some social prompting too. Despite all my reminding and discouraging, Coach later reported that they had had a quite intense, lengthy dialogue about hockey strategy—about the Double D from the movie “The Mighty Ducks”. The coach laughed.

In a good way.

I asked that huge teddy bear of a man what he thought about this hockey thing and he said,

“We’re good to go.”

Those four words changed my son’s life forever.

When he was introduced to the team I got to hear another coach say,

“So Patrick’s one of us now. He’s a brother. And if anyone gives him crap, we’ve got his back. Here on the ice, at school or anywhere else.”

A bone shattering “Right COACH!” came from the team.

That’s all it took. Patrick was a hockey player in all the ways that counted.

From his team he’s learned “guy” stuff. Young men with special needs spend their lives surrounded by kind and generous women but they need to learn to be men. His “hockey brothers” taught him about team sort of teasing, girls, dating and real cursing…(he wants the “F” word for his 21st birthday). He walks differently. He is confident. He never missed another school dance because his brothers would be there to “hang out” with him.

If that’s not good enough, the team won the championship his first year. When he hoisted the championship cup over his head, the crowd roared his name. And I cried. In the year of Sarah Palin, I was crying at hockey. For the first time in his life, Patrick was experiencing what it is to be part of something more than a single-natured existence. Ms. Cynical died a cold but happy death that night.

No one could match the character and strength he has learned from the men known as Cougar coaches. Five men taught Patrick about honor. Courage. Respect. Persistence.

As I travel the nation teaching about autism, it’s “The Hockey Stories” that leave them wanting more. At every single venue—EVERY ONE—parents cry wishing they too could have what we have had. They cry sharing our experience and in knowing that at least one kiddo was not alone, was not apart. Not a day goes by when I don’t thank God for what we have experienced.

Humbly, I too admit to a different form of “inclusion”. People don’t realize that when the kids are excluded, so too are the parents. I had never been a team parent. In unflattering hockey jersey, I sat for hours on popsiclely cold, icy bleachers (constant runny nose) in my plastic Cougar earrings until they wore out. I sobbed on senior night when he grabbed my hand and held it high. It was sheer joy.

Patrick feels the void where hockey used to be. But when it gets dark, and life gets hard, he will dig down deep and reconnect with these life lessons. My son walks taller, is stronger and is more complete from these years. He is ready to face life in a way he would not have been without his years as the “Hydration Consultant”.

Making the graduation DVD I found that most of the video we were saving from the editing floor was almost all hockey stuff. Things like Patrick giving motivational speeches (the kid who doesn’t talk in front of groups), the coaches talking about what Patrick had given them, his friends talking about the kind of friend Patrick was to them. There it was on film— the “for real” genuine love and relationship only a bunch of smelly, cursing and yet so honorable young men can offer. You would think by now I would realize all the benefits to life my son has to teach me.

Not to mention the ton of victory hugs Patrick always managed to obtain from the gorgeous “hockey fans”.

Nice.

Dena L. Gassner lives in Franklin, where she is director of the Center for Understanding.

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