From housing projects to Chelsea Piers with thousands of miles of bus travel in between, one man's journey across Canada has brought him back to home ice.
It’s something of a miracle that Danny Genovese has made the 2,500-mile journey from inner-city New York to an elite junior hockey team in Chilliwack, British Columbia. It certainly wasn’t supposed to happen that way. Danny could have turned out like some of his friends from the projects, dead or in jail, or like his father, a sweet man who never overcame a heroin problem. But the 20-year-old definitely wasn’t supposed to be shoring up the blue line for the Chilliwack Chiefs, nailing perfect breakout passes in sold-out arenas in western Canada, where Brett Hull, Paul Kariya and Scott Gomez honed their games.
It’s a heartwarming story, but on this chilly Friday night in February, Kyle Nason, a tough right wing playing for the Surrey Eagles, isn’t exactly dabbing his eyes. As soon as he can get close enough to Danny, he delivers a “Welcome to Canada” punch in the nose. Gloves fall to the ice, helmets get knocked off, and the fight is so fierce their fists are just blurs. A few seconds later, Danny shoves Nason to the ice. He raises an arm for a last shot, but holds back, letting a linesman pull him away.
Back on the other side of the continent, it’s midnight in a tiny apartment on the fourth floor of the Robert Fulton Houses, a public housing development in Manhattan’s Chelsea area. Danny’s mother, Laurie Ottomanelli; his sister, Leanne; his brothers, Rocco and Philip; and his stepfather, Anthony “Big Red” Costanzo, are huddled around a computer set up on the kitchen table, listening to the game on the Internet. They hear the announcer’s call of Nason popping Danny. “That guy shouldn’t have done that,” clucks Laurie. “Danny’s a real sweet kid until you ...” And then the fight is on, and the whole family starts screaming their heads off.
Danny will be going a lot further in hockey—if the scouts are right, to a good D1 school at the very least—but it’s where he started that makes his story so unusual. Even though Hall of Famer Joey Mullen learned the game on the streets of Manhattan’s West Side, the Robert Fulton Houses aren’t exactly hockey country. They’re more like Hollywood’s idea of the projects. Kids in hoods hang around on the stoop. The elevator is a steel cell with one tiny window made of thick safety glass, into which someone has scratched “Crips Up.” Ask Danny where he learned to fight, and he’ll shrug and say, “You know, the playground.”
Like a lot of kids in the projects, Danny pretty much started off with nothing. For much of his childhood, he didn’t really even have a father. Bobby Genovese never married Danny’s mother, and soon after Danny was born Bobby took off. The elder Genovese “went off the deep end,” as Laurie puts it, getting into bar fights, sometimes landing in jail. He also became a heroin addict. Between 1983 and 1996, he was arrested 10 times, for possession, assault and harassment, among other things.
Danny’s father claimed he was staying away from Danny for his own good. Sometimes, though, he’d come by the family’s apartment late at night, usually strung out, asking for money. But before leaving, he would always ask if he could peek in on his sleeping son.
Even though he rarely saw him, Danny loved his father. Laurie remembers one afternoon when she took the boy, maybe 4 or 5 at the time, to the San Gennaro Festival, a street fair in Little Italy, near where Danny’s father was born and raised. Laurie spotted Bobby a long way off. “He was bent over in that junkie nod,” says Laurie, “when you think they’re gonna fall over, but somehow they don’t.” She tried to turn Danny down another street, but he had already spotted his father, and ran toward him, yelling, “Daddy, Daddy.”
Danny’s life was shaping up to be a typical projects story in so many ways, except for one thing: hockey. Danny grabbed hold of a hockey stick and clung to it like a life raft. Rocco and Phil used to play roller hockey down on the basketball courts. When Laurie heard that a local team might be offering some scholarships, she hustled her boys over. She didn’t know a thing about hockey. She just wanted her kids off the streets. Their first home ice was Sky Rink, situated on the top floor of a high-rise, which later moved to Chelsea Piers, five blocks from the projects. The contrast between home and ice could not have been greater, and it was a chance for Danny to taste another existence. These rinks aren’t like the rec centers where most players learn the sport. It’s ice time Manhattan-style, and, like all New York real estate, it’s precious and expensive. The rinks run almost 24/7 and look out over the Hudson River and the marina where the Forbes family parks its yacht, with its helicopter and Cigarette boat onboard. A lunchtime pickup game costs $26, and you stand a good chance of playing against boldfaced names like Denis Leary and Tim Robbins. There are teams from law firms and from three-star restaurants. A season on the youth traveling team costs $3,500, or $2,000 more than you might pay anywhere else. Many players are private school kids who wear expensive, top-quality gear from head to toe. Danny, one of the few kids on scholarship, sometimes relied on gifts from his teammates’ sympathetic parents.
