When the nurses make his friends leave, and Jack is alone with what Leslie calls their "new normal," they both struggle. "He said, 'Mom, hockey was my whole life. If I can't play hockey, what is there to live for?'"
She brushes aside her tears. "Now I wonder if we let him love it too much."
In my mind, hockey is a game kids play while they go to school. The point is to have fun, make friends and then put the skates to the side and start real life. But one day last spring, my phone rang and on the other end was John LaFontaine, a hockey coach at the elite boarding school in Faribault, Minn., Shattuck--St. Mary's—where Sidney Crosby played for one season nearly a decade ago—telling me he'd like Cade to come play for him. I scribble down his words: "Quick hands. Good in corners. Sees the ice."
Cade has asked us to let him go to Shattuck. Every time he asks, I laugh it off. He goes to Blake, a small Minneapolis prep school where he is getting a first-class education. He isn't going anywhere. "Mom, can you please think about it?" he asks again on the way to practice.
"No, Cade, we've talked about this."
"Mom, please. You have talked about this. I think I have something special. I want a chance to see what I can do."
"Cade, this is a game. You're going to go to college and have a career. That's what Dad and I want for you."
"Exactly," he says. "That is your dream. That's not my dream. Please let me go."
How did we get here? What happened to the little boys who have been coming to my house since they were five? There are toothbrushes in my bathroom with their names in fading permanent marker: Connor, Bauer, Johnny, Justin. When they first skated, wearing equipment twice their size, they felt like gladiators. We buckled them in seatbelts and drove them to rinks where we strapped on helmets and cheered even when they shot and swung their sticks so high they missed the ice by a foot and landed on their butts. For years I have watched them navigate boy world—taunting, teasing, bragging. There, they learn the difference between a diss that stings and one that wounds. They find the strength to say, I've had enough. They find the courage to say, I'm sorry. They discover the comfort of trust. They forge deep friendships. They figure out who they are. At home on the Internet, I find a comment from Shattuck hockey director Tom Ward about overprotective parents. "What happens when they finally let go is that the kid evolves," he says. "They go from boy to man."
There have always been rivalries and grudges in Minnesota hockey. There are basic philosophical disagreements, too. After Jack's injury, those who are determined to refocus the game on skill instead of scrappiness—and thus make it safer—prepare for a fight from the old-schoolers who want to protect hockey's tough-guy traditions. But there is no fight. On Tuesday, Jan. 10, in Brooklyn Center, Minn., an advisory committee that includes MSHSL administrators and heads of the coaches' and officials' associations from around the state recommends tougher penalties (for both boys and girls) for three of hockey's most dangerous infractions: checking from behind, boarding and head contact. Each will now draw at least a five-minute major. The National Federation of State High School Associations approves the changes, which so far only affect hockey in Minnesota, in less than 24 hours. Just like that, in the middle of the season, hockey's power brokers have changed the game at the high school level. Teams will have to learn to win with skill and finesse, not violence. Hal Tearse, safety chief of Minnesota Hockey, which adopted similar changes on Jan. 22, calls it "a worthy endeavor. I suspect there will be pushback."