Coach Danny Vitale played goalie for four years at Amherst College in Massachusetts, winning two NESCAC championships and appearing in the 2015 NCAA Frozen Four his senior year. Though he takes immense pride in these accomplishments, they simply bespeak his years of hard work, perseverance, and endless passion for the game of hockey and the sport of goaltending.
I grew up in a hockey family in New York. “Dad,” I said, “I want to be a goalie.”
My father said, “You have to play out for two years, learn the game, and learn how to skate. Maybe then.”
So I did, playing two full seasons as a forward, and actually finding that I had a knack for goal-scoring. But there’s no feeling like strapping on the pads and stopping someone from scoring. For a while, I settled for playing goalie in the driveway while my brothers shot on me.
At the end of the two seasons, I said again, “Dad, I want to be a goalie.”
“Are you sure you want to be a goalie?”
“Okay, then here’s what you have to do: You have to take skating lessons every weekend and you’re going to go to stick times before school. And if it doesn’t start well, you’re not going to quit.”
But I had never thought of quitting. I never minded waking up early as long as I got to do what I loved. I think those freezing early mornings actually helped me years later. It was part of the game, part of what I knew it would take to become a great goalie.
I bounced around in-house teams, and then travel teams, always starting every season as a walk-on picked in tryouts, never rising through any one program’s ranks, and ending each season as the team’s starting goalie. My senior year of high school I started playing juniors. I’d always been on bad teams, but that year of juniors was the worst. I gave up more goals than any other goalie in the league. But I also made the most saves. It was the most I ever improved in a single year. And I learned just how much I hated giving up goals, and how many extra hours I’d have to spend at the rink to make just one or two extra saves when it mattered.
I took a year off after high school to play another season of juniors. In that season, I worked with a goalie coach named Matt Voity who truly taught me how to be a goalie, and the importance of a good mentor. Once again, I started that year as a walk-on backup, and finished the season as the team’s starter, leading a deep playoff run and committing to Amherst College.
I entered Amherst as a backup. I didn’t play a single minute my first year. I played three minutes my sophomore year, again not getting a single start. But I persistently arrived at the rink before dawn, stayed late after practices despite loads of homework, knowing that I was making myself better, but perhaps more importantly, improving my teammates as well. And that includes the other goalies. Because the harder I worked, the harder they’d have to work, and the better our team would be.
My junior year was fraught with further disappointment as my hard work again went unrewarded. Our sophomore goalie took the reins and excelled, taking us to the conference championship game. We lost in double overtime. I was on the bench.
I wondered if another year of waking up early, staying late, tearing muscles, incurring collarbone bruises just to watch someone else in net was going to be worth it. The mental toll that goaltending takes on us goalies is immense. I figured that my career was going to culminate in either disappointment or anonymity, and with just a year left in my college career, I thought of everything else I could be doing — music, art, writing, finding a new passion. If I could preempt disappointment, maybe I wouldn’t feel like I was wasting my time.
But you make your own luck, and you control how react to the circumstances around you. And sometimes, decisions are made for you.
Our starting goalie went down with a season-ending injury in December of that last season. It was my turn. And I knew I had done the work. There wasn’t anything to be nervous about. It was time to just play.
The next three months were filled with the most memorable moments of my hockey career, made possible only with the help of my teammates, and more than any other, that goalie who went down with an injury. We goalies are a team within a team. He effectively convinced me to continue playing, and then advised me, coached me, supported me throughout the rest of the season and his own recovery.
We won a NESCAC championship. The final score of that game was 1-0. We went to the Frozen Four. I led the conference in save percentage, goals against average, and shutouts, and was recognized by my teammates and coaches as the team’s MVP. It was so purely fun that those three months felt easy. It was the work that got me there that was the hard part.
You never know when your honest work will pay off. Keep in mind, though, it’s impossible to accomplish anything in this sport alone. We must always be thankful for the help we have along the way, and be willing to return to the rink even when things are not so easy.
I have now been coaching goalies in Los Angeles for over a year. I’ve met some wonderfully talented kids to whom I want to pass on the things I’ve learned throughout the career that I am so grateful to have had.
Amherst College B.A. 2015
2013-14 and 2014-15 NESCAC All-Academic Selection
2012 and 2015 NESCAC Champion
2012 and 2015 Frozen Four
2015 Plattsburgh Cardinal Winter Classic Tournament MVP
2015 Friends of Amherst Athletics Award for Sportsmanship and Perseverance
2015 Bob Hanford Award for Most Outstanding Player
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