It made no difference, though, what he was wearing or who his teammates were: hockey became his life. “Whenever I stepped out onto the ice,” he says, “I felt like I was home.” He spent as much time at his new home as he could, becoming like a second son to some of the other team parents, who saw a special kindness and determination in him. When he wasn’t playing for his team, the Cyclones, he worked as a skate guard or skated at the rink, sometimes in the middle of the night. Laurie was thankful that he had a stick with him, as he walked home through the deserted streets framed by warehouses and dark restaurants.
When he wasn’t at the rink, Danny was playing roller hockey. Or he was back at the projects, practicing his slap shot on the basketball court, using rolls of electrical tape, skating on in-line skates that were missing a wheel. Laurie would yell out the window every half hour or so, just to make sure he wasn’t in trouble. When it got too cold or too dark out—or his mom was seriously freaking out—he’d play in the dank halls, slapping the puck against the cinder-block walls.
The big guy with the beard wants to know if Danny’s hands are all right. Danny is standing outside the team bus after the game with Surrey, talking with fans. Danny will talk with anyone about anything, and here in western Canada, the subjects might range from the condition of his hands to the correct method of castrating a bull. Danny’s got a bit of the New York wise-guy charm, and people seem to gather around him instinctively. Now, Danny obligingly holds out his hands and flexes his fingers.
Like the rest of him, his hands are square and solid. At 5'11" and 220 pounds, he’s built like a lighthouse. He has brown eyes and a big, round, smiling pumpkin for a head. He’s got the hockey legs, too; his calves seem roughly the size and shape of footballs. Danny is as strong as a Clydesdale, and he’s something of a clotheshorse. Tonight, his tie is fashionably loose and the cuffs of a rich-blue shirt droop unbuttoned from the sleeves of his black jacket. His hair explodes in exclamation points of gel.
Former NHL tough guy Garth Butcher is standing by the bus too, and he’s looking at Danny. Butcher made a living manhandling people for the Canucks and the Blues, and his son Matt plays on Danny’s team. Danny is suddenly sure that the elder Butcher thinks he’s bragging about his fight, so he shoves his hands into his pockets.
Then it’s onto the bus and back to his Chilliwack “parents,” Arlene and Wayne Roddick. Junior players live with billets: families in the little towns they land in. Arlene and Wayne signed up to house a young player at the start of the season, figuring they would get a kid from Alberta or Ontario, like everyone else. Then they heard they were getting a kid from New York City. And that he had a brother named Rocco. When they picked Danny up, he had a bandanna on his head, an earring in each ear and a stud in his tongue. Arlene and Wayne looked at each other and gulped. “Oh, jeez, we’re in for it,” said Arlene. But Danny charmed them, and he’s one of the family now.
The next day Danny sees Matt at breakfast.
“Your dad was looking at me funny,” says Danny. “Did he say anything?”
Matt laughs, and answers, “He said he knew you were from New York, so he figured you’d be tough, but he didn’t think you’d be able to fight like that.”
Late in 1996, Bobby Genovese was arrested for the last time and sentenced to nine months in rehab at a facility in the Bronx. Laurie visited him every weekend, trying to help him become the kind of person who could be a father to his son. He came out clean, and he came back into Danny’s life.
The two spent every minute they could together. Bobby would pack two lunches and wait on the school steps for Danny, so they could eat together. He’d pick him up after school and watch him play whenever he could. Danny remembers how weird and wonderful it was to go from strangers to best friends: “I went from seeing him once in a while, and hardly talking to him because he was drunk or something, to seeing him every day. It was like we were making up for lost time.”
Danny changed from the kid who started trouble to the one who settled it, and it showed in his game. “By the end of his third year with the Cyclones, he was our franchise,” says his coach, Scott Gordon. “He would deliver decimating hits. He took so much punishment, too, but he just dominated.”
