Saturday, my East York Novice Penguins needed a win or a tie to advance to the semi-finals of our Toronto-based house league.
The only problem?
Due to a scheduling conflict, the league was forced to move our crucial game to another date; the same weekend that families of two of our top players had booked March Break vacations. So, with our leading scorer banging back Shirley Temples on a Disney Cruise and one of our most fluid skaters flying down a ski hill at an American resort, we went into battle against the high-scoring Jets.
Making it even more of a challenge?
The Jets needed to beat us to make it to the "Final Four" themselves, so there was no chance of catching them asleep at the wheel. Before the game, I ran into the father of the Jets' top gun; a strapping young lad who looks like he should already be shaving.
"Tayte knows the situation," the hockey dad calmly told me.
"Guys," I addressed our troops in the dressing room, "we all know it's going to be tough. But if each of you works five percent harder, we can make up for the guys who are missing."
It sounded good, but the truth is, I thought we were going to get clobbered.
"My prediction?," I whispered to one of my assistant coaches, "13-3, and not for the guys in the black and gold jerseys."
Of course, as the game got underway, we put on a positive face for the kids. But it looked as if my pessimistic forecast would come true, as we quickly fell behind 5-1. At that moment, I prayed to the hockey gods that my hard-working little guys wouldn't get completely embarrassed.
And then it happened.
All of a sudden, that "five percent" theory seemed to kick in. "King George" Amaro kept us in the game with some scintillating saves; steady defenceman Cole "Indiana" Jones poke checked every Jet in the joint; and one of our top snipers, Aiden "Pitbull" Pitblado, took off on a bunch of hair-raising rushes. In fact, our entire flock of Penguins began to flap their wings and, lo and behold, we battled back.
With one minute on the clock, trailing by one, we pulled our goalie. Unfortunately, with 30 seconds left, we took a tripping penalty. But there was no quit in the "Mighty Penguins" and, with our goalie still on the bench, our five skaters worked the puck down the ice for one last crack at it.
A loose puck!
A Penguin breaks free!
Final score: Jets, 8. Penguins, 7. One heartbreaking goal away from advancing to the semis.
In the dressing room after the tough loss, there were a few tears; understandable for a group of 8-year-olds who played their hearts out.
But 8-year-olds are also a very resilient bunch, and they soon had big smiles on their faces once again.
And why not?
Hey! We had cake!
Realizing this could be our final game of the season, the coaching staff and parents had prepared a "Post Game Penguin Party" complete with cake, refreshments and individual awards for each player.
At the coach's meeting before the season, the league told us the number one goal for each coach was to make sure every youngster had such a good time that they'd want to come back for the next hockey season.
And judging by the cake-frosted smiles on the faces of the Penguins, and the egg on the face of a coach who should never have doubted his special team, I'd say "Mission Accomplished".
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