A "Hockey Is For Everyone" Story
What follows, is not so much a hockey story as it is a life story. Along the way, the game of hockey is merely a springboard in it. It has nothing to do with the Montreal Canadiens in any way, as it is from my own personal experiences. Years ago I sent this story to Reader's Digest, and later had it published in a local paper. It is about a 13 year old boy I coached for one season and have never been able to forget about. A series of events of late have brought him back into my thoughts, and I felt this would be as good a time as any to share it with readers.
This story is partly about racism and bullying, but it has more to do with inner strength and self esteem. I felt compelled to bring the story to readers here, because February is "Hockey Is For Everyone" Month in the NHL, and we are all constantly reminded of the changing face of the world we live in.
The coverage earlier this year of Barack Obama's presidential inauguration connected some more dots for me, back to the time of this story. As well, seeing clips of Willie O'Ree on the NHL network, and wondering why it took until 1958 for the color barrier to be broken in hockey, combined with watching a video of Canadiens draftee P.K Subban, off ice and speaking at a middle school, brought this story back to mind.
Anyone who is a Habs fan surely knows a bit about Pernell Karl Subban, the Canadiens promising prospect and now two time winner at the World Junior Championships. I've seen, peripherally, many Canadiens prospects come and go, but I have to say this kid eats up life with a preciously rare display of exhuberance. He enjoys people greatly, loves the challenges life presents, and meets all that the world has to offer with a gleam in his eyes. To see someone so young have so many leadership traits at his age, is to be inspired, quite frankly.
Upon getting a glimpse of these Subban traits, one surely must, as a Habs fan especially, immediately think, "Thank goodness this boy's a Canadiens pick!" I know I've had that thought repeatedly.
P.K. Subban's demeanor reminds me an awful lot of a kid I coached back in the 1996-97 minor hockey season in Cornwall. His name was Ahmed Elseyad, and like Subban, he was a very visible minority in a mostly all - white boys game. From what I have experienced, I understand that with any minority moving into such a realm as hockey, that a mind must be tough, and a skin thick. I'd bet that each season, those traits need to be renewed again and again. The ones able to endure usually have a sturdy support system of friends and solid parenting.
Ahmed was the funniest kid I ever coached. He kept everyone on the team loose with his sense of humour, often picking on himself to beat others to it. He even had a word, a pun, for what he did - he called it "self defecating."
Everywhere Ahmed went, roars of laughter followed. He was an overweight defenseman of Egyptian descent and faith, and everyone on the team enjoyed being around him.
Or so I thought.
Away from the rink, I later learned that he was a constant subject of teasing and bullying. Much of it was hockey related.
I had no idea. None at all. Ahmed burried all that in smiles, real good.
The bullying was just a handful of badasses at school, in with a trio of kids from the team itself that were giving Ahmed the hardest of times. I would never have known that behind his joyfilled eyes was one real sad kid, had he not called me at home one night.
Ahmed didn't call to tell me all this. I had to pull it out of him like emotional mollars. He called to tell me he was quitting the team, and refused to explain why. He just wanted to call out of respect to inform me, because in his words, I had treated him better than his two previous coaches in house league.
Without a further explanation, I told him I could not accept that he was quitting. I pleaded with him not to quit, and told him about everything that I liked about having him on the team.
Ahmed was a terrible defenseman, but every game he tried his hardest and he was always getting better. I had never given him anything other than encouragement. Ahmed cared, and he asked lots of questions because he did.
After sincerely telling him that his leaving would hurt the team on the ice, on the bench and in the dressing room, he opened up and told me everything I needed to know about how he was being treated. I reasoned with him not to give up the game, because that would hardly end the bullish teasings he was getting. That maddening fact would possibly even garner fuel for more.
More importantly, I was thinking about how he would come to feel about himself, if he quit.
So I begged him not to. I made promises to him that I sure intented to keep as far as setting to changing the environment I had control over, but I had doubts whether I sincerely could do as much or not.
