How college hockey got me through the worst year of my life

On April 29, 2014, I found out one of my childhood friends passed away. I wanted to quit hockey, but ended up coming back. This is the long tale of what happened this year, why I’m glad I came back, and how I know I wouldn’t have gotten through it without the college hockey community.

On April 11, 2015, at 3:30 a.m., we were about to leave the TD Garden. I was wearing a dress, boots and a Frozen Four t-shirt. Someone had taken my coat and blazer, so I had nothing to protect me from the cold.

We looked everywhere, and asked the TD Garden staff. But no on had seen either my coat or my blazer, so I figured it was gone forever. I was close to tears, just tired and sad because of the season and all its difficulties. It was two weeks away from my childhood friend’s one-year death anniversary, and very close to the death anniversary of another one of my friends.

It was the most emotional year of my life, filled with journalism drama, so much trouble and so much uncertainty.

Somehow, I walked out of the TD Garden, freezing at 3:30 a.m. with a “Frozen Four Media Work Office” sign in my hand, still smiling.

On April 29, 2014, we received a call from a family friend.

Darren had passed away.

He was a year younger than me, and just two weeks away from graduating from Penn State.

Darren and I had grown up together. When we moved to New Jersey in 1996, his family was the first one we met. After that, we met several other Indian families. Since our actual families all lived in India, our group of friends became family. We grew up together, spending holidays chasing each other, lighting fireworks in our backyards, playing manhunt on New Year’s Eve, making fun of the Yankee Swap game every Christmas, playing video games, searching for fireflies on the fourth of July.

There are so many memories, trips to the beach when we were younger. Pointless, just-for-fun arguments about sports. There was that time our car broke down on Thanksgiving and his family came to pick us up. There was Christmas Eve in 2013, where he took a bow from the Yankee Swap game and put it on his nose. And that time when he happily volunteered to chauffeur our guests back and forth to the wedding venues in June.

Or when we were six years old, and Darren showed me how to freeze a giant bowl of ice so we could pretend our toys were skating.

He was gone.

We found out on Tuesday. I didn’t sleep at all that night.

On Wednesday morning, my dad and I went to see his family — his parents and his younger brother.

We grew up 10 minutes away from them. They are my family, and his parents are like my parents. When we were little, I always used to protect his younger brother. And they’ve always been there for my family, like the time my dad was in the hospital. My brother was in law school and I was at BU, but his family was there to take care of my mom and my dad.

Seeing Darren’s family like that, it killed me.

I stayed there all day, watching visitors bring food (mostly fruit), express their condolences, give hugs, say “this is all god’s plan” or “he’s in a better place.”

It rained so much that day, and the roads were flooded so we had to drive home a different way.

The next two days was the same, without the rain. Each day I spent with them. Sitting quietly, making coffee, bringing groceries and tissues, doing whatever I was asked. I helped our group of family friends plan the wake and funeral, track down old pictures and create posters.

I never cried in front of his family, but it took four days — the day before the wake — before I broke down.

Through all of this, I never said anything to my friends. What was the point? I’d known enough people who’ve passed away that I knew there was nothing my friends could do. And there was no way I could explain our relationship, or how much this would change our lives.

I just remember being so scared to sleep, being afraid for his family, and thinking I’d never recover.

And I wondered how my brother could get married in a month and a half. We’re family. Not having Darren there, possibly not having his family there. I didn’t know. None of us did.

Then after the wake, after the funeral, I wanted to quit covering hockey.

Darren and his younger brother grew up playing hockey. It was everything for them and their family (I still remember how many family gatherings they missed because of it.)

The last place I saw his dad before Darren passed away was at Baker Rink. It was the team’s last home game, a loss to Cornell. I was running down to the other end of the ice to take photos when he stopped me, his energetic smile.

How could I go back to hockey? How could I go back to Baker Rink?

I didn’t have the energy to fight it.

I wanted to quit.

But life goes on. A week and a half after Darren died, I was on my way to Chicago. My sister-in-law’s bridal shower was in St. Louis the week after, and I promised I’d be there. She said I didn’t have to go, I told her I wouldn’t miss it. So I sat at the airport on a Friday morning, crying.

I won’t recount much from that trip, except I woke up in the middle of the night, every night, while I was in Chicago. I sadly reached over to pet Max, my brother’s cockapoo, every night. He’s not allowed to sleep on the furniture, but they gave me a pass for the week.

