A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

Matt Theis (wearing the No. 9 jersey), his 8-year-old twin sons Ryan (27) and Brandon (61), and others watch the New York Rangers hockey team practice at Lake Placid’s Olympic Center in October. (Photo provided — Elise Ruocco, Olympic Regional Development Authority)

I have been a New York Rangers fan my entire life. When I heard that the team was coming to Lake Placid in early October for a pre-season practice, I could hardly contain my excitement. So I did what everyone does today, go to Facebook to figure out how I could see the team. I had no idea that this would lead my family and me to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet the Rangers and some of my all-time favorite hockey players.

Standing in the hallway of the Lake Placid Olympic Center, I wondered what was going through my twin boys’ heads as we greeted some of my heroes as they made their way to their locker room. To their surprise, some even invited them to kick around a soccer ball as they warmed up for practice.

It was hard to contain our excitement

… as the players — to include Chris Kreider, Rich Nash, Marc Staal and Jimmy Vesey — took to the ice, we exchanged more handshakes, high-fives and even a few first bumps; it was hard to contain our excitement.

Ryan Theis, 8, watches the New York Rangers hockey team practice at Lake Placid’s Olympic Center in October. Photo provided — Elise Ruocco, Olympic Regional Development Authority)

More than 500 Rangers fans packed the Olympic Center’s USA Rink, but few were as close to the action as we were, right on center with only the Plexiglas separating us. Growing up, I’ve watched the team play countless times on television and on several occasions at Madison Square Garden, but it’s entirely different when you’re this close to the power and speed of each player.

Like my dad before me, I’m now the father of three boys

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this experience was meaning more to me than to my sons. Yet I’ll bet someday they’ll look back on this and fondly recall the entire day, from the excitement of waking up in the morning and putting on our Rangers jerseys to the surprise of J.T. Miller handing us his stick at the end of practice.

Few things transcend the relationship between father and son than sport. As a young boy, I remember fall Sundays in which my three brothers and I would argue with our father as to whether we could watch the football game over his desire to watch NASCAR racing. It goes without saying that dad usually prevailed.

I reflect upon the countless hours he would spend in the yard as our “all-time pitcher” in wiffle ball. I think about the Saturdays at the ballpark, him standing behind home plate of three little league baseball fields watching us play in three separate games. He never was a great communicator, yet when we were playing sports, he didn’t need to be.

Like my dad before me, I’m now the father of three boys and I’m the “all-time” pitcher for my sons’ wiffle ball games. I often have the youngest, the 1-year-old, tucked into my left arm while pitching to my 8-year-old twins, pursuing base hits around the yard as they round the bases. Truth is, I don’t mind. I know I’ll most likely be chasing down the next pitch too.

Win or lose with grace

I think it’s the determination I see in their young faces when they swing the bat, or the smile on their faces when they score a goal in hockey. But mostly I have the greatest enjoyment helping them get better at the sports I love.

Every fall, the boys and I build an ice hockey rink in the front yard. I’ve shoveled that rink far more times than they have skated on it, but I’m really not keeping score. I know that there are at least one to two more memories to be made each winter from that rink. I also look forward to someday watching them play competitive hockey alongside their friends, honing their skills, working on the intangibles of life such as effort, desire and teamwork. That’s when I’ll know that what I have done for them was all worth it.

I never considered my father to be a gifted athlete, and I doubt my boys see me as one, either. They believe they can outrun me … that’s until I outrun them after catching the football. I don’t want to let them win all the time; I don’t believe it teaches them about everyday life.

They don’t seem to mind, and what I hope they see is a father who cares and wants to help them excel by working on their game. Like my father, I hope to teach them how to be a good sport and win or lose with grace.

Matt Theis was born in South Glens Falls and lives in Lake Clear. His favorite hockey player was Adam Graves, who played for both the Rangers and the Adirondack Red Wings, who were based in Glens Falls while Matt was a young boy. This essay was first published on www.whiteface.com.

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