It’s a scary moment when the reality smacks you in the face. Made me numb really when it happened last week. I got an opportunity of a lifetime and just a taste of what life would be like as a professional athlete. I never thought it was possible, but never say never when you live in Buffalo.
At practice Tuesday, I knew we were going to be a short bench for the Connecticut road trip and light on bodies for practice this week, so I stepped on the ice in Beauts practice gear. It felt great to be part of a team again – the laughter, the jokes – but most of all the smell of the ice at the HarborCenter changed for me that late evening. There was just something different about it. [Ric] Seiling ran practice that evening. Lots of shooting drills and of course some skating. Yup, I knew I was going to struggle with the skating competition drills. I was never a fan of the racing drills as a kid anyway; why would it change after 30 years? I was only a stride or two behind…not too bad for an old player like me, and not having been training since September…I didn’t do awful. I thanked Seiling for the skate and asked about Thursday’s practice. I was going to be there and ready to go if the team needed me over the weekend. Hell, I was going to be ready for anything at this point…even if it meant sitting the bench and getting a 30 second shift to give one of the other players a rest. If was best for the team, then I was going to be ready.
Muni ran practice on Thursday. More skating, more shooting, more competition drills. It was amazing being out there during the skating drills – my legs were on fire, my feet felt like concrete, but I was able to stride past all of it. Just hearing the Beauts motivated me to keep going. That is what I miss most about being on a team – the motivation to make each other better and to keep us going, because at the end of the day, I am playing for my teammate, my linemate, the fans, my family, the coaches, and everyone else, but me. These two practices gave me an itch to want to play again, not even for the Beauts per say, but just to get back in the gym, train hard to compete – this old retired player still has some fight left in her yet!
I was able to get a jersey made with my number, American flag and even a name plate just in case. Thanks to Chris Malicki at Logo for helping me with the numbers, name plate and flag on wicked short notice. Thank you to my mother for sewing everything on the jersey in time for me to make the bus and be on my first road trip as something a little bit more then the duties I was used to.
I knew playing was still up in the air, Seiling told me that I was going to warm up with the team and be ready, but it was still up in the air if I would see actual game time ice. It would be a last minute decision. I was going to prepare for the game, no matter what. I told my best pal Fish that I was going to take warm ups and might see some action; she immediately told me she was going to make the trip to be there for this monumental moment. So, she and my boyfriend (who she had yet to meet at this point), hopped in her Jeep for a 7 hour drive to Connecticut. What better way to get to know him then a 7 hour car ride without me as a buffer…I think I was more nervous for the two of them then they were. Who am I kidding…they were going to be fine.
Game Day – I woke up and went down for breakfast. Some of the Beauts were downstairs already and I spoke with our trainer about my hand…I crashed pretty hard during Thursdays practice, caught an edge and went flying into the boards – no worries, I stopped myself with my head and hand. It was bruised but it didn’t matter. It was game day, nothing a little tape and heart can’t fix. I had more movement in my pinky finger, which was great, just going to buddy tape it, jam that sucker into my glove and play hard, if I was going to play at all. I was prepping my game day as though I would play. I ate a light breakfast and went back to my room to chill out and visualize. Fish and Jacob were at the hotel so we had a pretty lazy day of chatting, went to Target to kill some time, when we got back to the hotel I was hungry so we went for lunch. Even though we had pregame meal at 3, I can’t play on a full stomach. Like I said, I was prepping my day as if I was going to play.
I remember the days when I played at Niagara and my routine came back to me as if I had been doing it for years. After my lunch went back to the room, put my headphones on and laid down for a little rest, listened to music and began to visualize. Took a shower, put my face on and hopped on the bus for pregame meal. I just drank water; I can’t eat too much before hitting the ice. I have a meal replacement if I get hungry later and I don’t play…but I want to be ready if the team needs me to hop on.
It was amazing to ride the bus to the rink, I was not just an assistant general manager or game day operations manager, but I was riding as a Beaut. I did my usual away game routine of emptying the bus, putting out the jerseys, socks and towels to each of the players…but this time I laid a pair of baby blue socks on my bag and pulled out my jersey and hung it up on the hook. Changed into my workout gear, put my headphones on, grabbed my water bottle with my Advocare Spark and started my game routine. I went out into the crisp air of the rink and stood in the corner to visualize. I picture different scenarios to get me focused and calm my nerves. Warm up with the team went great, usual dynamic stretching to get the blood moving and wake up my muscles.