Not long after I got to Chicago, Princeton’s then-coach Bob Prier resigned. I didn’t want anything to do with it, because I still couldn’t be around hockey. But I’m a journalist and journalists chase down stories, so that’s what I did. I broke it, through tears, from the couch in my brother’s apartment.

Breaking the story was a big accomplishment for me, and for a little bit I forgot about the pain.

But then we went to St. Louis, where things got worse. The days were okay, but the nights were so difficult. Once, I woke up in the middle of the night having a panic attack in our hotel. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe. The worst part about the night is there’s no one to turn to. Thankfully it passed, and I went back to sleep.

I came home with three weeks to go until the wedding, and spent the rest of my time preparing, hanging out with my family and keeping track of inventory.

For the first time since Darren’s funeral, we were all together again. And we were all happy, learning Dandiya Raas at the Mehndi Ceremony or jumping up and down at the Baraat.

It was great to see everyone happy again.

But during the reception, when they were sitting at their table, I could tell how much they missed him.

It never goes away.

In July, I grabbed my recorder and headed to Devils development camp, a semi-annual tradition.

Mike Ambrosia, a current Princeton co-captain, gets an invite every year. The first time I met him was actually at New Jersey’s 2012 camp, and it was my first time covering Princeton hockey.

So I went back. But, Darren had grown up a New Jersey Devils fan, idolizing Marty Brodeur like most New Jersey goalkeepers did. So I was terrified as I took the train to Newark. I was convinced I would break down the second I walked into that building, and I wanted to turn around and go home so badly.

But, I don’t know how to turn around. So I walked into the building to go through security.

The first person I saw was Mike Ambrosia.

I don’t know why, but he was standing in the doorway across the room. He smiled and waved, and we chatted as I gave the security guard my I.D. Mike waited for me, and we talked and walked down the hallway.

He got to the locker room door and asked if I knew where I was going. I smiled and said, “Nope.” So he told me where to go, and I walked out into the cold practice rink at the AmeriHealth Pavilion.

By that time, I’d forgotten everything.

I didn’t have to pretend I was okay that day, because I was okay.

I spent the rest of my summer managing roster changes and inputing the schedule for College Hockey News. They were tedious tasks, but mindless. Mindless is what I needed. It helped, at least a little bit.

The rest of the summer was still difficult. I saw Darren’s mom on almost a weekly basis, and watching her cry never got easier.

I was struggling, but thankfully the end of September brought college hockey features and my Big Ten duties.

And October brought BU hockey.

I came back to Boston for BU’s home opener — which I haven’t missed in six years — and a set against Michigan and Michigan State, two of my Big Ten teams.

I stayed with one of my best friends. I told her I wasn’t doing well, but I hoped the college hockey season starting would change that.

And it did.

There’s something inexplicable about walking into your alma mater’s arena. No matter who’s playing, the feeling of community, family and friends, and those memories, stay.

On Friday the Terriers hosted Michigan State, so I finally got to meet their SID. The next night BU hosted Michigan, in one of the best games I saw all season. The atmosphere at Agganis was incredible, filled for the first time I saw since I was a freshman.

That felt like normal.

Freshman Joe Grabowski hands Ron Fogarty the puck from his first Division I win.

Things were fine after that. Princeton’s season opened the weekend after, so I was busy with preseason content and the Liberty Hockey Invitational. I was back to my routine of photos, stories, interviews, features, and endless blog maintenance.

The Tigers came back to Baker the first weekend of November. Princeton beat Cornell, a huge win that gave new coach Ron Fogarty his first Division I win. After the game, I asked Ron if I could take a picture of him with the game puck, given to him by the team.

He laughed and said he didn’t want it to look staged, so freshman and local defender Joe Grabowski handed him the puck. (This moment still makes me smile.)

That’s the best part about being a beat reporter. You get to be there for all the important moments.

Then Princeton hit the road for a couple weeks, but this year they were came home for Thanksgiving. I was worried about that week, since our families spent every Thanksgiving together, but this would be our first without Darren. I knew we’d miss him.

The little puppy

But my brother and sister-in-law came home for Thanksgiving, with their puppy, Zeus. So we were all together, and it was good to be together.

That weekend, Princeton hosted Michigan State. I skipped my high school reunion that Friday so I could cover Princeton’s game.

