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Until the Wheels Fall Off: A Tribute to a Dream

July 3, 2019

 

 

I’ve dreaded writing this.  I’ve repeatedly put it off, thinking about anything else so as to avoid opening my laptop. I've dreaded writing this because I, naively, never truly thought I'd end up in this situation, admitting to the end of a long journey.  Yes, no one is forcing me to write this.  I could have passed, and moved on with my life.  But that would do a disservice to the emotions and thoughts running through my head, and in order to “move on” I need to put my thoughts and emotions on paper. So here goes: after more than 10 years of playing competitive roller and ice hockey, I’m reluctantly hanging up the pads.

 

Some of you may read this, laugh and call me pretentious, self-centered or even disillusioned for writing some mournful farewell piece reflecting on a competitive playing career, which fell short of the professional ranks.  Before you do though, hear me out.  Simply put, playing hockey has been everything to me.  For that reason, I find it impossible to move on in silence.  The following represents my tribute to a decade playing a sport which took from me everything I had to give and gave me more than I could ask.

 

From Nothing To...A Little More Than Nothing

 

“He doesn’t know what he’s doing out there, but he’s got a nose for the puck.”  That blunt assessment came from a parent, whose team needed a goalie, as he was watching one of my first-ever ice hockey games in an in-house summer league in South Florida.  That pretty much summed things up for me starting out.  I was 14 and I kind of just flopped around, hoping I would somehow end up in the vicinity as the puck.  I had just made the leap from the asphalt of South Florida’s roller rinks to the slightly cooler ice rinks and had no formal training or instruction when it came to playing goalie, or hockey in general. 

 

My equipment was as rudimentary as my training.  I was a goalie but I wore player skates, a player’s helmet, pads which barely went above my knees, and glasses.  No sports goggles, no contacts, just glasses which fogged up every other play and required me to take time outs just to whip off my helmet to clean them.  As for my goaltending style, it was to charge 10 feet outside the crease toward anyone and everyone in the hopes of keeping the puck out of the net.  Whatever it takes, right?  You should get the picture.  I wasn’t very good but I had the ability to shrug off embarrassment and defeat, both of which were plentiful at the start of my career.

   

I could have accepted my mediocrity, or just said screw it and contented myself to watch NHL games on TV.  But I couldn’t.  I learned from the defeats and the embarrassments because, although they stung in the moment, they forced me to reflect on my performances and fueled my perfectionist streak.  I wanted to be good, good enough to play hockey for an NCAA Division 1 college.  I know the audacity of that statement flies off the page.  Me, a 15-year-old, Florida-born kid with little to no goaltending training, whose parents never played a minute of hockey in their lives, who only got into hockey in the first place when said parents showed me a city recreation magazine with roller hockey listed within it now has the idea that he’d like to be an NCAA-caliber goaltender?  It’s a good thing I had some faith because no one else did.

 

After I told my parents what I wanted to do, they set about trying to find out how to make my dream a reality.  This effort was complicated by the fact that we had no idea how to actually make me good enough to play in college.  After furious googling and a chance conversation between my dad and one of his clients, we were pointed in the direction of the Florida Eels and their head coach/owner, Frank Scarpaci.  Sight unseen, Scarpaci said he’d be willing to take me on if I were willing to relocate from Plantation to Fort Myers, on the other side of the state.  I had to choose between staying home within my comfort zone or packing up and moving across the state away from family and friends.  I went with the latter, electing to leave everything behind in the pursuit of a dream with which I had become increasingly captivated.

 

Moving On Up

 

I spent three years with the Eels.  I left home at 15 and because I was still in high school, my family and I needed to find a place where I could go to school and still practice at the Eels’ 12pm-3pm ice slot.  The situation was ultimately remedied by Scarpaci himself who informed us that he was the headmaster of a “New England style preparatory school” which he created, conveniently located within the Fort Myers city ice rink, the Skatium, and suddenly, I was able to get an education while simultaneously training for hockey.  The “school” was really just a large room in the back of the rink partitioned with dividers, populated by other members of the two Eels’ junior teams and taught by four teachers, including Scarpaci, who each were responsible for a variety of subjects.

 

It was a pretty sweet gig from a hockey player’s perspective.  I went to school from 8am to 11:30am, ate lunch, changed into my gear and was on the ice by noon for our daily three-hour practice.  Games were on the weekend, and any time after practice was usually spent working out or doing dry land training.  The only problem with all of this was that I wasn’t anywhere good enough to play on either team.

