“He’s pretty good. You can tell he’s going to be GOOD when he’s older,” I said to Coach Derek as we watched the younger players scrimmage towards the end of a Pro Performance clinic from the side boards.
He stood there, intensely still and focused on his mite level players, wide eyed with his necklace-whistle clenched and gritted tightly between his teeth, like a referee waiting to make a call towards the end of a big game.
There was a silent pause between us, as if he wasn’t listening to me. Then it was like something had suddenly hit him.
He slowly nodded his head with his wide puppy looking brown eyes and said, “You know why Mick…he’s a student of the game. He studies and understands the game.” He quickly turned his head to look at me and said, “He’s like you, he’s my student.”
From the age of 14 until 19 I was Coach Derek’s student; ‘a student of the game,’ a student of the sport, hockey. I was lucky enough that Coach Derek saw something in me that perhaps other peers and coaches around me did not.
I will never forget when he took me aside after our final game of the 2006 season. That had been my first season playing under him and Coach Kanaly in Toms River.
Before the game had started, as I wrapped clear tape around my white socks against my shin guards, Coach Derek took me aside and said with an eager – yet serious look on his face, “Hey, I need to talk to you after the game, ok? Don’t forget either, alright buddy.”
As usual, I nodded, gave me him a fist pound, and continued to get dressed in the boiling hot locker room of the half indoor/outdoor rink at Winding River.
I had already come to love and admire Coach Derek and had improved my hockey skills tremendously as the year went on thanks to him and Kanaly. But, I wasn’t sure what he wanted to talk to me about.
After the game ended the team and the parents had a pizza party. Everyone was in great spirits, especially after the way we had ended the season. We were finally becoming a true team, and a good one with a lot of potential for future seasons.
Coach Derek then took me aside in between the player’s locker rooms and the rink. It was a cold November night, in the old rink which keep in mind again was a half indoor/outdoor rink set up. I stood there shaking a little bit because of the temperature outside and being right next to the ice rink. Also, I was a little jittery and eager to see what my Coach – who I had grown so fond of, wanted to tell me.
I stood there at the age of 15 looking up to this guy who had already taught me so much and inspired me in such a short period of time. He stood there looking fresh as always in his suit, short and flowing curly hair, with his right hand stroking his goat-tee scruff.
“I wanted to bring you aside because I’m proud of you and you may not even realize, but I see something unique, something Kanaly and I can’t exactly teach either,” he said in his confident voice.
I froze. I wasn’t sure where the conversation was going. So, like any other nervous 15-year old I just stood there, and kept nodding my head.
“Your skills sets have grown tremendously over these past few months. It’s literally been night and day from the start of the season until now, and I promise you if you stick with us, Kanaly and I, you’ll only get better. You went from a guy just trying to crack into the lineup – to a go-to guy; a guy we look towards putting out there in any given situation…penalty kill…power play….a faceoff situation,” he said with his right hand now moving from down to up emphasizing levels of a ladder.
As he continued to talk I could see his passion and enthusiasm for the game, the sport, this special group of guys we had, and his belief in me.
“This unique characteristic you have that Kanaly and I have discussed is something called ‘scale-ability.’ You’ve only gotten better by working hard over the last couple months, and you’re only going to continue to get better as time goes on, as you work more, and grow…”
It felt awesome hearing this from Coach Derek. I had worked extremely hard to get where I was at thanks to him, Kanaly, and my teammates.
He went on, “I’m going to continue to work with you. Take my word for it. And, one day you’ll be playing Junior hockey.”
He started to smile and laugh, “One day I’m just going to ship you off…to New Hampshire or where ever it may be, because you have the potential to play at that level. I see it. It’s the little things you do that I can’t stress enough about, right?”
I stood there and was certainly inspired. I had already begun drinking he and Coach Kanaly’s “Koolade, ” like I was a freshman at his first college party that he and Kanaly were pouring to us all season; and was only going to consume more of it after this talk with Derek.
It got me motivated to start the next season right then and there at 9:30pm on a Sunday night just after our season had literally just ended. Derek was great at motivating any of us at any given time.
I could remember driving home that night with a lot on my mind. Also, well aware that I would be working with Coach Derek over the next few years, none of this would be something that happened over night. There wasn’t a worry in my mind. I was at ease, not too content and comfortable, but inspired to continue work and grow alongside my teammates.
Over the next three years I continued to play for Coach Kanaly and Derek with the rest of the same core of guys.
Derek and I personally took the extra time to have me work hard on and off the ice. He started up his own private lessons during the year and week long summer camps. They involved every aspect of the game to turn someone into a complete hockey player.
Skating technique/form, power skating, balance, stick handling, endurance, strength, shooting, passing, edge work, face-offs , friendly competition…you name it – we practiced and worked on it.
Showing up to Winding River in the Fall before a team practice to do a skating clinic with Derek was a norm. Sometimes I would be the only guy from the team there, and one my age. It didn’t matter though. The drills he had me working on were to push me; make me stronger both physically and mentally.