I met freshman forward Max Becker’s dad that day. He stopped me in the hall and we talked, and he was actually the one who told me that Max and Michigan State’s John Draeger played together at Shattuck.

Max’s dad is incredibly nice, like many of the Princeton hockey parents I’ve gotten to meet over the past two years.

The Tigers came away with a big win, which meant music blasting from the locker room and happy players. That was Mike’s first game of the year, thanks to an injury that kept him out for the first month. He was pretty happy to be back.

Now, things were normal.

Two weeks later, Princeton recruit Neil Doef was injured in the WJAC.

We knew he’d been stretchered off. We knew he’d been taken to the hospital. We knew it was serious, but we didn’t know the extent. So I waited. For days, for a week. Others speculated that it was a spinal cord injury, but I didn’t, out of respect to his family.

I didn’t know what I was doing, because I’d never covered anything like this before. With journalism, you don’t know how to handle anything until you experience it.

A week later, it was announced he suffered a spinal cord injury.

It was just eight months after Darren passed away, and I still hadn’t recovered. I didn’t have any emotional strength to deal with covering this story. And all the feelings — not the memories — from the week Darren passed away came back.

It crushed me. I know they were different circumstances, but they were both life-altering events that make you feel like everything has stopped. And I felt for his family, because I’ve watched a mom grieve.

I wished I could be there for them, that I could do something for them during the nights the waited in the hospital, or the days they spent wondering what would happen to their son.

But as a reporter I couldn’t just put this story behind me. I wanted to. I wanted to hide somewhere for weeks, until it went away. But I couldn’t do that. I had to wait, follow up on the story and keep covering it, because that’s what journalists do, no matter how hard the situation is.

With Christmas coming soon, it was worse. Christmas 2013 was the last time I saw Darren. We usually spent it together every year, but none of our families would be together this Christmas. As it is, the holidays are always the toughest when you lose someone you love. But now it was harder. Even my brother and sister-in-law didn’t come home, so it was just me and my parents.

My mom and dad kept saying it felt like something was missing from this holiday, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them what it was.

To get through it, I kept telling myself I just had to wait four days for Princeton to return from break. Then things would be back to normal, and I’d be busy covering hockey.

They came home on Dec. 28, for an ESPN-televised game. Baker was packed, standing-room-only packed, making the best atmosphere I’ve seen in Princeton. And the Tigers played the best game I’d seen from them all year.

While I was running down the hallways to take photos, I ran into Quin Pompi’s dad. He told me he saw my story on Kevin Tansey and the fundraising for Neil Doef. Then he told me:

“You’re chasing what you love, right? Keep doing that. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise and don’t give up.”

The next week, on Jan. 3, Princeton hosted the Russian Red Stars in an exhibition game. Princeton won, but Max Becker took a bad hit along the boards. He took some time to get up, and didn’t return to the game.

The next week, Jan. 10, was when I ran into Max’s dad. Wetalked about Neil’s injury, and and Max’s dad explained to me the possible outcomes. If Neil’s spinal cord was just bent, once the pressure was relieved, he could walk again. But if it was cut, that wouldn’t be the case. I later found out Max’s dad is an anesthesiologist.

I knew Max’s injury was bad, and I just remember how worried his dad was.

There was so much of me that was gone after Darren’s death that I couldn’t handle the smallest emotionally difficulty. I’ve seen some bad injuries in hockey, but this year I saw the worst. And I wasn’t sure I could do it anymore, the harm, the injuries, the worry.

I drove home that night upset, the first time I’ve ever come home from a college hockey game unhappy. This time, I really thought about quitting.

But something brought me back the next week. I’m incapable of missing Princeton hockey games, a probable combination of journalistic commitment, love of hockey, and the community.

After dropping the last two games before break, Princeton returned on Jan. 28 against Army. The Tigers earned a win, their first one in a long time. Everyone was happy, and the loud music returned to the locker room.

Two days later I was off to Yale to see Princeton play the Bulldogs. Ingalls had been on my bucket list for a long time, and I fell in love the The Whale when I got there. I forced my friend to go, and even had her take some hockey pictures.

The whole experience was great. I went to Brown the next night, where Princeton tied the Bears. That trip was tough, and forced me to take a “break” from covering the team. My break lasted for one away game, and I was back at Baker when the Tigers came home.

Princeton defeated Clarkson and tied St. Lawrence that weekend, and everyone around the organization was happy with the team’s progress. It was the team’s second-to-last weekend at home.