 

When I first got to the Eels, I was under the presumption that I had made the team.  After all, I went to school with them, practiced and worked out with them, and no one had ever told me otherwise.  When Scarpaci caught wind of my misplaced notion, he took me into his office and read me the riot act for even thinking I was good enough to sniff his teams’ lineup.  In his estimation, I wouldn’t be good enough to even make his lower junior team until the following season.  Instead, he created a high school team populated with the other junior kids who I went to school with and had us play exhibition games against another high school team in Tampa.

 

I played that team, and only that team, half a dozen times and internalized my embarrassment and humiliation.  I became more and more determined to make the junior team, and make it I did.  I spent hours in the gym after practice.  I’d show up early to school or spend lunchtime juggling or doing other hand-eye coordination drills before practice.  I tried my hardest and before long, I was actually good enough to warrant a “call-up” to the Eels’ junior C team two months after my meeting with Scarpaci.  Hell, I even back-stopped the team to a playoff win.

 

I spent the next two years falling in love with the world of hockey, despite not having much reason to do so.  The grind was hard and I was far away from my family.  Having never played a real competitive and high-stakes hockey game before, I discovered that I suffered from terrible anxiety whenever I was between the pipes.  I’d throw up before games and would sometimes freeze during games, giving up terrible goals and embarrassing both myself and my team.  In practice I was fine, but in games where I was under scrutiny and a higher expectation that was foreign to me, I couldn’t deal.  The problem persisted and perpetuated to the point where my mom contacted a sports therapist, Dr. Alan Goldberg, to whom I owe so much, in order to work through my anxiety.  I quickly got a grip on things, remembered that I was there to have fun, adjusted and voyaged through three whole years with the Eels.  During this time, I became friends with individuals from all over the world, went to places I had never been before, made memories that I’ll cherish forever, stories that I tell any chance I get, and realized that I was encouraged by my personal growth and an insatiable desire for more.

 

Despite promises of the fulfillment of my college dream if only I were to stay with the Eels, I made the decision to leave my home state and once again venture into the unknown, signing with the Boston Junior Rangers, a Junior A program in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, only three years after I began playing competitive ice hockey.

 

Rangers and Beavers

 

Making that Ranger team was special to me.  For one, it proved to me that I was good enough to play outside of Florida.  And the friends and memories I made on that team have been second to none.  At their tryout, I managed to impress the organization enough for them to offer me a spot which I happily accepted.  Boy, I’m sure glad I did.  Not only was the hockey environment of Massachusetts completely different from what I had been used to in Florida, but the level of play was a step above, too.  I was propelled into a world I had only recently known existed and continued on the path I had set for myself. 

 

I can’t say enough about that team, either.  Not only was the organization reputable, but the quality of the players, both on the ice and off, was incredible.  We all loved each other and it showed in our chemistry and on-ice production.  We had some talent, but we were certainly not the most individually talented team.  Despite that, we finished near the top of the league with more than 30 wins, many of those coming when we had only four defensemen.  To this day, that team shines as my personal example of the powers of chemistry and hard work and, as a result, we made it to the league championship, ultimately losing in the finals to Charlie McAvoy’s New Jersey Rockets.  Along the way, I continued to grow as a starting goalie and secured statistics which put me on top of the league’s goaltending categories.  I was flush with confidence and hope because I was suddenly having conversations with my coaches about committing to an NCAA squad after I aged out.  The realization of my dream was within reach, until suddenly... it wasn’t.

 

I had planned to return to the Ranger’s for my final year of juniors.  I previously had conversations with my coaches about that fact and about playing in college.  I had been assured that they would give me the best opportunity to make my dream come true, wearing their colors for the upcoming season.  Because of their assurances, I turned down offers from other junior teams and went back home to Florida to train for the new season in Mass.  After a call from my coach and GM, asking me to come back up for a summer skate, I returned to Massachusetts in the first weeks of August for what I believed was a mere formality.  Instead, I was given the news that I had been cut for a kid who was going to commit to the University of New Hampshire.  After everything that I had done the season prior, I was cut loose in an instant, and at a time when other junior teams were already filling out their rosters.  I was given the line “don’t worry, we’ll help you find another team,” and sent on my way.  Of course, they did nothing to help me find another team.  I was left on my own, in the middle of August, without a team to play on for my last year of juniors.

 

The following few weeks were some of the worst of my life.  Aside from the heartbreak and the shock of getting cut for no good reason, I began to despair as I went to tryout after tryout hoping to make a team.  I ran through six different NAHL tryout camps all across the country desperately seeking a team to no avail.  I had former teammates and a goalie coach of mine tell me to just give it up, I was too old and it was too late in the summer.  My parents were feeling the effect of it too after shelling out thousands of dollars just getting me to and from tryout camps far from Florida.

