Both of my parents were college athletes, my mom played hockey and soccer and my dad played hockey. Growing up, their athleticism was always a huge motivator for my brothers and me. We played on multiple sports teams every season and during the summer went to countless summer camps and showcases.
But we always wanted more, we all had a dream to play collegiate hockey, and my brothers wanted to continue to the NHL. We all knew that my dad had only played two years of college hockey, but we’d never really pushed the topic, fearing it was a sensitive subject. Finally, we were too curious to hold it in, and my brothers wanted answers. My dad is a hockey coach, he currently coaches mens hockey at UNH so clearly hockey has always been a way of life for him, and lack of knowledge was not an explanation for him ending his hockey career early. We wanted to know why he chose to coach and not continue playing.
Unfortunately the story we got was nothing short of tragic to us:
His whole life my dad has always been supremely talented as a hockey player, we knew that. As a fifth grader he played on his town’s high school team and was easily their best played, beating out his two older brothers.
He focused his entire career at Phillips Exeter and St. John’s Prep and then back to Exeter (as a PG), on hockey. His grades were less than impressive, but his hockey talent was undeniable. He was scouted to all the top schools and finally decided on Dartmouth. His first year he was voted “Rookie of the year” and his second he was top scorer on his team, even though he didn’t play the second half of the season. He began talking to scouts and it seemed that his hockey career was just getting started as the Capitals were offering him a spot on their roster. For my dad, college was a place to get better at hockey before beginning his real career. Simply put it was a stepping stone, not the destination.
Flash forward to his sophomore year, middle of the season January 19, 1983 with 8 seconds left in their game against Yale. They were losing 8-2, frustrated, my dad decided to take matters into his own hands. He jumped onto the ice, even though it wasn’t shift and out of no where one of Yale’s bulky power forwards slammed him head first into the boards. He collapsed. He couldn’t move.
After he was rushed to the hospital, the news was shared with his parents: he had broken neck and had a spinal concussion (he had had a congenital fusion in his neck and it had cracked on impact). Fortunately he wasn’t paralyzed but he had temporarily lost his reflexes and was bed bound for six weeks, unable to walk. The severity of the injury hadn’t sunk in though and when he was finally released from the hospital he went to meet with his doctor, expecting to be cleared for practice, and instead the future he had always expected was shattered.
“You will never play hockey again”
For the remainder of the year my dad was depressed, sitting in the stands and watching his team play and sitting in the locker room between periods watching them getting psyched up but unable to do anything to help. He had nothing to live for, the only reason he had even gone to college was so that he could play in the NHL, he wanted to drop out, nothing mattered. Then, in an attempt to save my dad from spiraling into a deeper depression, and get him more involved in hockey, the only thing he had ever truly loved, the JV coaches offered him a job as head coach. He accepted and has been coaching ever since.
My brothers and I were mortified. My poor dad we thought, his whole life had been taking away from him prematurely. We wanted to know who hit him, we wanted to find him and yell at him, get some payback, break that guy’s neck, see how he liked it. We didn’t understand how my dad was so calm, and how he seemed to just accept his fate. No matter how many different ways he explained that he was happy, and fortunate that it hadn’t been worse, I never truly believed him until recently. He is never more alive then when he’s standing on the bench yelling at the refs, directing plays, watching video, planning practice, interacting with the team and talking about hockey. Contrary to what my brothers and I believed, he is happy coaching, not securely depressed that he never got to play.
My dad’s love for the game has inspired me even more then his athletic career, and every time I have a bad practice or play poorly, I always try to remind myself that in the end, it’s my love for the game, not my talent or future in the sport that really matters.
… and he still plays (against strict doctor’s orders)..