I was raised in Baltimore, Maryland, a place primarily known for two things: the art of cooking and eating steamed crabs, and the game of lacrosse.
Bal’more was not a hotbed of ice hockey in those days. Two years after the U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the U.S.S.R. for the gold medal in 1960, I had my first ice hockey experience when my brother took me to see Baltimore’s new minor league hockey team, “the Clippers” play a game. I had no idea what icing or off-sides was but what I knew immediately from the first drop of the puck, I desperately wanted to learn how to play this game which meant I would have to learn how to skate.
There were no public ice rinks in Baltimore, however, so I had to settle with watching the game rather than playing. After graduating from high school in 1965, I enlisted in the Marine Corps and eight months later I found myself in Vietnam. I returned home in 1969 to become an officer with the Baltimore Police Deptartment and found things had changed in “Bal’more” while I was away. There were now several ice rinks in or around the city and I was determined to learn how to skate.
At the age of 25, I laced on my first pair of skates at a outdoor rink in the parking lot of the old Memorial Stadium. I spent every spare moment at the rink watching others skate and teaching myself to do what they were doing. I also found a local rink that had open hockey on Saturday nights at 11 p.m. and for five dollars anyone at any level could play. I had always been good at most sports but this wasn’t skating in circles around the rink at a public session.
My first hockey game was ugly but I wanted to play so I came back week after week after week. Being picked last each time was humiliating but I was playing ice hockey and I didn’t care what anyone thought.
One Saturday night, “The Hockey Gods” took mercy on me when one of our goalies was a no-show and someone had what could be loosely called goalie equipment. All we needed was a body. I volunteered to play if someone would show me how to put the gear on, which they gladly did. I managed to survive the warm-ups and the most amazing thing happened — the first shot of the game hit me and I made my first save.
My life had found its purpose: I just didn’t want to play hockey… I wanted to be a goalie!
In those days ice hockey was a novelty and finding a sporting goods store in Baltimore that sold hockey equipment, especially goalie equipment, was more difficult than playing the position. There were a few times when I made what I needed, which usually turned out to be a painful experience. I had to drive to Philadelphia to buy gloves and sticks and my pads were ordered from Cosby’s in New York. A mask was optional that first year.
Now I had the equipment and goalies were in demand so the stigma of being picked last was finally over. I was on the ice every opportunity I got… I don’t think I got better, I just wasn’t as bad as I had been the week or month before.
A year later a local men’s team offered me a tryout and I became the third string goalie for the Columbia Flyers of the Chesapeake Hockey League. It was the team’s first year in the league and from the first game it was clear we were not as good as any of the other teams. We didn’t win many games and by mid-season I even started a few games which didn’t help us much. 50 shots on net every game was a given. Halfway through that season we finally won our first game, 2-1 over the U.S. Naval Academy. There wasn’t anything more glorious than that. We didn’t win many more games after that and the next few seasons were just as hard, but I was playing the game I loved with guys who were not only teammates but guys who had become good friends.
In 1978, I had to move to Minneapolis and of course my goalie equipment came right along with me because I was moving to a place where hockey was a religion. I quickly found a house league and hooked up with a team playing at the Augsberg College rink. In 1979, many of the mid-west hockey players for Team USA were training with Herb Brooks at the Augsberg Rink. I would get to the rink early for our games just for the chance to watch these guys skate. A few of the teams in the house league even had one or two of them on their team. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was playing with and against guys who would go on to win the gold medal at the 1980 Olympics less than a year later.
As I watched these guys skate, I also discovered the game was changing. Steve Janaszak, Team USA’s backup goalie, was skating out as a defenseman wearing goalie skates. Goalies weren’t supposed to be skaters! I didn’t think it was possible a goalie could be that good. It changed the way I saw the position.
I moved back east in late 1979 and put my goalie equipment into storage. If there was a place where there was no ice hockey it was New Jersey — or so I thought.
I was 36-years old and well past my hockey prime (if I even had a prime) and it was time to settle down and stop playing games. I got married and had a four-year layoff from playing when out of the blue I was contacted by an old teammate from the Columbia Flyers who were planning a reunion game and wanted me to come down to Baltimore and play. So, I dug out my old equipment — it was musty, smelly, moldy and dry-rotted and really out of date and my blocker needed a half a roll of duck tape to hold it together.
