John Buccigross: Watching son play last competitive high school game brings flood of emotions

Jack Buccigross has played his last high school game. John Buccigross

Are you an insomniac?

Do you gaze at the clock after midnight like you gaze at a hockey scoreboard? Do you check the time and move the end of the game, the end of the day, as you see fit: 2 a.m., 3 a.m.?

"I can stretch it to 4 a.m. and get enough sleep to still make tomorrow work, right?"

Do you do sleep math in your head?

You don't want today to end because you are battling and grinding to make today a good day, a worthwhile day. You battle the demons of heavy sadness and you are losing. We are losing. And the loss makes us feel even worse, guilty and weak that we can't overcome. The perfectionist never wins. He or she is stuck in a bardo of second-guesses, regrets and "What the hell happened?"

There are nights I dread the end of the day like I used to dread the end of an NHL game. Once the rare NHL game I was attending with my dad passed the 10-minute mark of the second period, my 10-year-old self would feel nauseous/sad that the game was more than halfway over.

My dad and I sat in the upper bowl, me with my "GOAL" game program that smelled and felt like a shiny sheet of ice. I would press my nose on a page and inhale deeply. Fresh and new. I wanted the game to last forever. I dreaded it ending. The halfway point of the game was like middle age arriving.

What have I done?

Where did the time go?

What am I going to do?

The competition, the same-day goal/uncomplicated objective of winning and the "importance" the game projected on 10-year-old me felt like a 10,000-watt sun lamp on a bone-chilling winter's day. The game gave my uncomplicated life an intense meaning. This is where I wanted to reside. This is the world that makes sense to me. I can see it. I know where the puck is going to go. I'm good at this. This is effortless. Outside the arena? I don't get a lot of it. I'm not good at a lot of it.

A life with no game? Well, that's the loneliest feeling in the world.

It's so quiet.

If you grew up in America or Canada in the 1970s and '80s, you were programmed to play outside. TV had four or five channels and there was no Internet. TV that was worth watching, at that age, was limited to cartoons and sports. So, you rode your bike, used your imagination, and watched and played sports from sun up until sundown.

The hockey game was the thing. The fulcrum of the universe. I needed a game for my spontaneity and impatience. A task. A goal. A process. An outcome. A meritocracy. Sports was math. Undebatable with a clear and fixed result after the conclusion, no matter the controversies. It was the easy part of living. Then you graduate from high school.

Later, I became a father.

I also found this to be easy.

A task. A goal. A process. An outcome.

Game on.

Five years after falling and staying in love with Melissa, we became parents and now I was the dad. At 26. Just 16 years after being that 10-year-old son who watched the game from the nosebleeds, I now had my own son. (Brett Buccigross was born in the summer of 1992, just after Brett Hull completed a three-year run of 72, 86 and 70 goals. I'm sure it was just a coincidence. Brett ended up being a pass-first winger and center. More Adam Oates than Brett Hull.)

Two years later, at 28, another child, my daughter, Malorie. Five years after that, another son, Jackson. (I was 33 when Jack was born, the same age my dad was when I was born.) I could have had three more of each. This is what I was meant to do and always envisioned doing. Husband/Father/Family/Team. But how could I demand such a big roster? My part in the creation of these three children was all pleasure and so I relented to the woman who must endure the pleasure and the pain. Three it is. A Production Line. I wasn't happy with this life -- I was euphoric. Just about every day.

Life can skate so fast and become so distractingly busy (and sometimes so painful) that we can miss the halfway point. The 10-minute mark of the second period of our lives barrels through like a runaway train. Work, shuttling children to practices and games, oil changes, work travel, achy backs, a child with a health scare, the death of a parent, 401(k) and retirement concerns, new tires, tuitions, DMV visits, job-loss scares, dentist appointments. Life flies by to the third period like Connor McDavid going around a defenseman.

"One minute remaining in the period. One minute."

The third period of sorts for my third and final child is here. Jack has taken his final lap. He's taken his final purposeful stride on ice. He's a senior in high school and the game is ending.

I will never see him, or any of my kids, play another hockey game again and it breaks my heart.

Jackson Ray Buccigross is suddenly a senior at South Windsor High School in Connecticut, the assistant coach has been fired (unexpectedly divorced like a Brad Marchand slew-foot) and the scoreboard clock is ticking down on a hockey dad.

The son is setting.

Empty nest? There is no nest. The straw and sticks tumble to the ground, separated and strewn, floating aimlessly in the air.



Love lost.

Do you remember your first time on the ice?

It is February 2001 and Jack Buccigross is 19 months old and on his backyard rink in South Windsor, Connecticut. Children inspire dads to do crazy things like construct backyard rinks. Something we would never do for ourselves, we do for our children.

