Tournament of Smiles

Special hockey tournaments are great. I’ve never been to a bad one and I’ve been to quite a few. Some, however, stand out as exceptional. The tournament in Jamestown, NY, that Jack and I went to last weekend was exceptional.

Talk about the magic of special hockey. Watching Jack’s team skate, I felt that “my heart is growing in size and capacity for love right now” feeling that I love so much and feel at those most exceptional of tournaments.

I love the intensity of travel tournaments where it is me and Jack pinging from the hotel to the rink and back. The immersion of the experience makes it that much more amazing. Add in the group of players and parents that came along and all was good.

This particular tournament was also fantastic because of the way the coaches divided up our players. The Cheetahs took three teams: an advanced team, an intermediate team, and Jack’s team. Jack’s team—the C Team—featured a lot of newer and younger players, while many of the more advanced kids who had been on the C Team before moved up to the intermediate team.

I missed watching those kids play and missed hanging out with their parents in the stands, but that change made a huge difference for everyone. It let those kids move up and stretch and it gave the kids still on the C Team way more of an opportunity to get their sticks on the puck and really be involved in the games. It was so fun to watch these kids really open up and get into the game. Not to mention that the parents of the C Team are, without exception, phenomenal, fun, supportive, awesome people.

The stands during the C Team games were a heart expanding place to be. It was all about your baby is my baby and the magic of special hockey. Like you wouldn’t believe.

Our trip started out auspiciously enough. One reason Jack loves going on these trips is because he gets to skip school. This trip he even got to skip a standardized testing day. Even better, he got to skip school and go on a trip with his best friend, who was sitting on the bus in the seat right behind him. All was well.

Jack sitting on a bus with a smile on his face.

See? All. Well.

Hey, here’s something. Remember way back when Jack went on his very first tournament and I was worried about what the bus was going to be like? I was concerned that he might barf and then we’d be trapped on a bus with his puke for an extended amount of time? Remember that?

I briefly remembered that fear a couple of hours before we boarded the bus for this tournament. Then I discarded it because we have taken the bus to and from, what, five tournaments over the past four years and he hasn’t horked on the bus even once.

Do you wonder why I bring this up?

You don’t. I need say no more.

All I’m going to add is that the road through the Allegheny National Forest is not one that should be taken on a bus. That’s all I’m going to say.

Also that Jack recovered very quickly and happily bopped along to his iPod for the rest of the ride while I babysat his vomit. Good times.

Jack is sitting in the dark in front of a window with lights blurring by in the background. His face is lit from the light of his iPod.

Music soothes everything about Jack.

I did a lot of thinking at this tournament about how far Jack has come since that first tournament, and not just in terms of carsickness.

That first tournament I was stuck to Jack like glue. I didn’t dare let him out of my sight because he was young and prone to wandering. I worried if he was out of my sight for more than a few seconds. He was overwhelmed and overstimulated and even though I think he appreciated the trip, he didn’t manage to make it all the way through any of the games he was supposed to play at that tournament. He ended his last game midway through by throwing his gloves at the dad by the bench. I’m not sure he spoke to anyone but me for the entire four days. That tournament was magical for a lot of reasons, but it was also super hard.

This year Jack was relaxed and happy. I stayed with him all weekend, but we are at the point where I am comfortable letting him roam away from me. (“You can trust me, Mom,” he even told me at one point. “I know I can,” I responded.) He has friends on the team now and will even talk and play with kids he doesn’t know. (He spent part of an afternoon playing a cannonball-into-the-pool game with a kid on his team he’d never interacted with before. I got splashed.) He not only played all four of his games, but he put energy into them and looked like he really wanted to be there playing.  We were able to collaborate on our schedule instead of one of us being in charge. He was calm and happy. I was calm and happy.

Progress happens, people. It really does. Joy does too.

Jack’s team played four games again this trip. Their first game was versus the Steel City Icebergs. The Icebergs only had three players at the tournament at game time.

Not a problem. This is special hockey.

Several Cheetahs put on their dark jerseys and jumped on the Steel City team. Jack was one of those. He was so into it. Maybe a little TOO into it. He played harder and with more engagement than I have ever seen on him. Instead of his usual lackadaisical skating pace, he chased the puck. He got in the mix with his stick. He paid a huge amount of attention to the game. He worked so hard.

It’s almost like he had been waiting to play against his own team. I wonder if he has some sort of grudge against the Cheetahs. (Kidding.)

Jack in a black Cheetah jersey facing off against a player in a white Cheetah jersey.

I’m pretty sure he probably did some trash talking down there on the ice.