 

As fate would have it, I knew Toronto Maple Leafs goalie coach Steve Briere and asked him what I should do.  He told me to look north to Canada because they tended to actually take kids from tryout camps and all of their camps were happening toward the end of August.  After hearing that, I emailed every single team in every single league in Canada and was ecstatic when I got emails and phone calls back from organizations that were interested in me.  One such team that was particularly interested was the Blind River Beavers of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, a smaller feeder league to the OHL, which boasted some NCAA commitments.  After a few conversations, I flew to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, for a tryout and after a few hours, committed to play for the Beavers, keeping the flame of playing in college alive.  At the time, I was confident that things had worked out and for the better.  I made things work, I recovered and was on a path toward achieving my dream.  As I soon learned, the hardest part of the journey was still in front of me.

 

Ghosts and Dreams

 

Blind River, Ontario is a town of roughly 3,500 people situated nearly three hours east of Sault Ste. Marie and six hours north of Toronto.  Although small and secluded, the town goes absolutely crazy for its hockey team, and the support I got there was something I’ll always remember.  Flushed with optimism over my recent success at finding a team to play for, I went about settling into a life far outside my comfort zone in a place I never knew existed.  However, life can be fickle and soon that optimism gave way to frustration and borderline despair yet again.  After starting the season strong, the team began to crash and burn.  The losses piled up and people were being held accountable.  Several players got traded or cut not 10 games into the season and a coaching change was made shortly after.  Our GM took over as head coach but to no avail, we still were performing horribly despite having a roster filled with skilled guys.  Things continued to get worse and worse, and more and more guys were traded in the hopes of righting the ship before it was too late. 

 

As one of five import players from the States, I quickly formed a bond with my fellow Americans born out of both patriotism and our desire to stick together through all the nonsense.  Despite all of our personal friendships and camaraderie, our team still couldn’t muster much of a showing and I began to feel hopelessness creeping in.  I was relatively alone at what seemed to be the roof of the world, freezing in -20 degree weather, surrounded by bears, ghosts from the town’s Native American reservation, and little to no hope of attracting any college attention.  I was on the precipice of failure.  To make things worse, the colleges I had garnered interest from before I came to Blind River began ignoring my emails.  It even came to the point where I asked for a trade because I had reached the conclusion that I was never going to fulfill my dream playing in Blind River.  However, after several weeks on the trade block, the Beavers brought in a new coach and some new players, and we suddenly began to play markedly better.  This gave me hope and despite the overall situation still being rather terrible, I did what I’ve always been told to do: put my head down, work as hard as I possibly could and throw caution to the wind.  So I did just that, And despite the fact that we lost way more than we won, I managed to gain a reputation as a good goalie on a bad team.  My performances weren’t always stellar, but they were enough to fill me with some sort of confidence, which further propelled my on-ice play. 

 

I figured that if this situation would be the end of my dream, then I’d want to go out on my terms and so I took it upon myself to email every single NCAA D-I and D-III team with my resume and a highlight reel I had made.  The subject of every email was “Dylan Knox, Prospect” and to my surprise, I received messages from nearly a dozen schools expressing some level of interest.  I continued to play as best I could and when the season finally ended, despite having a terrible record with relatively mediocre stats for a goalie trying to make it to the NCAA, I had received offers from three NCAA D-III schools and one NCAA D-I program. 

 

I suppose that was fitting considering my career up to that point.  I was a kid from Florida with the audacity to dream of a world where I was a college hockey player.  I started playing competitively at 15 and in a roundabout way with little to no help, cobbled together something that culminated in a terrible final season, which through sheer will and persistence, netted me what I most wanted.  It was bliss.  A month after the season finished and five years after I first started to play ice hockey, I committed to play NCAA D-III hockey at Framingham State University.

 

Accomplishment and Shoulder Anatomy

   

The subsequent five years of playing college hockey were some of the best of my life.  I had haphazardly realized my dream and I couldn’t have been happier and more proud of myself.  It was with these emotions that I embarked on my college hockey journey, which ultimately turned out to be just as unconventional and incredible as the one which preceded it.

