As Strong As Mom: How sports helped a family heal

Middlebury center Elizabeth Wulf wears her mother's favorite number (7) onto the ice during her senior season. Will Costello

Afew hours before the opening game of the 2017-18 Middlebury College women's hockey season, a senior center for the team sat in Kenyon Arena's Seat 7, Row AA. It was the same seat that her mother liked to sit in while watching warm-ups, and the coach of the Panthers, Bill Mandigo, had just shown her the plaque he had affixed to it in tribute to her mother, who had died between last season and the one about to start. The plaque read: ALWAYS WATCHING.

When the coach saw that his center was in tears, he left her alone for a long while. Finally, he went over to her, tapped her on the shoulder and said, "Hey, there's no crying in hockey." They smiled at each other and went down to the locker room to get ready for the game against Trinity.

The center is my daughter, Elizabeth, and her mom was my wife for close to 33 years. And while I appreciate Mandigo's reference to "A League of Their Own," I beg to differ about the crying part. There are tears in hockey -- and sports, in general. There's also pride and joy, life lessons and true friendships, and, in my case, a bottomless well of gratitude.

I have been writing about sports for 46 years, the past 20 for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. I met Bambi Bachman at another sports magazine, Sports Illustrated, where we both worked, and together we raised a close-knit family of four (two boys, twin girls) who loved sports as much as Bambi and I did. All the while, I typed way too many stories to count. And then, because of circumstances beyond our control, I found myself in the middle of a story that did count because it justified that devotion.

Middlebury defeated Trinity 2-0 in the opening game. Elizabeth Wulf had two assists.

If there's one thing I've learned in my profession, it's that no athlete does it alone. There's the teammate who makes the pass, the rival who pushes you to be better, the family that provides support, the coach who can see into the future.

The assist for getting Elizabeth into hockey goes to Mike Chiapparelli. He was and still is the dynamic coach of the Mamaroneck (New York) High School hockey team. He also used to run an after-school floor hockey program at the Murray Avenue School in Larchmont, which is part of the Mamaroneck school system. One day, when Bambi went to pick up Elizabeth, who was then in the second grade, Coach "Chap" ran up to her and said, "You have to put her on skates." When Bambi asked when, Mike said, "Now."

And that's how hockey came into our lives. The sport was only in my peripheral vision for the first half of my sportswriting career. Baseball was the first love of our family, and no matter what sports they played, the kids all asked to wear No. 7 in honor of Mickey Mantle, Bambi's favorite player before she became a Red Sox fan.

But once Elizabeth started taking lessons, we were as hooked as the laces we tied on her skates. Chiapperelli was right -- she was a natural. She was the only girl to make the Mamaroneck Tigers, a squirt team coached by Dan Demasi that almost immediately adopted her as one of them. Once, when the Tigers traveled to Canada for a tournament, the bus stopped at the border, and an immigration official got on board to check out the passengers. He looked at her and asked, "Are you the cheerleader?" Cutting through the chorus of boos, one of her teammates loudly informed him, "No, she's our left wing."

When body-checking came into play, she moved over to girls travel hockey. When she was 12, at a Mid-Fairfield (Connecticut) Stars practice, her coach, Moe Tarrant, told her to skate over to the big man in the center of the rink who was running the drills. "Tell him you're going to play for him some day," he said. Dutifully, she did, prefacing it with, "Moe told me to tell you ..." The man laughed. He was the Middlebury coach, Bill Mandigo.

In those early years, we learned why parents, coaches, officials and rink crew members put in so many hours. They're passing this beautiful sport on to the next generation. Hockey tests the feet, the hands, the body, the brain, the heart. You come to appreciate the pass that threads the needle, the slapshot that turns a black rubber disc into a dime, the sheer precision of a line change, the sleight-of-hand of a faceoff win. And it's hard, exhausting work. You actually savor the awful smell of a hockey bag because you know how much sweat went into it.

Elizabeth, who worshipped Sidney Crosby, worked as hard as anyone. She topped out at 5-foot-3, but she was fast and strong. When it came time for her to pick a college, the decision was sort of preordained. In the fall of 2013, she elected to play for that big man she skated up to when she was 12.

After she chose Middlebury, I thought I should tell the coach who got her started. It wasn't hard to find Chap -- he tended bar at the Larchmont Tavern on Sunday nights. He's also the only person in the world who calls her Lizzie. "Tell Lizzie I'm proud of her," he said. "Remind her it all started with floor hockey."

Then, as always, we started talking about baseball. Mike is also the high school baseball coach, and Larchmont is very much a baseball town -- and more specifically, a Yankees town. That dates to the glory days of the original Murderers' Row. The architect of the Yankees dynasty, Ed Barrow, lived in the village. Waite Hoyt owned a funeral home across from the train station. After Lou Gehrig married Eleanor Twitchell, they moved to a first-floor apartment at The Stonecrest on Chatsworth Avenue in Larchmont. It's where he jotted down notes for his 1939 retirement speech, the one in which he declared himself the "luckiest man on the face of the earth."

