Tommy Mitchell grew up coaching Long Island youth players and has been behind a bench since 1990
New York Islanders Amateur Hockey
There aren't too many coaches who can say they got their start behind the bench at eight years old, but Tommy Mitchell is certainly one.
When a lack of peripheral vision prematurely ended his playing career, a love of the game kept Tommy coming to the rink to help his father, Tom Sr., coach the Oyster Bay Gulls. His eye condition wasn't the end of his hockey story, merely just the beginning of a coaching career that has stretched four decades and had an impact on countless lives.
Tommy, the Islanders pick for local hockey hero to celebrate Hockey Week Across America, took over the Gulls mite team in 1990 and has been involved with the program closely over the past 30 years. Even with a few detours to coach high school hockey, or go away to college, Tommy found his way back to the Gulls, coaching the mite team while working as an electrician.
"Coach Tommy used to pick me up on Saturdays in the summer and drive me to and from Bridgeport when my Dad couldn't take me," Matthew Ramacca posted to Facebook. "He gave me a lot of confidence in myself that I could play hockey at a higher level at a really young age. I'm truly grateful to him. The world needs more Coach Tommy's."
In 2014, he began working at Northwell Health Ice Center full time and eventually started coaching a PAL Junior Islanders team. Thirty players Tommy has coached have made it to the NHL, but he's made an impact on thousands more. He has a natural gift for connecting with kids and fostering a love for the game at a young age.
"I had the chance to coach with Tommy on several occasions on behalf of the New York Islanders," said Islanders Alumnus Arron Asham, who coached the Islanders Quebec team. "He is a great role model and is amazing with the kids. I have personally learned a lot from him with our time together."
Coach Tommy has always cared about his players away from the rink as well, making sure they keep their grades up and take their education seriously. The coach makes a point to review his players' report cards with them to ensure they're working as hard on their schooling as they are on their skating.
"Everyone that comes in here knows Tommy," said AJ Congero, General Manager of Northwell Health Ice Center, the Islanders practice facility. "He's coached for a long time and still stays in touch with a lot of his players. He pretty much takes care of the kid from the time he gets him and makes sure they all get fair ice time. He really cares about them and their development."
Congero added that Tommy's work at the rink every day helps keep everything running smoothly, a loyal, goes-about-his-business employee, always willing to lend a hand.
"He comes here every day and will do anything that is needed for the rink and gives you 100 percent all of the time," Congero said. "He'd do anything for anybody."
As much as Tommy loves the game, participating hadn't been easy for him of late. He suffers from rheumatoid arthritis so while it can be painful to lace up his skates, he does it with a smile to be on the ice with his players.
That was until recently, as Tommy has been in the hospital with pneumonia on a ventilator fighting for his life and has been struggling with his health for the past six months. He was recently moved from the ICU into the respiratory care unit, but his recovery still has a long way to go.
It's been a difficult time for the Mitchell family, as Tommy has a wife and a 10-year-old daughter, and for the Long Island hockey community at large. The PAL Jr. Islanders are wearing "Coach Tommy Tough" stickers on their helmets, both as a show of support and a reminder of the values Tommy has taught them. "Coach Tommy Tough" t-shirts are also being sold for $25 with proceeds going towards his hospital bills. Additional donations are being collected at Northwell Health Ice Center.
The Facebook page Rooting for Coach Tommy has been set up in support of Tommy and to help spread the word about the t-shirts and donations. It's also a place where families and former players have taken to express their support and share stories of how one hockey coach affected so many lives.
"You made our hockey team a hockey family!" Amy Zacconi posted. "Your family is rooting for you Tommy!"
"We are rooting for you coach!!!!!" posted Melissa Weiss. "You've got this!!! We believe in you just like you believe in all of your players!"
Long Island's hockey community is coming together for a coach during his time in need, trying to give back a little of what Tommy has given since stepping on the bench all those years ago.
Get well, Tommy! We can't wait to see you back at the rink again.