Jack attempts to balance on stiff Bauer Chargers, grasps a curveless, plastic mini-stick and has, like his father, a genetic earnestness and bounce that will define and fuel him on this day and all of his days ahead. It will shape who he is and forge an effortless bond between father and son.

Love found.

The hands that hold Jack in the photograph of his first few shuffles on ice in 2001 are not there to control him or to worship him into a world of self-importance, but to gently guide, encourage and, most importantly, love. A father cannot light a fire inside a son or daughter. He can only be like a fireplace bellows that can occasionally, adeptly, inject oxygen to that flame. We parents can mess it up more than we can help it. Encourage excellence, not glory. Encourage results, not attention. Always be affectionate.

Sept. 11, 2001, has yet to happen. The world is safe. Jack is safe. The hands around his ribcage are strong and present. They will not let him fall or fail. As he gets older, they will pick him up when he does fall. Jack just has to worry about the puck. He can let his joy take over. He can be confident. He can have swagger. His generation will not have most of the constraints of creativity that his father's did. About the only thing Jack will hear from me, from age 6 on, will be, "I love watching you play hockey." He will hear that over and over again because it is the truth. My sons' and my daughter's games will be the highlights of my week.

Below is Jack as a 17-year-old high-school senior. He still wears Bauer skates (now size 8.5) but the hockey stick is now longer, composite, much more expensive and curved right-handed. The eagerness and bounce has remained with him for every stride in practice and games. Jackson Ray was given room to fly but he did it with respect and care. He is a self-motivator but a selfless competitor. When Jack scored a goal, his first instinct was always, without fail, to seek the passer to show his gratitude and to share in the moment and the joy. It's hard to score in hockey. There are always obstacles. No one does it alone. We need help. We need to be there for each other. Love is forever. Right?

This 2017 picture is poignant: Jack saying goodbye to the game as he has known it while handing the torch to the next set of small, eager eyes. "It's your turn, Sparky."

The little boy is looking up at his future, Jack as a time machine. Jack, too, was once 5, skating for the first time at this very rink in the South Windsor Youth Hockey Learn To Skate program. Now Jack, and seniors like him, waddle off for the final time as competitors and as role models for the next generation.

Parenting is easier if you have an abundance of four things: (1) energy, (2) creativity, (3) selflessness and (4) affection. If you give your kids everything you have inside of you, they will eventually give it back. They won't want to let you down. You won't have to punish them or push them to exert.

These things, as well as fatherhood and being a husband, came easy to me. It's all connected, spouse and children, and I can't separate one from the other. That's what has made divorce especially difficult. I didn't just lose a wife, the love of my life, I lost a family. I still have three thoughtful, selfless and fun children who make me burst, but the team is no more. This state of mind adds to the pain of watching Jack's final laps around the rinks of Connecticut this winter.

The mind rewinds to the past to slow down the inevitability.

It all began on the backyard rink. Then with Learn To Skate at age 4, In-House at 5, and on to travel mite hockey at 6 with me as an assistant coach. I always checked with Jack if was OK if I coached. He always said yes. He knew and liked that I cared as much as he did about everything.

Jack's hockey continued on at the same outdated South Windsor Arena for squirt, peewee, bantam (coached again) and on to high school. From Learn to Skate through high school varsity at the same local rink seven minutes from the only home he has ever known. Play local. Play with friends.

Senior year.

Jack's final game was March 13, 2017, at Yale University's Ingalls Rink in New Haven, Connecticut, one of the more unique rinks in America. It was the Final Four of the Connecticut high school state tournament. Jack had four assists in the first state tournament game and then a total team effort saw South Windsor upset the No. 1 seed, East Haven, after Jack's best friend and the team's best player, Johnny Russo, scored in a 1-0 win in front of a stellar game by goalie Dan Couette. No one saw any of it coming. The team was competitive in most games during the regular season but its record was average.

The scene at Yale felt like one of out "Hoosiers": The Cinderella South Windsor team peaking late in the season under the thoughtful eyes of head coach Neil Rodman was now two wins from an improbable state championship. Hordes of teachers and students and parents of former players came together to cheer for the small-town team. Playing most of their season and most of their lives in quiet rinks where you could hear individual Mom and Dad screams, this state tournament semifinal was a chance to play a game with white noise in a rink that holds 3,500. A moment. A gift.

None of the South Windsor Bobcats had ever skated so fast or hit so hard. Their opponent, Guilford, was bigger and more talented but the score was 1-1 after two periods and there were enough scoring chances by the Bobcats that there was a real, legit sense of hope for a miracle on ice.

With the score tied, I was thinking, "Maybe I'll get to see Jack play one more game." Maybe he will end his hockey "career" with a win and a coveted state championship, something so few American high school athletes, boys and girls, accomplish.