The Stonecrest is 2/10ths of a mile from our house, down the hill toward the station. I visited the apartment for a story about the 75th anniversary of Gehrig's speech: July 4, 2014. The actual words are quite different from the ones Gary Cooper delivered in "Pride of the Yankees." The speech ends not with "the luckiest man on the face of the earth" line, as it does in the movie, but rather with, "I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for."

Those are the words that would echo between our home and his.

July 4, 2014, also happened to be the day our oldest son, Bo, married his college sweetheart, Rachel Davis-Johnson, in Portland, Maine. It was a wonderful wedding, and a glorious time for the Wulfs. Bo was writing these informative, amusing pieces for the Philadelphia Eagles' website. Our second son, John, was working as an intern in the front office of the Washington Nationals. One of our twin girls, Eve, was readying for her sophomore year at Bucknell, a college she came to love. Because Elizabeth had opted to take an extra year at boarding school, she was going to be a freshman at Middlebury. Bambi herself was studying at Manhattanville College to get her teaching degree, having left Time Inc. after serving as the Chief of Reporters at both Sports Illustrated and Time.

But she also felt that there was something wrong going on inside her. She didn't complain because 1) she never complained, and 2) she didn't want to spoil the mood. After the hoopla of the wedding subsided, she went to the doctor. Tests revealed that she was right: She was in the early stages of pancreatic cancer. She would have to begin treatments immediately.

We were reeling, but she refused to be pitied. Like Lou Gehrig, she focused on making the most of her remaining time. That's why she told only a few close friends and family members, lest the well-meaning sympathy of others get in the way of her plans. She had to give up getting the classroom experience she needed to get a teaching degree, but she threw herself into organizing trips with loved ones to various destinations around the world.

Those trips, though, had to be planned around the Middlebury hockey season. If we made good time, Middlebury -- a small town between the Champlain Valley and the Green Mountains of Vermont where John Deere got his start and Robert Frost got his groceries -- was a 4½-hour drive from Larchmont. Coming up Route 30, the first real glimpse of the campus is the fieldhouse on the right, which made internal sense since it was the reason Elizabeth decided to go there. And Bill Mandigo wasn't just some guy she met when she was 12. If you went looking for his cinematic equivalent, Tom Hanks' Jimmy Dugan wouldn't be a bad choice -- four parts dedication, one part comical exasperation. The father of three girls, Mandigo had been the women's coach since 1988 and had more wins than any women's college hockey coach in history. He was why the Panthers were usually at the top of the standings in the Division III New England Small College Athletic Conference, or NESCAC, or just "The 'Cac."

When Elizabeth arrived, the Panthers were coming off a 17-4-4 season that had ended with a loss in the NESCAC quarterfinals. Mandigo had recruited a very strong freshman class that would include six players he could count on for the next four years: goalie Julie Neuburger, defenseman Haley LaFontaine, forwards Jessica Young, Maddie Winslow, Janka Hlinka and Elizabeth. Having Janka and Elizabeth on the same team was an added bonus because the two had been playing together since they were 12, and her parents, Beata and Jan, are welcome faces in any rink.

In Elizabeth's very first game for Middlebury -- Nov. 15, 2014 -- she scored a goal, the third in a 7-1 victory over visiting Colby. It was one of the only games that Bambi missed -- she was taking John, who is a die-hard Packers fan, and Bo on a pilgrimage to Lambeau Field. (They all watched the game from a laptop.)

It's safe to say our family is nuts about sports, which means we have our superstitions. I had to bring Bo a plum before every game he pitched in high school. John's Hamilton College baseball numbers were either 7, 14 or 28. Eve had to wear the same socks when she pitched for her high school softball team -- and she pitched every inning of every game for two straight seasons. Whenever Elizabeth was announced for the starting lineup, she would make it a point to pound fists with every teammate on the ice, goalie first, before taking her place for the anthems.

As for Bambi, she would always sit in this one seat to watch warm-ups: Row AA, No. 7. Because the seat was right outside the entrance to Bill's office, he would wander over to chat about the Red Sox, whom they both loved, or golf, which he coached and she covered while at SI, or just things. "She calms me down," he used to say. He knew about her cancer, but he knew enough not to dwell on it.

Going into the 2015 NESCAC tournament, the Panthers were 18-3-3. Middlebury needed four overtimes to beat Hamilton in the quarterfinals. In the semis, Elizabeth scored the third goal in a 4-2 victory over Bowdoin. She also had the first Middlebury goal in the finals against Trinity, a heartbreaking 3-2 loss in overtime. The Panthers were still invited to play in the NCAA Division III tournament, but they lost in the quarterfinals to Norwich, 3-2. Hearts ached for the seniors, but we had three years left.

