When I was 12 years old, I was on a bus ride back from a weekend hockey tournament with my team. It was one of those trips where a few parents tagged along to chaperone the kids. It was about a four-hour ride home — we had time to kill.
We were on one of those buses with two TVs above the aisle, so that the kids in the front and in the back could watch. About half an hour into the ride one of the dads stood up and said, “Who wants to watch Slap Shot?”
A few kids had heard of it and they cheered. But I just thought:
Slap Shot? Why does that seem familiar?
A few minutes into the movie, I saw why.
What’s with those glasses?
Is … is that … my dad?
To me, my dad was just … Dad. He was never anything different. Growing up, I had no idea that he was this well-known cult hero in the hockey community.
O.K., I sort of knew. But it didn’t fully hit me until we traveled to California from our home in upstate New York for a “hockey trip,” as my dad put it. He told me we were going to Disneyland and to a few Los Angeles Kings games. Of course I wanted to go.
It turns out we were also going to a charity hockey game. The event was organized by the T.J. Martell Foundation and was called Rock ’N the Puck. A lot of current NHL players, and Hollywood celebrities were going to be there. It sounded cool, but seven-year-old me really only wanted to do two things: Go to Disneyland, and meet my hero, Martin Brodeur.
The night of the game, my dad and I and a few of his friends went to the arena. I can still remember everything that happened after that.
We went into the locker room, and there were Wayne Gretzky, Pavel Bure, Chris Chelios and Martin Brodeur — all getting ready for the game. And when my dad walked in, they all stopped what they were doing. One by one they came up to my dad and asked him for his autograph.
All I could think was, What is happening right now?
These hockey legends … were asking my dad for his autograph?
Why do you want his autograph? He’s just Dad.
I’d seen my dad talk to hockey players before, but I never thought anything of it. It was just part of his life. He was the general manager of the Capital District Islanders in upstate New York. They used to be the New York Islanders farm team. I understood he had a life in hockey, but clearly I had no idea what was really going on.
The thing is, he never really explained what had happened that night.
“Bubba,” he said, “that’s just what happens when a bunch of old hockey players get together.”
That side of my dad’s life was sort of a mystery. And that was fine with me. He was my hero, and all heroes need a little bit of mystery.
But the movie on the bus ride pretty much solved that mystery.
I was dumbfounded. My dad was — and still is — one of the most soft spoken people you will ever meet. He’s almost the polar opposite of his character in Slap Shot. I wasn’t upset or sad or anything — just confused.
My parents made it a point to not have the movie around the house. It’s not like we sat down every Sunday night and recited our favorite lines or anything. I had maybe heard the title tossed around a few times, but I didn’t know what it meant.
I remember the bus pulling into the parking lot, where the parents were waiting for us. My mom and dad picked me up. We talked about the weekend of course, and then they asked what we did on the bus.
“We watched Slap Shot!” I yelled.
My dad pulled the car over. I think before he could even say anything I had started grilling them with questions — “Why didn’t you tell me?” and, “Did you actually do that?” Stuff like that. He looked back and tried to go into damage-control mode. “Look, pal. It’s just a movie! It’s all make believe! You know, like cartoons? It’s the same deal.”
Twelve years old is a weird age to discover your dad is a movie star.
I remember going out for my middle school football team a few years later when I was in the eighth grade. I went to a few practices and I had a great time. It was a different experience from my hockey club because I was with my buddies from school, not just the guys from my team. But a few weeks into the training sessions, the coach told me that if I wanted to continue playing football I was going to have to quit hockey.
Quit hockey? I loved playing hockey. I wasn’t going to just give it up for some middle school football team. I didn’t understand that attitude at all, and I still don’t. I had no intention at the time of going pro in football, or hockey.
I just wanted to have fun with my friends, wasn’t that the point? Isn’t that the point?
That’s kind of what I’m trying to say here. I played sports because of the experiences. I played because it meant getting to spend more time with my best friend — my dad.
By default, I focused more on hockey since I didn’t have football in my life anymore. At the end of the day, I guess it was sort of a blessing because it helped me develop my game on the ice. But, at the same time, I believe sports at that age are about much more than wins and losses.
Back then, youth hockey wasn’t even half as intense as it is now. I know parents who monitor their kids caloric intake to ensure they are best prepared to play their specific sport. I mean, that’s crazy. Less than 1% of young athletes go on to play professional sports. You’re going to jeopardize the best part of your kids’ life for those sort of odds?
If my dad had forced me to play hockey, or if it had ever stopped being just a great time with my friends, I probably would have quit. Look, I understand. You have to be dedicated. I sacrificed a lot, and if I hadn’t, I never would have played at the levels I did.
I played because it meant getting to spend more time with my best friend — my dad.
If I hadn’t left my family behind and moved to Kearney, Nebraska, (Google it) to play junior hockey when I was 17, I may never have taken the amazing journey that followed. Don’t knock Kearney. It might be small, but it’s an amazing place. The people of Kearney are some of the nicest people I have ever met. It’s a real trip to get out there, but I cherished every moment I spent in that town.
I was fortunate enough to earn a scholarship two years later to Notre Dame to play for the Fighting Irish.
For a second there, though, I didn’t think I’d even get to Notre Dame. I thought I was on my way to the NHL. Let me explain.
