Sorry son, no Blackhawks game tonight!!
The pulsating laser lights and the constantly changing Jumbotron entertainment have always fascinated Michael. But he seemed oblivious to the actual game itself until one amazing day two years ago. Patrick Kane had just gone on the disabled list and during the first game Kaner missed, my son suddenly asked: “Where’s Kane?” I was stunned and asked him to repeat what he had said, and he did. Tears filled my eyes when I realized that a sort of breakthrough had just occurred and that my son apparently was more aware of what was going on during the game than I had ever thought.
The night I dread is coming soon. My son will be standing by the garage door with his small Thomas the Tank Engine bag. It is filled with my 25 year old son’s favorite stuffed animals: Sylvester the Cat, four little beanie baby turtles, a small black and white whale, a large black whale that he calls Shamu, Elmer Fudd, a small shark and his best friend, Bugs Bunny.
What is a 5:11, 225 pound young man doing carrying around a bag of stuffed animals you ask?
It’s because sadly, my son Michael is autistic. And although in his mid twenties, my son is and always will be much like a five-year-old boy. But that only makes my son very special, an angel visited upon my family. He is gift from God, a special celestial present that can only be appreciated by parents once they can move beyond the initial shock, pain, heartbreak and crushing disappointment. Only then can one see the extraordinary blessing that he is and always will be.
But now it is my normally happy and content son who is in pain. He cannot understand the words that I am telling him. How do explain such an abstract term as “lockout” to my son? All he knows is that the schedule he has committed to memory, one of his special gifts, shows that on the night of September 28, 2012, the Chicago Blackhawks will be playing the Detroit Red Wings. That’s all he cares about. Every year for 10 years, we’ve gone to at least 40exhibition, regular season and playoff games.
You see, Blackhawk hockey at the United Center is the only real connection that I have with my son. Getting him out of the house and separating him from watching Sesame Street, Pixar, Disney and Thomas the Tank Engine videos and such is a herculean task. Ah, but Blackhawk games are different. Without my customary, strenuous and sometimes maddening nagging, pleading, coaxing and cajoling, my son showers and trades his regular “uniform” of Lion King and other children’s show theme pajamas for his “road” uniform. That means that he dons a pair of black sweatpants and a long sleeve turtleneck (preferably black) his white Hawk’s jersey with his last name and # 4 on the back, and gathers his “road” stuffed animals and bags them for the trip to the UC.
The next few hours are the only time Michael and I have together, where he displays the almost constant smile of a truly happy child. It seems like we both (I know I do) live for those precious hours together, the only real common bond and connection that his heartbreaking affliction allows.
Our seats are on the glass, directly behind the nets on the west end of the United Center. As a result, we are on television quite a bit, so Michael has become somewhat of a celebrity over the years.
Often, while walking through the concourse, fans recognize my son and ask to be photographed with him. Last year in fact, six fans from Toronto walked down to our seats before a game, and said that they see my son on television all the time and wanted to have their picture taken with him.
Michael has maintained a certain ritual every game for all these years. When we sit down, he takes his stuffed animals out of the bag and carefully places them on the small ledge behind the glass. All the stuffed animals are carefully placed in a pile, with Bugs always on top. Shamu, is always left in the bag unless some of the regular season ticket holders around us ask him to pull him out and wave him in the air for all to see.
Michael’s favorite moments of the game are when his animals go flying when players crash into the boards in front of us.
The Platinum Seats waiter, also named Michael, soon makes his way down to our seats and takes my son’s order: A slice of cheese pizza during the first period, an order of fries during the second, and a box of popcorn for the third. The waiter supplies a steady stream of bottled water (the only beverage he has drunk since he was 7 years old), with straws of course.
Michael has become such a fixture and familiar sight that a number of Blackhawks and visiting players often tap the glass when skating past my son and his animal companions. Michael is also a favorite of the Zamboni crew including regulars like Bob, Tom, Harold and Scott. The wonderful young girls of the Ice Crew always greet Michael and have shown amazing kindness and affection toward him since the first game we ever attended.
That moment was worth many times the price of admission, and I know that the memories of moments like that will someday sustain me when he and I will inevitably live apart. So you see, those dates on an otherwise ordinary hockey schedule are much more than a list of games to us. They are a chance for the very two different worlds that Michael and I inhabit, to intersect and be one, if only for those few hours.
As a businessman, I fully understand the issues that are at stake for the players and owners; I really do. Pitted against one another are players trying to earn as much as they can for careers that average five years or less and team owners striving to make a profit in a sport that is deprived of the lucrative television network contracts that are lavished on the other major sports.
I have great reverence and sympathy for the warring factions and hope that they can reach a true, win-win solution soon. But you see, as it is for the players and owners, it’s also more than a just a game for the fans too. Yes, please don’t ever forget the loyal and rabid fanatics who end up paying for whatever contract is finally agreed upon. Don’t lose sight of the people who compose the nightly SRO crowds who often pay a day’s wages or more to watch the world’s fastest and exciting game. Keep in mind those who worship the greatest of all sports, and after the labor agreement is reached, will forgive and forget as they stream back to hockey arenas in cities spanning two countries. Yes the ever faithful, are anxiously waiting for the season to start, but none so much as an eternal child named Michael.
So during your negotiations perhaps you could occasionally think of that boy waiting by the garage door, clutching his bag full of stuffed animals. Please picture in your mind a scene that will play out with each cancelled game. There will be an autistic young man with pleading eyes, asking: “Daddy, take me daddy, go to hockey game please!” I won’t know what to tell him or how to explain what a lockout is. So please try to feel his (our) pain and hurry up. Michael and Bugs Bunny & Company are waiting.>