Elizabeth again scored in the opener her sophomore season, a 5-1 win over Trinity to avenge the loss in the title game the season before. She would finish third on the team in points that season (7 goals, 13 assists), but she wasn't what you'd call a prolific scorer. She was a natural center, which in Mandigo's system meant that she had to work both ends of the ice -- get the puck out on defense, wreak havoc and feed her linemates on offense. And she was very good at faceoffs.

The Panthers finished 21-6-3 that 2015-16 season and won the NESCAC championship game with a thrilling 5-4 victory over Amherst. It was a particularly sweet victory for Bill, not only because it was his eighth NESCAC title but also because his daughter Katie scored two goals in what could have been her last game at Kenyon Arena. Once again, though, the Panthers lost in the NCAAs, this time in the semifinals to Plattsburgh, 5-3.

When the season ended, the globe-trotting resumed. We were constantly struck by Bambi's strength and determination, but she would dismiss our amazement the way she sloughed off the thanks for all the thoughtful gifts and letters she sent to family and friends. One of those gifts was a cruise up the Nile for Bo and Rachel and the two of us a week before the start of the 2016-17 season. I honestly was more in awe of her than I was of the Egyptian pyramids.

Unbeknownst to us, Elizabeth was at Middlebury doing something equally Bambi-esque. The second week of the season is reserved for a four-team charity tournament alternately hosted by Plattsburgh or Middlebury, and because this one was going to be at home in the Kenyon Arena, Elizabeth asked Bill if the cause could be for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. He said yes and gave her carte blanche to decorate the rink.

She and her teammates and the Friends of Panther Hockey turned the rink purple -- the color for the fight against pancreatic cancer -- with streamers and balloons and posters. To raise both awareness and money, Elizabeth ordered hundreds of these purple rubber wristbands with a white imprint: heart ASAM heart. As Strong As Mom.

For as many words as I've typed for the past 46 years, I'm still at a loss for how to describe how we felt when we saw what Elizabeth had done. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once. We were so proud of Elizabeth, yet so bereft that her hopes might be dashed. God bless her, she herself brought us back to the joy of the moment. This is from the official recap of Middlebury's 5-1 win over Utica in the first game of the tournament: "Elizabeth Wulf made it 3-0 at the 3:13 mark of the second period when she redirected a shot from the point by Carly Watson. Wulf tallied again later in the frame (26.7 seconds remaining), lifting a rebound under the cross bar from the left circle."

Yes, two goals in a game in the rink she had wrapped up for her mother. "I was hoping for a hat trick," Bambi kidded her afterward. Sweeter still was the fact that her fundraising efforts exceeded all expectations. I look down at my left wrist every day and remember what Elizabeth did.

Son John and his college sweetheart, Abigail Seadler, also did something that deeply touched Bambi. They had been planning on a September wedding, but they graciously moved it up to April, you know, just in case. That resulted in Bambi having to miss two weekend games in February against Colby for the bridal dress fitting.

When Bill kidded her about her absence, she told him she had her priorities -- and thought of a way to get him back. Before the next game, she snuck into his office and left a doll in a wedding dress on his desk. He busted out laughing when he saw the doll. (It's still on a shelf in his office.)

Middlebury would go on to win its second NESCAC championship in a row with a 4-1 victory over Amherst in the final. The happiness was compounded by happiness -- Bambi for Elizabeth, Elizabeth for her mom, the rest of the family for them.

Would that the season ended there. There was the matter of the NCAA tournament, and Middlebury lost in double overtime in the quarterfinals to visiting Norwich. "Maybe next year, Mom," Elizabeth told Bambi. "Maybe, sweetie," she answered.

She still had an awful lot to live for. She gave a magnificent toast to John and Abby at their beautiful wedding. She watched Eve get hugged by two different professors as she accepted her Bucknell diploma. Thanks to the intervention of her best friend, Eva Nies, she herself got to walk across the stage at Manhattanville -- as it turns out, she had amassed enough credits for a masters degree in education studies.

At the beginning of June, Rachel and Bo told her that they were expecting a baby around Christmas. We made plans to celebrate her 63rd birthday, July 2, with the family in Cooperstown, one of her favorite places on earth.

But her health went downhill all too quickly, and Bambi died on June 10. This is the lovely tribute Richard Demak wrote for her in Sports Illustrated.

After the funeral at the Larchmont Avenue Presbyterian Church, a service attended by hundreds of friends from all of her walks of life, I asked the kids if they still wanted to go to Cooperstown. Of course they did. So, following a visit to The Mick in the Hall of Fame gallery, the seven of us dined on the porch of the Otesaga Hotel as fireworks went off on the other side of the lake.

