In the sparkling lobby of a beachfront hotel in sunny Florida, Tony Amonte kneels down on the carpeted floor, drawing outlines of graves. His Chicago teammates strut by -- wearing their leather jackets, their slip-on shoes and the slightly bothered look of today’s NHL millionaire. But Amonte keeps his head down, laying out imaginary gravesites with his index finger. A smile appears as he remembers those perfect afternoons in the cemetery with Dad.
Tony’s first pair of skates was paid for with money Lewis Amonte earned with his backhoe. Dad would rumble out to the graveyard to clear space for a coffin or two; 10-year-old Tony loved to come along. Sometimes, Dad would let Tony dig. The little boy dropped the big machine’s claw into somebody’s final resting spot and scooped until the grave looked big enough for an oversized refrigerator.
Tony remembers how quiet those cemeteries were, and how Lewis would occasionally deal with an excess of dirt -- he’d dump it into his truck and drive it back to the Cape Cod house he built himself. Tony grew up with two things in his yard: a frozen hockey pond and a pile of cemetery dirt.
So it’s a good thing Tony Amonte made the Team USA roster again this year. The Yanks just happen to be looking at a huge ice surface and a big pile of old dirt. They embarrassed themselves in the 1998 Olympics, failing to medal and then trashing an Olympic Village dorm room on their way out the door. Now the 2002 Games are here, and it’s time to move on. Who better to show the way than Amonte?
The man missed a Stanley Cup by two months. He lost his chance at a college championship in triple overtime. He has had an NHL head coach question his heart, a best friend turn on him and -- just this season -- a GM dispute his worth. He scored his country’s second-biggest goal ever in international competition, only to have it blotted out two years later by the shenanigans of his own teammates. The 31-year-old right wing knows a little something about burying the past, and a little something more about moving on.
Actually, Amonte might still be on a backhoe if it wasn’t for Dad’s bad heart. Lewis Amonte, now 60, had to retire from the excavation business at age 37 after triple-bypass surgery. But rather than wallow in self-pity, he spent his winters driving his two sons, Tony and older brother Rocco, an hour from their home in Hingham, Mass., to 75 peewee hockey games each year on the North Shore. When Tony complained about the coach or the cold, Lewis always had the same reply: “If you’re not happy, hang ’em up, or we’re going to waste our time.” So Tony started keeping his mouth shut -- even when he broke his left femur as a ninth grader, spent weeks in traction and was held back a year at Thayer Academy. The next year he won a prep school regional championship with best friend Jeremy Roenick.
But at the end of Tony’s senior season, as he skated during overtime of a tournament game, Lewis had a heart attack. Tony looked up in the stands to see a friend’s father pounding on Dad’s chest. At the hospital, a frail Lewis told his wife, Kathy, “If I die, make sure Tony goes to Boston College.”
Lewis didn’t die, and Tony didn’t go to Boston College -- instead he chose hated Boston University, to play for renowned coach Jack Parker. Dad easily forgave, and Tony shined. He led the Terriers to the national title game against Northern Michigan in 1991. With the scored tied at 7 and less than 30 seconds remaining, Amonte broke from the pack and skated in all alone on a breakaway. He had plenty of time to work with, but no one on the bench yelled out exactly how much. He judged wrong, and fired too early. The shot was stopped. Time ran out. BU lost in triple overtime. Less than 48 hours later, Amonte signed with the Rangers. He moved on.
And how. Amonte scored 35 goals as a rookie in ’91-92 and another 33 the following year on a line with Mark Messier and Adam Graves. But in 1994, new coach Mike Keenan dumped Amonte onto a checking line and then called him into his office. Iron Mike wrote the names of all 10 forwards on his white board, in order of importance to the team. Amonte’s name was next-to-last. Stunned, Amonte said nothing. Keenan posed a question: “Well, who are you better than?” Amonte thought of several names, but still he said nothing. Then Keenan called him “a spoiled rich kid.” Amonte knew better. He thought of all the times he got his hands dirty helping Dad. Even so, he sat there and said nothing. “I was raised to respect authority,” Amonte says now. “You don’t tell people to screw themselves.” The meeting ended. Amonte was traded to Chicago six weeks later. The Rangers won the Cup in June without him. “What a lonely feeling,” he says. Then he smiles. “I guess it’s something every guy needs to go through.”
But not every guy goes through years of losing. Amonte became Chicago’s captain, leading scorer, fan favorite and martyr-in-chief after enduring the departures of old friend Roenick, beloved native son Chris Chelios and All-World goalie Ed Belfour. Only Amonte remains from the team he joined back in ’94. Even Chicago Stadium is gone. In seven years, Tony racked up five All-Star appearances and five sub-.500 seasons. But Lewis Amonte’s kid never complained. He has played in a league-leading 383 straight games. “Winning might be off in the distant future,” he once said in the middle of another long season, “but you’ve gotta start somewhere.”
