To My First Love: To Hockey
by Conall McNelisECRHA May 10th, 2016 at 4:37PM May 10th, 2016 9:39PM
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They say you never forget your first love and I know that to be true, for she is the most beautiful game in the world, the game of hockey. Cold, hard, and tough you helped me become the man I am today and for that I am eternally grateful. I was only 3 or 4 when I fell for you. Starting with a plastic stick in the driveway, teaching myself to roller blade, and using a tennis ball to shoot on Dad. I translated that all to ice at the age of 6 when we moved to New Jersey and I never looked back. Playing everyday by myself in the driveway, learn to play, watching every Ranger game, I learned your every move. You had me head over skates.
The days of house league came and those 6 am games. Maybe getting up for school was tough, but never for you. I always wanted to be with you, learn from you, and become the best I could for you. Those younger days were great. Making new friends, becoming a student of the game, and just loving every second of being on the ice. That being said you weren’t always so nice to me. Getting cut from the Generals that first year I tried out was heartbreaking. At that time I thought I had let you down, but you had bigger plans. You were teaching me to prepare for life, to not let failure set me back, but to learn from it and grow both as a player and as a person. The next year when I made that team was one of the best days of my life and you making me work that much harder to get there is something I will forever be grateful.
Those years playing for the Red Bank Generals will forever be my favorite. Traveling up and down the east coast, from Lake Placid to Maryland, from Montreal to Philadelphia. Those car rides with Dad were always special. Countless breakfasts at various diners, knowing more about current events than any kid on the team because he listened to the news (much to my dislike), and just bonding. He never got to fall in love with you and he always reminded me how lucky I was. As for the practices we shared that was all thanks to Mom. Taking care of 4 kids could not have been easy, but whether or not she knew how much I loved you, she always supported us. She allowed for us to be together through her chauffeuring me to see you several times a week. They helped keep us together for all these years knowing I’d be lost without you.
High School came and you gave me new challenges. Making the JV team and then Varsity did not come easy. You made me earn those letters, but I never gave up. You made me tougher than I ever thought I could be and despite the fact I may have been in the penalty box a bit more than my parents wanted, I loved the physicality of this game. And then there was a girl who threatened our relationship a bit. But I wouldn’t let her interfere with us. You remember that first game she ever came to against the Atlantic City Sharks? I never wanted to score a goal so badly in my life and you gave me that chance. I still don’t think I have ever “cellyed” so hard. I was 16 and on top of the world…my final days for the Generals and Caseys came and went. I gave every ounce of heart I could to both, you know that, and to score a goal in my final General game and home game for RBC in a state playoff game are two memories that I will never ever forget.
As college came I felt the right decision was to go to school and pursue an education instead of accepting those junior offers. I regret that choice sometimes, but I knew I’d find my way back to you. Those first few months at school were so hard for me. I was heartbroken, the NHL lockout was in full swing, and I was limited to a practice team role at Fairfield. But you brought me back from the dead at Syracuse. The lockout was over and living next to the ice rink allowed me to skate privately with you nearly everyday. Those days were therapy and ones that meant the world to me.
I guess things came full circle in the fall of 2013. I never thought my competitive hockey career would end playing roller hockey, but that is how it all started. I was bitter about the shake I got with the club ice team (but we still dominated those guys in intramural) so the club roller team just fell into my lap. You tested my patience, but thrust me to be a leader right away. I was a player-coach, a real life “Reggie Dunlap”. The experience I had with that team was something I wouldn’t trade for the world. It forced me to grow as a leader, a player, and a person. Watching this team climb the ranks and having my career end at Nationals in Cedar Rapids, Iowa was one of the proudest moments of my life with some of the greatest friends a guy could ask for.
I want to remind you I won’t be gone forever, I’ll never be gone, I just won’t be around quite as much. There will still be every ranger game that I refuse to miss and my coaching career is just getting off the ground. But I just wanted to say thank you for giving me the greatest memories, the greatest friends, and for making me the man I am today. Most people will never understand what you mean to me and that’s okay. The ones who know me best understand that I love you more than most who play this game, even those who have played higher levels than me. Some are lucky to say goodbye to their competitive careers in 30’s or 40’s, I have to say goodbye at 22. It’s not ideal, but it’s the way things are sometimes and I can live knowing I gave every ounce of heart I had to you. I hope one day to pass this love along to a son or daughter and you can give them all that you gave to me and more. Thank you hockey, for everything.