In the months following her death, wonderful things happened that cut through the grief. Bo was hired by The Athletic to cover the Philadelphia Eagles, and he and Rachel bought a house in the city. John, who works in baseball operations for the Washington Nationals, celebrated the National League East title and moved into a new apartment with Abby. Eve was hired as a production assistant for ESPN Films -- all on her own, I might add. Elizabeth, a neuroscience major and Spanish minor, was selected as an Academic All-American by the American Hockey Coaches Association.

But there was still that one last season to be played. The story wasn't finished quite yet.

Here We Are (November)

Once upon a time, on a family trip, Elizabeth announced out of the blue, "Well, here we are." It became an inside joke that we still use as the name for the family text message group. Along the way, "Here We Are" acquired a deeper meaning.

For that first game of the season, Friday, Nov. 17, we descended upon Middlebury from many different directions. John and Abby flew up from Washington, Bo drove up from Philadelphia, Eve hightailed it out of Bristol and my sister Karen headed west from Cape Cod. Me, I was in a such a hurry that I got a speeding ticket for going too fast through Hubbardton, Vermont.

Bo put a HERE WE ARE placard in the seat adjacent to Bambi's. We waited for the introductions of the starting lineups and heard announcer Liza Sacheli summon "No. 7, from Larchmont, New York, Elizabeth Wulf" out to the center spot. She fist-bumped goalie Lin Han first, then the rest of the starters.

What was different about the introductions this time was that the players all had stickers affixed to the backs of their helmets. On them was a beautiful logo designed by Maddie Winslow's mother, Olivia -- a heart with wings and the initials JBW, Jane Bachman Wulf.

After the anthems, we scurried to the other side of the rink, to the less comfortable concrete steps on the offensive end. It's a routine borne of both superstition and a better view of Elizabeth at work. Not so weird, really. What is strange is that we don't sit together, I guess because we don't want to contract each other's anxiety.

And there is always anxiety. Despite Middlebury's and Mandigo's outstanding records over the years, NESCAC hockey is very competitive. The Panthers had been ranked No. 6 in the Division III preseason rankings, but the Bantams of Trinity gave them all they could handle in the first period. Then, with about five minutes left in the period, Elizabeth fed Maddie Winslow, who took a shot that rebounded off the goalie to Katherine Jackson, who buried it for a 1-0 lead. Two minutes later, on a power play, Elizabeth took a shot that led to a rebound right to Jessica Young, who jammed it home from the crease. A 2-0 lead, and the two assists for Elizabeth.

That's how the game ended, which was a testament to Lin, who made 27 saves, and Elizabeth and the other penalty killers, who weathered four power plays in the third period.

The second-best thing about the first game of the season is the postgame meal in the Kenyon Family Lounge. There is something about hockey that fosters a family atmosphere, and the dinner is a way to initiate the freshman families into the community. Eve had made it her mission to do the cooking that Bambi had always done, so she baked team-color cupcakes for the festivities, with blue letters spelling GO MIDD on the white ones in the middle. After the meal, Bill took the one with the fourth letter on it. "There's no I in team," he told Eve, and they laughed.

For the second game the next day, more visitors arrived from the Boston area: Bambi's brother Bob Bachman brought Bambi's parents, Bob and Libby, and his son Sam up. This was not an easy trip for Bob and Libby, who are both in their 90s and still vibrant. It wasn't so much the physical distance as it was the reminders of what Bambi cherished: family and sports.

They saw a good hockey game, with Middlebury coming back from a 1-0 deficit to win 4-1. Afterward, we waited at the seat for Elizabeth to come up from the locker room. Before we created too much of a puddle, Elizabeth showed up to bring Bambi's legacy to life. She apologized for not scoring, and we all went to dinner.

A few days later, Eve and I and her two sweet potato casseroles headed back up to Middlebury for Thanksgiving. Because of the annual holiday tournament, the players can't go home, so Bill and his wife, Jane, always host a feast for the "orphans" at their home in nearby Cornwall. The centerpiece is a "Trashcan Turkey," a big bird cooked in a garbage can over a barbecue pit filled with hot coals. If you want to try this at home, put a stake in the ground, gore the 20-pound victim and cook for a little more than two hours. It's best served to a dozen hockey players coming straight from practice.

Alas, the weekend games in Plattsburgh didn't go down nearly as well. The Panthers, who were a little banged up, lost to Elmira, 4-1, and then Adrian, 3-2 in overtime.

So Middlebury was 2-2 to start the season. And Bill was not particularly happy. It didn't help his mood when Elizabeth and defenseman Jenna Marotta told him they would have to miss Wednesday practice. When he asked them why, they gave him an excuse not often heard by hockey coaches: They had a dress rehearsal for their African Music and Dance Ensemble.

When Elizabeth first told me she was taking the course, I was somewhat bemused but also proud that she was stepping out of her comfort zone. "It's fun, Dad," she had said. "And we have this concert at the end." So I circled the date on my calendar: Nov. 29. If I could drive 4½ hours to watch her play hockey, I ought to be able to make the same trip to watch her play the akogo (thumb piano).

