In late 2010, planning was underway for a street hockey league which would be played at Mother Teresa Regional School in Atlantic Highlands. I was asked to be one of the founding coaches by Ann Margret and Vinny Duminski, whom I had met at Holy Family School in Union Beach back in 2007. There was a league there too, sponsored by the New Jersey Devils and their “Street Devils” program, and following the closing of that school in 2009, people split up and went their own ways. The Duminski’s waited a couple of years and then decided it was something that should continue. They were going to run the leagues themselves, which as you will see, was easier said than done.
I started coaching in 2007 when I was only 16 and still in high school. I was volunteering at Holy Family’s CCD and heard they were looking for a coach. I knew about the league prior. My mom worked at the school as well and tried to register me when I was in elementary school, but they did not accept outsiders (something we changed when the league started at MTRS). However, I was allowed to coach. It was here that I met the Duminski’s, whose son was on my team. Only in second grade then, I feel old to report that he is now a junior in high school. I did two years there. To say I was a good coach can be decided by others. I knew the game well, but was new to actually coaching. Ten years later, I am still coaching (and at two locations). I guess you can say these short seasons of only six games each were the beginning of it all for me.
Skipping ahead to 2010 and MTRS, I had stayed in touch with the Duminski’s since the closing of HFS. They had become like family and I was excited that there would be a new hockey league. We really did not know what would become of it. There was a little bit of opposition to the founding of the league. They were told flat-out that MTRS was a basketball school and there would be very little interest in hockey played on the gym floor, but if they started the program and owned every aspect of it, they could give it a shot. We began our first season in February 2011 with two divisions (junior, grades 1-4 and senior, grades 5-8) and about 40 kids in total. It was far from optimal but it worked and generated interest. The next season, the coming fall, we were up to 75. A couple of seasons after that, we topped out at more than 110. We consistently reached the 90-100 mark for four more years, playing two seasons per year. The league most likely hit its 1000th game this year.
The program at MTRS ran until 2015 before it was started at another school. During these four years, we had a lot of special events in addition to the games which actually got quite intense. At one point, we even drafted teams in a back room with an NHL-like seriousness after I had created a draft kit rating the skills of all players. For our all-star games, the Devils would send former players such as Bruce Driver, Jim Dowd, and Grant Marshall, along with the mascot. They would talk to the kids about the meaning of teamwork and following directions, and then shoot around with them and give out prizes.
We also had several chances to rally around good causes. When Hurricanes Irene and Sandy struck in 2011 and 2012 respectively, we organized charity hockey games which raised a decent amount of money. The Red Cross matched whatever we brought in. And when I say “we”, I mean a small army of coaches, volunteers, parents, and alumni who made this all possible and who are in too great a number to name. With this “hockey family” as we call it, the league would not have lasted more than one season, much less 14 over the years. In 2013, we also had a “Stick it to Cancer” game where we donned pink shirts and played while taking in donations. We truly were a family, and always used the phrase, “hockey cares”.
In late 2015, the program moved to Holy Cross School in Rumson and MTRS unfortunately closed down in June of the next year. The same style of play was brought over, with mostly new players and some old faces. It is now 2017, and with the Duminski’s youngest child graduating, a daughter who also plays, it is all coming to an end.
We had our last all-star game last night, followed by our last “adults vs. kids” game, which is always pure insanity. Someone asked me after the game how I felt that it was the last one. I responded that it did not even dawn on me. I was in the moment and not treating it as the end. It took the drive home to realize yes, that was the last time we would be doing that. Our regular season ends tonight followed by two nights of playoffs which run into next week. Next Friday will be our final event ever, an alumni and coaches hockey game.
There have already been tears by some. Not yet for me, but they will come. My team has clinched a spot in next week’s championship game and I will say this: winning or losing, as the final minutes of that game count down and the buzzer sounds, it will finally sink in that this league which has encompassed so much of my life for the last six years is no more. It has been a large part of my life. Not just the games and practices, but the people. I have made so many friends, many of whom have become like family.
I’ll miss the games, sure, but also hanging out with everyone a few times a week and all the laughs. Taping up sticks for the little kids who can’t, shooting the breeze and talking strategy with the older players. The diner runs with some of the coaches following games. Seeing the kids develop their skills, and watching them grow up in general. I don’t consider myself old just yet, but man, I certainly feel it when someone I once coached reaches out to me talking about what classes they are taking in college.
To me, what it is all about is more than hockey. As a coach I want to win and have fun, of course. I and everyone else would be lying if we said winning does not matter. It does. But winning means nothing if there is not some kind of learning that comes with it. The teacher in me needs to explain why things happen the way they do. The strategy behind it all. Seeing a player’s face light up during an “ah-ha” moment and then putting what they learned to the test and succeeding is the greatest victory of them all.
Not going to lie, but some nights it felt like a thankless job. Going through a losing season, dealing with the ups and downs, working through the monster which comes with scheduling teams, helping organize the shirts, and getting the equipment ready. But at the end of the day, we still came back and did it again. And again and again. It’s a part of all of our lives. A literal collection and imprint of our blood, sweat, and tears. 90% of it done by the Duminski’s, and not for a cent earned. Just to see the happy, smiling faces of our players. Seeing them learn and grow. That was their payment. You will never meet another duo like them. You will never have such a league run with such diligence and passion ever again.
I have been lucky and blessed to have coached some great teams over the years. Show me a team photo and I can tell you a few memories from every single season I coached—the good and the bad. That is the mark the Street Devils hockey league has left on me. An outsider may think that it is just a street hockey league and life will go on. Well, yes, life will surely move on, but none of this will ever be forgotten. Too many happy memories have been made and friendships formed. Even people not involved for years still talk about their experiences with reverence. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I am so happy that I took part, and am proud of everyone I have worked with. It has been an amazing ride, but like all good things, must unfortunately come to an end. The tears will be flowing. It’s just a matter of when.