SLOWLY, VERY SLOWLY, I lifted my bruised backside off the ice, keeping one eye on the half-dozen entrances to the hockey rink. I knew that Timber, the family dog, was somewhere out there in the empty arena, awaiting his chance to again knock me off my skates. The way I figured, if I could learn to skate despite being repeatedly torpedoed by a burly Doberman pinscher charging out of the darkness, then the checks of opposing hockey players would have no chance of stopping me.
As every new skater quickly learns, I knew that I needed to keep my feet perfectly straight because the slightest shift in my weight would send my skates shooting out in different directions — while my rear end went straight down. And I surely didn't need any help getting there from Timber. Hearing nothing coming from the empty seating area, my attention shifted away from kamikaze canines and back to the task of standing upright on the narrow strips of sharpened steel strapped to my feet.
The leather ice skates were a present from my dad. I wasn't supposed to get them until my birthday, which fell on Valentine's Day, the day that gave me my name (as suggested by my Aunt Maxine), but my old man couldn't wait to see me on the ice so he turned over the skates to me as a Christmas present. Actually, it was even before Christmas, but he knew I had to make up for lost time.
Though not yet 13, I was indeed late getting onto the ice for the first time. Starting younger would have made my stumbles and spills more expected, and less humorous, to onlookers. It would also have meant a shorter falling distance than the six-plus feet that already separated the top of my head from the frozen surface beneath my wobbly feet. There was nothing I could do at this point about the late start, or the countless falls, but at least I was able to collect my beginner bruises in privacy.
By this time, my dad was the operations manager for the Long Island Arena. His jack-of-all-trades position gave him around-the-clock access to its full-sized ice hockey rink. It was here, surrounded only by several thousand empty seats, that I lifted myself off the ice and back onto my skates. Again, and again, and again.
Almost a decade earlier, Henry James had moved our family from Ocala, Florida, to what was then the still sleepy New York City exurb of Suffolk County. Henry and his wife, Pernella, my mom, believed there was more opportunity for their young family in New York than there was in Florida. At that time, during the early days of the Kennedy administration, Ocala was the Deep South and sadly, Jim Crow was still alive and well. My dad's childhood dream of using his considerable football talents to further his education were dashed when my mom became pregnant with me, the first of what would be six children for my folks. In an instant, the pigskin plans of my dad's youth became a lifelong question of what could have been.
With hungry mouths to feed, Henry did not hesitate to use his brawn to bring home a paycheck, but a life up north offered a better opportunity for him to be the last of his line to depend solely on the strength of his back to earn a living. So, he and my mom gathered their few belongings and packed up me and my baby sisters Vernice and Rosemary (Henry Jr., Mary Ann, and Bobby Lee were still just twinkles in my daddy's eye) and off we went.
At the outset, the move to New York changed little more than the weather conditions under which my father toiled. And not for the better. He had traded working in the sugar cane fields and block ice houses of Central Florida for equally hard labor on the farms that still filled vast swaths of Long Island. Everyone in the family had to pitch in, so I had also spent some summer days working in the same fields, alongside migrant workers whose languages I didn't understand and who were gone once the last crop of tomatoes or potatoes were picked. I was 10 years old before our home on Long Island had electricity or running water. That my folks saw this as an improvement over the quality of life they had down south should tell you plenty about how little there was to be had in those days. After a time doing whatever jobs he could find, including picking crops for pennies, my father came to work at the arena.
Like every kid, I grew up believing that my old man had superhuman strength. I would later learn how right I was. Beyond his broad shoulders, my dad was also an excellent mechanic. He could operate and fix any kind of machinery. He was also the hardest-working man I've ever known. He came to the attention of a successful farmer named Ben Kasper. Mr. Kasper owned a farm in Stony Brook and our family moved into a small home on his property. We all pitched in around the farm, and my favorite chores included helping my dad care for the horses.
Besides his farm, Mr. Kasper was also the owner of the Long Island Arena. He gave my dad a job as a night watchman there. My father soon took over responsibility for all of the physical operations at the building. He cleaned whatever got dirty and fixed whatever got broken. I would soon come to be my father's trusted assistant and the arena would become my second home.
Tonight, with my dad putting out one fire or another in the building, I slid out to the center of the empty ice. I'd grown up watching the Canadian men play hockey for the Long Island Ducks skate on this same ice. I imagined myself as one of them. I could see myself skating quickly up the ice, warding off the bodychecks of opposing defensemen, raising a blizzard of shaved ice as I threw on the brakes, and firing a puck into the net behind the hapless opposing goalie. My folks, no doubt, would be leading the cheers of the crowd. Well, maybe someday. But, for now, I would have to figure out how to shed the folding chair that I was using as a granny walker to steady my balance.
