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Hockey Bonds Prove Stronger Than Ever in the 2013-2014 Season

by Brittany Burke / New Jersey Devils

Members of the St. Rose and St. John Vianney's teams come together to pray center ice before one of two games in which all proceeds will go to helping the Nichols family. (Photo/Courtesy of St. Rose Athletics Facebook Page)

“We know that hockey is where we live, where we can best meet and overcome pain and wrong and death. Life is just a place where we spend time between games.”

—Fred "The Fog" Shero

The ice is where people go to forget their troubles, not just players, but also coaches, family, friends, every member of the hockey community. Whether it’s skating on the cold, hard ice or bundled up and watching from the stands, the rink is the place where for a few hours someone could check all of their problems at the door.

When Mikey Nichols, a senior center for the Monroe Falcons, suffered a broken C5 vertebra on Jan. 4, the New Jersey hockey community was stunned to silence. Nichols’ injury is one that is always a possibility, but hardly ever a reality.

It wasn’t long before that silence was replaced with a loud roar to support the fallen hockey player and his family. The hockey community stood up and their efforts soon reached beyond New Jersey’s borders. This is because hockey isn’t a sport and to say it’s even just a lifestyle would not be doing it justice.

In August, Steven Schapiro’s life completely changed. The Saint Joseph’s defensemen and captain, as voted on by his team, was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer, but his teammates didn’t sit back. Instead, they came together as a family and stood by them through rounds of chemotherapy. Whenever he needed them, they were there.

Stef Tamminga’s teammates on the Randolph ice hockey team were so used to having him play beside them that when they learned of his Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis in October they had the same reaction: silence.

The world of hockey may be small compared to some of the other major sports, but it is fierce. When someone enters into the sport, they are automatically initiated into a fraternity that creates a bond with every other person who has ever known the feeling of lacing up a pair of skates.

“Even in our men’s league games at 12 o’clock at night, with no one else in the rink, we still have a handshake line … if you have to ask about hockey you don’t understand it,” said Brian Arnott, the former head coach at Saint Rose and local shop owner. “ … It’s a big fraternity and with the girls now, it’s a big sorority. It’s a hockey family, no matter what jersey you are wearing.”

The community sticks by one another through the good and the bad, and uses hockey as their continual salvation.

The rival two schools put their rivalry aside in order to help Mike Nichols. (Photo Courtesy of the St. Rose Athletics Facebook page)

“What happens is the community, which is already tightknit, we’re warriors of a different kind, that tightknit community gets even tighter and it affects everyone,” said Stephen Scanapicco, the head coach at St. John Vianney. “… You try to imagine the upset the pain and the chaos and concern, but unless you’re living it you don’t know it completely. In the meantime, what happens is the rest of the community gets back up we go back to the rink. We lace up the skates and we go do battle again, just like we’re trained and taught to do and that’s kind of where we’re at right now.”

That’s where it starts, on the ice doing what the athletes know best, playing the game of hockey.

“[The first game back after Nichols’ injury] was emotional for everyone involved,” said Monroe head coach Jerry Minter. “The entire team, the Monroe fans, and even we played Woodbridge high school and their team, their coaching staff, even their mayor came out, and their fans were very supportive in the process. It’s just very emotional to get back for the first time on the ice without someone who’s been there for four years, every day, every practice, and every game with us. To get back to that without him, we just give forth the best effort he would if he were there.”

Teams from around the state have rallied behind a player who, regardless if they know Mikey, they know that he is one of them.

We know how much youth hockey in the state has grown here in Jersey and there’s so many kids playing it now, and when an incident like this happens, it shows the pride of the hockey community in supporting [their own]...Ken Daneyko

Two rivals, St. John Vianney’s and Saint Rose’s made the decision to have their two matchups be charity games. For the two scheduled games all the money made through 50/50 raffles and entrance fees would go to the Nichols family.

“There’s just a buzz around the rink about it, and to be able to take two teams with opposing players and watch them all come together and shake hands and be happy and know that they are doing something good, it just proves the hockey community is such a close knit community together and they really are able to come together and do great things,” said Saint Rose’s head coach Dan Grothues.

Games and events all over the New Jersey area have been scheduled to help raise money for Mikey Nichols’ family. The news has spread outside the state lines, reaching Connecticut high schools as well. It’s becoming more and more obvious that it doesn’t matter who the player is, just that he shares their passion.