 

When I got to FSU, a school of less than 10,000 students and 20 minutes outside of Boston, I had high hopes for the season.  The team was skilled and coming off of a successful season, and I had been told that I would be able to come in and instantly compete for the starting spot against only one other returning goaltender.  As I soon found out, assurances and previous success don’t always create guarantees.  After training camp, what had originally been a traditional three-goalie roster swelled to five goalies, including myself, all of which had been told that they had a legitimate chance to be the number one.  On top of that, what had originally been only one returning goalie, turned out to be two, a sophomore and senior.  With no true pecking order laid out, a constant struggle for adequate practice time in net ensued between the five of us, all of whom wanted the lion’s share of ice time.  To add to the issues stemming from the log jam in the crease, the team struggled from the start.  We competed, but found ourselves in the midst of a disappointing season which ended all too early.  By the end of it, I was faced with yet another tough decision, to stay behind as a sophomore returner or to go elsewhere to realize my potential.

 

I ultimately decided to leave and was fortunate enough to have a few other NCAA D-III schools interested in me, in addition to ones in the ACHA.  One particular school, however, caught my eye: The University of Maryland Baltimore County (the very same one that upset the University of Virginia in the NCAA basketball tournament in 2018).  The pitch that UMBC gave me was something that I couldn’t turn down, resulting in my moving from Massachusetts to just outside Baltimore, Maryland.  I won the starting spot and it gave me hope that, once again, everything worked out for the best.

 

There must exist within the world a law of averages, or maybe I just have terrible luck. I have so desperately wanted to just play hockey and yet, obstacles have seemingly always arisen to keep me from doing so.  This same specter reappeared during my time at UMBC in the form of two reconstructive shoulder surgeries my sophomore and junior seasons. 

 

The doctors call it hyper flexibility, a condition where I can extend and flex my joints beyond a “normal” limit and although having this condition and being a normal person would result in absolutely no adverse effects, being a hockey player, and a goaltender at that, has created the issues which I’ve dealt with for the last five years.  Because I spent countless hours working out, practicing and playing games which caused even more flex in my joints, the labrums in both of my shoulders completely tore. 

 

The first one went in the summer of 2015, after I left Framingham and I played all of the following semester in Maryland with an arm that would routinely fall out of its socket and require me or a trainer to pop it back in.  The pain eventually got so bad that I went to a doctor where I found out what was wrong.  I had completely torn the labrum in my right shoulder and the two bones were creating divots in each other from rubbing together.  If I wanted to keep playing, I needed surgery.  I did just that during Christmas break my sophomore year.  What was estimated to be a full year’s rehab, took eight months and I was ready to go for my junior year.  As fate would have it, the same issues popped up in my left shoulder only a few games into that season. 

 

Driven to live out my dreams and determined to play through it, I played through my junior season and helped the team make it to playoffs.  I even made the league all-star team for that season before I was hit by an MCL sprain in the first game of playoffs.  I had made the all-star squad but the notion of actually playing in that game was dashed after needing two months to heal my knee.  Seeing the writing on the wall, I went right from rehabbing my knee to another reconstructive shoulder surgery, this time on my left shoulder.  Another eight months later and I was ready to go for my senior year.  Once again, life had other plans.

 

UMBC ran into recruiting issues which resulted in a short roster and led to the school cancelling the program in September of my senior year.  The one thing I just wanted to do unfettered had been consistently ripped from me in ways I couldn’t have ever thought possible.  Now, I was faced with yet another choice: give up and finish my senior year as just a student, or keep the dream alive and transfer.  Luckily, throughout the ACHA, I had a reputation as a good goalie, and was given several choices of schools to go to.  Out of them all, Grand Valley State University, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, stuck out the most to me, so I spent the last year and a half of my college career playing for the Lakers and realizing my college hockey dream.

 

Finality and Gratitude

 

Writing this fills me with the emotions from the previous 10 years of my life.  I feel the satisfying pride of accomplishment, the bitter taste of defeat, the embarrassment of failure, the drive to succeed, the physical aches of injuries long healed and, perhaps above all, the desire to fulfill a dream considered out of reach.  This well of emotions within me is why I wanted to write this story, not necessarily because I want readers to take away some lesson from it, but because this site and this medium has allowed me to lay out the very essence of what has helped mold and shape my life.  I’ve contemplated often and thought dark thoughts during this incredible journey.  I’ve been told that hockey wasn’t for me, that I should quit while I was ahead (whatever the hell that means) and had some semblance of achievement.  I was too old to some people, too young and inexperienced for others.  I was a kid from Florida who had no right to be in Canada playing hockey with those who had been playing since they could walk.  I wish I could say that I never believed any of this, but there have been times where I genuinely felt that maybe hockey just wasn’t for me, that maybe I was forcing something which just wasn’t my calling.  Maybe all the injuries, losing seasons and disastrous team events was life telling me to quit, to direct my energy elsewhere. 