So, you’re draft eligible for the NHL for three years, when you’re 18, 19, and 20 years old. The first year I was eligible for the draft was in 2005, after my second season with the Tri-City Storm in Kearney. I was projected to go in the fourth or fifth round. The NHL Network reached out to me a few weeks before the draft asking if they could do a special on me and Sidney Crosby — to sort of show the juxtaposition between the projected No. 1 pick and a mid-round pick like me. My parents threw a draft party. All of my friends and family were there, as well as the TV crew. It was awesome. It was going really well except….
I wasn’t drafted. At all.
No problem for the NHL Network, though. They still ran the program — before every Thursday night game on the Outdoor Life Network. (Yes, OLN used to show hockey.)
For two months straight.
I’d be sitting in the freshman athlete study hall at Notre Dame on a Thursday night and texts from friends would start rolling in at around 6:30.
“Hey dude! Watching you on OLN with Sid right now. Didn’t know things were going so well, congrats!”
And then, at around 6:52:
“Oh, I’m so sorry man. I had no idea.…”
Every. Single. Thursday. For two months.
Those nights sucked, but it didn’t dampen my experience in South Bend — nothing could. I had visited a few schools before I made my decision, but as soon as I set foot on the campus at Notre Dame, I knew that this was the place. It was like walking through your front door – I was home.
I learned more than I ever expected in my four years there, and one of my most valuable lessons came early on.
I was a healthy scratch in my freshman year for about 22 games. It was a difficult experience. I wanted to keep telling myself that I was going to make it to the NHL one day, but I’m not sure I would have believed it. So I took advantage of my surroundings. I dedicated a lot of time to my degree and to the world-class institution that I was a part of. Everyone feels invincible in college. But the harsh reality is that you’re not, and I knew the real world was coming at me quickly.
I fell in love with math.
One professor in particular, Carl Ackerman, really struck a chord. I can’t imagine it is easy dealing with an auditorium full of college kids as a professor — but Carl got it. On my first day of class, he brought in a Polaroid camera and walked around snapping pictures of every single kid in the room. He then had everybody write their names on the backs of their Polaroids, along with their birthdays and two interesting facts. Carl had three Intro to Finance classes with 100 plus kids each semester, so we’re talking more than 300 Polaroids here. By the second week of class, Carl knew every kid’s face and name — and soon enough he was sending us emails or calling us on the phone on our birthdays. He was committed to you as a person, and it made it really hard to not reciprocate the effort.
I wanted to make sure I had a backup plan, one that involved something I actually enjoyed.
But I hoped I’d never have to use it — and for a while it seemed like I might not have to.
When I was closing in on graduation in 2009, the Toronto Maple Leafs offered me a two-year entry-level contract. I went from playing against the Bemidji State Beavers to making my NHL debut against the Philadelphia Flyers a week later.
You never ever forget your debut.
I remember sitting in the locker room just before warmups. I was trying to clear my thoughts when Martin Gerber walked over to me and said, “Hey, kid. Why don’t you lead us out tonight?” I wasn’t sure what to say. I think I came out with something like, “Uh, no, no. I don’t want to mess up someone’s routine.”
About three seconds later Brad May came over and smacked me on the shins. “You get up right now!” he said. “You’re leading us out there for f****** warmup!”
In Philly, they used to blast Jay-Z when the teams came out on the ice. “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” a classic. My heart was racing at this point. I got on the ice, circled around the net and looked up. That’s when I saw all of the Leafs standing on the bench, laughing their asses off. Same with the Flyers. They let me do about two full laps before they joined me.
After the game the first person I saw — with a huge grin on his face — was my dad.
“Welcome to the NHL, kid.”
Just a few days later I scored my first goal on Martin Brodeur — my childhood hero. I felt on top of the world. In that moment, you can only see what’s in front of you. You can’t see your NHL dream ever ending. But my career was the story not often told. It’s the most typical of pro hockey careers — but the kind no one ever talks about.
I bounced up and down between the AHL and the NHL over the course of seven years. Played in a few other leagues, too. But I just never found the right fit. I knew that same feeling of uncertainty from early days in Notre Dame — and I responded the same way I had in South Bend. I took advantage of my surroundings. I networked and tried to prepare for life after hockey.
And that’s how I found myself where I am now. I’m still involved in sports, and I get to combine it with my passion for math. I work for Sutton Special Risk. We handle insurance policies for several hundred professional hockey players, as well as athletes in other sports. It’s an opportunity I never would have had if I hadn’t used all of the advantages I’ve had in my life.
It’s an opportunity I never would have had if I wasn’t raised the right way. I was taught to love hockey for what it is — a game. It’s a place to build friendships, share experiences and above all, to have fun.
Claus Andersen/Getty Images
Hockey serves as a great connector between those who love the sport.
The game has brought me some of my best friends. I joke with my agent, Jimmy Nice, that the best job he ever got me was the one after hockey.
So, for every kid reading this, I truly hope you make it to the NHL and play 15 years. If you do, please call me — I’ll make sure you have proper insurance coverage. But, for the ones who don’t, cherish your time on the ice. You never know where the game of hockey will take you. Trust me, it will be far beyond a 200-by-85-foot ice surface.
Just enjoy it. Hockey is about all the times on a frozen pond, or at a beer league game.
Or just hanging out with your supercool and mysterious dad.