The momentary excitement of getting my skates to coast in the same direction distracted me from noticing the soft padding of feet scrambling up behind me. The James family dog knocked my skates out from beneath me, leaving me, his supposed best friend, lying on my back. I caught a quick glance of Timber the Doberman, seemingly grinning as he beelined back into the darkness of the seating bowl, waiting for his next ambush opportunity.
I could at least take some comfort in knowing that they don't let dogs play ice hockey. So, really, how hard could it be?
AS I TAUGHT MYSELF TO SKATE, with an eye on joining a youth hockey squad, I also paid greater attention to the pros who practiced their craft at the arena. I could often be found working at my father's side, watching the trademark chaos of the Eastern Hockey League unfold around me.
Professional ice hockey came to Long Island in 1959 when the Rovers, the long-time farm club of the New York Rangers, swapped their Madison Square Garden home in Manhattan for a new one at the Long Island Arena. Foreshadowing the flight of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers in the coming decades, the Rovers left behind the bustle and diversity of the big city for the rural sparsity and sameness of Long Island's suburbs.
In 1961, the new owners of the Rovers, headed by another Brooklynite-turned-Long-Islander Al Baron, decided they wanted a new, local identity on which natives could build a personal attachment to the team. At the time, the Island was perhaps best known for raising a particularly tasty stock of duck, direct descendants of the famous Peking duck that had been served to Chinese emperors and was introduced onto the Island before the turn of the century. Once here, the American ancestors of these Chinese imports had thrived. Long Island's proud poultry product thus became the namesake for the team's entry in the rough and tumble EHL.
Like the skating Ducks (as opposed to the flying ones), I was also a recent transplant to Long Island, the James family trekking north from Florida around the same time the Ducks were being hatched. I grew up around the team and its players. I worked the Ducks games. My duties included pushing a shovel behind the Zamboni driven by my father to resurface the ice between periods. Myself and other boys performed "go-fer" duties during team practices. Many of the Ducks players became my coaches and mentors. The Ducks provided my introduction to the sport and my model for how the game was meant to be played.
A blank slate when it came to hockey, I absorbed certain lessons watching my hometown squad. To play the game, all you needed was a puck, a stick, and a sheet of ice. For the patrons of the Long Island Arena to more directly join in the fun, they needed nothing more than alcohol. During many a Ducks game, the action on the ice spilled into the stands. And vice versa.
The two far ends of the hockey rink had chain-link fencing to protect the customers from stray — and not so stray — pucks and sticks. Along the side boards, there was no similar barrier between game participants and spectators, with the distinction between the two often becoming blurred. The fans of Long Island loved their Ducks and many of them took personal offense to perceived slights of opposing players, visiting fans, and the always biased referees. More than a few of the Ducks faithful saw their role as only beginning with loud verbal expressions of disapproval. It was a given that paying up to four bucks for a seat entitled you to curse the mothers who had the audacity to give birth to the no-gooders of the opposing team and to bathe those unwelcome visitors in the backwash of your stale beer. Some of these serial beer chuckers left the brew in the can or bottle when pitching it because it was not easy to get loose beer to fly where you wanted it to go. And, with that four bucks already spent, they couldn't afford to waste any more money on errant beer tosses.
One evening, as I took in the finer points of my newly chosen sport, a member of the visiting team's booster club thought turnabout was fair play and delivered an impressively accurate cup of suds to the head of Ducks defenseman John Brophy. Brophy was one of my early hockey mentors, a role he would reprise several times over the nearly 20 years of hockey that lay ahead of me. Brophy was also the ornery, all-time penalty king of the highly combative EHL. Brophy was intense even in practice; I once watched him become infuriated when his French-Canadian teammate Jean-Marie Nicol turned the defenseman inside out with a finesse move. Brophy broke his own stick over the goal post, then Nicol's stick. Not done, he then grabbed a handful of other sticks from the bench and turned them into firewood, too.
In the heat of battle, Brophy wielded his hockey stick like the billy club of a sadistic street cop. The noggins of many EHL veterans — and a fair number of paying fans — bore the permanent, jagged signature of Brophy's wooden massage. Even the referees were not exempt from his physical ire. He had been suspended for the duration of a previous season for manhandling one of the zebras. Al Baron and the Ducks then promptly named the unemployed Brophy as the team's head coach.