 

Maybe that’s true.  However, I refuse to accept that.  I created for myself a purpose and set about meticulously preparing and working to bring that purpose into existence.  What has this dream cost me? More than I could have imagined.  Six scars are littered throughout both my shoulders, which have become restricted in their motion.  I can’t stand, walk or run for more than half an hour without a dull ache in my right knee forcing me to sit.  I’ve missed out on quintessential high school memories like prom or homecoming football games because I went to a high school for hockey players in the back of an ice rink.  I’ve broken up with girlfriends and refrained from creating and perpetuating relationships because of the nomadic nature of my life.  I’ve lost out on meaningful family time since I moved away at 15 and am left with a burning need for more success and growth rather than settling for some semblance of contentedness.  On top of all of all of that, I still have a keen desire to play and play and play until the wheels completely fall off, something I can’t physically do.

 

Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment or have some kind of Stockholm syndrome because there’s certainly been enough things that have happened to me in the last 10 years to make me swear off hockey and anything related it.  Perhaps my obsession with my dream could have been tempered or maybe I made too big a deal out of it all.  But I don’t feel that way, and see the good as outweighing the bad.

 

I’ve been all over the country and to Canada and have seen some wonderful places.  I’ve laughed enough for a lifetime and have participated in and witnessed countless crazy stories and adventures.  I set out on a journey to achieve a goal and made that a reality in five short years.  I made my parents and family proud and I grew tremendously as both a person and as an athlete.  I won championships and awards, and achieved more than I ever could have dreamed when I was first starting out.  I’ve been interviewed by radio show hosts, newspapers, websites and gave back what I could to every community I was a part of.  I learned how to talk to people, how to interact with opposing viewpoints and respond under pressure.  I’ve learned the value of hard work and of determination and tenacity while also learning to be malleable and open to change.  I’ve discovered myself and have become confident in who I am.  Most importantly, I’ve learned to rebound, to get back up after getting knocked to the ground, to grit my teeth and create my personal reality through sheer effort and willpower while never taking no for an answer.

 

I certainly don’t know everything, but I do know how to get lost.  Not lost in the directional sense, but in the manner in which one gets lost in something you love.  I managed to shrug off the defeats, injuries, embarrassments and shortcomings of my journey through the realization that this was something I loved to do.  Countless times my parents told me that I could quit and come home if I wanted to but I never did because of the fact that I still loved what I was doing.  I was driven by my desire for achievement and I came to realize that I was never going to be handed success, I had to take it instead.  I relished the grind and the pain of discipline.  The workouts and the rehabs were a competition, the losses and defeats an opportunity.  Working hard and seeing my progress spurred me toward my goal and learning to tune out the plethora of naysayers allowed me to bring my goal to life.  To those reading this, lose yourself in your development.  Embrace the lows, savor the highs and meticulously hone your craft without ever losing sight of your destination.  Make it so people can’t ignore you and don’t let those same people forget you.  Be tenacious in your pursuits but never forget to be fair and honest with yourself along the way.  Build relationships with your teammates and don’t forget to laugh and realize that you’re doing something incredible.  

   

I have always taken comfort in the relationships and friendships I made during the last decade.  These have kept me afloat and helped drive me to the successes I’ve achieved.  I would be remiss if I ended this piece without saying thanks to those who helped me become who I am and whose efforts and personalities affected me in such meaningful ways.  A more profound “thank you” is in order but this will have to do, for now:

 

To my family for your love, encouragement and everything else.  Words can’t describe what you mean to me.

To Dr. G for helping me learn how to “eat an elephant” and helping me keep my head on straight over the last 10 years.

To Bruce Marks for being there from the start as a coach who pushed me and told me that technique was everything.

To Randy Russon for his friendship and for making my last few months in Blind River both memorable and enjoyable.

To my next-door neighbors in Blind River who lost their son, I hope I was able to make his last few months special.  I still think of him.

To Jeff Pelus for taking a chance on me, being a man of your word and facilitating two incredible years of hockey.

To Frank and Clare Scapraci for giving me my start.

To Dom Rovito for all the pasta nights and for being a friend.

To the boys of the Pond and the Park for being my friends and showing me what life is all about.

To my GVSU, UMBC and FSU teammates for staying late with me after practice to get better and getting locked into a never-ending shootout.

To Zander and Amanda for all the Thanksgivings, keeping me sane and for being there.

To all my friends and teammates for making me laugh and showing me the strength of friendship and camaraderie.  I wouldn’t have made it very far if it wasn’t for all of you. 

 

And to anyone reading this, who I may have missed, for your help, interest and participation in this incredible journey.  I miss it already.

 

No surrender.

 

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

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