Just outside the Leafs Ice Arena in Normal, Illinois the side walk and parking lot were filled with anxious parents waiting for their dream chasing sons to emerge. Over two hundred 17-20 year old young men from the US, Canada and Europe were invited to the Bloomington Thunder’s main tryout camp. Each hoping to be one of twenty selected to join the team for the upcoming United States Hockey League (USHL) season and catch the eye of college scouts in attendance. The USHL is the premiere amateur league in the US for aspiring college and professional hockey players. Typically these young men play one, or more commonly, two years in the USHL before moving on to college or pro hockey. Since the average age of a freshmen Division I college hockey player is 20 years old, the USHL experience gives them time to mature physically and mentally.
As the young men began to emerge from the rink, you could see the exhaustion from four days of non-stop competition and evaluation wearing on their hopeful faces. For those who exited early, there would be no invitation to join the team and no college scholarship offer on this day. For these players it meant more camps and more nerve wracking tryouts and evaluations .
While my wife Jacqui took the opportunity to work on her tan and make small talk with other waiting parents, I was starting to wonder what was taking so long for our son Myles to come out. After about an hour, Myles’ tall athletic frame walked through the doors of the arena towards me. He walked with that athlete’s swagger; slow and deliberate with a slight lean. His hair was matted and his face white and drawn. We didn’t expect that Myles would be invited to join the team because we’d already notified them that he’d be returning to Minnesota for his senior year of high school. Despite that, Bloomington used the 40th overall pick in the USHL’s spring draft to select Myles, so there was a chance they’d want him play right away.
He acquitted himself extremely well against some tough competition at the camp. His size, strength, and athleticism were obvious despite being one of the younger players. Over the course of the four days he stood out, not only to Jacqui and me, but to other parents who commented on his terrific play. Although he’s a defensemen, Myles likes the puck on his stick and looks to make plays offensively, fittingly scoring a goal in the first game of the camp. All of this was made even more timely since the coach from Brown University, and scouts from many other schools, were in attendance. Just a few months before, Myles accepted an offer and verbally committed to play at Brown. Of the two hundred kids in attendance, only eighteen had secured a college scholarship to this point.
“Well, how’d it go”? I asked. “They want me to join the team, but they wanted to know if I was committed to returning to Blake for my senior year of high school”. It never dawned on me that we might reconsider a decision we’d seemingly already made. Over the next month or so we consulted with coaches, players, advisers and anyone who we felt had a useful point of view. Generally the assessment was that the USHL was a grind and would be difficult at first. He would likely be in and out of the lineup until he adjusted to the speed and physicality of the league. From a hockey development standpoint there was no question this was the best move for him but was it too soon, and what would it mean for his educational future?
Brown was supportive of our decision either way. His grades, ACT score and visit convinced them they were getting much more than a hockey player. With Brown already committed, the focus shifted to how best to get him ready to become a Division I hockey player. Knowing he had at least one and maybe two years of USHL hockey, we now had to give Bloomington serious consideration.
We sacrificed a lot to send both our kids to private school and invested in their education as our number one priority. Ironically, this is how he landed on Brown. There were several other schools interested in him, some with more prominent hockey programs, but none could match the education and future opportunities that Brown could offer . Myles took little time to ponder his college decision, but a decision about leaving home at seventeen was wearing on him and us.
“So what do you think, what do you want to do,” I asked. “Dad, I want to TRY” was his response.
“I want to TRY”. I knew exactly what he meant. He has a dream (and talent) and wants to “claim it”. I’m intoxicated by his fearlessness, yet terrified by the thought of letting him go. On rapper Wale’s hit single “Matrimony” none other than Jerry Seinfeld provides the intro by describing engagement and marriage this way: “getting engaged is like the first hill of the roller coaster. All you hear is that clanking noise. Clanking, clanking, clanking up the hill, and then you say to yourself, wow this thing goes high. You reach the top and that’s marriage; marriage is at the top of the hill. And then you go over and you’re just screaming'”. It’s classic Seinfeld. Although Jerry is talking about marriage here, I think the metaphor works perfectly to describe parenting. There’s that initial sense of excitement followed by apprehension and fear as your kids grow more independent. Whether you’re dropping your kids off at daycare the first time, teaching them to drive, or seeing them off to college; it’s all the same thing. You’re filled with pride as you witness your child’s growth, but terrified of the thought of “losing” them. It’s cruel that pride and pain can live as such natural companions.
I lost my dad when I was 5 years old, so I struggled deeply with confidence as a kid. My kids inherited none of my self-doubt. Typically, we fail to reach our potential because of the things we say to ourselves, about ourselves. I’m not smart enough, I don’t have the time, what will other people think? Self-confidence is one of the hardest things to acquire, but one of the most critical things to have. For us, this situation was an opportunity to support our son while he stepped out on the “thin branches of the tree” with confidence. Life is about trying and failing, and trying again and ultimately succeeding; that’s called growth.
By now you’ve likely guessed that we decided to let him go. This past weekend we dropped our son off in a strange place, to live with a family we’ve only met twice, to play for an organization we trust is filled with people of good character, and to finish his senior year at a new high school. As we said our goodbyes and choked back tears, none of it made sense, and yet it all made sense. Growth is painful. It’s like that roller coaster Jerry was describing. Raising kids who are “fierce and fearless” means letting go and throwing your hands up in the air on the roller coaster. It’s a lot more fun and a lot less scary to step out on faith when you BELIEVE.
We couldn’t be more excited to support our son’s dream, and to be blessed with a faith that gives us strength.
Lebron Gretzky: Soul on Ice…to be continued