Thing is, Amonte did taste glory in the midst of his team’s descent. In 1996, he and the rest of Team USA made the finals of the first-ever World Cup of Hockey. The Americans forced heavily favored Canada to a deciding Game 3 in front of more than 21,000 rabid fans in Montreal. With the game tied at 2 and less than three minutes to play, a rebound from a Derian Hatcher shot dribbled into Amonte’s path. The kid from Hingham swung, and suddenly all of Canada went silent. The next day, headlines across North America blared the news. “Woe, Canada! A New Era Beckons as the U.S. Rules the Hockey World.” The stage was set for Nagano in ’98. Amonte, the new American hero, would be there.
But he was not there the night that some unnamed teammates ransacked an Olympic Village dorm room on their way back to the States. Amonte heard about the incident on the phone back in Chicago. He knows historians will always follow his moment of glory in ’96 with a “but then ... ” He also knows what went wrong. “In Nagano, we expected to come home with a medal,” he says. “That was the wrong attitude.”
The one person who best understood Amonte’s on-ice frustrations was Roenick, his oldest and closest friend. Tony and JR were inseparable as linemates in high school and as roommates in Chicago. Roenick even helped engineer Amonte’s trade to the Windy City, and it was Roenick who first broke news of the deal to his buddy from back home. But in ’99 Roenick ran into some personal problems. Then, during the third period of a game between Roenick’s Phoenix Coyotes and Amonte’s Blackhawks in Chicago, Roenick took his frustrations out on his old friend. He picked up his stick and swung at Amonte. The Hawks captain never saw it coming. The stick hit him in the face and opened a huge gash. Roenick screamed at him as Amonte left the ice, covered in blood. Days later, after receiving a five-game suspension, Roenick called Amonte to apologize. Amonte forgave his childhood buddy immediately. Still, the two hardly spoke for a year and a half, and then they found themselves roommates again for an Olympics training camp last fall in Colorado Springs. “I consider us friends,” Amonte says. “He’s like a brother. People ask me, how can you not hold a grudge? I ask, how can I? Life’s too short.”
And so is Amonte’s time left in Chicago, it seems. The Hawks own the league’s second-best record -- yet there is little reason to think No. 10 will be back next fall. On Thanksgiving, of all days, GM Mike Smith called Amonte into his office and told him he thought he was losing his focus. This time, the captain spoke up: “I said I go out and work hard every day.” But that’s not enough for the new boss to open up his wallet. “He’s been seen as the Blackhawks best player during lean times,” Smith says. “I don’t think he’s seen that way anymore.” Amonte becomes a free agent on July 1, and though he desperately wants to stay in Chicago, Smith won’t re-sign him before then. But the captain just shrugs it off with a cliché. “In the NHL,” he sighs, “you have to prove yourself every day.”
Yet even though Amonte has shown again and again that he can bury the past, the ghosts still haunt. That NCAA title game? Amonte has the tape, but he’s never watched it. The Stanley Cup near-miss? “He felt that was his Cup, too,” says old friend Paul Currie, a high school teammate. The Keenan fiasco? Just three months ago, Amonte said Keenan couldn’t hold Hawks coach Brian Sutter’s jockstrap. Roenick’s tantrum? The two are cordial, but Amonte and Roenick both say the friendship has never been the same. Chicago’s short memory? “All this business has been working on him,” Lewis says of his son. “He’s trying so damn hard now because he wants to prove to Mike Smith he’s wrong.” And while his accused Team USA brethren hide behind their red, white and blue code of silence, Amonte still shakes his head over the ’98 dorm trashing and says, “It was stupid.”
Lewis Amonte is a forgiving man. A kind man. A man with a good heart -- and a bad heart. He taught his sons to look the other way, to forgive, to move on. But besides forgiveness, Lewis also taught them not to forget. Says Rocco Amonte: “Dad said, ‘Let it go.’ But he also said, ‘Get a number.’”
Tony Amonte can’t go back and get that NCAA ring, or his name inscribed next to Mess and Leetchie, or even go back to the way things were with JR. But he still has one last shot at gold, and maybe one last shot at the Cup. “For me, it’s ending soon,” he says. “Time is going to run out. I have to enjoy every day in Chicago. I gotta go for a Cup as quick as I can.” This year, Tony Amonte can prove old Iron Mike Keenan wrong, and new Iron Mike Smith wrong, and all the Nagano naysayers wrong. Now we’ll learn if Amonte spent the past decade letting it go or getting a number.
This article appears in the February 18 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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