I came back to Baker for practice that Wednesday for video interviews with the seniors.

The team’s equipment manager, Matt Conti, set up the visiting locker room with Princeton’s away orange and black jerseys as a backdrop. As I waited for the players to get dressed, I wandered around the arena, listening to the sounds of the old building.

It was so quiet, so peaceful.

When the seniors were ready, I asked them to share memorable and weird moments. It took some time for the players to come up with weird moments so I shared a couple of my own, like the Ivy League banner that got ripped down during a game last year.

That weekend, Princeton hosted Brown. After the postgame interviews were over, I walked down to Matt Conti’s office. I watched him fix skates and other equipment as we talked about Darren (he’d coached Darren and his little brother when they were little.)

Then we talked about Princeton hockey, and I was telling him about the first time I met Mike Ambrosia, which was the first time I wrote anything about Princeton hockey.

Back then, at New Jersey’s 2012 development camp, I’d never walked into a locker room before. I didn’t know anything about Mike, or Jack (who was Princeton’s captain then). I didn’t know what they looked like, so the Devils’ director of communication pointed him out to me.

So three years ago, I faked as much confidence as I could and nervously walked up to Mike to interview him.

As I was telling this story to Matt, Mike waked by. I poked my head out of the door and called him back.

I told Mike I’d been deleting old files from my recorder when I’d stumbled on the interviews I did with him and Jack from that development camp.

Mike asked me if I deleted it, and I said no, because I wanted to remember what he was like back then. He asked if he’d changed, and I jokingly told him he’s nicer now.

Mike told me he was just nervous back then, and Conti said I was the same way. But, now I’m a pro.

It was funny thinking about how little I knew of Princeton hockey less than three years ago, but here I was now, hanging out in the bowels of Baker, talking about all things hockey with the team’s equipment manager.

That’s the moment it really felt like Baker was home.

There was a major storm the next night. Against my better judgement, I drove out to the game. I almost skidded off the road three times when I was less than a quarter of the way to Baker. I was terrified, so I pulled into a gas station to turn around.

But as I was getting ready to go home, I thought to myself, “Am I really going to do this? Am I really going to chicken out and go home?”

So I just kept on going.

Which was worth it, because I captured two really sweet Princeton hockey moments:

Joe Grabowski skates with an honorary captain
Mike Ambrosia and Aaron Kesselman help up the honorary captain

After that, there were some tough moments that popped up when Princeton was on the road. Everything bad seemed to be happening at once, and I was starting to question if I wanted to keep covering Princeton.

But then I got a wonderful email from a Princeton student. Here’s an expert:

I wanted to send you a huge thank you for all you’ve done to cover the Princeton men’s hockey team over the past two (?) years. Unfortunately I just started following the team this year … but fortunately I stumbled upon your blog and Twitter in November/December and have since been hooked.
Honestly, I don’t think I would have become such a big fan if it hadn’t been for you and your extensive coverage, and for that I am eternally (quite literally) grateful because in the process I’ve rekindled my love of the sport and have been reminded of what matters most in life. And beyond hockey, especially as I think about what I want to do post-graduation, you’ve reminded me of the joy and satisfaction that can come from pursuing one’s passion despite working with limited resources and little recognition.
So please forgive the sentimentality and know that your work has truly been appreciated! I can only imagine how difficult and frustrating this adventure has been for you, but I hope all of that has been greatly outweighed by the good.
I think I can speak on behalf of many when I say that if you end up deciding not to cover PU Hockey next year, you will be sorely missed! And if you choose to stay, we will — of course — love to have you back!

I got so caught up in the little things that have been happening this year that I’d forgotten why I started covering this team in the first place. I give up so much of my time, effort and love into being a reporter and into this blog, and sometimes it’s draining.

But she reminded me why I started this, and why I love covering this team so much. I’m so grateful for this email.

Princeton came back after the season’s end, with one week of practices to prepare for the ECAC tournament. I went to practice that Wednesday for more interviews.

As I waited to interview the alternate captains (Mike Ambrosia, Aaron Ave and Kyle Rankin), I hung out on the bench. Several players were still on the ice, including Tom Kroshus, Ben Halford and Joe Grabowski. After Grabowski finished practicing his one timer, he had Halford break his stick. Grabowski took the half of his stick that was left and raced up the ice with the puck, trying to score.

