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Roots and Wings

by on February 05, 2019 5:00 AM

The weather was bitterly cold in State College last week hitting record lows that reached a RealFeel of -25 degrees. Despite the polar vortex, the weekend turned out to be gorgeous with sunny skies and rising temperatures that would reach 50 degrees by Sunday. Saturday morning was particularly nice since Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring. Let’s hope he is spot on.

My plans for the day included heading out to Barnes & Noble to do some reading for a class I am taking on Monday evenings. But just as I was set to go, my youngest son Ryan, a State High senior, asked me if I wanted to go play some pond hockey with him.

My first thought was that I had more than 100 pages to read to prep for my Monday evening class and that I should stay focused on my task and stick to my plan. I could hear my father and my good friend Sam Bernstine’s voices in my ears saying the best gifts you can give a child are “roots and wings.” My own inner voice was saying, “You won’t always get these opportunities to spend this kind of time with your son, so do the right thing.”

Whether it was paternal instincts or guilt, I got back to Ryan and enthusiastically said, “Sure!”  So, we packed up a couple bags with our skates and gloves, grabbed a couple of sticks and headed out in search of a frozen paradise.  

Our first stop was the pond at Harvest Fields next to Calvary Church in Boalsburg. There was only a small patch of the pond shoveled and it was in use by some folks who were recreationally skating. It wouldn’t have been very neighborly of us to suddenly drop some hockey pucks and start playing, so we decided we needed a plan B.

Ryan remembered that there was an outdoor rink at Blue Spring Park, so we headed down Main Street where we found his State High golf teammate John Olsen and some of his friends just finishing up on the ice that had borders and two hockey nets.  Booyah! We had found our private little patch of ice. A special thanks to the Centre Region Parks and Recreation crew that “Zambonied” the ice (i.e., shoveled the snow off the rink) for us. 

Skating with my son on a beautiful sunny day with Mount Nittany in the background was sheer joy. I was back to my roots with visions of skating on the pond at the 17th green of Alcoma Country Club in my hometown of Penn Hills while I was spending a glorious day with Ryan on the frozen pond.  

We passed the puck pretending we were going in to score on an imaginary goalie. Then the old coach was working on his son’s backwards c-cuts and puck control with Ryan being a willing participant. He spent as much time practicing his goal-scoring celebrations as he did shooting the puck and making moves. He had a blast. No referees, no coaches (unless you include an occasional suggestion from the old man), no stats — just good old-fashioned pond hockey, imagining yourself on a breakaway scoring on an imaginary goalie. Priceless.

As I was experiencing one of those special moments in a dad’s life when you cherish time alone with a child, I started to think about whether I have properly prepared my son as he gets closer to starting college. I think we have done a good job establishing his “roots” but now my thoughts shifted to wondering if I had given him the second-best gift a parent could give a child by providing him the “wings” necessary to make it on his own. Only time will tell, but I think my wife and I have done a pretty good job with all three of our kids to prepare them for adulthood.

Speaking of roots…While the record cold temperatures were shutting down schools and closing businesses earlier in the week, playing hockey outdoors was not really on my mind at all. But given that I played adult hockey with a bunch of guys a lot smarter than me, they figured out the optimal time to play before the temperature would begin to rapidly drop. So last Tuesday night I skated with my former NHL (Nittany Hockey League) teammates Jim Marden, Jeff Pogue, Aaron Brooks, Kevin Michaels,and Tim White at Tim Holdcroft’s backyard rink. Pucks, beers, and a crackling fire. It was old time hockey at its best.

So, I was on the ice twice in one week. Not bad for someone who has essentially “retired” from playing due to years of old hockey injuries catching up to me. I rationalized it as preparation for skating in the annual Penn State Hockey alumni game on Feb. 23. Back to that roots thing again. 

My wife and I will be hosting a pregame tailgate to celebrate the 30th anniversary of our Penn State Icers’ 1989 ICHL Championship. It was my second year as head coach and I continue to believe it was the turning point that launched the Icers glory days from 1989-2011. It will be the first time in many years that some of the guys will be back on campus. Goalie Eric Zinczenko, team captains Brian Stevenson and Davis Mulholland (all the way from Salt Lake City), Geoff Martha (from Minneapolis) and Ken Fatur (from Chicago) will be just a few of the returning members of that team. That group of young men upset top-seeded Niagara College in the semifinals before twice coming from behind to beat the University of Buffalo, 8-6, to win our first ever ICHL title.

Alumni weekend is a time to reflect on our roots, our memories of great times and overcoming adversity, and building something much bigger than ourselves. This group made many sacrifices and laid a tremendous foundation. I can’t wait to learn more about what they are doing now and finding out about their kids and how they are growing. These guys are old enough that they are experiencing the realities of “roots and wings” themselves. 

Alas, these days will start to become harder and harder to make happen as the former players spend time with their own families and careers. As for my son Ryan, he will want to spend more of his time with his friends, old and new, once he gets to college. It is the circle of life, a necessary part of “letting go” and allowing the young people in our lives to flourish on their own.

I’d like to think we have prepared our kids the right way — heck, they still talk to us! Actually, I am closer to my older two children now than I was during their high school years. Part of that is on me. I threw myself wholeheartedly into my job and too often passed up time to spend just hanging out with my kids when they were younger.

In this era of the helicopter and lawnmower parents who insists on scripting every step of their children’s lives, I have held on tight to the lesson my parents passed on to me about giving my kids two gifts for success. If you truly want to help prepare your child for a joyful, meaningful, purposeful, and fulfilling life, then give them these two things: roots and wings.

Sometimes I think helicopter and lawnmower parents are really just hiding from dealing with their own life issues by living vicariously through their children. Do your kids a favor and let them start to take on their own battles and to learn on their own how to overcome adversity.

We recently took a family trip to Long Island and New York City to watch the current Penn State men’s hockey team beat Michigan, 5-2, in the “World’s Greatest Arena” at Madison Square Garden. We stayed with former Icer Loren Remetta and his wife Noelle and had a blast hanging out with their three kids Raphael, Matteo, and Caroline. Prior to the game I did a book signing organized by former player Tom Westfall. We were even part of a special recognition of Steve Westfall (the unofficial Penn State Mayor of NYC) by his brother Tom and a group of grateful friends.  

It was a chance to say thank you to Steve from many of the people who have benefited from “The Mayor’s” help over the years. Tom and I came up with a list of more than 40 former hockey players and Penn Staters who Steve has helped get internships and jobs, find an apartment, or to make a business connection. Steve and Tom have helped younger players to find their “wings” so they can soar into their own future. 

I only have a few more months before our youngest officially heads off to Penn State. We have to resist the temptation to intervene when he has to face his own challenges. I hope he reaches a point where he won’t have much time for us, as he will want to be with his friends and, hopefully, will be studying. I hope he will look back someday and be able to say that Mom and Dad gave him the best two gifts any parent can give a child: roots and wings.

Joe Battista has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities since 1978. He is best known for his effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley and in the building of Pegula Ice Arena. “JoeBa” is the owner of PRAGMATIC Passion, LLC consulting, a professional speaker, success coach, and the vice president of the National Athletic and Professional Success Academy (NAPSA). He is the author of a new book, “The Power of Pragmatic Passion.” Joe lives in State College with his wife Heidi (PSU ’81 & ’83), daughter Brianna (PSU ’15), and son’s Jon (PSU ’16), and Ryan (State High Class of 2019).
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