Conditioned by hockey games, I arrived at Robison Hall early and watched the place fill up with patrons of the arts, students, faculty and ... hockey teammates. A few minutes before the curtain, a man asked if he and his wife could sit next to me. Bill and Jane Mandigo.

The concert of Ugandan music, orchestrated by professor Damascus Kafumbe and performed by eight students in traditional garb, was a rousing success that ended with "Larakaraka," a courtship dance in which audience members are invited to join the performers onstage. Elizabeth and Jenna could not have been happier as they danced with their teammates.

Afterward, Bill said, "I had no idea how hard they were working in that class. Great teamwork.

"I might recommend it to our players for next year."

Nativity Scene (December)

First came the Camels. Then came the baby.

By Camels, I mean Connecticut College, which came to town on Dec. 1 as the No. 8 team in the Division III rankings, two notches below Middlebury. Shortly after the opening faceoff, won by Elizabeth, Bo motioned for me to look to my left. There, on one of the concrete bunkers behind the net in the offensive end, sat John, smiling. He had driven eight hours from Washington, bless him. Bless all of them.

It wasn't just the hockey that brought them, though that had something to do with it. My birthday was in a few days. I got a 3-0 victory as an early present, but it was hard-fought: a scoreless first period, a slim 1-0 lead after the second, a heroic performance in goal by Lin and 16 (!) penalties. There should have been 17 -- toward the end of the game, Elizabeth was roughed up while lying on the ice, which brought the Wulfs to our feet and momentarily made us the center of attention. Here We Are.

The next day's game against Conn College did not go so well. The Camels won 4-3 in overtime, and Middlebury was now 3-3 on the season. After losses, it takes a little while longer for the players to come upstairs. This time, it was a lot longer. Elizabeth came right over to the family to assure us she was OK. At one point, though, she told me, "I wanted to score for Mom." It dawned on me that she was putting too much pressure on herself, pressure that Bambi would not have wanted her to feel. I whispered that to her, and she nodded.

In the last game before the Christmas break, Dec. 9 against visiting Castleton University, Elizabeth had three assists in a 6-0 victory. I headed home to pack for the baseball meetings at Disney World, where I would connect with John, and make a side trip to see the USA women's Olympic hockey team at their base north of Tampa. At the airport, I caught a few minutes of the Eagles' 43-35 win over the Rams, wondering how Bo was handling the responsibilities of covering the team while preparing for the birth of his first child. That was Sunday.

On Tuesday, Bo called to tell me I should head back to Philadelphia: Rachel was going into labor a week before her due date. At 2:52 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 14, at Pennsylvania Hospital, she gave birth to 6-pound, 2-ounce Casey Davis Wulf. They named him that because ... and I have to stop while I type this ... Bo had been going through Bambi's first baby journal for him in 1986 and saw Casey under a list of the names she had been considering.

Heating Up (January)

Middlebury went into the new year at only 4-3 but still ranked No. 7. This was the month that would determine if the Panthers were any good: 10 games, starting with two at Amherst, the team it had beaten in the NESCAC final the previous year, and ending with a home game against nemesis Plattsburgh State.

At the start of the second period in the first game against Amherst, Elizabeth tucked in her own rebound for a 2-0 lead. Because it was her first goal of the season, she did a little nod toward the rafters while skating back to the bench for the receiving line. After beating the Mammoths, the Panthers went back to their motel to face another opponent: bedbugs. So they were literally itching to beat Amherst the next afternoon. Elizabeth's former roommate, Julie Neuburger, was in goal, making her first start of the season. She was pretty spectacular, bailing out the defense several times as the two teams went scoreless through the first two periods. Then, eight minutes into the third, Sidney Portner dug the puck out of the corner and flicked a pass to Elizabeth in the slot. She one-timed it through the five-hole.

I'm afraid our little family section -- which now included Aunt Sally, cousin Kate, her husband, Tom, and their infant, Sarah -- caused something of a commotion in enemy territory, while our cellphones exploded with texts from all along the Amtrak corridor. Three-week-old Casey was made to celebrate wearing his Wulf 7 onesie.

That would've made for a nice ending. But Amherst scored on a shot no goalie could've stopped with a little more than five minutes left, and the game ended in a 1-1 tie. As Eve and I walked back to the car, John Neuburger, Julie's father, pulled me aside. "I just have to tell you," he said. "Julie got a text from Elizabeth this morning, telling her how excited she was to be playing in front of her today. It was just what she needed." Nice -- an uncredited assist.

When they got back to Middlebury, Mandigo decided to change up the lines. There's a certain alchemy to line combinations, and it sometimes defies logic. He put Elizabeth on a line with two other undersized southpaws, Katherine Jackson and Sidney. Mandigo called them "the Left-Handed Midgets." While the name might have lacked poetry, the threesome worked well together from the start, and Elizabeth was the beneficiary, with two goals and an assist in the next three games, the last one a 5-0 win over No. 10-ranked Endicott on Jan. 13.

