GOALIE — NORFOLK ADMIRALS
010 was my senior year at Scituate High School. My draft year. Not that I was going to be drafted. Those hopes had ended years ago. I hadn’t been invited out to LA, and I wasn’t sitting next to my phone with family. There was no call coming, and I was ok with that. I wasn’t one of those kids. I knew that. But it was a weird feeling. I was at a friend’s house talking about how crazy it was that kids our age were being drafted and that was the first moment I really said to myself, “I didn’t make it.”
I didn’t start playing goalie because I planned on making it into a career. I started because I loved the game. I lived for early morning wake-ups that couldn’t come soon enough, driving to the rink with my dad before any sign of the sun and stopping at Dunkies so he could grab a coffee, the smell of the cold rink at 6am as the rink manager flicked on the lights for us. It was all so perfect to me, and came so naturally. As I fell in love with the sport, I was drawn to the goaltending position. I had always been defensive-minded, and I took advantage of every opportunity to throw on the pads. We had an old set that we took turns wearing in Mite hockey, every player getting a chance at a game between the pipes.
It felt right.
I told my dad I wanted to be a goalie full time, and he said it was just a phase. I disagreed. So when our goalie quit our under-10 town team, I took full advantage. We needed a goalie, and I wanted to play. My dad caved and bought me a used set of pads and gloves off the family of an older goalie nearby. There was no looking back for me.
Off the ice, I looked for any opportunity to play. I was lucky enough to have a neighbor who loved hockey as much as I did. Brendan lived next door, and he was my idol. He was six years older than me and always playing hockey at the highest level. It was perfect. We spent countless hours in my driveway and in his basement, breakaway after breakaway, perfecting my poke check and flashing my Mylec glove. When he would have friends over, they would come knocking. I’d be in the garage putting my pads on before my mom answered the door.
When Brendan wasn’t around, I had to figure out how to shoot on myself. To my mom’s delight, I found my solution in the kitchen. The square shape was perfect. The 6 feet of cabinets behind me were the net, with 6 feet of cabinets on both sides meeting my goal at 90 degrees. Those corners were the posts and the countertop was the crossbar. My puck was a small bouncy ball I would shoot off the cabinets across from me.
It started as just the ball and a mini goalie stick. But I needed pads; I found some old pillows and attached them to my legs with string. Still, I needed gloves. My mom had two sets of oven mitts and I decided one would be plenty for her. On the right mitt, I super glued a piece of cardboard for a blocker. On the left, I made a pocket out of cardboard and paper, perfect for corralling that little bouncy ball. My set was complete. Almost every day, I would get home from school and go straight to the kitchen, firing the ball off the cabinets and doing anything I could to stop it from hitting the cabinets behind me. Play didn’t even stop when my mom was cooking.
I couldn’t get enough. I won the Stanley Cup over and over in that kitchen: 65-save shutouts in game 7, pad stacks at the buzzer, back door glove saves to bring a Cup back to Boston. I wanted to be an NHL goalie, and the 2010 draft was a reminder that I wouldn’t be.
I applied to some colleges, but I had my heart set on junior hockey. The Bay State Breakers reached out to me near the end of my senior year and told me I had a lot of potential and could play for their Junior B team the coming year. With most of my friends and classmates moving onto college, it was a leap of faith, but one that I was excited to take.
No schoolwork, just hockey. I would sleep in, hours after my parents had gone off to work, drive to the rink for practice, work out, and be home for dinner. Our team was full of kids just like me. We had more free time than we knew what to do with and we all shared a common goal of playing in college. When we found out the ice was open all day, we jumped at the opportunity. A bunch of us would get to the rink early, skate for an hour or two, then hang out in the locker room until our three o’clock practice.
We were living the dream. My coaches told me I had Division 1 potential, and it was exciting to think about playing in the Beanpot or receiving a scholarship at a top program. After a good first year, I signed a contract with the Junior A team for the next season. I had my sights set on playing college hockey, but my final year of junior hockey was nothing short of a nightmare.