Ahmed came back to play for us, and in the end, we were both glad he did.
What occurred to make Ahmed's story so memorable to me was quite a freak incident. I had coached for eight years up to that point, but I never lost a goalie to injury in a game. My cousin Shane Killoran was our goalie, and two games after Ahmed's return, he pulled a ligament during a stretch and was forced from the game. We were only half way through, and needed a replacement quickly.
Ahmed, always wanting to help his team, was the most exhuberant volunteer for the position. He told me had played goalie for two years, and almost demanded to go in. He screamed when I told him to go get some pads on.
The tale turned comedic as soon as he left the ice. The equipement room at the arena was locked, without a custodian in sight. Ahmed resolved to wear Shane's gear head to toe, but he was a whole foot taller and possibly 75 pounds heavier.
I had no idea all this was going on. I was too busy coaching a team with six attackers, trying to maintain a three all tie.
Ahmed was ready to go real fast. He was poised and waiting at a rink entrance door to the ice, when play went on and on for minutes without a whistle. Our team scrambled in our own end for a good long while, as an exasperated Ahmed stood on the other side of his destiny, separated by a fast fogging sheet of glass.
Finally a whistle blew. Our defenseman who been playing goal stopped a point blank shot and froze the puck in his glove in the goal crease. My excitement at getting a stoppage in play was short lived - a penalty shot was called, of course!
Ahmed entered the rink looking like a goalie from outer space. Everything on him was way too small. He would be playing with regular skates as well - not an easy task. With eight minutes left in the third period, his goaltending debut would begin with a penalty shot against the opposing team's player who had scored all three of their goals.
I wanted to close my eyes, but thinking I would never witness such an oddball hockey sight, the other side of me could not resist.
The shooter bore down on Ahmed quite slowly, before picking up a burst of speed closing in, and threw a backhand deke at him. Ahmed did a belly flop lunge for the puck, which was headed overtop of him. None of us at the bench could see where it had ended, but the referees flailing hands were anything but a pointing to the net.
"What's that call?", I asked a player.
"Safe at second base, I think!"
There was no goal. Ahmed rolled over, got up, and did a Statue of Liberty leap. Somehow the puck had ended up in his glove!
The bench pourred off to mug him. I could almost see him smilling from the bench.
There was a little more than seven minutes remaining, and Ahmed stopped all five shots he faced. We scored a fourth goal along the way to win the game, and Ahmed was the day's hero. At the rink, and in the schoolyard for the next couple of days.
Quitting never came up again for Ahmed, but his moment of glory had a great effect on the remainder of his season. With players off his back, his defensive play made a surprising leap forward. He'd gotten much better at putting advice given to good use, and he became a very steady player. Our team improved quite a bit because of him, and I never hesitated to let him know that.
In the end, our season ended with a great play that began with Ahmed, and in a sense it was only fitting.
Shane returned about two weeks later, and we got by during the two game interim with substitute goalies whose pads actually fit. After Shane returned, our team won it's three playoff games and made it all the way into the championship final, but it would be without Shane again. My cousin was off to a National Bowling Championships, something he had been a part of five years longer than his involvment in hockey. He really agonized over where to be on that day, but a national anything is such a great achievement that he couldn't pass it up.
There were thoughts of Ahmed heading back in goal, but this time the stakes were a little too high for him to take the plunge. We were given a substitute, and went off to give it our best.
The final Saturday of the season was called the "Day Of Champions". None of us walking into the arena that morning had any incling of the classic game in which we were about to become involved in.
The schedule that day had a championship game booked for every hour on the hour. Our team played a six period 1-1 tie. The little Bob Turner Center usually sat 50 parents and friends for games, but on this day, there were bound to be more. As this game headed into triple overtime, two extra sets of dressed teams, and their parents filled the small arena.
It was packed to capacity!