Later that night, long after the Eagles had beaten the Falcons in the NFC divisional round 15-10, I listened to Bo and Sheil Kapadia's "Birds With Friends" podcast, recorded at 12:30 a.m. They smartly dissected the victory that put the Eagles one step away from the Super Bowl: the "kneecap-ulate" reception, the poise of Nick Foles, the dramatic ending -- and, slightly more off-topic, a shoutout to a Middlebury senior hockey player: "Five games into the New Year, four wins and four goals for senior center Elizabeth Wulf."

Over the next four games, all victories, she had two more goals, the second coming in a 3-1 win at Hamilton. Because it's our alma mater, John, Abby and I all made the trip, and a little bit of a scene after both wins. After all, blood is much thicker than the decal on the back of your car.

Archrival Plattsburgh came to Middlebury on Tuesday of Super Bowl week to close out the month. That night, the Panthers looked like the better team, outshooting the Cardinals 42-24. A defensive mistake in the third period, however, gave Plattsburgh a 2-1 victory. Over a late dinner, Elizabeth and her friends were remarkably upbeat. "We can beat them, Dad," she said. "Maybe we'll meet them again in the NCAAs."

Champs I (February)

On Groundhog Night, Middlebury defeated Mandigo's alma mater, Wesleyan, 3-0, but the Panthers didn't look particularly good in victory. They got off to a slow start again Saturday, but with a 1-0 lead midway through the second period, the Lefty Midget Line struck: during a scramble in front, Elizabeth shoveled a pass to Sidney and stayed down as she fired a beauty past the goalie. Late in the third period, Elizabeth came racing down the left side after jumping over the boards, found a rebound at her feet and let loose with a one-timer that nobody could see. It happened so fast that play continued even after the puck hit the back of the net. We could see Elizabeth laughing as she skated back to the bench. It was her seventh goal of the season, surpassing her total from the previous season.

What made it particularly nice was that Eva Nies, Bambi's best friend, was there, having driven all the way up from central New Jersey. After the 4-0 win -- a shutout for freshman goalie Anna Goldstein -- Elizabeth communed with Eva by the seat.

The next morning Eve and I drove down to Philadelphia to watch Super Bowl LII with Rachel and Casey. No need to talk about the Eagles' 41-33 victory, except to say that it was a great way to end Bo's first season covering the Eagles for The Athletic.

He and Sheil didn't finish writing until dawn, so they had to do their postgame podcast from Bo's hotel room at 5:30 a.m. They talked about the loyalty of Eagles fans, and how so many of them felt that it was destiny powered by loved ones who had never gotten to see a Super Bowl victory for Philadelphia. Bo then revealed that when he put on his suit that morning, he felt a sheet of paper in his inside pocket. It was the speech he had given at Bambi's service.

He also pointed out that Super Bowl LII was played on the date Casey turned 52 ... days old.

On the day Casey turned 54, there was another big game: No. 1-ranked Norwich University hosting No. 4 Middlebury. Because the game was in Northfield, Vermont, on a Tuesday night, the family took full advantage of modern technology -- John and Abby watched from Reykjavik, Iceland, where they were changing planes on their way back from Europe. We saw the best game Middlebury had played all season -- a 2-2 tie after overtime.

On Thursday, Feb. 8, the Eagles had their Super Bowl parade through the streets of Philadelphia. Bo had to cover it, of course, and Rachel took Casey out in a stroller to bask in the excitement. It put me in mind of a similar parade I covered way back in 1980.

I was then a baseball writer for Sports Illustrated, and the Phillies had just won the 77th World Series in six games over the Royals. Two of us followed the floats down Broad Street, the other being an SI reporter, Bambi Bachman. As we neared Veterans Stadium, I suddenly heard my name being called: "Hey, Wulfie!" I looked over and saw Tug McGraw, the relief pitcher who was on the mound for the final out, waving at me from a float, and I waved back. Tug was that kind of guy, which is to say, he was a prince. Bambi was suitably impressed.

Four years later, on the same calendar day as the Phillies' championship, Bambi and I were married. If she were expecting a lifetime of athletes waving to me from floats, however, I'm afraid Tug was the last one. But it's nice to know that her son and her grandson did get to go to another big sports parade in Philadelphia some 37 years later.

The next day, through the magic of the motor car and new parent stamina, the Philly Wulfs appeared in Waterville, Maine, for the Middlebury-Colby game. Casey's first hockey game was a 2-0 victory for his aunt, and he would see her get two assists in another win the next day.

The players were in good spirits as they boarded the bus for the six-hour ride back to Middlebury, and they got back in time to watch Sidney Portner's best friend from Andover, Minnesota, Maddie Rooney, make 23 saves in Team USA's 3-1 win over Finland in its first Olympic game.

