Little Man, Big Dreams

Like most kids his age, Michael Linder dreams of one day playing in the NHL. Or suiting up for the Boston Red Sox. Or maybe even becoming an Olympic wrestler.

But it's hockey that occupies the lion's share of this 11-year-old's time.

A typical day starts with an early-morning game of knee hockey. If his twin brother, Jack, or older brother, Billy, aren't around, Michael is stickhandling through the chairs and table legs in his Branford, Conn., home. After school, the fourth grader at Francis Walsh Intermediate School can be found watching hockey highlights on his computer, or outside playing street hockey in a nearby cul-de-sac.

The brothers are often joined by Zack Jones, a neighbor who plays on the varsity high school team, for a 2-on-2 game. The stakes are high with their own version of the Stanley Cup up for grabs, and emotions can run hot when it comes down to crunch time, which often coincides with dinner time.

"They don't cut Michael any slack," says his father, Dennis. "If Michael misses a pass, Zack will tear him up."

Michael gives no quarter, and expects none in return. That's just the way it is when NHL dreams are on the line.

But the odds of those dreams coming true might be even steeper for Michael, who happens to be a dwarf. Not that that's stopping him from aiming high.

Those who know him best aren't ready to bet against him.

"He has the same dreams as his average-height peers," says his mother, Megan. "He's 100 percent convinced he'll be the first little person in the NHL. There's nothing you can tell him to make him think otherwise. And why would I?"

Like most dedicated hockey parents, the Linders spend most nights during the season helping their children's dreams take flight. They shuttle the three boys back and forth to various practices and games within the Yale Youth Hockey Association. It's a full-time job that takes precision planning that would make an Army logistics officer envious.

On one Saturday in early December, the Linder family maneuvers are in full swing with back-to-back games at the Northford Ice Pavilion. Michael is on the ice for an early afternoon game against Greenwich while Jack waits on deck. Elsewhere, Billy is playing in a Bantam game.

The day actually kicked off several hours earlier with Michael competing in a wrestling match, where he pinned a bigger opponent in 30 seconds. Like so many active youngsters, Michael finds his various activities fit together like an athletic jigsaw puzzle.

"Playing hockey makes me a better wrestler, and wrestling makes me a better hockey player," says Michael, who is second baseman on a local Little League team.

As his parents watch Michael's game from a perch overlooking the ice, Jack is stickhandling and shooting against the wall in a vacant part of the rink. His stick is adorned with pink and green tape. The pink represents Breast Cancer Awareness, the green signifies Dwarfism Awareness.

Jack was born first, a fact he never tires of telling.

"The best 10 minutes of my life," he jokes. Michael came next. It wasn't until he was 8 months old that his parents learned he had dwarfism, a genetic or medical condition that impacts the development of the bones, thereby impacting a person's growth.

Like most twins, Jack and Michael are pretty much inseparable. One of the few times they're apart is on the ice, where Jack plays for the A team and Michael is on the B squad.

Their hockey careers got off to an auspicious start as their first foray on the ice lasted only a couple of minutes.

"They got out on the ice, did a lap around the rink and came back to the bench and said 'We're done,'" Dennis laughs. "They thought it was easy because they saw their brother do it."

The boys built their confidence by roller blading around the neighborhood and eventually made their way back to the ice.

After a strong season in 2015-16, one in which Michael scored 36 goals, including a hat trick, this campaign is off to a shaky start. At least by his high standards.

In September Michael underwent his second surgery to correct the bowing in his legs. The metal plates attached to the bones by 10 screws are designed to help straighten his legs as his body continues to grow.

He quickly found his way back on the ice, but returning to competition took a little longer. Still, Michael is back at his center position, even taking key face offs late in a one-goal game.

His coach, Eric Gateman, has worked with Michael for two seasons, and has as much confidence in him as any player on the team.           

"Michael's an A player trapped in his body," Gateman says. "But I don't treat him any differently from any other player. I wouldn't even know how to treat him differently.

"We definitely don't baby him, that's for sure."

The same holds true for his teammates. Practices can get pretty physical, even in the non-check world of 12 & Under hockey. Michael's teammates know that if they knock him down going for the puck, he's going to pop right back up and go at them twice as hard.

Despite his passion and desire, it won't be long until Michael is standing at a crossroads in his hockey career. With one full season remaining at the 12U level, it won't be long until the family is faced with the prospect of Michael having to join a league that allows body checking.

While there's nowhere in the USA Hockey rules that says that players have to start body checking at the 14 & Under level, but few associations around the country have gone with a non-checking option.

For now the Linders will continue to live in the moment.

"No matter what the future holds, we'll just take that one day at a time," Dennis says.

As for Michael, he'll continue playing his game, scoring goals and having fun. And he'll continue to battle his brothers and friends on the ice, in the driveway and anywhere else his passion for the game takes him.

And that suits his parents just fine.

"We feel that somehow, Michael will always have a hand in the sport," Megan says. "It may not be in the traditional way, but he loves hockey so much I just think it will always be a part of his life."




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