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College Hockey:
Our Family New Year Letter

The holidays are over and I have to say that once more, I loved just about everything about them. In the Bertagna house, I’m the one who shops for Christmas gifts all year round. I push to get the tree up December 1. I lug up the boxes of ornaments, the green and red platters, the felt “Carolers,” and all the other trappings of the season from that dark corner of the basement.

I love looking at cards with little kids on them that my friends and relatives send. I hand write on our own pre-printed cards. I like the holiday parties. I can’t wrap a gift to save my life but I enjoy it.

There’s only one thing about the recently concluded season that hits a sour note with me. I’m a bit embarrassed to acknowledge this in public but let me get it off my chest. It’s that moment when you come home from work and sit down to open the mail and you come across this nice holiday card and then you open it up and … and … and there it is. Usually folded neatly and placed inside the card. Sometimes it stands in for the card itself. It is the annual family letter.

Let me say right up front that I realize a lot of time and thought goes into these epistles. They are quite sincere. And I actually read one this year that moved me. It was well written and done by the Dad in the family. I didn’t know he could do it and I have to say I was impressed.

But, if I can be candid here, do we really care that Janie lost a tooth and Billy grew three inches? Do we need to hear about Grammy Lydia’s bout with the gout? Hey, I’m sorry if I sound cold and uncaring here but a cute photo and a scribbled one-liner should suffice when you take into account everything we have to process at this time of year. And the more I think about it, what gets me the most is that the families described in these letters don’t really sound like any people I actually know. I mean, just once I would like to get one of these from a hockey family that actually describes the family as they really are.

As the old comedians used to say on television, I believe it would go something like this …

January, 2004

Dear Friends,

It’s hard to believe another year has come and gone. So much has happened with our family, I don’t know where to begin. But I’ll try.

We are all so proud of Bryan. He was heavily recruited as a walk-on at State University and will be going there next fall. He made a verbal commitment to seven other schools, just to be safe, but State just seemed to be a perfect fit. It has been a whirlwind year for Bryan, with the three junior teams he has been on and his 23rd birthday and all.

Jonathan (19) loves St. Grottlesex Prep. It seems like the perfect place for him. Unlike the last three. He is turning a few heads with his scoring ability. As of last week, he was 22-0-22. The only disappointment for Jon was the fact that his teammates couldn’t see fit to vote him captain. We were all shocked.

Mary (15) is playing goal on the boys high school team. Not because she’s our daughter, but she is clearly the best goalie on the team. However the coach is playing some senior boy. I don’t want to say it’s political but…

Christopher (14) made the high school squad too, as a freshman. The coach says he’ll see more ice time if he can show more “self control.” We think the new medication will help.

Billy just celebrated his 8th birthday in Minsk. Yes, that Minsk. We heard of this fabulous Russian coach who can turn even the weakest mite into a potential NHL star. Billy wasn’t too keen on going but we know he’ll thank us when they start allowing mail.

Little Derek is doing just super in the Learn to Play Hockey program our town runs on the weekends. It was a battle to get him enrolled. Something about him having to be able to walk or some nonsense. Not because he’s our child, but he’s the best two-year old out there.

The only bad news from the past twelve months is that Benjamin (12) decided not to play hockey this year. Frankly, we don’t know what’s the matter with him. We have signed him up for every program available since he was four and this is how he thanks us. It’s actually worse than that. He has decided he wants to be a referee! We just don’t know what to do.

As for us, the old folks in the house, we are just trying to make sure the kids grow up like normal kids and keep a sense of perspective in their lives. Bob was going to visit Billy over the holidays until we got Direct TV. Now we can’t tear him away from the NHL Center Ice package. (He loves it!) As many of you already know, we lost the lawsuit so Bob will have to stay away from the local rink for the next six months. (I still don’t believe that ‘Zero Tolerance’ thing is constitutional. And that ref was way too sensitive. All Bob wanted to do was speak to him in the parking lot. And he was NOT pushed. He clearly slipped on the ice and, well, we have to be abide by the gag order so that’s all I can say here.) Bob can catch Mary and Chris on the road but unless we can convince the town to put Derek on the mite travel squad, we don’t know how Bob will get to see him play.

For those of you who tried to visit us over the holidays, I’m sorry we hadn’t gotten word out about the move. We had a rough year financially, what with legal bills and Bob being laid off. We missed a mortgage payment or two in the fall and the bank just wouldn’t be flexible. I told Bob that the kids could get by with one Synergy each but you know Bob. He wouldn’t listen. (I thought three was excessive.) Anyway, we make our decisions as a family and all of us agreed that when it came to the choice of paying the November mortgage or signing Christopher up for next summer’s Hockey Night, it was a no-brainer. (I know the exposure helped Jonathan.)

The big news is that I am the newest hockey player in the family. That’s right, I joined an over 30 league for women beginners and I love it. We skate once a week and hope to enter a tournament in Canada in February and Prague in May.

Well, gotta go. See ya around the rinks!

The Smith Family

P.S. I almost forgot Arthur. He is a senior, made National Honor Society, but continues to boycott athletic contests of any kind. He won’t play. He won’t watch his siblings. How weird is that? Bob and I try to show him the same love we have for the others but he acts like he is embarrassed to be seen with us. We have suggested counseling but he has refused. Bob and I are determined not to let Arthur’s selfishness ruin the lives we have created for his brothers and sister.

And Another Thing …

I have to acknowledge a special night that I was honored to take part in recently. Harvard University hosted a dinner Jan. 10 to celebrate 25 years of women’s varsity ice hockey. As the school’s first women’s head coach, I was asked to participate in a speaking program that covered the team’s entire history. It was a privilege to be part of it and to share the evening with likes of former Harvard standout (and now MIT head coach) Julie Sasner, current Crimson star Angela Ruggiero and current head coach Katey Stone.

Perhaps the biggest treat was to see a handful of players from those first Harvard squads. Lucy Wood, captain of the 1978 club team, is a doctor. Alison Bell, captain of the 1979 varsity, is a lawyer. Many of them still skate. And they all had their eyes opened the next day when Dartmouth beat Harvard, 2-1, before a crowd of 1,921 in an up and down game between two of the nations top teams.

As each of the nine speakers at the banquet rose to tell stories of their particular time in Cambridge, I couldn’t help think back of those first days when people wondered aloud why women would want to play ice hockey. It always struck me odd that these questions frequently came from men whose lives were so obviously touched and blessed by their involvement in the game. Now, 25 years later, the dinner was testimony to the hundreds whose lives have been enriched by the opportunities this particular program gave them.

That same January morning found me in a cold prep school rink at 7:40, watching my 7-year old son participate in a beginner’s hockey program. The fact that he got up, wanted to go, and complained less than the previous week made me happy. For myself. The fact that he actually tried to do some things that he refused to do the week before (crossovers, pivots) made me happy for him.

It’s hard, after experiencing the events of both Saturday morning and Saturday night, not to project. That is, will I look back in 25 years, at these early Saturday mornings with my son, and recall them as the start of another life in hockey? I mean, maybe next Saturday morning, he’ll execute those crossovers and pivots successfully. Maybe he’ll start to learn how to stop. Wouldn’t that be great?

And then again, maybe he won’t answer the bell. Maybe the effect of staying up late watching Friday Night Nick Toons will leave him too tired for crossovers. He’s only seven. Maybe pucks and sticks at 7:40 will be replaced by pancakes and bacon at 8:40.

That would be great too.

Joe Bertagna is the Commissioner of the Hockey East Association and Executive Director of the American Hockey Coaches Association.


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