MY STORY…BEGINS AT AGE 5…IN BETHPAGE, NEW YORK…
My dad used to take my brother and me, when I was in kindergarten for the half-day, to the ice rink in the middle of the afternoon on the days when he wasn’t working.
For me there wasn’t an instant love for hockey; I couldn’t stand it at first. There were probably 30-40 kids sitting on the ice and there was a coach screaming instructions in the middle of them. I said I like to play the game but I didn’t really like the coach screaming the whole time so I stopped.
I returned to the ice later but what got me back into it was that my brother kept playing and he would get a soda and devil dog after the game. Since I stopped playing I didn’t get one. So that treat got me back into hockey and I’ve been in love with devil dogs and hockey ever since.
As a kid, I was never a star player. At the same time it was certainly never a struggle for me either. One thing I’ve always had was the basic fundamentals of hockey. I could pass the puck well and I was a good skater. Those were parts of the game that didn’t take me very long to learn.
The hockey in Bethpage at that time would be best described as “developing.” I think once the Islanders got huge the game really picked up in my hometown. A lot of ice rinks started going up and it’s not surprising to see 20-25 years later that you start to see talent coming out of that area.
When I was a kid I was never a big autograph hound but we had a couple guys from my area that we followed. The rink I started to play in was actually an old hanger in Mitchell Field in New York where they used to fly old World War II planes. It was near the Nassau Coliseum and I remember a couple guys from the Islanders -- Patrick Flatley, Derek King and Steve Thomas -- would give up their time and come out. Maybe they would talk or come out on the ice but that was always something I remembered.
For me I was an Islanders fan the whole way. I always hated the Rangers, even when they won the Cup in 1994. I was always a huge fan of Denis Potvin. He was always my favorite player but they had a lot of great players at the time.
It was always a treat to go to an Islanders game. My dad took us to four or five games a year. It wasn’t a ton of games but I used to love to go. My favorite part would be walking up the stairs because we were in the high section. It would open up and you could just see the ice. I was always excited. We would get there for warm-ups so I could watch everybody shoot around. It was always a great family experience for everyone.
Back then I was a defenseman like I am still to this day. Everyone always runs up to the front to try to score a goal but I guess I was that strange kid who liked to stay back. In addition to hockey I played a lot of soccer and basketball. I also really liked lacrosse but hockey was my favorite sport.
As I grew up, I would participate in travel hockey teams and we went to different places. We would play in Wilkes-Barre for a while because it was the half way point for people in Philadelphia, New York and Syracuse. We spent lots of time in Boston since they had a lot of great teams. We might have had three or four teams on Long Island, every town in Massachusetts had a team at that time so lots of competition up there.
I never did necessarily see a future for myself in hockey when I played as a kid. I just never really thought of making it this far. You just keep your head down, you keep working, you try to get a little better and then you move up to the next level. Then you have to do it again. For me it was Division One hockey, then the American League, and then I did it at the NHL level. Once you get to college you realize it’s only a couple steps away but I always knew I’d have to work harder and be better to get here.
There’s not a whole lot of college hockey in my hometown. When I was getting closer to college, it was a learning process for us. I was playing junior hockey at the time and just started getting a couple calls in the middle of my junior year and it just kind of snowballed. At the start of my senior year I had a few offers to consider but I decided to take a look at schools first because I didn’t really know what was out there. After I saw Boston College I knew that’s where I wanted to go.
When you play at a program like B.C. you always hope you will get drafted to the NHL. I had an advisor at the time and he said, ‘You’re definitely going to get drafted.’ You don’t really think it’s going to happen, though. The draft was in Buffalo that year. My Dad and I had to sit around for a couple rounds but that was alright because when my name was called, I was as happy as the kid who got picked No. 1.
At that time I still had three more years of college. I wasn’t the type of guy who was going to leave early. So I did my three years and had a great career at B.C. We ended up winning the whole thing my last year. Then I was fortunate enough to sign a contract with the Penguins. I went to the American League and developed my game there.
Eventually you start to see guys getting called up and I was hoping that I would get an opportunity. You just stick with it and when it finally came, I just tried to make the most of it. Even though for me it was a longer journey then other players, I wouldn’t change a thing about it.
Prior to that first NHL game, I remember thinking to myself in the locker room, with five minutes to go, “just do what you can.” At that time I thought that it might be make or break for me. I’d played two years in the minors already and I’d seen guys play four or five years and never get a call up. I figured this could be my only shot and I’d better make the best of it. It ended up working out well.
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