College hockey – Part 2

I didn’t play as many games my junior year, but it wasn’t due to lack of effort. I had a wisdom tooth infection right after the Christmas break that prevented me from starting two JV games, and a call-up to backup for a varsity game. Talk about bad luck. I also missed a week of the season after suffering another concussion. This time it was in practice. One of my teammates wound up for a slap shot just inside the blue line during a drill, and it hit me square on the Cooper logo on the forehead of my Hasek-like combo helmet. The shot cracked my helmet, and gave me a minor concussion. This second concussion of my college career led my parents and coaches to insist I go back to a traditional mask.

My sophomore year was also a life changing year as I meet a freshman girl from St. Paul, MN. We had our first date on December 7, going to see The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. I still carry that ticket stub in my wallet. Later that night we were back in my dorm room to watch movies. I put in Slap Shot, and she knew every line. I knew then she was the girl for me. Six months later we were engaged.

The summer between my sophomore and junior year saw me again working our school’s hockey camp. I didn’t drive the Zamboni this summer, but was a counselor again. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a summer. This was a pivotal summer in my life though. I was home maybe two weeks after hockey camp ended when my now fiancé called to tell me she had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It was August 2001.

I was never happier to get back to school so that I could see my fiancé for the first time since her diagnosis. We got settled into school, and I got back into captains’ practices. This year, now an upperclassman, I was looked to take on a bigger role in the practices. I had a lot less stress on me too as we only had five goalies trying out. With the ideal being six in the program, we knew we were all safe.

Life was slowly getting back to normal, then I was walking out of a 7:45 am Global Issues class on a Tuesday morning after we just finished discussing why people in other part of the world might want to do harm to us. I walked out of the classroom in my usual jovial mood, walking across the hall to my next class when I noticed it wasn’t empty as usual. The room was at standing room only capacity with professors, all watching the TV in the corner. This was one of the few classrooms that had a TV in it at the time. On it I saw video of one of the Twin Towers with smoke emanating from it. I thought it was a piece on the ’93 bombing, but just then I watched with my own eyes an airliner fly into the second tower. There were audible gasps, and you could hear people crying.

My professor for the upcoming class – a 400 level journalism class arrived about the same time. He saw what was going on, then led us to a multimedia room I didn’t know existed. We were able to watch multiple feeds of coverage to see what was happening. I was sitting next to a professor who grew up in New York when the South Tower collapsed. At that moment I knew my dad would be headed to New York as soon as possible because he was the head of building collapse rescue training with the Chicago Fire Department at the time.

We canceled all captains’ practice activities that day. I was in my dorm room that evening with my fiancé when my dad called. Usually when my parents called – about once a week due to long distance charges – we’d talk for 30 minutes. I remember this call verbatim;

Never ForgetMe: Hello (I knew who was calling as the phone had the off campus double ring)
Dad: Hi. It’s me. I’m going to New York tomorrow. I don’t know when, or if I’ll be back. I love you.
Me: I love you too.

It was a short phone call because word couldn’t express our emotions at that moment. The next day I showed up for practice, but looked at my teammates and said no. I’m not skating. For the first time in my life I didn’t want to play hockey. They knew my dad was on his way to New York and understood. I didn’t skate until about a week later when I got the phone call from my mom that my dad was safe, and on his way home.

Once my dad was home, and I was back to normal skating life began to get back to normal. The season started. I had hopes that I’d get more playing time than the previous season because there were only two of us goalies on the JV team, and I was now an upperclassman, but two of the varsity goalies were freshman that had come from playing in the NAHL. They couldn’t play every game, so they got playing time in our JV games. My playing time actually went down this season, but by now I new my role on the team was that of a backup JV goalie. I accepted my role, rather than complain. I hit the ice every day for practice giving maximum effort, then on game day was always read if needed, but offering support for the team.

When the season ended I was looking for a summer internship. I reached out to a guy I meet playing rat hockey at Johnny’s Ice house a few blocks from the United Center when I was home in Chicago on breaks. Rob worked at ABC7 in Chicago at the time as a reporter, and he connected me with the right people to apply for an internship. My interest was working in the sports department, but those spots were filled, so I got paired up with Rob and was his intern for the summer. It worked out great though as we could hit the late morning rat hockey at Johnny’s, shower up, then head into the station.

It was about the second or third week of the summer, and me and Rob skating every day when a few pro hockey players started showing up. These guys played in the NHL and AHL, and were being respective of the talents of the guys at rat hockey, not hot-dogging it. One of the guys skating with us was then player agent, now working in the Columbus Blue Jackets front office Billy Zito. Billy could see that having these pros out there with us wasn’t helping them, so he got the ice slot before rat hockey. We were all a bit bummed, because it was fun skating with them, but understood the reasoning. The second day of them having their own ice time, then LA King Brad Norton came up to me as I was getting ready to go onto the ice, and asked if I’d be interested in coming early the next day to skate with them as they needed a goalie. I obviously said yes.

The rest of the summer I skated with that group of guys. There were no super starts out there, but I got to skate with guys like Norton, Joe Corvo, Rob Brown and Steve Martins. There were other guys, but those are the ones that I talked to the most. It was great practice for me too as they were going all out in those skates. It’s because of skating with them I can say that I can, and did, stop an NHL slap shot and breakaway. My dad’s office for the fire department at the time was right across the street from the rink we skated at, so he’d take an early lunch to come over and watch us. I’ll never forget when Corvo got a break away, was barreling down on me full force, then put a move on me to where he was sure he’d score, but I made a splits save. The rest of the guys erupted, Corvo was upset, but I looked up at me dad and saw the biggest smile on his face. That is one of my favorite hockey memories.

As I got back to campus for my senior year I had accepted that I’d play JV that year because we had two returning sophomores that played junior hockey, and they were better than me. I was playing the best hockey I had ever played. We had seven goalies trying out for the six spots. I was not worried.

For the first time I got to play in the Red-White game too. I started for the white team. It was a lot of fun to hear, “Starting in goal for the white team, from Chicago, IL, number 35 (that would have been my number if I played varsity), senior Joe Drennan!” My parents were in town for the game. My fiancé who had transferred to a school in the Twin Cities to be closer to her doctors were there. It was a cool experience.

At the end of tryouts my coach called me into his office. I wasn’t expecting much, but then he started talking. He said the other coaches wanted to only keep six goalies, but because of my age, and not having a shot at varsity, they recommended cutting me so that the younger goalies had a chance to prove themselves. At my age, I understood and couldn’t argue that logic. My coach went on to add that, while that’s what they thought, they couldn’t just cut me because of the dedication I had showed to the team for three years both on and off the ice, therefore they were keeping me on the team, but I’d probably get very little playing time. I didn’t care. I was on the team, and knew I could earn playing time.

While I wanted to play more, I embraced my role. I acted as a mentor to the younger goalies. The two freshman were goofy too. I was known to hide snacks in my breezers when we’d come back from intermission so that I had something to eat on the bench. I also started thinking more like a coach. It wasn’t uncommon for me to talk to my teammates on the bench, letting them know what I was seeing. This was possibly one of the most enjoyable seasons I had.

My senior season was capped off by us winning the MIAC’s JV post season tournament. I didn’t play in those games, but I was the backup for them. It’s fun to say my competitive career ended with a championship. It took me a bit longer to take my sweater off after that last game though. I usually got my equipment of as quick as I could so that I could get some of the hot water in the shower before we got on the bus to head back to campus, but that night in Minneapolis, I knew when I took that sweater off, it was done.

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