It feels like yesterday that I was 20 years old arriving at the University of Massachusetts, beyond excited to live out my dream of playing Division I college hockey. I had imagined this day since I was a kid rollerblading in my driveway pretending I was playing in the National Championship, which made this dream come true only more surreal. At that time, the only thing I wanted to do with my life was play hockey. Now, four years later I am in the final stretch of my college career and feeling all the pressure of entering the “real” world.
A lot of things have changed since I entered college. I am now a 24-year-old senior at Mercyhurst University having lived through the ups and downs of my college experience. Yup, that’s right, a Jewish kid from New York at Mercyhurst University, a small catholic school in Erie, Pennsylvania. Let me tell you a little bit about my journey as a Division I hockey player and how I got here.
While my best friends from high school went off to pledge fraternities and attend college tailgates, I moved to Wichita Falls, Texas to live with a billet family and play junior hockey. I made some new friends, got beat up once or twice, took some sticks and pucks to the face, had my front three teeth knocked out, but surprisingly, had two of the best years of my life. This opportunity led to being offered a scholarship to play for the University of Massachusetts.
During my freshman year, I was happy with how I played and adjusted to the next level, but our team struggled, only winning five games the entire season. Following that disappointing season, our coaches made a point that the returning players needed to put the work in to get bigger and stronger for the following year. We wanted to turn the UMass hockey program around. The coaches pushed the idea of building #NewMass which would be our team’s new identity: fast, hard and prepared.
I’ll be honest, I got fucking exposed during our spring workouts following my freshman year. We were in the gym at 6 a.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. The trainers from the football team subjected me to the hardest workouts I have ever been through, both mentally and physically. I was struggling to hang clean 45 lbs, while the rest of my teammates were ripping through sets of 185 lbs like it was no problem. I was inexperienced in the weight room and it showed, it was embarrassing. On top of that, we were only able to let loose, have fun, or even have a drink like the rest of the kids on campus one day a week, on Saturdays.
I entered the ensuing summer, 2017, feeling hopeful and excited for my sophomore season. We went through a difficult six weeks during the spring but got a lot out of it. It was the strongest I have ever felt in my life as a player and as a person.
Throughout that summer, I was in the gym, trying to carry the momentum from the spring semester into my workouts. In addition, I got a once in a lifetime opportunity to represent the United States in the 2017 Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem.
For those who don’t know, the Maccabiah games are similar to the Olympics, but for Jewish athletes. That was one of the greatest experiences hockey has ever given me. After an awesome summer of hard work both in the gym and on the ice, I felt like I was in the best shape of my life before heading back to school.
I knew that it was going to be very difficult for me to get consistent ice time during my sophomore year because we had 13 freshmen joining the team, highlighted by Cale Makar and Mario Ferarro, who are now both kicking ass in the National Hockey League. That being said, I knew when I got my opportunity, I was going to have to make the most of it. Unfortunately, the opportunities were few and far between. Between getting scratched and not performing, I couldn’t seem to get my hard work to pay off.
One of the toughest adjustments to Division I hockey is finding a specific role on your team. Everyone comes into their freshman year used to being one of the go-to guys on their junior team. So, when you step into college and don’t feel like you’re really making the same impact on the game, it can be really hard to try and adjust your style of play. I came into UMass as a guy who liked to play a simple, poised game and tried to make plays in the offensive zone. Our style of play was an aggressive, in your face type of game and I had a hard time adjusting.
After one particularly bad performance on the night of Halloween, I felt I single-handedly cost our team the game, I texted my parents before I even took my gear off, saying: “I’ll never wear this jersey again.” I knew there was no coming back from that game and my coaches were brutally honest, telling me that I wasn’t in their future plans.
Hearing them say “you aren’t fast enough or strong enough to be in our lineup,” hurt like a bitch but I had to respect their honesty. In the past, I’ve had coaches who told me what I wanted to hear, which never made me any better.
This was a wakeup call, they had given up on me and I had given up on myself. It felt like rock bottom, but I did not want to stop playing the game that I love. So, in December of my sophomore year, I decided that I was going to transfer in order to find a better opportunity.
Fortunately enough for me, my coach from the Maccabiah games is the assistant coach at Mercyhurst University and we had a good relationship. He gave me a second chance at being a Division I athlete and, for that, I am forever grateful. However, transferring came with the challenge of being a redshirt. This meant dealing with the change of a new school and only being able to practice with the team, not travel or play in games, for a year. At the time I thought it wouldn’t be a problem, but I was dead wrong.
I did not realize how mentally challenging it would be to sit out for an entire year. Practicing every day without games to look forward to and being in a suit in the stands every weekend was tough to handle. Over time, I lost my love for the game. I began to hate going to practice knowing that I couldn’t compete over the weekend and I did not feel like a part of the team.
Being in the locker room during the game and on road trips with the boys is the best part about being a hockey player and I had lost that sense of purpose.
For the first time I could remember, I wore the jersey but didn’t feel like I belonged on the team. I felt alone and lost. I missed my friends back at UMass. I thought about quitting multiple times, but I am happy I didn’t. Once I got back to playing, in December of my junior year, for the first time in over a calendar year, I finally started to find the love for the game again.
Now that my days as a Division I athlete have come to an end, and despite a losing season, I did my best to remain positive and got to embrace what may have been my last few games. The hardest part about being a second semester senior is knowing that the game that has defined my life, may be out of my life in a few weeks. If that is the case, I will miss the thrill of playing in a competitive hockey game. This is a strange time in my life, not knowing if next year offers more hockey or my first full-time job. I feel ready to start the next chapter of my life, but at the same time not ready to finish this one.
If I could speak to the Jonny Lazarus arriving on campus in Amherst, I would tell him to do the right things and you will get what you deserve. Be serious, but don’t take yourself too seriously or let the pressure of performing get to you, at the end of the day it is only hockey, life will go on.
I don’t know what the future has in store for me, but whatever it may be I know I will always be able to connect with people through sports and always belong to a team. Throughout my four years of eligibility, I was on two teams, but I also had an incredible team of family and friends in my corner, regardless of what jersey I wore.
I got to experience some incredible things that I will remember forever. I was fortunate enough to be a part of some upset wins over top-ranked teams, I got to travel to Belfast, Ireland and play in the Friendship Four, but the cherry on top was definitely playing at Fenway Park.
There have been some really dark times in these four short years, but the great moments really outweigh the bad ones. Being a student-athlete has taught me a lot about responsibility, resilience, and respect, but most importantly, it has taught me about myself. What lies ahead may be a challenge, but I know that I can overcome whatever is thrown at me because of what being a student-athlete taught me.