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Illustration by Erick M. Ramos

Standing there up against the glass watching the game unfold – not in a way that I wanted – but unfolding nevertheless I knew it was the end. As the clock ticked down, this would be the last time I would watch my son play with a group of young men that were all boys when they took their first skate so many years ago. Like the final year of high school, this was the final season of youth-organized hockey for my son.

As the opposing team rushed to the goalie to celebrate the big win, I just stood still – frozen like the ice – not wanting time to march on. The clock showed zeros. The three lights that lit up each period were blazing. I watched my son standing at the other end of the ice with his stick holding up his bowed head. I knew what he was thinking and I am sure if he looked my way, he’d know what I was thinking. It was the end of something we both loved deeply.

At the lonely end of the rink, you and me,” sang the Tragically Hip. That’s how I felt now.

In that moment – when time seemed to stand so still – the memories came flooding back. I remembered his first goal in the Garden City Kiwanis League, his first hat trick in CYO Minor Hockey League and his first big tournament in Philadelphia playing with the Merritton Bulldogs.

I remember, and still shudder, at his first big open ice hit he took in St. Thomas, Ont., with the single A team. All the big games in the finals of tournaments – some that his team won and others that were lost – all memories that we shared as father and son.

My son once told me he would scan the arena to find where I was located. Sitting on the bench, he wanted to know where I was standing. I asked him why and he said: “When I score, you’re the first person I want to see.” I’ve never forgotten that.

Where I stood in the arena has changed over the years. In the early years, I stood along the top of the seating section in an arena – leaning on a railing for three periods – something I guess I learned from my dad.

As the years went by, I moved to ice level. I would be standing in one of the corners of the rink. It’s a solitary place to stand but it gave me a full view of the ice and it’s up close to the players. I’ve lost track of how many times I gave my son a wink before a faceoff or a light fist pump on the glass after a goal.

It was always about more than just the game on the ice. It was all the moments that took place before and after the game. Travelling to away games gave us an opportunity to connect in a different way than sitting at the dinner table. I learned to listen to a young boy trying to find his way through school, his friendships and his own insecurities. Those countless drives gave me an opportunity to help guide him in ways that I never imagined.

The drive home after games also gave us a chance to deepen our relationship. I learned early on that giving constructive advice right after a game isn’t a great way to open a conversation. It’s a universal truth that kids know how they played during a game and the last thing a young person wants to hear is what they already know from a parent. I learned to just be quiet. I let my son guide the conversation and it often opened with his own critique of the game. Although I was the driver, I was also a passenger in the conversation which suited me just fine.

There are a lot of life lessons learned on those wintery Canadian highways that kids and their parents shuttle through from game to game.

I stood for a long while in my corner of the rink after that last game. All the players had cleared the ice and the Zamboni was creating a fresh sheet for the next game. I didn’t want to leave just yet. I guess I just wanted that feeling of being present in a space that both my son and I shared for so many years to not really be over.

It took a while for my son to come out of the dressing room that night. He was one of the last young men to leave the room. When he finally emerged and came into the foyer he dropped his hockey bag and stick and we hugged. It was a lot longer than usual and a lot tighter than normal. Without saying anything we both knew what the game had meant to both of us.

Hockey is a national pastime in Canada. I’ve loved the game since I was old enough to hold a stick and put on a pair of skates. Never in my life did I think the game would give me something so profound and meaningful as a wonderfully deep and impactful relationship with my son.

Moments make memories. My son – and his teammates – gave me a net full of memories that will last a lifetime. I’ll miss the practices, the games and the tournaments but I would never trade it – not even for the most valued hockey card.

Walter Sendzik lives in St. Catharines, Ont.

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