Instead, a 3-2 loss and a lifetime of looking back with gratefulness for the moment and regret of "What if?" My own last high school loss was a blowout in the quarterfinals of the state tournament. I can't imagine a 3-2 loss in the state semifinal for a competitor like Jack. Suddenly the fun, the practices, the anticipation of the next game, the nervousness of game day, the excitement of the warmup, the postgame laughter in the dressing room, the boys, the game. It's all over. For Jack. And me.


Jack cried after the game. Hard. For the lost game. For his last game. For a lost opportunity for a school/town championship. For the impending breakup of his surrogate hockey family. For the lost chance at one more game. Maybe he will play club hockey in college, he certainly will play beer-league hockey as an adult and he'll probably build his son a backyard rink one day, too. But, it will never be like this again for him. Or me.

Game over.

What will I miss?

I will miss never having to wake him up a second time for early weekend games and hearing 7-year-old Jack demand that we be on time for practice.

I will miss him playing with his Todd McFarlane action figures in a make-believe hockey game on the family room carpet. Especially the ones involving the one-armed/headless Evgeni Nabokov playing goal.

I will miss watching him tie his own skates and carry his own hockey bag as a 35-pound squirt.

I will miss the bounce of his step every time he took the ice. Jack skates with happy feet, always has.

I will miss the car rides where we sang AC/DC's "Big Jack" and times I'd surprise him by rapping Jay Z's "Forever Young" from start to finish.

I will miss talking hockey. Jack liked to be coached hard. He wanted coaches to talk loud, talk little and demand a high-energy practice.

I will miss warm breakfasts on cold, February Saturday mornings after a hat trick. Warm pancakes and maple syrup are glorious after an early-morning hockey game in a cold, New England rink.

I will miss him playing kitchen hockey, alone, like his dad did at his age, the hush of his play-by-play as he imagined doing great things.

I will miss his vision, his willingness and ability to make and catch a pass, his edge, his fearlessness despite being so lean and his genuine happiness for others when they scored.

I will miss his stroll to the blue line after being introduced (name usually mispronounced) in his final high-school game and his smooth stop on the outside edge of his right skate.

So, how to properly sum up this hockey life and Jack's last days as a hockey player, from Learn to Skate to high school alternate captain as I lie in bed staring at the clock after midnight?

It would be that first year of travel mite hockey. Six years old. So little and so young. Being a late bloomer was Jack's genetic destiny, so the first season of a new level, even against kids his own age, was always difficult because of Jack's delayed physical development.

That first season of mite was frustrating at times. Jack loved practice and the anticipation of games, but four and a half months of playing against mostly 7- and 8-year-olds and Jack still had no goals -- 35 games into the season that was almost over. He told me how much he wanted to score. I would tell Jack all the things he was doing so well. I simply kept repeating as he got out of the car for games and practices, "Be the one who works the hardest and has the most fun." My kids, like me, maybe like you, are too hard on themselves. I was not going to feed that.

I understand and speak the inner monologue of the perfectionist and intense competitor. I tried to extinguish those self-defeating thoughts for him. And besides, we are still going to get mozzarella sticks after the game, no matter what happens.

At long last, Jack's first "career" goal in travel uniform came on a late February afternoon in 2006 in West Springfield, Massachusetts. (Remember, when you're 6 years old, six months is 8 percent of your life!) And as I look back at this incredibly fun and fulfilling 12 years watching Jack play, and trying to encapsulate it all through his eyes and mine, I think back to that post-goal moment.

That moment after his first goal is the moment between father and son that sums up our hockey life together and makes my eyes wet and makes time stand still.

The TPS wood-stick wrist shot off the rush from barely 4-foot-high Jack found the back of the net. Finally. He shared a group hug with his teammates and then flew to the bench to get his much-desired, rapid high-fives from teammates and us coaches. Jack wanted this goal and these cool high-fives so badly, just like he saw Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby get on TV.

Teammates always know when someone gets their first. The love and support is never stronger. The sincere empathy is beautiful.

As Jack made his way toward me, I stuck out my left hand and waited. The hand that no longer had to hold him up as he skated and never had to push him to play or practice. The hand that had been saying recently, "Don't worry, you'll score," was filled with anticipation and love as I watched each glove tap. I don't feel pride for my kids. I just feel joy and love. And I want to share in the moment. I knew how much he wanted this goal and how it proved to be so difficult. Heaven knows how to set a proper price upon its goods. Nothing comes cheap.

Then, as Jack reached my outstretched hand, I looked down, through his cage, into his icy blue eyes. They were as big as faceoff dots. Giant mouthpiece thwarting verbal expression, Jack communicated his feelings fully and completely through his expanding 6-year-old's eyes. Looking back, this moment would define the next 11 years of his hockey life and all the difficult steps each new level can pose for some, especially the small and late bloomers. Jack paused as he touched my hand and looked up at me, his helmet barely reaching the top of the boards. He didn't need to say a word. I could see the pride and joy in his eyes.

"Daddy! I did it!"