Lafferty success stirs memories

If the summer heat is getting to you, Tuesday’s story in the Mirror about Sam Lafferty’s ice hockey odyssey provided a cool and unexpected change of pace.

It is amazing that a product of Hollidaysburg Area High School’s ice hockey program has been a leader on an Ivy League team (Brown).

It is even more incredible that he was drafted in the fourth round by the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in 2014 and could play in the NHL some day.

Lafferty’s story brought back memories of my ice hockey experiences in the 1970s, seemingly an eternity ago, first at a New Jersey high school, and later at the storied Johnstown War Memorial, playing for Saint Francis University when it had an ice hockey team.

Back then, the thought of playing in the NHL seemed like an impossibility. Outside of New England and the northern Midwest, very few communities even had ice rinks, and hockey training in Canada was more rigorous than what was available here.

Not surprisingly, the NHL was stocked with Canadian players then, with few athletes from our country making the cut.

Still, I recall playing as much hockey as I possibly could in high school, signing up for summer leagues, independent men’s leagues, and summer camps.

At one camp, I learned a great deal from Jacques LeClaire, a former Montreal Canadien, who often wore one of his Stanley Cup rings. I was able to periodically scrimmage against NHL players during LeClaire’s camp, earning five stitches when Jean Gauthier, one of the pros, inadvertently rammed his stick into my head during one day’s competition.

Even though I tried to keep up, the professional players were immensely more talented.

College hockey was tougher than high school, but a far cry from NHL caliber play.

We won a league championship in one year, however, that league was limited to colleges within a five-hour drive.

Our following season was a mess, as Paul Newman’s classic movie “Slap Shot” was being filmed at the War Memorial. More often than not, when our practice was scheduled that year, it ended up being canceled by the film’s production crew.

The season was so depressing that the equipment manager once forgot to pack our jerseys for an away game, forcing us to play in anything dark, with one player having nothing more to wear than an extra large plaid flannel shirt.

Regardless, for over a decade our team’s championship banner hung in the gym, next to only two other banners, one for the legendary Maurice Stokes-led NIT team and the other for the undefeated 1942 Red Flash football team.

As the next century began, numerous other banners crowded out our achievement, but the memories remain fresh in my mind.

I’ll be visiting a high school friend this weekend who pitched at the AAA level for the Tigers and Mets organizations, just one tier short of making it to the major leagues.

Despite falling short, my colleague has never regretted his journey.

It was great to read about Lafferty’s story and the possibility of a future in the NHL. I wish him the best, and I hope that, like many athletes, professional and otherwise, he enjoys his unpredictable ride no matter where that journey might take him.

He will certainly face numerous challenges, but the opportunity he has now is amazingly cool.

Bob Trumpbour is an assistant professor of communications at Penn State Altoona. He authored the book, “The New Cathedrals, politics and media in the history of stadium construction.”