One of the more embarrassing moments came when I was trying on my old stuff at home to see what fit or needed to be replaced. My wife had never seen a hockey game and didn’t know I played nor did she have any idea what hockey players wore under all that equipment. I came upstairs from the basement wearing a red one-piece union suit complete with a number holes and a garter belt holding my hockey stockings up. Her initial look of shock turned into laughter and ended with tears running down her cheeks. Each time she tried to speak she would start laughing again and again. To this day she reminds me of the days when hockey underclothing wasn’t as fashionable as it is now.
As luck would have it I also discovered that New Jersey was indeed a great place for ice hockey. There were rinks here — the Ocean Ice Palace, the Shrewsbury Ice Rink and the Brick Forum. I was 40-years old now and I had the opportunity to once again to play the best game in the world. On our 25th wedding anniversary, my wife convinced me to go to the hockey tournament in Lake Placid where I won “Most Valuable Player” honors — that was the best gift she ever gave me.
Hockey also gives you a chance to meet so many people at all levels of the game. Once in the locker room in Red Bank, I was introduced to “Alexei” who was playing with us that night. He had a heavy accent so I ask where he was from and what position he played. He said he was from Russia and played defense. I jokingly told him that goalies in the U.S. have a rule, to which he asked, “What is rule?” I said, ‘If the puck goes in the net, it’s the defenseman’s fault.’ He laughed and replied “Russian goalie have same stupid rule.”
A few minutes later as I walked to the ice one of the guys said, “Do you know who that is?” ‘Sure I do,’ I said, ‘he’s Alexei from Russia!’ — “That’s Alexei Kasatonov formerly of the NJ Devils and the Russian Army Olympic team!,” he told me.
I felt like a complete fool. On the ice he was soooo good, a really nice guy with a good sense of humor.
Locally, we are fortunate to have a number of ex-NHL’ers skating with us including Jim Dowd, who had a long career in the NHL with the Devils. His name appears on the Stanley Cup. I’ve been lucky enough to share the ice with Jim on a number of occasions. He runs a hockey All-Star game every year to highlight the local high school players which has made the game more popular in our area.
Over the years, I’ve played for anyone who calls me looking for a goalie. I am constantly asked to play for teams, some I’ve never heard of. I’ve been invited to tournaments in the U.S. and Canada, played for the Philadelphia Police Dept. and the El Paso, Texas Fire Dept. (Who knew they had a hockey team?). In between, I have played benefit games against the Philadelphia Flyers Alumni and skated several times with the NJ Dare Devils, a hockey team for special-needs kids. You only have to do that once to understand how special these kids really are and how much the game means to them.
On the ice, most players don’t know my name. Everyone calls me “Eggy.” I continue to play with two groups made up of many the same players: the Folker Hockey League at the Red Bank Armory in the summer and the Navesink Country Club in the winter.
When the World Trade Center fell in 2001, many of us in New Jersey lost friends. We lost four of our fellow players. Every year since 2001, there has been a benefit skate to raise money for the educational fund for children of those who were lost. When you measure how good hockey players are, don’t judge them by all the things they do on the ice.
Back when I was a training officer with the Transit Police, I was assigned a young rookie named Fraser for two weeks of field training. His father happened to be Kerry Fraser, the former NHL official. Several weeks after he completed his training I was working in the Trenton Train Station when I was approached by Kerry. He walked over and asked if I was John Egger (He knew my name!). His son asked him to stop and see me if he was ever in the area. He pulled a puck from his pocket from the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs between the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers. He said he always kept a souvenir puck from each game he officiated. He wanted to give it to me! It still sits on my desk today.
I retired from the Transit Police in 2011, but continue to play hockey three, four or more games a week.
When I started playing hockey I said that I would hang up my skates when I turned 35 which seemed old at the time. I’ll be 71 in a few months and I don’t fear growing older. The only thing I fear now is that my phone will stop ringing with someone looking for a goalie to play the next game.
Over the years, hockey has taught me several truths about the game and about life. 1) When all seems lost you never give up and you find a way to come back. 2) The game becomes greater because of the people who play it, and 3) Win or lose, always shake hands with your opponents after the game.
Written by John T. Egger
Special to The HockeyClan