If he saw me doing a drill the correct way – he would enthusiastically stop me during the middle of the drill to show the others how to do it, and vice versa if I did something wrong.
All eyes were on him as he would show us step by step clearly what to and not to do typically in his black and red CCM warmup suit, and sometimes wearing his white Bauer 4500 “bucket” on backwards –somehow it never fell off either.
The only thing you could hear in Winding River when he spoke was his loud and enthusiastic tone echo throughout the rink. It was a voice you could always immediately recognize. That was him teaching, while we took notes. As soon as that lesson ended we got right back to work.
Not being able to breathe after drills and breathing in the cold distinct rink air that stung like hell was nothing new as the years went on attending Derek’s sessions.
As Fall came and went, High School season would began. Derek would still hold private ice and run clinics. Still, I would drive down for an hour clinic. Most would say it probably wouldn’t be worth the drive, but it was Derek, I had to, I wanted to. He was my guy, my idol, and I was his guy. He would always be there for me, as I would be for him.
Plus, showing up to rink meant I would run into someone. Whether it was Kanaly, Philly, Weltz, Neebus, Pizzulo, Renae, Wyotes etc. It would be great to see those guys and be reunited. The jokes, smiles, and laughs never got old – they never could.
When Summer came around it would be time to do Derek’s week long summer camp. A week of nonstop hockey. A week of working hard and having fun. A week of off-ice which usually made me feel like a 70-year old man the next day.
As Derek would say after an off-ice workout with a smile larger and wider than the United States, “Yeahhhh BUDDY, tomorrow you’re all going to bend down to sit on the toilet seat, and you’re not going to be able to because of the soreness in your thighs.”
It was true, ha.
For my final season playing under Derek he had named me team Captain for the Blackhawks right after tryouts. I could not have been happier. It not only showed how far I had grown and excelled, but how far he and I had come together – a tribute towards our relationship.
We had kept both of our word towards each other three years later, neither giving up on one another no matter what the outcome was after a game, or season.
That summer during his week–long camp we agreed that I would show up an hour early or so in the morning to get extra work in. I absolutely hated the mornings. Nothing was worse than waking up at 7:00am when I was 18. But, if it meant getting up and attending Coach Derek’s lesson – I did it. To anything else I would have easily said, “Screw it,” back then.
He knew how far I had become as a player both skill and leadership wise, and wanted those qualities to progress. He was grooming his student to be the best, and a representation of himself as well.
That same summer my transformation was complete. I went from being an average player, to one of, if not the fastest player on the ice during the season. People and guys I used to play with in the past wouldn’t have recognized me out there from the player I once was.
The film, Dead Poet’s Society, always reminds me of playing in Toms River with my teammates.
We were a group of teenagers who banded around each other, and embraced our teachers, our coaches. I always associate myself with the shy main character, Todd Anderson, who was pretty much scared of his own shadow at the films start, but ends up portraying his “scale-ability” throughout the film, and turns into a leader in the end, thanks to his inspirational teacher.
Thanks to my teammates, Kanaly, and especially Coach Derek I transformed from a follower into a leader. A boy to a man. An average player to a top-notch player.
Derek and Kanaly challenged and put confidence in me that I needed to get where I wanted to and could be as a player and person. Other than family and my parents, they’re a huge reason of what and who I turned out to be, and how I carry myself.
As Derek’s student, even though he is no longer with us, I still take notes from his lessons and blue prints he left behind that I would see later on.
Something I truly admired, and reminded me of something a Professor of mine asks us to do, is an “act of kindness;” His act of kindness out of love for our friend, brother, and teammate Mike Weltner, “Weltz.”
About two months after Derek had passed, while Weltz was still battling, I received news about something Weltz had received.
Derek had reached out to a hockey contact of his from California with the Los Angeles Kings for Weltz. Weltz had received an autograph jersey from the entire 2011-2012 Kings roster. Interesting enough, that Kings team beat the New Jersey Devils and won the Stanley Cup. What’s interesting is that he received the jersey 3 months after the fact they had won.
I marveled at what he had done for our brother.
It was the little things that Coach Derek did for myself and others that helped us grow as players and people that we followed and admired.
It was the little things he saw in me that took my hockey play to a whole another level.
The little things like taking the time to tell me at 15-years old that he believed in me and was willing to go the extra mile to work with me to succeed – I couldn’t be more appreciative of and recommend more Coaches and teachers do the same.
And, as he promised – I went on to play Junior Hockey in Philadelphia, where new lifelong relationships were formed that I treasure. I was lucky enough to in fact meet another inspirational and favorite Coach of mine – which is a story for another time.
Thanks to his notorious “little things” I was more than prepared to succeed at that level, and lead.
To this day in any situation, good or bad, I can still hear his voice in my head, and I can hear exactly what he would say, or advice he would give.
I was his student – a protégé, and always will be a product of Derek Percy.
When it’s all said and done, what Coach Derek meant to “us” – was everything.