Last Updated: April 1, 2009 10:01 AM
Ken Wolff For the Kids
Jeremy Slotkin has a nagging suspicion that he's skating into his nightmare.
In spite of his improved shot, quicker feet, more confidence and the praise of the coach, all of the negativity and fears that took root in last year's tryout are slowly seeping back into his consciousness.
The moment Jeremy walked into the dressing room for this peewee hockey tryout he knew it was going to be a challenge to remain positive. The reality of this experience isn't matching the rosy scenario coach Wally had so carefully planted in his head a few days ago.
It started as soon as Jeremy arrived. Instead of walking into a wide-open dressing room with lots of space to spread out his gear, almost every inch of bench was taken. Jeremy had to squeeze in between two kids he'd never seen before and he couldn't help but notice both of them were a lot taller than him.
Coach Wally had said it would be a small tryout. There wouldn't be nearly as many kids as last year and he would have a real shot at showing off his new skills. Nice try. More than 60 kids were on the ice.
Coach Wally's courting
Jeremy would not have risked the humiliation of another hockey rejection if Coach Wally had not arrived to watch Jeremy's final three games. Coach had tracked him down after the last game just to shake his hand. No adult had ever done that.
Coach even arranged a meeting with Jeremy's dad at the local Hortons and bought him coffee and doughnuts for the family. He virtually begged to have Jeremy show up at the tryout.
With this personal invitation everything was in place for Jeremy's triumphant return to the place where his dreams had been crushed. Now this. It feels like last year. Too many kids on the ice. Not enough instructors and few chances to show your stuff. And just like the last time, Jeremy is one of the smaller skaters on the ice.
Up until now he's been able to swallow those awful reminders of being completely ignored during the tryouts, of the coach not knowing his name and being rudely dismissed at the end of the session. Of being told not to come back for the second skate because it would be a waste of everyone's time.
As he stands there between drills he fights back those vicious flashbacks, although this time there are differences. The drills are the same but his results are reversed. This time there are no falls, no stumbles and the puck seems to be glued to his stick.
Assistants take notice
Every time out Jeremy leads the way. The assistant coaches, the guys who run the drills, notice him. They pat him on the back and follow him through the trials. He can tell they approve of his performance.
Except for Wally, the head coach, the one who makes the decisions. He's always looking away, searching for someone else in the crowd of kids.
With the tryout running down the coaches organize a scrimmage. This is where they can see who can perform under pressure. They make sure Jeremy is on the ice against the kids who were on the team last year. Jeremy knows this is the test.
Almost immediately the puck comes to the opposing winger on Jeremy's side. There is no hesitation as Jeremy positions himself between the player and the puck, just as he's been taught. He rides his opponent into the boards and the puck is his.
He looks ahead and sees a teammate in the opening and feeds a perfect pass. A few moments later there's a scramble in front of the net and Jeremy reaches in to take control. He wins possession, makes a quick move and then wires a shot into the top corner. A brilliant effort.
On his next shift Jeremy steals the puck twice, has a scoring chance and sets up a teammate for a goal. It's working out as Jeremy had envisioned. Still, Wally never looks in his direction.
The whistle sounds to declare the tryout is over. The players kneel at center ice as Coach Wally skates over, a clipboard in his hand. He mumbles how good the tryout has been, congratulates them on working hard and then says he will read the names of the 16 kids who have made the team.
The rink goes quiet. The parents in the stands stop talking. Jeremy studies the gouges in the ice and the snow below his right knee where he kneels. Staying still is the hardest thing he has ever had to do. He chews on his mouthguard.
The first 12 names called are familiar because they are the kids who were on the team last year. Then there are the names of the two goalies. Only two names left.
"Freddie Ballantyne". Jeremy sees the tall kid who sat beside him in the dressing room throw his hands up into the air.
"Scott Huff". He too is big. Huge in fact, kind of like a totem pole. Jeremy remembers him as the kid he easily skated around when they were on the ice together.
"Thanks guys, it was a hard decision." It's Coach Wally again. "Oh yeah, Jeremy Slotnick, I need to talk to you."
Jeremy's mind is swirling. When the last name was called he felt like he was going to throw up. Now there might be a reprieve.
Wait until August
"Jeremy, nice tryout," begins Coach Wally. " I'm glad you came out. You did a good job out there."
"How would you know. You didn't even watch me," thinks Jeremy.
"Here's the thing. I can sign two more kids, but I don't want to do that until August. I think you're good enough and I want you on the team, but I don't know who's going to move into the area during the summer and maybe some AAA kid will want to join us. So I want you to wait until the end of the summer and then I just might sign you then."
Jeremy is not impressed. He scans the rink and sees his anxious dad standing there, hands on the hips and the same look in his eyes as last year when he thought his dad was going to slug Coach Wally.
"Sorry coach, but if you can't sign me now, forget it." He feels like swearing at this man but knows better. He turns to skate away and then stops.
"You know coach, I'm better than either one of those two kids you just picked. And you pretty well promised me a spot. That sucks."