The rest of the tournament was similarly awesome. Everywhere I looked were smiles. The Cheetahs’ head coach was on the ice for every single Cheetahs game of the tournament. That is 12 games in two days. I didn’t see him without a smile even once. I watched players create and deepen friendships and they wore beautiful smiles as they did it. I watched parents cheer on their kids—and everyone else’s kids—and soaked in their smiles. There was so much good energy.

Naturally, there were some hard times. Like itchy toes—Jack’s itchy toes. For some reason last weekend was the weekend of itchy toes, but they were only itchy once he’d put them in his skates and I had laced them up. One memorable game, I had to relace his skates FOUR TIMES.

Also, he made me scratch between his toes because, “Mom, I don’t have long fingernails.”

I forgot to take my camera to the tournament so I only have bad cell phone photos from the weekend, but even so, I managed to capture some of Jack and my idiosyncratic joy.

For example, we both laughed really hard when we saw that someone had drawn faces on all of the little pegs that decorated the top of the hotel elevator walls.

brown wall with a close up of a metal peg on which someone has drawn two eyes and a mouth with a marker.

I like that Jack and I find the same things hilarious.

Then there is Jack’s love of hotel breakfasts.

Photo of Jack at a table. On the plate in front of him is a waffle topped with three small chocolate doughnuts. He also has a cup of apple juice.

The waffle is really more because it is fun to make waffles at hotel breakfast buffets. Still, Jack would peel off about an eighth of the thing to eat.

Pool time is always an important part of hockey tournaments. Sometimes you’ll find most of the Cheetah team packed into one square of water. Sometimes you will find only one player.

A hotel swimming pool. All you see is the still surface of the water with Jack's head poking out in the top right corner. He is wearing reflective goggles.

He’s like the cutest little bug ever in this photo.

We also spent some time cheering on the non-C Team Cheetahs. This is one of the reasons I like the travel tournaments. We always try to catch some games that Jack isn’t playing in.

Photo of Jack eating popcorn and watching a hockey game.

Sometimes it’s good to just be a fan.

Almost as fun as watching hockey is watching the Zamboni.

Photo of Jack's back in uniform as he watches an ice machine clean the ice.

That never gets old.

There was also evidently some time spent rolling around in charcoal.

The front of Jack's white jersey on which is a Montgomery Cheetahs logo and a fair amount of black smudging.

How, when this is only worn on ice, is it possible for a jersey to get this filthy?

Jack also always manages to find whatever mascot is available for hugging, in this case, the Baltimore Saints’ Saint Bernard. (I just figured out why their mascot is a Saint Bernard. The “saints” refers to the dog breed. Duh. It only took me four years.)

Jack with his arm around a mascot in a dog costume with a hockey jersey on.

After I took this photo, Jack turned to the dog and said, “You’re awesome!”

Jack also added to his medal collection. That boy has more hardware than the rest of Team Stimey combined.

Jack in his jersey holding up a medal with a stick and puck on it.

To be fair, he totally earns them.

I look at these photos and I think about Jack’s games and his friends this past weekend and at his first tournament four years ago.

Everything has changed, but still, not that much has. I still find myself stopped short by the realization of how much I love that boy. I am still brought to awe by how amazing my wonderful kid is. I still get so much joy out of the privilege of being able to spend four nonstop days with this terrific kiddo.

And still, four years later, I am so grateful to the people behind this wonderful team that creates these safe places for athletes like my son to be exactly who they are and experience a sport they might not otherwise be able to play. As always, thank you to those people—thank you to the coaches and the team leadership and the people who plan these tournaments. Thank you. I thank you and Jack thanks you.

Jack in full game gear on his way from the locker room to the ice.The Cheetahs are kicking off their fundraising season. Our annual Cheetah-thon will be May 3rd this year. We would love to invite any locals to skate with us and our team that evening. We would also be honored if you would consider donating to the team. This fundraiser makes it possible for the team to practice every week for a nine-month season. It lets this all volunteer-run organization provide a wonderful team experience and the opportunity to attend tournaments like the one in this post at very small costs to special needs families.

You can find information about the Cheetah-thon at this link. You can also donate there. If you do so, please let me know that you have donated in Jack’s name so I can be sure to thank you.

9 thoughts on “Tournament of Smiles

  1. You always do such a great job sharing that heart-expanding feeling with us. I’m so glad Jack has this.

    (Is there a “most heartwarming entry that includes vomit” blogger award?)

  2. Sounds awesome! Jack is an excellent hugger. Speaking of which, I though my giant fleece coat would be in the back of the closet by now. Snow. Arctic wind chills. Grumble.
    Yet, I can hear birds outside my apt! So Spring is near. It starts next week… or so I REALLY want to believe.

    • He really is an awesome hugger. :) I also hope spring is near. Although I have a sad feeling it might not actually start next week.

  3. Yeah Cheetahs… Proud of all of you and your mom’s
    and dads… It gives me great pleasure to donate
    each year!

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