From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

My Own Thing

Wooden sticks slapping against each other, sharp metal blades cutting through snowy ice and heavy-metal music blaring from the PA system . . . It’s like my very first hockey game remains with me wherever I go.

My father had just been diagnosed with cancer; his life and that of my family was thrown into complete flux. I was thirteen years old, and I couldn’t grasp that my dad’s time on this earth was growing short. There was no fathoming it.

For more than thirty years he was a teacher—he taught science to his classes and life to my sister and me, two jobs he would pour his heart and soul into. Two jobs he was holding on to ever so tightly because he could feel them beginning to slip away.

At the center of my relationship with Dad were sports . . . baseball, basketball, a little football . . . but never hockey. That was, until his school offered a class trip to see the New Jersey Devils.

When Dad first mentioned the idea of going, I was apprehensive. “Hockey? Really? Hockey?” By the time the ticket reservation deadline arrived, Dad had convinced me.

When that cold night in December fell upon us, and the hour of departure neared, my father was alas too ill. His mind said “try,” but it could not deny his weakening body’s ultimate wish to remain in bed. The sense of normalcy he was hoping to provide with this outing was escaping him just like everything else. With a look of mortality in his eyes he said, “I’m sorry, Son. I just can’t make it tonight.” And perhaps even worse, he continued, “Your mother will take you. . . .”

And so I stepped onto a bus filled with a group of impassioned, anxious high-school boys . . . and what felt like a thousand suspicious eyes turned toward my tiny frame. “What is this awkward kid doing on our bus with his mom?” they whispered among each other. A good question, really . . . it was the very same question that was running through my own mind as I slouched in the bus seat next to my equally shy mother. All of a sudden I couldn’t wait for this night to end.

Somewhere between the suburbs of New York and the swamps of New Jersey a much older, intimidating high-school freshman turned toward me and asked the most obvious question on the face of the earth. “You don’t go to Ramapo, do you?” I was too nervous to reply . . . my mother intervened, “This is Neil, Mr. Katcher’s son. It’s his first hockey game.”

“Oh,” responded the boy. “Where’s Mr. Katcher?”

“He’s not feeling well tonight,” my mother replied. The boy nodded and got really quiet for a moment . . . as if he knew about Dad’s condition.

Within moments he started a new conversation, this one about hockey. For one night he would act as a substitute.

As we entered the arena, a shiver passed through me. A sense of excitement was filled with the smell of hot dogs and beer. I was in the Meadowlands. The Brendan Byrne Arena.

As the game began to unfold a few tiers below our discounted seats, my bearings and my instincts began to kick in. I was in the world of sport. Questions started flowing from me. “What’s icing? What’s off-sides? Who’s that guy, he’s good.” I needed to understand this game, and my new mentor was always ready with the knowledge I craved. The game was the fastest, most enthralling sport I had ever witnessed.

I learned that I was watching the underdog New Jersey Devils getting dominated by the big burly Philadelphia Flyers . . . the game flooded through my blood and into my very DNA. Midway through the game there was this one play . . . a defining moment, hour, day in my life. One of the Flyers, maybe it was Peter Zezel, Rick Tocchet or even Tim Kerr, made a spin-o-rama move. With the puck sitting on the blade of his stick, this Flyer made a 360-degree maneuver past a Devil and then fired a shot past a flailing goaltender into the rippling twine!

As the red siren light behind the goals spun, I jumped to my feet. . . . My mentor tugged at me, “Kid, don’t cheer for them. They’re the enemy.” Lost in the game, I replied, “Did you see that?!!”

Upon returning home, I ran as fast I could up the thirteen creaky, carpeted steps to my parents’ bedroom. I called out, “Dad! Dad!” At first there was no answer until I realized he was in the adjoining bathroom. I went right up to the door and knocked, “Dad? Can I come in?”

“No . . . how was the game?” he managed to reply. I must have talked his ear off through that bathroom door. I talked as much as he’s probably heard me talk in my entire thirteen years. The last thing I said was, “What team do you root for?”

“The Rangers,” replied Dad . . . after all, fandom was not something one chose in our family, it was passed down from one generation to the next, like an heirloom. And so, from that moment on, the Rangers became my team . . . and the game of hockey seemed so magical that it could stop time itself.

Over the next five years my father would fight for his life, my family would fight to remain a family . . . and my heart would find its shelter in a 200-foot by 85-foot arena. Inside that space, every season and every game became a reason to dream—if for just a few hours at a time.

Recently, my father lost his battle with cancer, but even as I grow toward adulthood, hockey remains my beacon of hope. And it was that one chilly December night in the swamps of New Jersey that showed me that my father’s spirit would continue to teach and comfort me . . . even in his absence.

Neil Katcher

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