When Jennifer Guttman, a hockey mom from Trumbull, Conn., heard about the accident she knew she had to get her boys’ team’s booster clubs involved in helping. Word has since spread around Connecticut and Guttman can safely say that she has been able to collect close to, if not more, than $5,000.

“I just wanted to reach as many teams, organizations, or families that would be willing to help. I felt if I felt that way and if other people knew they would help too …,” recalled Guttman.

“ … I just think that hockey is not baseball, it’s not soccer, and it’s a tight knit community. There aren’t as many kids who play hockey and often we see each other’s children grow and develop as players from an early age and now they’re high school players and we know these families,” said the mom of five, three of which play the sport. “We’ve traveled to tournaments near and far and we spent a lot of time. The commitment made by hockey families, they’re time consuming, it’s a family commitment, and the support and relationships that are formed within these families can be really amazing.”

While donations help, especially when it comes to the high costs of medical treatments, they are just a small part of how the community can rally together, because for the players their camaraderie and healing begins on the ice.

Steven Schapiro stood by his team, going to games and practices when his chemo permitted him, even if he couldn’t physically be on the ice taking hits. After three rounds of chemotherapy radiation, Schapiro was given the green light to get back onto the ice and take his place where he rightfully belongs.

In getting back to the ice so quickly Schapiro showed his team his true strength, determination and courage, but also his heroism.

“We had a game at Bergen County and there was a young player, his name was Dante. He had an operation where he had a tumor removed … he read the article [in the Record] and came down and wanted to meet Steven,” recalled St. Joseph’s head coach Larry Mahurter. “Just based on that article, so that shows you how tight the hockey community is. Steven had an opportunity to sit with him for a few minutes and talk to him, and I’ll tell you, the young man was only seven or eight and his eyes went big and bright … that tells you a lot about the hockey community and what we’re all about.”

It is obvious that age isn’t a factor; neither is how long you have been playing the game and that is because hockey creates the ultimate bond.

In a show of solidarity the Randolph team cut their hair when Stef Tamminga (front) began to lose his. (Photo/Courtesy of RHSIHBC)

It is common for hockey players to grow out their hair to gain the pinnacle of the best flow, but all that went by the wayside when Stef Tamminga began to lose his hair due to chemotherapy. Rather than growing out their locks until after the state championships, the Randolph team made the decision to cut their hair short as a sign of brotherhood. The team also showed signs of support by wearing number 21 stickers on their helmets, as did all the other Randolph recreational ice hockey teams.

“It was a real shock the night Stef's mother called me to let me know about Stef's cancer. At first you ask yourself, why does this type of thing happen to good people, especially kids, but soon you realize, from this horrible situation something good can come from it,” said Randolph’s head coach Rich McLaughlin.

Aside from all of the support that has been shown by the team, the Randolph community came together to really push awareness and education of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

“The high school kids also wear purple laces in their skates to help them remember what he is going through every time they get dressed and any time they put their heads down, it reminds them to get up and play,” McLaughlin said. “The hockey community is a very tight knit group. I believe hockey people are different in that we all seem to know each other, or have a connection to others in some way. Hockey people will go out of their way and put others first in a time of need. They will truly be there for each other and not [to] just write a check and say good luck.”

Even though Tamminga can’t be on the ice skating side-by-side with his teammates, his presence is always felt. He has suited up for a handful of games and while another round of chemotherapy is sidelining him once again, he still has hopes of suiting up in time to make a run for the NJSIAA playoffs.

Like Tamminga’s number, Nichols’ 23 has been emblemized on a round sticker, which is being sold and worn by players and teams around the east coast. In the locker room, his jersey proudly stays with a different senior each game and is hung on the bench as a reminder of the brother they are playing for. Nichols also remains on the game rosters.

“It’s a place of comfort to know that he’s always on our mind,” Minter, the Monroe head coach said. “We have more players in our program than we can play in a given game and we still include his name on the dress list every game. It keeps him fresh in our minds because we know we’re on his mind as well.”

The hashtag #PrayforMikey has gained the attention of the hockey world and is used to bring messages of encouragement to the Nichols family. (Photo / Courtesy of Monroe Falcons Hockey)

The biggest show of solidarity over the weeks has been through the use of the #PrayforMikey hashtag on Twitter. Countless supporters have been tweeting and retweeting endlessly, using the hashtag, as a way of spreading their love and thoughts for Mikey as he begins his road to recovery.

