By - Neil, courtesy of Pucks and Puzzle Pieces
My blog, Pucks and Puzzle Pieces, began with a hockey story in Philadelphia. If unfamiliar with the story, you can read it here.
It was a day that Ryan proclaimed to be the greatest of his life. He had never said anything like that before, nor had he since.
Until this week.
Jan 2, 2012, you have company.
On Wednesday, Ryan met the San Jose Sharks.
Like, ALL of them.
There is so much I would love to tell you about this meeting. I don’t even know where to begin, and I don’t know that I can capture all the emotions that it stirred. I don’t think the photos do it justice.
It wasn’t just a boy meeting his sports heroes. It was so much more. Ryan was engaging, and engaged. He wasn’t intimidated. He wasn’t shy. He conversed with the players. He called them by their nicknames, as hockey players do. Indeed, Ryan was more comfortable and socially outgoing with a team of NHL players than he sometimes is with his peers.
Of course he was comfortable. He was among his people — hockey people. It was beautiful. It was magic.
Two days later and Ryan is still floating. I am a continent away from him for work, and I am still floating.
First, I need to back up and explain how this happened, because it goes to the heart of why hockey players and hockey people are such good people.
I wrote an open letter to the San Jose Sharks on my blog once. Through a friend at the team, the letter made its way through the offices there. My friend reached out. He sent Ryan a care package of Sharks stuff and told him the team was trying its hardest to get in the playoffs.
I saw that same friend at the NHL Draft in New Jersey last year. He asked if Ryan wanted to drop by the Sharks’ suite at the arena. That didn’t work out, but my friend extended an invitation for Ryan to visit with the team when they played in the East this season.
About two weeks before the Sharks first trip East, my friend sent an email. We tried to find a date that worked. As it happened, the best opportunity was a Wednesday morning practice in Philadelphia. I did not hesitate. I cleared my calendar and put in for a vacation day. We decided Ryan would miss school. This would be more memorable and have a greater impact on him than any single day of school. My friend made all the arrangements.
Ryan could barely contain his excitement, but somehow we got him to sleep Tuesday night. At bed time, he was still giddy. “Tomorrow I’m going to meet the Sharks! Do you think they’re excited to meet me?”
He already had his outfit planned. His favorite player is Joe Thornton, so the Thornton jersey it was. He wore his “BIG JOE #19, TAPE TO TAPE” t-shirt underneath.
We left the house plenty early. Ryan hates waiting, but I explained that it was a 90-mile drive and we’d rather be way early than a minute late, and he agreed. It was a good thing, too, because about 20 miles into the drive, I realized I forgot my wallet. I had a moment of panic before realizing what to do. My parents’ house is not far out of the way. I did the mental math, we could stop off to borrow some money and still make it in time.
Ryan took it in stride because I promised we wouldn’t be late. I also told him it’s good that even at my age, you can call your parents when you’re in trouble and they’ll help you out. Armed with some cash from mom, we ran back to the car and resumed out trip, beating the Sharks players to the rink by about five minutes.
We met the team P.R. representative who was expecting us. He invited us to watch practice from the front row and said Ryan could meet the players after. We took our seats right above the entrance tunnel. Ryan watched as the first player stepped on the ice. He turned to me.
“I’m going to reach down and see if they’ll give me a high-five,” he said. He has seen this thousands of times on TV, where players will slap hands with fans as they leave the ice, but we’ve never been close enough.
The next player approached, and Ryan stuck his hand out. There were maybe a dozen people in the rink. Certainly, Ryan was the only child there. I’m sure the player thought it was odd or surprising that a fan was reaching his hand down. So what did he do?
Naturally, he walked over and slapped Ryan’s hand. “All right, buddy, let’s go!” he said.
And so they all came, one after another. Each one stepping over to slap Ryan’s palm when they noticed him. Many said things. Ryan called to them by name, or by nickname.
About the fourth player to approach was Joe Thornton.
“JUMBO! Let’s go!” Ryan called, using Thornton’s nickname.
Thornton walked over and slapped Ryan’s hand. By some accident or incompetence, I was fumbling with my phone and missed the shot. But I’m almost glad I did. By missing the shot of the high-five, I got this picture of the aftermath that I’m pretty sure I would have missed otherwise.
That smile! I texted the photo to Veronica with the message “That’s a ‘I just got a high five from Joe Thornton’ smile.”
Ryan watched the practice intently. We talked about how the Sharks do some of the same drills he does in practice — they just do them a LOT faster. We were close enough to hear the coach talking to the players. Ryan loved that the coach calls them by their nicknames. He loved that they had contests to see who would have to skate sprints at the end of practice.
An hour went by in a minute, and it was time for Ryan’s big moment. We waited in the tunnel for the players to exit the ice. Ryan stood in his jersey, holding a Sharpie. Joe Thornton was one of the first off the ice. He shook Ryan’s hand. He admired his jersey. He saw Ryan’s "GO USA" Olympic mittens and told him, “you better show those to Pavs,” “Pavs” being Joe Pavelski, recently of the U.S. Olympic team.
I was too excited to ask Thornton to pose for a picture. But I got a candid instead. And just like the first one of the high-five, I think I like this one better. It’s not a posed shot. It shows a conversation. It shows engagement. It shows Ryan at ease. And it shows his smile.
The players continued to come off the ice. Ryan didn’t have to ask them. Every single one of them put down their sticks and gloves and walked over to sign for him. None looked put out. Sometimes two or three came off the ice together, and they waited patiently. They bent over to find a spot on the back of the jersey to sign. Some had to get down on their knees to do so.
Some engaged him in conversation. He told one or two “you need to beat the Flyers tomorrow night so my social studies teacher will be mad. He’s a Flyers fan!”
To which the player replied, “I think you want to keep your teacher happy.”
To which Ryan answered, “That’s OK, I get all As in his class!”
It was perfect.
With each player he engaged, Ryan’s smile grew. His confidence grew. He was so self-assured. He fit in so naturally. It was like he grew a foot in front of my eyes. When it was over, Ryan was left with this:
It was all I could do to keep snapping photos and thank each player for his time. They could not have been nicer. I don’t know, but I have to think it must make a person feel good to know you can bring that much happiness to someone simply by giving a tiny piece of yourself. It certainly seemed that way.
We floated home on a cloud of excitement and joy. Ryan wore his newly autographed jersey to school. He told his friends all about it. He told me he was pretty sure the Sharks were going to play well in Philadelphia for him.
And maybe he was right. Final score on Thursday? Sharks 7, Flyers 3. A butt-kick of the good kind.
To everyone at the Sharks organization, from ownership on down to the last player on the roster, I have only this to say:
Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You have no idea what you have done for my son. You have no idea what you have done for our family. You make me proud to be associated with the sport of hockey.