Remember Why You Play
“You cannot explain how great these experiences are unless you are there to experience them yourself.”
I have a personal story I would like to share with everyone. I grew up watching an older brother trying to pursue hockey. I remember when Joe was 18 years old, 1992-1993, and he found out about Roller Hockey International, the first ever true professional roller hockey league. He knew the league would run from May through August and would mainly consist of Minor League and Professional ice hockey players. But, he didn’t care. He would skate everyday for hours and hours throughout our neighborhood – gloves, stick, skates (Lightening Rollerblades) and headphones - and he’d skate for hours into the night and wake up and do it again the next morning. I remember some days when I would be on the school bus on the way to middle school in the morning and I would look out of the windows and suddenly see Joe skating by. We’d make eye contact for a moment and he’d skate off. Joe would go through a set of wheels in about a week, and Mom and Dad were always there to buy a new set. He sacrificed friends, parties, weekends, girlfriends, even going away to college – just to pursue this dream he had - A dream that nobody at the time, including my family, completely understood. Nobody knew what the league was about or what the future held. My parents supported him but were worried at the same time.
After going to a free-agent tryout in 93’, Joe was asked to attend the Florida Hammerheads training camp a few months later down in Miami. The camp consisted of 32 Minor League ice hockey players – some former NHL players. Joe, now 19 years old, was the only amateur and the only American born player at camp. The roster was going to be cut down from 32 skaters to 18. Our entire family knew it was a long shot. He would get this experience and that would be good enough. Though we believed in him, when facing reality and considering the circumstances, we thought that he had made it pretty far and he’ll be home in a few weeks. Well, the weeks went by and I still remember this day. I was out in the backyard playing basketball with my brother’s friend. My parents received a phone call. Joe gave us the news - that at 19 years old, he had just signed a contract to play Professional Roller Hockey.
I remember going to Connecticut, New Haven Coliseum, for his first ever game – an away game against the Connecticut Coasters. My entire family went, taking up an entire section of about 80 people of family and friends. Well before the game started, I remember walking into the stadium with my father. The stadium seats were slowly beginning to fill up with fans. My Dad and I stared out at the empty surface (smooth concrete surface underneath the ice at NHL stadiums – no Sport Court back then), the thousands of seats . It was just like an NHL game. I just stood there with my father, staring out at the empty surface, the thousands of seats, the music blaring. Dad and I glanced at one another. To this day, we still talk to Joe about the glance we gave one another while standing there.
And then it happened. The players began to take the floor for warm-ups. There he was, 19 years old, skating alongside the rest of the pros. And for the first time, he was one of them. Staring out at him from behind the plexi-glass during those warm-ups - That’s always been my favorite memory of this experience. He made it.
And after the game, I remember standing around with my family and all of the friends that attended the game. We were waiting at the back entrance of the stadium where hundreds of fans waited for the players to come out. Eventually, the players began to exit and the kids swarmed them. And there he was, signing autographs for dozens and dozens of kids. He did it. He believed in it and I think for the first time, everyone realized how much this really meant and nothing else mattered. Even if it was “just roller hockey”. We’ll always know it was much more than that. And to this day, Joe is one of the youngest players to ever play in Roller Hockey International.
Joe was then recruited to play Junior A ice hockey and also played for two more seasons with different teams in the RHI, before pursuing an ice hockey career. Though he only started playing ice hockey in his senior year of high school, his experience in the RHI with professional players quickly adjusted his play on the ice, along with his character. Over the years he jumped from team to team but nothing ever panned out. He tore an ACL one year, was released from two teams mid-season. He could never get a chance. He wasn’t the kid who played ice hockey since 5 yrs.old, played juniors for a few years or played in college, got drafted and goes to a minor league camp. He was a roller hockey player, turned ice at a late age, hoping to get another chance.
Year after year, he tried and tried, refusing to give up. He came very close at times and would soon be let down. I remember one time answering our house phone and the GM of the Edmonton Oilers Minor League team was on the other end. Some coaches would keep him on their roster, then NHL players would get sent down, bumping him off of the roster. And the stories of those coaches telling him to his face – “you are one of the best defensemen we have seen here, but when guys are sent down with contracts, we have no choice. We’ll do our best to send you somewhere else who has room”.
During his days of trying to pursue ice hockey, and during my senior year of high school, Joe and I met many different ice hockey players from Long Island – NHL players, Minor League players, College and Junior players. I had my own plans to go to Nova Scotia, Canada to play Junior Hockey once high school was over and Joe was trying to find a tryout somewhere. Therefore, we would train with these other players all year and throughout the summer. That summer before I was leaving, we trained with everyone. There was Benoit Hogue, Darius Kasparaitis, Peter and Chris Ferraro, Derek King…the list goes on and on. But, there was this one day, Joe and I were heading off of the ice and Peter and Chris Ferraro came up to us. Both of them just finished a season in the Edmonton system at the time, playing for the Oilers and their Minor League club. They introduced themselves and said to Joe, “You could have helped us out last season in Edmonton. We have never seen a defenseman play the way you do.” That was only the beginning of our friendship with the Ferraros. I remember another time when we were training with everyone. We were heading off of the ice and Joe was wearing a Columbus Blue Jackets practice jersey when Derek King approached him and said,
“Hey, Joe. How much did you sign for down there?”
Joe was taken back and responded, “Huh?”
“Down in Columbus. Did they take care of you?”
Joe replied, “I’m not playing there. I’m just wearing the jersey.”
“Where are you playing this year?”
“I’m not playing anywhere.”
King was stunned as his jaw dropped. “Well, you should definitely be playing somewhere. You should be playing in Columbus.”
When the end of August came around, I didn’t go off to college. I was in Nova Scotia, in a very small town, Truro, that was revolved around Junior Ice Hockey. That’s it. It was strictly hockey up there. Having no professional team there, the junior teams were the teams to keep up with. The only American at training camp, one of the smallest players - I knew it was going to be a long road. These players up there were men, ages 16-20, but they were men. Some even had the full grown beards. And they were hockey players, some of them future draft picks. But, I knew I was ready – I was in the best hockey shape I have ever been in and the most confident I ever was.
Well, weeks went by and I had made the team. The season began. We had a 3,000 seat Arena. Our own locker room with our own locker stalls. Tickets were sold for all of the games. Everyone in town knew if you played for the team or not. Our apparel was sold in local stores. And most importantly, college scouts at many of the games. That’s the reason I was up there - hopefully get recruited to an ice hockey school someday.
Well, a few months had passed, and without getting into too much detail, I was caught up in the middle of a local issue and a “numbers game”. There were some local issues with the roster and the roster had to be cut down. It was now me sitting in front of a coach, telling me, “You’re a great player and I would love to keep you here. But, there is nothing I can go at this point. Management has made their decision…You’ll always be a part of this team.”
My coach had written me a recommendation letter for colleges, even explaining the entire situation. But at this point, I was home, wanting nothing to do with the sport. It was the middle of the winter. I could have started college already. My brother was home. I was home, and I felt as if I didn’t want to touch another hockey stick ever again. I saw everything my brother had gone through, struggling to get a chance, and I didn’t want to go through that. I know, looking back now, it was definitely the wrong attitude to have. (Cotinued on next post)