I had been planning to cover hockey at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, but the pull of family became greater than the push to cover another Olympics. The strongest tug came from the thought of missing Senior Night on Feb. 17 ... and the recollection of the Senior Night the year before. As those seniors took the ice with their parents and accepted a bouquet of flowers before the game, Bambi and I tearfully looked at each other, knowing that wasn't going to be us.

On Valentine's Day, her favorite holiday, I filed my preview story on the women's Olympic team. And then came the news from Parkland, Florida, news that would become grimmer with each passing hour. The next day I got a call. Could I get down to Parkland by Sunday?

I could. That meant I could also still make the home-and-home series with Williams. Friday's game was in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and lots of old friends came to check out Elizabeth and Casey. They saw the Panthers fall behind 2-0 but rally to tie it 3-3.

On to Middlebury the next morning. Driving up Route 7, I was half-hoping the season would end well, and half-dreading the day Bambi never got to see. I thought Senior Night would be hard.

Thanks to the kids, it wasn't. John flew all the way up from spring training. So there we were -- Eve, John, Bo and Rachel and Casey, and me -- on the red carpet on the ice with Elizabeth and the bouquet of flowers that Bill orders for the seniors. Casey wore his Middlebury Wulf 7 onesie. Counting Elizabeth, there were seven of us.

When I look at the photograph, I see a bright sparkle in the upper-right-hand corner of the picture. It's the light bouncing off the plaque on Bambi's seat.

Middlebury won 4-2 on Senior Night thanks to a hat trick by a freshman, Madie Leidt. The Panthers had clinched the top seed in the NESCAC tournament. After a jubilant team dinner, we got back to the motel at around midnight. John and I both had the same 5:30 a.m. flight from Burlington to Fort Lauderdale, so we took catnaps and drove through a snowstorm to the airport. Somehow, we took off, and after we landed, we parted ways, him to do his job, me to do mine.

On Wednesday, I attended the funeral mass of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High athletic director Chris Hixon in Hollywood, then drove to the sectional wrestling tournament in Coral Springs to cover the wrestling team he had coached. In a display of true resilience, the team far exceeded expectations, and I filed the story at around midnight.

Then I turned on the TV to watch the gold-medal game in women's hockey between the USA and Canada. You know the story: Team USA came back to win in an overtime shootout, thanks to a magnificent goal by Jocelyn Lamoureux and a clutch save by Maddie Rooney.

As I saw them celebrate, and Rooney swarmed by her teammates, I thought of how happy all the American women hockey players halfway around the world must be, too. Then I remembered why I was in this Broward County hotel room. At 2 a.m., the phone rang. It was Elizabeth.

"Dad, I'm in tears," she said.

"Me too, sweetie."

Two days later, Middlebury beat Wesleyan, 5-0, in the NESCAC quarterfinals.

Champs II (March)

As the regular-season champion, Middlebury hosted the semifinals and finals the first weekend in March. Bo and Rachel, 11-week-old Casey in tow, booked an Airbnb for the weekend. Casey chose the morning of the game to roll over for the first time, and Rachel filmed Rollover No. 3, a study in concentration, effort and -- upon completion -- proud exhaustion. Elizabeth decided to show it to the team for motivation.

Faced with the possibility that I might be watching Elizabeth's last game -- Middlebury needed to win its semifinal game with Bowdoin to solidify its place in the NCAA tournament -- I was a kind of a wreck. I wanted to prolong the season, but I also wanted her to feel rewarded for all the hours and days and years, the miles and meals and memories that led to this. Most of all, I wanted her to think that she would be making Bambi happy.

The semifinal was brutal, literally and figuratively. Middlebury would outshoot Bowdoin 41-15, but the Polar Bears scored first on a deflected shot, and the Panthers tied it up in the second period on a fluky goal. Bowdoin played a physical game that led to nine penalties. Finally, with 5:35 left in the third period, Maddie Winslow roofed home a beauty from the side on a power play. It came off a penalty drawn by Elizabeth.

She skated her heart out, as always. At the end, she was part of the group that withstood Bowdoin's pulled-goalie assault. During the celebration, I sidled over to Bo, who had been watching with the same pained expression as I had. We looked at each other, rolled our eyes, smiled and wiped away the tears.

Up in the Kenyon Family Lounge, Mandigo told me, "We needed some of Bambi's fairy dust today." He then showed me that he was wearing a T-shirt from the tournament the year before to benefit Pancreatic Cancer research. I unbuttoned my shirt just enough to show him I was wearing the same shirt.

I also made a mental note that Casey, sleeping in the corner of the lounge, was 8-0-1.

Kenyon Arena was fairly packed on Sunday to see if Middlebury could win another NESCAC title, Mandigo's 10th, and the team's third straight -- a feat that had never before been accomplished in NESCAC. I savored Elizabeth's last spin around home ice. (Sigh.)