After all, the crease was nothing compared to the projects. Over the summer of 1998, when he was 13, Danny came back from practice to find a friend dead on the sidewalk in a pool of blood. Lamar was 18, a buddy and a Fulton Houses neighbor. He’d picked a fight with the wrong guy, someone fresh out of jail, and got shot in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Danny was there even before the cops. “Hockey really kept me out of trouble,” he remembers. “At home, my friends were going to jail, getting killed. But I had hockey.”
By the time he was 16, Danny had outgrown the Cyclones. He’d already been playing in the better adult leagues, and was holding his own. Pat Murphy, who ran the hockey program at Chelsea Piers, called a friend, Keith Clark, who was coaching at the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid, a boarding school specializing in winter sports. Murphy told Clark that he had someone with talent, someone who needed to get away from the city.
Danny joined the NSA team in November 2001. Clark was impressed: “He had great hands, great vision. And he was a tough kid. He could take hits and really give them.” Play was much faster than at Chelsea, but it didn’t take Danny long to adjust. By his junior year, he was on the top defensive line.
But the projects wouldn’t let go. Back at home, Danny’s father was again struggling with heroin. He would relapse for a few weeks, then stay clean for a while. On April 6, 2002, he relapsed one last time, overdosing in the Bleecker Street apartment where he’d grown up. He was 50. Danny was 17.
Danny was home for spring break, and remembers his mother getting the call. “She hung up the phone and her hands just started shaking, and she started crying,” he says. “I started crying too, even though I didn’t know what had happened.” He spent a few days in shock. He’s never really talked about his father before, and struggles to find the words to describe how he felt. “I just didn’t really do anything,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do.”
He was torn. At first, Danny figured he’d forget about Lake Placid and hockey, and stay in New York. He felt he was needed at home. But there were some things about his future he could predict if he stayed. He’d probably get a job at his uncle’s moving company, like his brothers, playing men’s league hockey with out-of-shape businessmen at Chelsea Piers. Going back to Lake Placid, though, could lead anywhere. After talking with his mother and Clark, he decided to go back.
During his senior year, he was invited by scout Roy Henderson to play in his Global Sports Showcase, a four-day, eight-rink tourney in British Columbia that attracts hundreds of scouts, from D1 schools such as Boston University and Maine to junior teams of every level across Canada. Dean Kletzel, then assistant coach of the Chilliwack Chiefs, watched him play and was impressed: “I saw right away he was a guy we wanted.” Danny became a Chief that afternoon.
Later, Danny drives to the game in the Roddicks’ car, a beater with more than 300,000 kilometers on it, winding through farm country. There are wide-open fields and weathered barns and the strong smell of manure. Somewhere in Chilliwack, a tourism brochure boasts, is the largest pumpkin cannon in BC, but Danny hasn’t made that pilgrimage yet.
There is nothing rustic about home ice, though. The Prospera Centre is a $17 million testament to the importance of junior hockey in Canada. It’s a pro-level facility with huge locker rooms. Tonight, as usual, it’s sold-out, with nearly 4,000 fans in the seats. There are always a couple of ex-NHLers in the audience, and reporters from online sites, radio, TV and the two local papers. There are scouts almost every night: tonight the Devils, Penguins and Red Wings are here. So is Henderson, and he’s pretty sure Danny will go on a full ride to a good D1 school, at least. “I think minor pro is a probability,” says Henderson. “And he could go further. I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.”
The Chiefs are playing the Eagles again, and from the first faceoff, it’s fast and intense. On his second shift, Danny picks up the puck in his end, brings it through the neutral zone and hits his center with a tape-to-tape pass, springing him for a breakaway. The hitting is tremendous. Toward the end of the period, a big forward glides into the crease and Danny levels him, throwing him back so hard that he’s flipped around entirely and ends up on his knees facing the other way. The crowd goes nuts.
It’s a big-time hit, and he’s amped for a game with a rival, but there’s another reason Danny is grinning ear-to-ear. He knows that, back in the projects, sitting at the kitchen table, his mother is sitting in front of the computer, listening, also going nuts. She never misses a game.
He may have 2,500 miles behind him. But that’s nothing compared to how far he wants to go. •
This article originally appeared on ESPN.com. Danny is currently the Adult Hockey Director at Chelsea Piers.
Reprinted by permission of the author.