The players had shaken hands. The crowd was filing out. A few were having trouble getting to their feet, a sign that the dollar beer night promotion had been a success. It was such a little thing.
I try to go to two or three hockey games a year. The excitement, speed, and energy of the sport cannot be captured on television, especially if you get a seat on the glass. Hockey at its best is a pure joy to watch. This had not been one of those games. The game had been a blow out, 8-3. The local team, in a down year, had agreed to play the United States’ Junior Olympic team and been trounced.
Dollar beer night had not helped matters much. The crowd turned ugly very early on. I knew it was going to be a long night very early on when I spied a bushy bearded man dressed in just overalls, no shoes, no shirt, just overalls, carrying twelve one-liter cups of beer back to his seat. He was alone.
I even tried to make the best of one of my former students sitting behind me and recognizing me, even though I pulled my navy blue ball cap down over my eyes to remain unnoticed. My concealment efforts were in vain. I introduced him to the young woman I was with as one of the brightest students I ever had the pleasure of instructing.
He jostled her with his flask, shook it, asked if she wanted a hit. I gave her that defeated look to let her know that I had taught more than my fair share of idiots. His ladylove spent the first period vomiting into her purse. If I wanted to see the woman I was with again, it might be best to move. I am sensitive that way. Okay, it was their spilled beer soaking my date’s jeans that lead me to conclude that it might be best if we move. Making an excuse to my friend and his girlfriend, we found new seats a few sections away. Even though it was a lopsided affair, I made the best of things, wondering to myself if I might be watching some future NHL superstar or a kid who someday might be draped in an American flag, sweaty and exhausted, winning Olympic gold for our country.
I remembered being an elementary school kid, laying in front of the television, surrounded by my brothers and dad, on a Saturday afternoon in 1980 as we watched a bunch of American college amateurs taking on the greatest hockey team in the world, the Russians. I can still describe ever moment of that game. How the US fell behind early when a slap shot by Alexei Kasatonov got past our goaltender, Jim Craig, around the nine-minute mark. Then how Mark Johnson fired the puck into the Russian net with one second left in the first period to tie it the game, 2-2.
The Soviets dominated the second period, but only scored one goal for their efforts. What happened next was one of the most amazing moments in sport. These ragtag kids scored twice on the unbeatable Soviet machine. With exactly ten minutes left to play, the Americans somehow held them off.
As Al Michaels screamed, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes,” my brothers and I leaped out of our chairs. With joy and excitement we jumped up and down, it was as if our legs could have carried us to the stars and back. The game I was watching in this arena was not even close to that moment. As the profanity rained down around us, I was just happy there were not many children in crowd. There were a handful in one section, but they were far enough from the abusive language that I doubt they could make out what was being screamed.
The only other kid there was a little boy in a wheelchair. One look at his facial features let a person know that his special needs went well beyond the chair he was sitting in. His father, who was sitting in a folding chair next to him, had that exhausted look that parents of those children often possess, those lines that come with the daily battles and struggles that no one else understands. With the arena built long before people took into account people with disabilities, a place had been made near the glass where the players entered and exited the ice for them.
By the final period, I was in a foul mood. The crowd was screaming every insult they could think of at the young men representing America. They might have loved their country, but they bled and sported the colors of the local team and what they were bleeding stunk of alcohol from every pore.
There are moments you hate being of the human species. As the buzzer announced the end of the game, it was one of those moments for me. It is easy to get dismissive of humanity. I vowed that I would never go to another sporting event again.
As the players skated off the ice, I closed my eyes to gather myself for the upcoming traffic, given the beer consumed that evening by those around me. At that moment, the woman I was with said, “oh, look.” Looking up, I noticed one of the Team USA kids had stopped on his way back to the locker room. He had noticed the boy in the wheelchair. This young man, who had played three long periods before a hostile crowd, stood there for just a moment, but it seemed like forever to me. He then walked on his skates over to the father and son. Kneeling down next to the wheelchair, he smiled at the child and peeled off his jersey, revealing his a sweaty gray t-shirt and shoulder pads. He then handed the wheelchair-bound boy his jersey.
I couldn’t see his face, but I could see the boy’s and his father’s. That boy had that same look that my brothers and I had back in 1980 watching America beat the Russians, only the joy was tenfold, the jubilation radiating out from the boy. The father had tears rolling down his face, as if a faucet of emotion long forgotten had been turned on.
It was such a small moment. What was it, $80 worth of material? Not much. Watching that little boy hug that young player with everything he had and his father’s expression had vaporized all that weight off his shoulders. Small moments are often all we have.
It is in these small moments when the ugliness of life falls away. Hope is found in such little things as manners and courtesy, of kindness and decency, in notes of appreciation and condolence, in “thank you” and “I love you,” and moments that rarely make the evening news. If you look at your life you will agree.
Trevor Soderstrum was born and raised in Story City. He’s been writing columns for about a decade and attended the summer session of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.