After interviewing the three alternate captains and coach Ron Fogarty, I couldn’t imagine not coming back. I told Ron that hopefully I’d be back next week for the same interviews.

But Princeton’s season ended in a sweep to Dartmouth, despite the Tigers playing their best two games of the season. I wrote both my recaps before focusing on the last weekend of Big Ten hockey and the tournament.

I flew to Detroit a couple of weeks later for the Big Ten tournament, a short but good trip. But I came home Sunday to news that my dad almost had to be taken to the hospital on Saturday. Two days later, I found out one of my good friends from college had cancer.

This was several days before I was going to leave for Regionals, so my editor asked if I could still go. I said yes, because I’m bound by college hockey and I didn’t know what to do.

The stress made regionals was difficult, but it was really good to be around all the different college hockey reporters again. I saw some friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, and a couple of great games.

I came home, and a couple days later Josh Melnick decommitted from Princeton. It came out of nowhere, and I was shocked. I was so tired from everything that had happened over the past year and I didn’t want to deal with it. Normally I stay out of recruiting, but this was so strange I dove after it.

The stress of the Melnick story followed me to Boston, where I broke that he was committed to Harvard (which turned out to be incorrect). That started a blur of stressful days that I can’t even remember, but that ended in BU’s locker room after the National Championship loss.

Which is why, by 2:30 a.m., when I discovered I no longer had a coat and blazer, I was really upset.

But the College Hockey News crew wouldn’t let me cry. They wouldn’t let me feel sorry for myself, or be defeated by any of this. Which is why, at 3:30 a.m., I left the TD Garden somehow with a smile.

I spent 20 years of my life trying to find a place I belonged. I finally did, my junior year at Boston University. It was in Booth 112A at Agganis Arena, where I spent my weekends covering and broadcasting BU hockey.

Agganis Arena was my home. But after I graduated, I lost that. I was so sad without that community, without my beat reporting partner, without my broadcast partner.

I stumbled into Baker the next season, believing I’d never have another home like Agganis. But I was really lucky, and Baker became my home too.

Graduating from college is really hard. Being unemployed after graduation is even worse, and having three job opportunities post-graduation fall through at the last minute is incredibly demoralizing.

But I started the Princeton Hockey Blog after graduation as my fallback plan, and it’s been the biggest staple in my life the last three years. It’s given me something to work on, something to pay attention to while I’ve been unemployed. It makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, something I hope others have enjoyed over the past two years.

The point of this long ramble is that I love college hockey, and I love covering Princeton hockey.

I’ve covered Princeton hockey for two years now. I’ve given up my soul for the Princeton Hockey Blog. I can’t thank the people who’ve supported it — fans, players, families, alumni — enough. Especially anyone who’s donated.

Being a beat reporter can be the best and worst thing. This year, with everything that happened, it became so hard. Late in the season, I got to a point where I felt like there was more bad than good. There were a lot of tough stories I had to cover and follow, and I was so drained.

After all this, I’ve been wondering if I should come back as a beat reporter. I spend hours editing photos, writing stories, editing, creating videos, running social media and don’t get much recognition. So, sometimes it gets hard, and sometimes I forget why I started doing this in the first place.

It was even more difficult this year, because I really thought I wouldn’t be able to walk back into Baker Rink without thinking of Darren and his dad, of what was lost, of how things changed.

But that was never an issue.

Because the best part of being a beat reporter is getting to know everyone so well. I love meeting new players, meeting families, hearing stories and learning new things. This year, I’ve been fortunate to watch Princeton hockey grow together as a new team under a new system.

I’ve gotten to know so many people around the organization so well that coming back to this building is always like coming home. It’s safe, no matter what. There’s nothing bad in this building, there’s only good. So many people at Princeton have been so good to me. They’ve helped me when I’ve been lost (literally), or worried or stressed. Especially the people who’ve ever thanked me for running the blog or who’ve told me never to give up on my dreams. I don’t know what I would’ve done without that encouragement.

I wouldn’t give up the memories, the stories, the road trips or the experiences for anything. And I wouldn’t have survived the past two years if I didn’t have this team, if I didn’t have this community.

I don’t know when, or how, but at some point this place, this community became my second home.

Before I graduated from BU, I was talking to Darren, telling him I didn’t know what to do with the rest of my life.

He told me to be a hockey journalist.