Back on the ice this particular evening, Brophy chased the beer tosser through the stands. Now running for his life, the fan fled up the concrete stairs, with Brophy in close pursuit, his skates sparking beneath him. The runner made it out of the building to the parking lot. Brophy followed. Of course, I ran outside to watch the show. I got there in time to see Brophy looking between and under the rows of parked cars, his prey fortunate to have escaped. A change of skates later and Brophy returned to the game at hand.
On the ice, and later behind the bench, John Brophy was nothing less than fearsome. Off the ice, many would be surprised to hear that he could sometimes be a big-hearted softy. As I struggled to learn the game of hockey, my dad recruited another youth player, Greg "Mole" Martinelli, to help me. Mole himself had found hockey through a chance encounter with Brophy. When Mole was about 10, he lived in the Long Island town of Brentwood. During the off-season, Brophy worked laying brick and, this particular summer, he was busy building schools in Brentwood. Mole and some other local kids thought it would be fun to throw dirt bombs at the workers and then run away. It was fun, until Brophy caught Mole.
Mole cowered as Brophy growled at him, "Why don't you get a job instead of throwing shit at people who are working?" "A job?" Mole responded. "But, Mister, I'm only 10 years old."
Brophy told Mole to meet him at the worksite the next day and, when he did, Brophy gave him a case of soda to sell to the workers. During a lunch break, Brophy told Mole that he was a hockey player. Mole didn't know much about hockey, so Brophy told him to tell his parents to bring him to the Long Island Arena for the next Ducks game. He would leave tickets for the family at the will-call window. Mole's folks took him to the game and he got hooked on hockey.
Brophy's opponents may have had trouble picturing this side of him. Frankly, I don't think he would have wanted stories of his decency off the ice to soften his reputation as an on-ice lunatic. Not to worry, I'm quite sure that his reputation for sharp elbows and sharper stick blades remains intact.
Other Ducks games brought more confrontations between players and payers. On-ice fights often continued in the penalty box where the combatants were separated only by a very nervous off-ice official. Opposing teams had to walk a lengthy gauntlet of fans from the ice to the relative safety of the dressing room. One member of the visiting Jersey Devils once took some lumps from a fan who saw nothing unusual about bringing a bull-whip to a hockey game in order to reach out and touch the opposing team. Beer showers were so prevalent that the rival New Haven Blades brought umbrellas to one game. Uniformed police officers were frequently called in to restore peace. I had a front-row seat to the World Wrestling Federation on ice, but without the stage blood. The EHL produced plenty of the real thing. Heroes; villains; colorful team costumes with names such as Ramblers, Rebels, Rockets, and Devils. It was hardly a coincidence that Linda and Vince McMahon owned the Cape Cod franchise of the EHL, years before turning the WWF into a pay-per-view and action-figure empire.
The league was also inspiration for Hollywood's violent hockey classic Slap Shot, starring Paul Newman as the player-coach of a failing hockey team that greatly improves its record, and its attendance, by slashing and punching their way past their opponents. The script paid homage to Brophy and the Ducks, amongst many EHL landmarks, borrowing their names and antics for characters in the movie.
With role models like Brophy and his teammates, the Ducks were also an inspiration and influence on my understanding of the sport. All the brawls and everything you saw in Slap Shot, I saw watching the Ducks every day. I thought that was the way hockey was supposed to be. Something tells me that many old Ducks fans would still agree with this sentiment.
FEW THINGS COULD MAKE a 13-year-old hockey player feel more like a big leaguer than a team road trip. I'm talking about trips to far-flung tournaments where long car drives were followed by overnight lodging. As part of the Long Island Ducklings bantam All-Star Team, I participated in a number of these tournaments. One such trip to Michigan stands out, but for the wrong reason.
As usual, hectic work schedules kept my folks from making the trip to Ann Arbor, about 40 miles west of Detroit, so they chipped in their share of the costs and entrusted me to the chaperoning parents of my teammates. By now, I was in the company of boys with whom I would play hockey for the next several years. The hodgepodge of regulars included team captain Richie Campisi, the Amoruso brothers, and the slight but talented goalie, Paul Skidmore. Skidmore's dad, Jim, was Al Baron's partner in ownership of the Long Island Ducks. These guys were good hockey players so we never lacked confidence going against the "cold weather" teams we faced in these tournaments.
For the drive to Michigan, a small caravan of cars was packed tight with as many kids, and as much equipment, as possible. Similarly, the motel rooms were stuffed with 12- and 13-year-olds, all of us staying up too late and eating too much junk food. And if all of this wasn't enough fun, we also got to play hockey against other traveling teams.