After playing close to two hours of hockey, the ice was in horrid shape. They only passed the zamboni at game's end. The condition of the surface hampered the quality of play, and surely contributed to the game's unlikely length.
Starting the sixth period, I gave my players two small orders having to do with the bad ice. I told them that with ice this shabby, they might be better running than trying to glide. The other idea was to lob passes in the air, as carrying the puck had become impossible.
Few of the kids, purely because of natural habits, weren't very adept at putting these new ideas into practice immediately. They kept doing what came natural to them, and failed. With Ahmed, for whom little came natural to, he had an edge for once.
With about two minutes left in the sixth frame, a player on the opposing team seemed to find the last patch of smooth ice and whizzed by Ahmed at the blueline, cutting in towards our goal. Ahmed reacted immediatly, running four big hops to catch up, then diving to slash the puck off the breaking player's stick. He rose, looking like a snowman, and found the puck. With opposing players bearring down on him, he flicked the puck high out of our zone over their heads. He later admitted that it was done out of pure panick.
Luckily for us, a player named Brent Hickey was late coming back on the play. He was still at the opposite blueline as he had fallen down deep in that end. Ahmed's clearing attempt sailed over his Brent's head, bounced and stopped about twenty feet in front of the other team's goal. Brent made two quick gallops for it, and mimicked what Ahmed had just done. He just stepped up to the puck, and without even placing it, just winged it for the goalie's head and somehow it found the back of the net.
I didn't see it happen. I was changing lines when the arena erupted. My kids were going berserk. One slapped me real hard on the back. In a blur, I ran out onto the ice.
Beyond the obvious release that this nerve wracking contest was finally over, a very selfish thought came to me. I had finally won a championship, after nine years.
Because things were running late that day, the on ice ceremonies were a rushed affair. We were given the Bantam Champs trophy, which we could not parade around the ice because of the time and ice conditions. We were handed our individual medals hurriedly, and led off just as fast.
It was then that I realized I had made a mistake earlier on that week. The CMHA league officials had asked me for a head count of the team in order to prepare the number of medals, and I had told them 14 - 12 players, a coach and my assistant. I had completely forgotten to include a medal for Shane, as I had promised him one because I was told both the winners and runners up were to get one.
As we lined up on the ice to get them, the league president came to me first, and dropped it around my neck. He went down the line, giving one to each player, when he ran out of medals with one player left.
Yup, Ahmed. He was off joking with some friends over the glass and was the last to get in line.
What else could I do? I gave Ahmed mine. I figured the league had another and it could be easily replaced. By the year end banquet, I Iearned otherwise. I also learned that I had to give back the trophy as well. In a minute, it all didn't matter much, especially after such a memorable ending to a crazy season.
That was the last year that I coached minor hockey.
Some changes had occurred that made it the right time for me to stop then. I had a two year old daughter that I wanted all the time I could have with. A nasty league hearing with the executive early that season over a suspended player of mine had left a bad lingering taste.
And then, the selfish notion of going out a winner, seemed somewhat fullfilling.
I came back the following autumn and drafted a team, but my heart wasn't in it for the time being. I let it go, and vowed to return one day, either bald or greying, once my children had grown up. I didn't have much hardware to show for my time (a coach of the year plaque and a trophy for winning the B Pool of a tournament in 1988), but I had banked enough memories to last a long time.
In the winter of 2003, I was at a bar one night, shooting some pool with a friend. We were standing around finishing up the night's last brew, when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
"I lied", said the voice behind me.
I turned to find a young man in his early 20's wearing a suit behind me. I had no idea who he was.
"Lots of people do at this time of night", I snapped.
"No, when I told you I had played goalie for two years, I lied. I was only ever a soccer goalie."
"Ahmed?", I clued in.
"You remember me?", he asked, surprised.
"How the heck could I ever forget you!"
I had seen Ahmed all of more time after our final banquet way back then. He was working at his parents convenience store.
"Do you ever think about our last game that year? I do all the time!"