When preseason started, Ivy League schools were expressing some interest in me. I thought it would be incredible to play hockey at such great schools. But I was barely playing, and Ivy League talks turned into Division 3 NESCAC talks. I was traded to a team where I played even less, and any opportunity to play in college seemed unlikely. I emailed coaches at schools with good academics, hoping my grades could help get me somewhere. The leap of faith I had taken was blowing up in my face, and I started to feel like my hockey career would soon be over.
I had accepted that I was done; I was okay with enjoying the rest of my experience and moving on. But my goalie coach, Jeff Cohen, believed in me. He told me I was good enough to play at the next level, spent extra time with me, and made a couple calls. He knew the coaches at Babson College, and asked them to come watch me in practice. I didn’t know who was there or when, but he always told me to give everything I had in practice because “you never know who is watching.”
I spent game after game on the bench, and was even told I didn’t have to dress if I didn’t want to. But I wanted to be out there. I felt like sitting in the stands would be the final straw in my career, and if opening the door was the only way for me to be seen out there, then I would be the best at opening that door. I was finally given the chance to play: a revenge game against my former team. I knew there were scouts in the stands, and one was there to watch me. We won, and the next day I committed to Babson College. What started as a disappointing and frustrating season turned into the best opportunity of my life.
“I didn’t start playing goalie because I planned on making it into a career.
I started because I loved the game.”
I started at Babson in 2012 as an almost-21-year-old freshman, excited to experience a new chapter in my life and happy to be a part of a college hockey team. It was surreal and at times overwhelming. I felt like I was in over my head, but I was lucky enough to be joining a family, not just a hockey team.
My first start came in the third game of the season. I played well in a tie, and earned the next start. Our senior captain won the job back in the second half of the season, and led our team to a league championship. It was a relief to see such a great kid end his career on a high note, and I got the experience I needed to take over the next season. I hadn’t been a true starter since high school, but I was given every opportunity to succeed. I had matured a lot in the last few years, and felt comfortable in my role. That year we made it back to back championships, and I was proud to be a part of it. And when the end of the year awards came out, I was named First Team All-American.
Not too long ago, I had attended a motivational speech at my high school. We were given a piece of wood and told to write a goal on it. I was embarrassed to write “All-American” because I felt like it was too big of a goal, but I wrote it anyway. As we focused on achieving our goal, we broke the wood in half. I kept it in my closet as a reminder of what I wanted to achieve, but I never really expected to actually get there. That summer, I pulled it out and held it in my hands. Two years after almost giving up hockey, I was an All-American.
Junior year brought more of the same. I felt confident in net and our team was winning a lot of games. But it was after a loss that things started to change. We had just lost to UMass Boston in a hard-fought game at their rink. I had played pretty well, but not well enough to win. I was greeted by my family in the lobby with the usual “good game” remarks and support, but my dad added that a Pittsburgh Penguins scout had been at the game to watch me play. Woah. I tried to come to terms with how that could be possible. I was just a D3 kid having a couple good seasons. But one of the parents knew him, and confirmed he was there to watch me.
The season continued with some rumors of other NHL scouts at games, until an overtime loss in the league championship ended our season. I walked into my end-of-year meeting with Coach Rice a few days later, and he told me the Tampa Bay Lightning would be inviting me to their development camp. I asked if he was kidding and tried to wrap my head around what was happening. NHL development camps are for draft picks and top free agent prospects. That wasn’t supposed to be me; I had accepted it years ago. I stepped out of the rink with adrenaline flowing through my body and called my dad. I couldn’t stop smiling, and it was obvious how excited he was. Telling him I was invited to an NHL camp was a moment I had given up on so long ago, and a feeling I’ll never forget.
I showed up to the week-long camp that summer eager to prove myself. I knew I had a small window of opportunity to show them I could play with the best, and also represent all of Division 3 hockey. On the first day, Steve Yzerman was waiting for me by my locker. He introduced himself—which was obviously unnecessary—and made me feel welcome.
At 23, I was the elder of the group, having taken a much different path than the rest of the talent in the room. But he told me how excited he was for me, and emphasized that I enjoy everything and make the most of the opportunity. I practiced every day with a chip on my shoulder and finished as the best statistical goaltender in the 3-on-3 tournament to end camp. It turned a lot of heads, both on and off the ice. And as confident as I had been in my abilities, it was a surprise to me, too. I wasn’t supposed to play at this level, but there I was.
