You never know when you’re going to fall in love for the first time. For me it happened in April 1973, when I was 6 years old.
My family had just moved from a flat in North Buffalo to a duplex that was located in a suburban development. Every day after I got home from kindergarten, which was in the afternoon then, I would stare out of our bay windows at the fifth- and sixth-graders playing street hockey a few houses down from where I lived.
My mom could see that I was enamored with the game, so she bought me a stick, gloves, a helmet, shin pads, elbow pads, a net and an orange street hockey ball. Instead of watching the older kids play from our bay windows, I would practice alone in my backyard.
Occasionally I would make my way down to the end of the driveway, just hoping they might see me and call me over, but they never did. Finally, after a few weeks, I summoned up the courage to go down the street while they were setting up the nets and picking teams before the start of a game.
Most of the kids laughed at how small I was and all of the equipment I was wearing and how I wore my shin guards on the outside of my plaid Toughskin pants, but they didn’t tell me to leave either. In fact, they gave me an important job: I had to get the ball whenever it rolled down the street past one of the nets.
I thought it was the greatest thing in the world, because that gave me a chance to practice my stick handling, and sometimes when play was at one end of the street, I would take shots on the goalie who was away from the action.
Several weeks later, someone got called home for dinner during the middle of a game, and I was told to take his place. I was actually pretty good, so I got to play regularly.
From that point on, all I thought about was hockey. If I wasn’t playing it in the street or watching it on TV, I was in our basement leaning over a table hockey board, which resembled an NHL rink, and using metal rods to control flat player cutouts that were capable of shooting, passing and blocking a small black puck.
And if I wasn’t doing that, I was probably buying new packs of hockey cards, organizing the ones I had or studying the statistics and information on the backs of them.
I even had this thing I did at breakfast where I would take the hockey figures and nets that had once been on top of a birthday cake for me and simulate a game in slow motion at the kitchen table, using a single Cheerio for the puck.
In the winter of 1976-77, I played a year of organized ice hockey at Twin Rinks in Wheatfield. My team made it to the championship game. The score was tied 1-1 with about three minutes left when I had the primary assist on the winning goal. I just knew I was destined for a career in the NHL after that.
Then a funny thing happened that summer: Someone introduced me to baseball. I thought it was such a romantic sport; I just couldn’t resist its many charms. Suddenly, my passion for hockey was gone.
Although I never considered going back to hockey, it still has a special place in my heart to this day. You never do forget your first true love, right?