She later told me that just before they took the ice for the introductions, Mandigo tugged on her ponytail and said, "Bambi's gonna help us out today."

For one final time at Kenyon Arena, we listened to "from Larchmont, New York," and watched her touch the other starters with her glove. Then, like hardwired birds, we made our roosts on the concrete seats at the other end of the rink. The Mammoths came out strong, dominating the first half of the first period. But Lin Han made some clutch saves, and Middlebury revived itself. At the end of the first period, the score was 0-0.

Midway through the second period, freshman Madie Leidt made a sensational steal and fed Jess Young for a breakaway. Even with a shoulder injury from the previous game, Jess roofed it. 1-0. It was a lead, but not a big enough lead, and that's how the second period ended.

Back to our concrete roosts. Elizabeth's line -- now known as the Midd-Jets -- had been buzzing since the second period. With nine minutes left, they were positioned perfectly around the net, Elizabeth in front, looking for rebounds. That's when defenseman Haley LaFontaine wristed a shot toward the right side of the net. From our vantage point, it was hard to tell what exactly happened, but it looked as if the shot deflected off Elizabeth's stick and into the net. It looked as though we had been sprinkled with fairy dust.

But a subsequent replay showed it was not a fluke: Elizabeth had redirected the shot with the shaft of her stick and sent it skittering past the Amherst goalie on the open left side of the net. I've watched the replay over and over and over again, not just for the Crosby-like redirect but for what came afterward. After Elizabeth tips it, she falls to the ice, realizes she has scored and pops back up to receive the embrace of teammates -- Katherine Jackson does a little hop into the air. Then No. 7 leads them back to the celebration on the bench.

There was still plenty of time left. But the Panthers held fast, even when Amherst pulled its goalie to get a man advantage. When the buzzer sounded with the score 2-0, the girls exploded, throwing their helmets and gloves onto the ice, and themselves onto one another. They gathered themselves for the postgame ceremonies, after which the seniors posed with the NESCAC championship banner. When Elizabeth grasped the plaque that also goes with winning the title, her ecstasy became ours. I went over to touch the seat one more time.

The season would now come nearly full circle, back to where Middlebury played the second week -- in Plattsburgh. The No. 4 Panthers had to face the No. 2 Cardinals again in the NCAA quarterfinals.

John flew up from Florida and Bo drove up from Philadelphia with Rachel and Casey to join Eve and me at the Stafford Ice Arena. The first goal didn't come until 14:34 of the second period when Plattsburgh's Erin McArdle scored a beauty on her own rebound. But Middlebury answered three minutes later when Maddie Winslow tipped in the rebound off a Madie Leidt shot. The Cardinals went back ahead at 6:58 of the third period on an unstoppable shot by Ashley Songin past Lin Han.

The Panthers fought hard until the end, when Plattsburgh scored an empty-netter with 12 seconds left to go ahead 3-1. Elizabeth took one last faceoff at center ice -- and won it. When time did run out, the Cardinals celebrated but our eyes were focused elsewhere. Elizabeth was bent over in agony. After the handshake line, she was the last Panther to leave the ice.

We waited in the lobby of the arena, wondering what we could say to console her. Brad Nadeau, the Middlebury athletic communications director, came up to us. "I just want you to know something," he said. "We needed somebody to represent the team in the postgame press conference, so I asked Elizabeth. She said she would do it, and she did great."

When she came out of the locker room to greet the family for one last time as a Middlebury player, we told her how proud we were of her, and how proud she should be of herself. Elizabeth, Jess Young and Maddie Winslow never missed a game in four seasons: 114 in all. They and the other seniors, as well as the juniors, had become the first NESCAC team to win three straight championships. Elizabeth had a career-high eight goals in her final season, but more important, she did what Bambi loved to do.

She took us on a wonderful trip.

On the ride home, I reflected on all the many acts of kindness from Middlebury families. I thought of the things I would miss. Chatting with Bill's parents before the game. Talking hockey with George Griggs, the Panthers' most devoted fan. Walking around the rink between periods. Watching No. 7 win faceoffs and jump over the boards. Waiting for her to come out of the locker room, and seeing her smile -- sweetly after a win, bravely after a loss.

When I got back to Larchmont, I opened an email from Brad Nadeau with a photo of Elizabeth sitting at the postgame news conference table with Bill. She's in a bit of a daze, but it'll go up alongside the other pictures we have of her scoring and skating and smiling.

It's the photo that truly says ASAM.

The next night, Sunday night, I went to the Larchmont Tavern to fill Mike Chiapparelli in on how the season had gone. After extending his sympathies, he asked me what "Lizzie" was going to do when she graduates. I told him she wanted to coach hockey.

"Great," he said. "You'll have more games to go to."

We all will.