Senior year brought more games with NHL scouts, and another overtime loss in the championship ended my college career. The next morning, I woke up to a call from my would-be agent. He told me the San Jose Sharks wanted me to fly out to join their team and sign an AHL contract. Signing an AHL contract is almost unheard of out of a Division 3 school. I called my parents and they drove to school that night to celebrate. We reminisced about my early days of hockey, my college career, and how crazy it was that I would be getting paid to play the game I love.
Two days later I was in California skating with the team. I worked with their goalie coach, Evgeni Nabokov, a former NHL All-Star and someone I had idolized growing up. After a few days, I was assigned to their AA affiliate, the Allen Americans of the ECHL, to play a few games before returning to school to graduate. My third day there, I made my first professional start. It was a moment that I had dreamed about as a kid. It wasn’t the Garden in Boston, but it didn’t matter. I had made it, and it was only the start of my journey.
For the first summer in a long time, I didn’t work. I trained. This was professional hockey and I had an opportunity I couldn’t take lightly. Every day started in the gym, working to get better and ready for camp in September. After a summer of anticipation, I left for NHL Rookie Camp. I started the second of our two games, wearing the San Jose Sharks jersey. What a feeling.
I may never get an NHL start, and that Rookie game may be the closest I ever get, but it’s something. NHL main camp followed, with all the big-time guys arriving. I squared up against Martin Jones in a scrimmage, made a back door save on Patrick Marleau, and took extra shots from Joe Thornton, who I used to watch play for the Bruins. We were treated like kings. The equipment managers took care of our on-ice needs. Athletic trainers supported us off the ice. Meals were prepared for us. It was a taste of the NHL lifestyle, and it was surreal.
A few weeks later I was assigned to Allen, where I had made my first pro start just months before. I expected to start there, but I had my mind set on moving up. First game, shutout. I felt confident, and excited for a great first year playing professionally. Second game, 3 goals. Not bad. Third game, 3 goals. Next game, 4 goals. Then 6. Then 5. What was going on? For the first time in my hockey career, I was consistently struggling. If I didn’t make the NHL it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but I wanted to prove to myself I didn’t get to this point by accident. After a quick call up to the AHL, and backing up for a few games, I was back in Allen.
Although I didn’t play any games in San Jose, I was able to work on things with Nabokov that we thought would help my game. Being back in Allen was great. The ECHL pushes the fan/player experience, and because of it, fans feel a strong connection to the team. It creates an extremely passionate following that is really fun to be a part of. And we were lucky enough to play in an awesome city.
Texas was warm all year round, which was a nice break from the New England winters I have been accustomed to my whole life. As I started to play better, it was easier to enjoy the experience. I was able to relax by the pool almost every day. It was a routine that most people could only dream of: practice for an hour in the morning, then pool in the afternoon. Our balcony faced west, and I found myself only leaving the pool area to make dinner and watch the sunset. I could get used to this. This was pro hockey, something I had dreamt of as a kid, and I was actually living it out.
Although I never got called back up to the AHL, I finished the season with respectable numbers. My dad flew down to drive home with me and we made the 30-hour trek into a fun road trip. We stopped in Nashville and D.C. and reminisced about hockey. We had spent so many hours in the car together going to games and tournaments, and he had sacrificed so much for me. It was special in a way I really can’t put in to words to be driving home with him from my first pro season. When I got home, I had a lot of thinking to do. I struggled with whether I wanted to continue to pursue hockey. I loved the game, but it took a mental toll on me. I put a lot of pressure on myself and I didn’t want to ruin the game I had dedicated much of my life to. After a couple months, I decided to give it another chance. I signed an ECHL contract with the Norfolk Admirals. I wasn’t ready to give up the game just yet, and as my second season comes to an end, I have a decision to make again.
I’m almost 27. My window of opportunity is closing fast, and I have a finance degree from Babson collecting dust in the back of my closet.
How far and for how long do I chase this dream?