“Sam… Sam… SAM…” I regain consciousness as Paul Lilla, the athletic trainer, gently taps my hockey helmet. I blink a few times slowly, then a couple more times faster and things start coming together. I see adults in my peripheral, and I can feel the cold ice through my facemask chilling my face. I wonder why I am lying face down on the ice. I don’t remember much else from that situation, just bits and pieces that are blurry and foggy like I watched it happen with my eyes open underwater in a chlorine pool.
As Paul and my teammates carry me to the locker room, I piece together the previous play and realize that when I went to go fish the puck out from the corner, a Canton player checked me from behind into the boards, and I must have hit my head. As I leave the ice, my dad hurries to my side. In a whisper, I ask him to help me memorize counting backwards from one hundred by sevens, so that I can outsmart the familiar concussion assessment protocol. He does not.
When I left that ice, my team held a 3-1 lead in the semi-finals of the state tournament in the 2nd period. My teammates were on their way to the state championship game, and there was no way I wasn’t joining them. Sitting somewhat slumped in that locker room, I decided I was going to do whatever it took to play in that game. Nothing is more important to me than suiting up for the upcoming state championship game.
Seven days. That’s how long I had to clear a bunch of hurdles in my quest to play at the TD Garden for the state championship game. First, I went to my local doctor and was cleared just two days after taking the punishing hit. Next, I had to be cleared by Paul and the coaches, and this proved to be a much more difficult task. Since he was at my side while I was lying facedown on the ice, Paul was far more reluctant to clear me from the concussion protocol, and just laughed when I assured him that “my head really doesn’t even hurt anymore.” That week, I was sleeping for ten or even twelve hours per night, and by Wednesday I was ready to take the concussion test. But even when I passed, I still I wasn’t cleared, and Paul told me that if I could pass a concussion test again on Friday after he put me through a workout, I could play in the game at the garden on Sunday.
I rolled over, and my alarm clock read 2:47 am. This was the third time I had woken up, and I had a feeling it wouldn’t be the last. I was so stressed out about the concussion test on Friday that I didn’t sleep a wink Thursday night. All of my childhood dreams were within my grasp: the chance to play in a state championship game, with teammates I had skated with for a decade, on the Boston Bruins home rink, in front of countless friends and family members. But in a cruel twist of fate, a few wrong answers or slow reactions on a baseline concussion assessment could render me inactive.
The speed of the treadmill was seven as I jogged my way through the friday workout, with just a half hour before I would know my fate. I finished, took the test, and thought my heart would pound out of chest while Paul went into his office to check the results. When he told me I was “good to go on Sunday” I wanted to hug him I was so happy.
Seven days after being crushed into the boards, my childhood dream came true as my teammates and I hoisted the State Championship Trophy at Boston Garden. A police escort led our team bus back into town, and my friends and family lined the parking lot, cheering. In addition to my jubilance, I was feeling reflective. I recalled the years of hard work that preceded this moment. Ungodly 4 am alarms, frozen fingers and toes, and bloody blisters from shooting thousands of hockey pucks.
That was two years ago, and in my junior and senior seasons the Westwood hockey team wasn’t able to make it back to the garden. Though I am just a few months removed from my final game, I know I will cherish the four years spent donning my number 5 green and white sweater for the rest of my life. To those of you reading this who still have high school eligibility left, I urge you to make the most of it. When you are a sophomore or junior, it’s easy to take your high school sport for granted, but don’t. I did everything could to play in that game as a sophomore even though I was just a third line center, and it’s the best decision I ever made. Make the most of the season you’re in now, because it all goes by so quick. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. As soon as you think about next year, you fail your teammates who don’t have next year and ultimately you fail yourself. Put in the extra work, seize your opportunity when you get it, and create memories that will last for a lifetime with your teammates. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a state championship team, a .500 team, or a losing team, leave it all out on that ice, court, or field and you’ll have that personal achievement for the rest of your life.
Edited By: Brett Middleton