I mean, it’s not just joy in watching your child play as part of a team. My kids have done other sports and Sam has played on other teams. Those experiences are awesome, but they are not the same. There is something vastly different and profound about special hockey.
Maybe it’s that these tournaments give the players the ultimate safe space in which to be themselves. They can spin, stim, script, meltdown, or whatever else comes naturally to them. Not only will the other kids not stare at them like they’re crazy, but they might just join in. All different levels of development are present and welcomed in this space.
As for the experience of being a parent at a tournament like this, I can really just touch the surface. A friend and fellow mom really got to the heart of it though on Friday morning when a bunch of the kids were at the pool. Five or six of us parents were watching about 15 kids. We made sure they got along and we made sure they were safe and we were happy to do it.
“Your baby is my baby here,” my friend said.
Your baby is my baby.
That’s it. That is the heart. The Cheetahs are the ultimate community. There is no judgment from other parents, no explanation is necessary. We get it. We all get it.
Saturday afternoon when I wanted that goal for Jack so badly? The other parents wanted it that badly for Jack too. They might have even cheered him on louder than I could. When other kids scored in front of Jack, I was so happy for them too, because every goal means that much for each of those kids too.
I give a lot of credit for this spirit of cooperation to the team leadership. All of the coaches give so much of themselves to the athletes. I have nothing but admiration for them. It is almost as much fun to watch them interacting on the ice with the players because they obviously get so much joy from it. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the head coach without a smile on his face. It is phenomenal to see the way he interacts with these kids. That smile of his speaks volumes. There is nothing false about the look on his face when he is coaching.
Later, on the team bus on the way home, he spoke to the parents. “I wish you could be out there with me on the ice to see the kids’ smiles as they play,” he told us. That coach skated eight games with the Cheetahs over the course of two days: four with Jack’s squad and four with the more advanced team. That smile never left his face.
Then there is the coach who helped Jack with his goal. Immediately afterward in the locker room, with tears in my eyes, I told him thank you and that the million dollars was his.
“Are you kidding?” he said. “I have so much fun out there!” For him, being with those kids is enough. He has a kid who plays too and he understands.
I am in love with the players on this team. I love their honesty and their quirkiness and how hard they work to be part of this world. It feels good to be able to give them four days where they can be entirely and truly themselves.
I have to tell you something else. Do you remember last year’s tournament? Jack played three games, but he didn’t finish any of them. I had to actually remove him from the bench for the last one. What’s more, Jack barely spoke to anyone but me on that whole trip.
He was a different kid this year. It was amazing.
He played every one of his rotations in all four of his games. Sure, he still has to learn some of the sportsmanship lessons that the older kids know, but he’s getting there. (I told one of the dads about something Jack had done in one of the games and the dude was all, “There’s a name for that in hockey. It’s called cross-checking and you get a penalty for it.” Yep. My kid. Niiiice.)
What’s more, Jack actually noticed the other players this year. I was forced to actually socialize with other parents because Jack wasn’t glued to my side like last year. He talked to other kids and sought out contact with them. Honestly, he was more social than he ever is at home. It’s as if he knew these were his people.
Last year, I cried so much, both for the same profound reasons that made me cry this year, but also for the difficulty Jack had in being part of the team, both on and off the ice. Parents who had been in my shoes talked me down. They told me about their own kids or other kids who had the same kind of trouble in previous years, but were now happily playing and integrated in the team. This year, Jack got to be a success story.
He has made so much progress. I really hope he truly feels pride in himself, because I could not be more proud of that kid for moving forward on his own terms. (I’m less proud of the cross-checking, but that’s another conversation entirely.)
I also truly love the coaches. Thank you, Coach Dave and Sean. You are the heart of this team. I know how much time and effort you put into our kids. I hope you know how much it means to us. Thanks also to Coach Kyran who stayed at home with the Cheetahs who didn’t go on the trip. Thank you for reaching Jack by talking to him about Plants vs. Zombies. You have earned your bond with this boy. Lastly, big thanks to trip organizers David (extra thanks for the Shakira dancing) and Andy. I’m sure it takes a lot of work to put together all the pieces for our tournament.
I hate naming names because I know there are others who put so much into the team. Everyone does a piece and it all comes together in an amazing whole. Thank you to all of you.
I am so grateful for this team that it is almost ridiculous.
So, now is the time when I capitalize on the gooey feelings I’ve hopefully shared with you and beg you for money. The Cheetahs have a lot of expenses, including $20,000 a year for ice time alone. Everyone involved with this organization is a volunteer. No one is paid. Every donation given to the Cheetahs gets put 100% into the athletes and their ice time.
The Cheetahs are having their first annual Cheetah-thon skating event to raise money for the team. The event will be held May 12 from 5-7 p.m. at the Rockville Ice Rink. You are invited. Please come. That day is Jack’s birthday as well. We would love to have you come spend a couple of hours with us.
Whether you can go or not (and, really, please come), you can donate to the Cheetahs on their fundraising site. Every $5 or $10 makes a difference. If you donate $50, you get a t-shirt. If you donate $1000, I’ll give you my dog. If you know of any companies or organizations looking to make charitable donations, you should know that this is a non-profit organization that changes lives every single week. You can donate online or get in touch with me if you would like to send a check.
This organization has given and continues to give so much to my family. Both Jack and I have made friends and gained self esteem because of this team. I was talking to a Cheetah dad whose son is going to college next year. “I don’t know that he could have done it without this team,” he said.
This team matters—in a big way. After all, there are not that many places where your baby can be my baby. Where my baby can be your baby. And where my baby and your baby can truly, honestly be themselves.
And their quirky parents can be as well.