The Twitter hashtag has gained popularity as word spread, and bigger names in the community use it. Players like Ken Daneyko three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Devils, James van Riemsdyk, the New Jersey-born Maple Leafs left winger, Derek Stepan and Brian Boyle of the New York Rangers, the Toronto Marlies AHL team and USA Hockey have all tweeted at Mikey.

“We know how much youth hockey in the state has grown here in Jersey and there’s so many kids playing it now, and when an incident like this happens, it shows the pride of the hockey community in supporting [their own] … ,” Daneyko explained in a phone interview. “… The hockey community is great in the fact that you see the overwhelming support ...”

Shatel, the longtime coach of the Green Wave varsity ice hockey team, is just one instance of a coach in the community reaching out through the social media channel to show his support. Nichols’ didn’t play for Delbarton, but just because he wasn’t a player on Shatel’s roster didn’t mean they weren’t connected.

“I understand how dangerous this sport is,” Bruce Shatel, head coach at Delbarton, said. “The speed that you move at, and you’re confined by an immovable object, it presents a lot of opportunities to get injured. I was extremely saddened to hear the news about Mikey Nichols. That is everybody’s worse nightmare, whether you’re a parent, a coach, or a player, and my heart goes out to him and his family. It’s something that I wish him all the strength and courage moving forward with this humungous challenge he’s faced with.”

Shatel can relate to what the Nichols family is going through. In 2004, his team’s statistician suffered the same injury, but from a diving accident. He has seen the recovery process with all of its ups and downs, but he has also seen the end of the tunnel. His statistician, Taylor Price, recovered and went on to a highly successful career. Shatel has experienced the bad, but he knows there is hope.

Just as Coach Shatel can relate, so can Devils alum, Grant Marshall. When Marshall was 16, he broke his neck and was told by doctors that there was a chance he may never play hockey again. He’s experienced firsthand just how supportive the community is, but he also knows the feeling of what it’s like to almost have it all taken away.

“As big as the hockey world is, it’s actually quite small as well. Everybody knows everybody to a point, we all hear things that go on in the communities especially in the state of New Jersey and we all kind of have that family oriented mind set,” Marshall said. “With a situation like Mike Nichols, I broke my neck when I was 16 years old and my career almost never happened, so it really hits home for me … for us, that’s our whole world. [Hockey has] been our whole life, so we all try and come together and give as much support as we can … [the ice is] like home, it’s our home, it’s what we know, it’s almost pretty much everything thing we know and the only thing we want to know.”

A hockey player feels whole when they are out on the ice. It is where they’ve sweat, cried, cultivated their passion and celebrated alongside others who share the same goals and love that they do. Every time a hockey player skates onto the ice, they leave a little bit of themselves behind, but they also gain a part of themselves back.

“[Stef] goes for a few days and comes right back to practice as soon as he gets home,” said McLaughlin. “I don’t know how he is doing it, but he just keeps fighting to play.”

Schapiro used hockey, which he has been playing for 12 years, as his motivator to stay strong and beat his cancer. (Photo / Courtesy of Chris Pedota, The Record Staff)

“It motivated me a lot because I had something to come back to other than school and getting an education. I had something to look forward to that I could do for the rest of my life,” said Schapiro. “… Whenever I was stressed out or had a lot on my mind, I would come up here [to the rink] by myself and kind of shoot around and kind of free myself from everything else that was going on.”

That is because it all starts on the ice, but that’s not where it ends.

“That ice that I couldn’t get up from the other night, I’m going back to it, I’m going to stand up on it,” Mikey Nichols proclaimed shortly after the accident.

As these three players know, the ice will always be there for them and no matter what happens they will always have the rink and a strong support system to turn to when times get tough.

“Never get caught telling a hockey player it’s just a game.

Never get caught trying to explain to him all the things in the world that matter so much more.

His mind might well acknowledge the truth to your point, but his soul would be powerless to accept it, considering the immensity of what he gives to the sport, and the immeasurability of what it offers in return.

Nothing ever feels as perfect as a moment of flawlessness on the ice.

No bond as strong as one that compels brothers to bleed for one another.

Not many leaders are this versed in the craft of motivation.

Not many pursuits can evoke such visions of brilliance.

This is why it hurts so much when skill falls short of what the will desires.

This is why it’s so unforgettable when absolute passion yields ultimate reward.

And that’s all still just the start of what the game can do.”

-HBO 24/7

For more, head to NJ Youth Hockey Central.

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