He caught me right off guard. "Do you really? You should. You were quite the hero that day!"
Ahmed looked great. Having gained a whole foot in height, he was real slim looking now. He'd never hear another fat joke. He told me that he'd moved to the west coast with his sister, and was studying law.
"Remember that time I called you up and said I quit the team?", he asked.
"Now that you bring it up, of course I remember."
"You changed my life that day. You turned it around. I've never been the same person since. That's my favorite day of my whole life."
I was stunned. I didn't have any idea what to say to that, or how to react, at first. To this day, I still can't get over that Ahmed said that to me that night. Though I felt undeserving of his kind words, I doubt that anyone has ever said anything to me that struck me like that. It was the ultimate compliment, but I just couldn't wear it.
"How did you know it would have such an effect on my life?"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, now!", I had to slam the breaks on all that. I couldn't figure out how to feel.
Ahmed is a very religious sort. It's his background. He used to give me these sweet Egyptian cookies his Mom made, and we'd talk about Buddhism and creation. He might have believed that my refusing to let him quit hockey back then was some kind of predestined thing or other.
"Honestly, it wasn't a big deal to me. If you were Grant or Aaron or J.P. calling to quit, I'd have done exactly the same thing, and said the same words. I would think that as coach, it would be what I was supposed to do. And if you had quit, I think it would have reflected on me as much. I couldn't let it happen. Plus, I really liked having you on the team. You were just all about fun. Anybody leaving would have messed up a good, fun time. I wasn't trying to do anything other than stop you from being a quitter, and that was what I was there to do."
Ahmed paused for a second, thinking.
"It was you who made all the decisons", I told him. "Turning your life around was all you. You decided not to quit. I'm proud that you say that day means something to you, but it was all your doing. You did it."
He accepted my response, laughing, but with some doubt still.
"You really think that?", he asked.
Ahmed's girlfriend came over and handed me a Budweiser, and he said, "Can I keep you hear a little bit longer?"
"Well I guess I can stay and catch up with you. You just bought me a beer, and I haven't seen you in years!"
"Cool. I'll be back in a minute. I've got to go do something. Don't move, promise?"
"I'm not going anywhere. I have a beer to finish!'
"Great, I'll be right back."
He stopped, and turned towards me again. "You know, you never should have stopped coaching!"
A few minutes later, Ahmed was nowhere in sight. I looked around for him, it was if he vanished like dust into thin air. He was just gone.
As my pool partner had also left, I guzzled my beer. I lived a two block walk from the bar, and it looked like it was raining out. About 15 minutes had passed, and I was walking towards the bartender to drop my empty into a vacant case when a booming voice came over the club P.A. paging me to the main bar at the opposite end of the building.
I freaked a bit. No one's ever paged me at a bar. All I could think was that something bad had happened.
I got to the bar and asked, "You have a call for me?"
"No, I have a package for you!"
Denis, the bartender, hands me a box of Oh Henry chocolate bars. It's all wrapped up with ten laps of Scotch tape, in a furious pattern, as though packaged by an angry ten year old.
"Ahmed", I thought, "He's given me some of his mother's sweet desserts again."
He had once told me, that in his religion, it was one of the greatest kindnessess to offer food in return of friendship lasting.
"Don't open it here", Denis joked, "The guy who dropped it off left in a hurry."
Now I was totally confused. Why would Ahmed depart so abruptly, not return to say goodbye, and leave me a gift of food. I grabbed my jacket from coat check, and took the Oh Henry box home. Once in the kitchen, I couldn't find the scissors, so I placed the box in the fridge. It was a full two days later that I got hungry for the mysterious contents.
With the scissors found in the wrong drawer, I began cutting through the thick tape. It was then that I saw it was in fact transparent hockey sock tape. The box opened, and it was crammed with arabic type newsprint.
At the bottom of the Oh Henry box was a 1996-97 Bantam Champions medal.