When I was a young kid just starting to play hockey, I began at a rink in Totowa, New Jersey called “Ice World.” It was not only the home of the N.J. Rockets, where I played the majority of my youth hockey, but it was also the first practice facility for the NHL’s New Jersey Devils.
I lived about four miles from the rink in West Paterson. My school was halfway in between. I would go from home to school, then directly to the rink everyday. When I got there around 3:15 p.m, the Devils were usually just finishing up practice. At age 12, I was the “rink rat.” To be around NHL players was such a special treat for me. I got to know the players as they would come out. They’d give me pucks and other things. One of my fondest memories was when they pulled out a few quarters and play video games with me in the lobby. Here I was playing Pacman and Donkey Kong with Kirk Muller, Pat Verbeek and Ken Daneyko!
As I got older, I was invited into the locker room and I would change the radio station or get them tape — whatever they asked — I was just so thrilled to be around NHL players and an NHL team. Even though the Devils weren’t all that good back then I didn’t care. Visiting teams would also come in and practice there and I got to see some of the best teams and players of that generation.
One time my father pulled me out of school in the morning. I was upset because we had a floor hockey tournament and I was afraid I was going miss it. I think I was in 8th grade, around 13-years old at the time. When we pulled up to the rink I asked, “What are we doing here now?” We walked up to the door and the owner, Paul Kramer, who my father was friends with, opened up the door, let us in then locked the door behind us. The owner told me to go into rink 1 and he and my father would be with me in a minute. As I sat there, one-by-one, the Edmonton Oilers filed onto the ice for practice — my jaw dropped! Grant Fuhr, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Kenny Linesman, a.k.a “The Rat,” and more. All I kept thinking was, “Where was Gretzky?” Then as I turned around there he was! He says, “You must be Cliff!” I was speechless. The owner set it up and Wayne sat down with me, took pics, signed autographs and talked to me about hockey, school and God knows what else because it’s a blur now. I was in complete awe of what was happening. I remember Coach (Glen) Sather yelling for Wayne to get out on the ice for practice, but Wayne went out when he was done talking with me.
I went back to school (yes, in time for my floor hockey tournament) and told my friends what I just did. They didn’t believe me. My mom took forever at the Foto-mat to get the pics developed. Remember those days?! Great times as a kid for sure!
Growing up, I had the pleasure of playing for the then-original N.J. Rockets, which are now the Devils Youth. Although Jeremy Roenick was a year older than me, I played some games and practiced with that team from time to time. Everybody knew Roenick was very good, but no one thought he would be come a 500-goal scorer in the NHL. I made some life-long hockey friends with the Rockets back in those days between squirt and midgets, many of whom I still talk to today. Some on a daily basis, others on Facebook or through coaching or men’s league.
Back then Tier I hockey was very different — VERY DIFFERENT! Back then Tier I was labeled as “AA” on the east coast and “AAA” in the mid west although it was the same Tier I level. Tier II and house league was where the majority of players played so when you made a Tier I team it was really special. If my memory is correct, I only remember the Rockets, Oyster Bay Gulls (now the Long Island Gulls), Philadelphia Little Flyers, Washington Metros (now the Little Caps) and Mid-Fairfield (now the Connecticut Rangers). The league was small, but it wasn’t about business or money back then. Today, there are too many Tier I teams and it is very diluted with some clubs forming more than one team at the Tier I level, which I don’t quite understand. Is that really Tier 1?
Junior hockey was also different back then. Everyone knew the USHL was the top of the junior hockey chain, but on the east coast the Met League for junior players was special because at the time that was the top of the food chain of Junior hockey on the east coast. There was only one team in the whole state of New Jersey and that was the Jr. Devils. It basically took the top 20 midget players from New York City to eastern Pennsylvania. It was the best Tier I midget players in the state playing junior hockey. One of my coaches, Glenn Hefferan, is now the AAHA President.
The Met League was founded by former New York Rangers’ General Manager, Emile ‘The Cat’ Francis, to foster the growth of amateur hockey in the greater metropolitan area and develop pro level players. The Met League has an impressive list of NHL alumni including Jim Dowd, Brian and Joey Mullen, Nick Fotiu, Mike Richter, Mark Eaton, Nick Foligno and Mike Komisarek. More recent alumni include Frank DiChiaha (Yale), Ryan Hitchcock (US NTDP, Yale), Matt Beattie (NJ Renegades, 2012 Vancouver Canucks Draft Selection), Jeremy Bracco (US NTDP career assists leader), Kevin Labanc (2014 San Jose Sharks Draft Selection) and many other players that went on to careers in the NHL, AHL other minor pro and NCAA college hockey.
After playing for the Devils’ junior program, I moved on to Penn State. I had a few NCAA Division-III offers but ultimately decided Penn State was the right fit for me. The second game of my PSU career we played NCAA Division-I Canisius in Buffalo and I scored my first collegiate goal. Needless to say, I was thrilled about that! Penn State was a founding member of the ACHA. They treated their program like it was an NCAA Division-I team. The rink and locker room wasn’t the best, but the fans, sharing the weight room with PSU football players, having video coaches, your own skate sharpener, getting free equipment (everything except skates at the time), it was the best decision I ever made in regards to hockey, school and the teammates and friends I made.
Today, I’m lucky enough to be an alumni and still keep in touch with my coaches Joe Battista and Doc Ray Lombra. I keep in touch with current Head Coach Guy Gadowsky and I’m blown away by where the program was and what it has become and how great they treat the alumni. I continue to remain actively involved thanks to my daughter who just completed her freshman year there and I get to go up there to see her and the school quite a bit. I was invited back their first year of NCAA Division-I and continue to go back and coach the team in their annual Blue-White game.
I have been coaching junior hockey and youth hockey in New Jersey for over 22 years now with my N.J. Renegades Hockey Club. I have also served as Head Instructor for the world-renowned Turcotte Stickhandling Hockey School for over two decades as well.
Needless to say, this all started right here in New Jersey and I am so thankful to still be involved in hockey today as Owner, General Manager and Coach of the Renegades Jr. Team. I have coached players that have gone on to the NHL, NCAA, ACHA, USHL, NAHL and the Olympics as well as European and North American professional leagues. I’ve had players drafted into the USHL, NAHL and the NHL…
It’s been an incredible journey for the past 40-plus years — I only hope I have another 40 left!
Written by Cliff Graziano / @NJRenegades
Special to HockeyClan
Main Image: 1983-84 New Jersey Rockets Pee Wee AA Team Photo (courtesy of Cliff Graziano)
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