We had a team meeting before I started to get dressed. My name was not listed on the lines or D partners, but Seiling and Muni told me that I would warm up with the team and then sit next to the bench just in case. I was thrilled to get to opportunity to step out for warm ups. It’s a stride into playing. I knew what my role was and I was happy to fill it…heaven forbid someone got hurt during the game or tossed, I was there ready to go. I was content.
Laced up my skates and put my jersey on, grabbed my helmet, buckled the left strap only (just for warm ups) and I hit the ice running. The cold air hit my lungs and I had a smile from ear to ear…Fish and Jacob were snapping shots of me left and right to send back home. I got my 15 minute warm up, took my helmet off and placed it on the boards next to all the rest. High fived the team as they exited the ice, said my prayer for my team, crossed myself and headed into the locker room. I took off my uppers and skates, put my Beauts flip flops on, my New Era tuque and was ready for what the team needed.
Coaches gave their pregame speech and I was motivated for sure. Wished the team luck, gave high fives as they went out on the ice, grabbed the dry erase marker for game notes and keeping track of face offs as asked to do so by Seiling. I knew my role and I was happy to play it.
They announced the roster and to hear “Buffalo Beauts Game Day Operations Manager Linda Groff will be wearing number 66”, putting on the Beauts jersey and stepping out on the ice, I knew my dream of playing hockey would continue. I know I have a long road ahead of me, getting back into a shape other than round, retrain my legs to have speed and strength, but the fire to play a game that has been part of my life for more than 30 years is burning inside my soul. There are different types of hockey players, ones who have soft hands, hard shots, bruisers, speed skaters, head cases and those who are a combination of all those things. I was once a player who possessed all of those things, some aspects over others, but there is one thing that a hockey player can never be taught, and that is heart. There is one thing that is for sure, I have heart. I can never give up on something that has given me so many blessings in my life. Broken or bruised, tape me up and put me in. I’m ready to play.
I just want to take a moment to thank both Ric Seiling and Craig Muni for giving me the opportunity to practice with the team, lace up my skates, and put on a Buffalo Beauts jersey. It did not matter to me that I got a 15 minute warm up or a regular shift, the fact that I was out there and part of a team again was something this retired hockey player needed. I still have fire in my soul and game left to play. So thank you, it means more than you will ever know.
The team played an outstanding game, we won! Between the second and third period I took the remainder of my gear off and put my street clothes on and I gave the team a little speech. I was not sure how much of it would hit home with them, but for me, I needed to say it. I asked them to show me their heart. I was grateful to be part of the team, even for a blink of an eye, and they should not take such a great opportunity for granted, so show me your heart this period and play hard. Play hard they did and the Beauts snagged a win on the road! I was so proud of the team to overcome a short bench, play hard every shift and prove they are a team to fear.
After the game I packed up the bus and was able to ride home with Fish and Jacob. I was going to meet the bus back at HarborCenter to unload it, but it was nice to be able to ride home with my friends and thank them over and over again for dropping everything to be there to support me.
I called my sons to say good night and while talking to Riley he told me he watched the whole game looking for me. I told him the situation, but I don’t think my eight-year old really could understand why I did not play. I told him that I was an emergency player; only in the case of an emergency was I going to play. This is what got me the most and I love my son, “Even though you didn’t play mommy, I’m so proud of you”. I lost it, I started to cry, cleared my throat and told my son that I love him and that I hope I make him proud every day. To hear that my son was proud of me meant so much to me, that was the moment that I knew what I did was more than just a 15 minute warm up. I made my son proud of me, all the hard work and effort throughout my career, the national championships and lifelong friendships, the sacrifices that I have made and ridicule I experienced were nothing compared to hearing that I made my son proud.
The love that I have received through Facebook posts from friends and family is overwhelming and I am so grateful that I have so many people in my corner. Thank you for the love and support, but at the end of the day, remember, it’s for the love of the game, and I will always be in love with hockey, it will always be my first love and that kind of love lasts forever.
See you at the rink.
The Buffalo Beauts face Amanda Kessel and the New York Riveters on Saturday, January 14 at HarborCenter. The puck drops at 7:30pm. Tickets are available at nwhl.zone.