Enthusiasm for the tournament was already low. It was a long season, families were tired, and no one was thrilled about making yet another trip to the east side of the state. Now, the long drive seemed even longer with the underlying somberness of what we had just learned.
Our team had a game Friday night — the same time that Grandville’s hockey team was to play their state semifinal, but now without their captain, Ryan Fischer, the boy who had passed away.
Our coach was not with us, because our coach happens to also be the Grandville High School coach.
Slowly, parents gathered in the stands. A few families from our team knew the Fischers. Our coach’s son had become close with Ryan over the years. But he had made the trip with another family, and we watched with quiet sadness as he, and the rest of our team, took the ice that night, wearing hockey tape across the front of their helmets with the words “R.I.P. Ryan.”
Needless to say, they didn’t play well. They looked scattered, tired and unfocused — obviously understandable. They were able to go on and win regardless, and tried to regroup for the next game. But, in the following morning’s game, they did not look any better, and actually played even worse.
We ate lunch as a team, then afterward the boys gathered together for a phone call from their pained, yet caring coach. After their talk, the boys decided to meet on their own, made a list of what they wanted to accomplish and rallied together.
When they skated out on the ice for their game that night, they were still a team without their coach, and with heavy hearts — but they were now a team with a mission. They were going to win for Ryan.
They had added to each of their helmet’s the words “Play for #11,” Ryan Fischer’s jersey number. And what we witnessed next was quite clearly the best game that they had played all year.
This group of 13-year-old boys, with maturity and compassion beyond their years, pulled themselves up and united together in such a way that suddenly the mood had shifted. Instead of the dispassion we had all been feeling, the desire to win took over. Not for the glory, not for a trophy, not just for these boys, but for Ryan.
They met alone again before the championship game on Sunday, and when the buzzer sounded at the end of the third period, the scoreboard read 5-1. They had won the tournament.
I watched as they threw their sticks and gloves in the air and tackled their goalie in celebration. I have witnessed this scene before, but this time it was different. We all knew it. We all felt it.
In the wake of tragedy, the outpouring of care and support from our surrounding communities is always amazing and incredibly touching. In this case, it was especially so within the hockey community itself.
There is a special bond that hockey families have. Maybe it’s the commonality of a long season, lugging around smelly equipment, or the days and nights spent in ice-cold rinks.
Whatever it is, there is a feeling that we are all in this together. It’s always been like that. But never was it more apparent than it was on the weekend of March 7-9.
I tearfully watched the news clip of the opposing team joining Grandville’s team in prayer after their big game. I saw that hosts of hockey players from rival area schools attended Ryan Fischer’s prayer service. And I took pictures of a small group of 13-year-olds holding up their “No. 1” fingers side-by-side to form an “11.”
There is a new trophy in the showcase at Walker Ice Arena, but it doesn’t look like any of the others. That’s because, covering every square inch of its shiny exterior are grubby pieces of old hockey tape torn from kids’ helmets with the words, “R.I.P. Ryan” and ”Play for #11” scrawled all over them.
It is without a doubt the most beautiful trophy you’ll ever see.
— By Kelly Kalis, Tribune community columnist