It must feel like a time tunnel whenever Dan May works with his young skaters at the Ice House in Hackensack, miniature hockey stars whose imaginations take them straight to the NHL.
The kids are as young as 6 or 7, so small they're swallowed up in their jerseys and pads. But even at that age, there's a hint of the magic that separates skaters from other young athletes. The good ones commune with the ice; they don't churn as much as float, which is precisely how May teaches it.
He knows what it's like to be a first- or second-grader already consumed by hockey. That was May a generation ago, a Hackensack kid who fell in love with the sport during a pick-up game on a frozen pond in Lincoln Park. He had plans, dreams, and actually kept playing until he enrolled at Elmira College.
But by 18, May's body had already been battered, and not just because of too much forechecking into the boards. He was diagnosed with cancer in his early years, long before chemotherapy became oncologists' weapon of choice. May had two malignant tumors removed from his hip, yet somehow he survived.
"I'm lucky to be here," he says without self-pity. There's a 600-stitch scar around May's waist to remind him just how lucky he is, and why he was ultimately meant to coach, not play. May figures his illness and recovery were part of the same destiny Ğ today, at 51, he belongs on the ice with the kids the same way John Wayne once belonged on a horse.
May, after all, was voted the coach of the decade by The Record for two highly successful stints at Bergen Catholic. Between 1998-2004 and 2006-2009, the Crusaders compiled a 106-48-23 record, including two state titles. May's son, Jason, was voted the player of the decade as the catalyst for the 2001 and 2003 championship teams at BC.
May's street cred followed him to the Ice House, which boasts the largest and most ambitious skating facility in the tri-state area. With four separate rinks, it's impossible to miss the place, which, like some medieval castle, sits imperially near the banks of the Hackensack River. You'd have to go to Westchester, Pa., to find a complex as vast. Inside, there's a pro shop, snack bar and a fully equipped health club on the second floor.
May was officially anointed director of hockey operations, but sharing an office with his wife, Monica, the responsibilities extend beyond the rink. May tends to the Ice House's business side with partners Robert Bakos and Robert Hawkins Ğ the trio oversees peak-season traffic of almost 10,000 skaters a week. The visitors come from Manhattan, Westchester and Rockland counties, even Pennsylvania and Connecticut. The mecca is worth it because May, Bakos and Hawkins have turned the Ice House into a buffet table on ice: 70 adult-league teams skate under the massive roof, and another 40 teams play recreationally.
There are programs for figure skaters, both for those who compete and those taking their first lesson. For the otherwise unaffiliated, there's old-fashioned skate-arounds or anyone who wants to circle slowly, holding hands with their partners.
That's the Ice House's universal lure: a morsel for everyone. But May's heart belongs to the pads and the sticks and the hockey junkies who, like he himself a lifetime ago, have their eyes on a professional career.
For those hardcores, there's the North Jersey Avalanche, a franchise that fields teams of all ages, from those 6- to-7-year-olds to the late teens who are poised for college careers. In all, the Avalanche slate includes 30 teams and 60 coaches. May's tentacles extend to both ends of the spectrum: he's a mentor to the Mite-B program, the youngest of the talent pool, as well as the Midget 16-and-Under AAA National Team that won a silver medal in 2010 at the USA Hockey National Championships in Chicago.
May draws on two distinct coaching philosophies: for the older, showcase players, it's all about sharpening skills and, ultimately, winning. And even though the entry-level skaters compete and travel, as well, the emphasis is on teaching.
"The idea is to make it enjoyable for the kids and the parents," May said. "At the (Mite) level, it's just recreation and having fun."
That approach doesn't go unnoticed by the Ice House staff. Pete LaMonica, who works with the 10- and 11-year-old Squirts, calls May a "great leader" who brings "a wealth of hockey knowledge" to the kids and coaches alike.
"We really stress to our kids the importance of playing other sports," May says, but he understand hockey's tight grip. If you play it, you live it. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, nearly half a million Americans were registered with teams in 2010, second in the world only to Canada.
Of course, just as in any sport, the dream of turning pro is akin to winning the lottery. No Avalanche player has made it to the NHL yet, although 16-year-old Nick Ebert, an Ice House alumnus, was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League last year and was recently voted player of the week for the Windsor Spitfires.
Ebert's triumphs, though, are the exception, not the rule. Most of May's better players will compete at the NCAA level and end their careers there. After graduation, some will continue to play in adult leagues, some will return to the Ice House to coach one of the Avalanche teams. All, however, will have years of memories tucked into the vault, knowing they were part of the northeast's top amateur program.
That's primarily why May sticks with the older kids, the ones chasing the dream. He knows virtually every scout and college coach. It's May's way of giving back to the teens who've sacrificed so much.
It's his chance to step into the time tunnel, too. Those Mites, after all, are May minus the years and the aching hip. But that's not to say the love of the rink has changed. When May says, "I still love doing this," it's just the kid in him talking. To a hockey lifer, lacing up the skates never gets old.