As much as I sometimes long for the end of hockey season — the end of hours in freezing rinks, ungodly start times and odometer-stressing travel games — I always mourn it when it actually happens. It means my little boy is a year older; a step further from babyhood.
It also means the end of our team as we know it. Each season a little family forms — dysfunctional sometimes, maybe — but still great. It is a family of little boys and girls, the men and women who coach them, and the parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles who schlep to faraway rinks and cheer till they don’t have any voices left.
The end of each season means the passing of that unique family. The core of the team might stay the same, but some parts are almost always lost. While others are gained, it’s never quite the same. And that’s OK. It’s good even, because it teaches players to accept evolution and adapt to change.
It’s still sad to me. We had such a great little team this year. Sam loved his coaches, I loved my cheering mates, and the chemistry among the boys was infectious. They were minutes away from the league championship win, but when they lost instead, they rallied around each other.
Now that Sam’s season is over and our hockey attention is focused on the Bruins, Sam is watching change happen to the game’s elite. Change last year came in the form of one of his most beloved players, Tim Thomas, choosing to leave the team.
Change this year came, among other ways, at the trade deadline, when veteran forward Jaromir Jagr unexpectedly found himself traded to Boston. Sam asked, “Who is Jar - O - mir Jae-grrrrr?”
So I told him about the “Czech-mates,” about Super Mario, about Olympic gold medals and international leagues. We talked about what it means to be “old” in hockey versus old in life. We watched some Bruins locker room interviews of Seguin and Marchand growing starry-eyed about the chance to play with a fading but still talented hockey god.
We clicked on the next video, and it was big number 68 in his thick accent talking about how he had to get better as a Bruin. How he felt bad for his linemates that night — Seguin and Marchand — because he was so bad (he wasn’t; in fact he scored the game’s only goal). “But,” he said, “I will work hard, and I will get better.”
Sam wanted to watch more interviews, so we watched Jagr’s first interview after finding out about the trade. Looking exhausted but gracious and thoughtful in his responses to the media, when asked if he was comfortable in a supporting role, Jagr said he had changed a lot as a player. Where his focus before was on being the best in the game, now it was on doing whatever would help his team win. Then he got asked the inevitable retirement question,
“I am not a great hockey player anymore,” Jagr said, and Sam twisted in my lap to ask if that was true. I hushed him and pointed to the screen. “But I still love this game. I love it so much. If they will let me keep playing in NHL I think I keep playing in NHL. If no team wants me here, I go back and play in Czech league. When you love something so much you don’t want to let it go until you have to.”
In the interviews, he was clearly tired and shocked from being traded, and he looked every bit of 41 years. Sam worried that he wasn’t that good anymore. But my husband weighed in. “He said the game has changed, Sam, so he’s changed. That’s what you have to do … you have to change your game as you change teams, change coaches, you have to learn. Even if you are one of the greatest players ever.”
So we showed Jagr’s famed goal against the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1992, where he danced around the entire Chicago line to score one of the most impressive goals ever caught on film. And then we showed him a recent and amazing Jagr assist, which was nearly as impressive as the goal and more representative of what Jagr is known for now, late in his career.
Apparently, change isn’t just hard. It can mean some really good hockey too.
Maybe I’m ruminating on the difficulty of change so much because I have a big one coming in my own life. This fall I begin my doctoral program in nutrition and health behavior change at Harvard School of Public Health. I worked hard to earn my fellowship, and this is what I’ve wanted for a long time, but I’m also conflicted.
My work now is local and flexible and lets me be a full-time hockey (and riding and baseball and violin and basketball and lacrosse) mom. The thought of missing out on some that next year makes my heart break. But I also know that there is no bigger role model for kids than their own parents. Sam won’t just learn about hard work, sacrifice and contributing to something bigger from his sports heroes — he needs to see it from his parents too.
Change is hard. It’s hard on Jaromir Jagr, it’s hard for my little Mite, and it’s hard for me. But it’s also always going to be a part of every hockey season, part of every person’s life, and it can lead to great things ahead. As we turn the bittersweet page on a great season and head out the door to summer, Sam has great memories to take with him, and he is already looking forward to what next year will bring. And so am I.
April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.