Why Is John Sacco the Unhappiest Guy at the Rink?

From around the corner of the rink, carrying a bucket of pucks and wearing an expression which says ‘I’ve seen everything there is to see in this world’ comes Gerritsen Beach’s John Sacco. Waiting patiently for the Zamboni to cut a fresh sheet of ice, the skaters, all in full gear, catch sight of him and quickly monitor his demeanor, a detail which will dictate the next hour and twenty minutes of their night. 

Some are new to the game, some are coming back to it, and some simply want ice time. In other words, some can fly, some can barely stand.

“I’ve coached professionals, movie actors, three- and four-year-old children, travel teams, juniors, everyone,”  he says. “No matter how good or bad they are, they’re still your players.”

He’s not in a particularly good mood on this (or any) Monday night at Aviator, as this motley group has shown up for his clinic. He’s been at the rink since 6am and, at this point, all he has patience for is compliance. “Do not lean against the boards, gentlemen...and women,” screams Sacco, once the skaters have assembled on the ice.  He’ll push them harder than they think they can go, and as they hunch over in pain and exhaustion, he’ll lean over and quietly mock, “Are you tired?” The paradox is, when word gets out that he’s teaching again, the bodies start showing up.

“Hockey is my religion,” he tells them. “God tells me and I tell you. HARD LAP.” And the clinic begins.

After a career with the NYPD Highway Patrol, he believes in the rules and doesn’t have the time or the inclination for a nuanced discussion about them. Maybe because he knows some truths about life, with a capital L, he understands that being on the ice can be an oasis, but only if you play it the right way. “Hockey is a simple game,” he says, “and has to be taught as such.” 

Old school, brutal but fair, Sacco relishes his second career as a coach. “We all end up where we’re supposed to be. If you read the Old Testament, we’re guided by divinity and there are two or three paths you can take, but they will all lead you to the same place. No matter what you do, you’re going to end up there.” And by “there,” he means the rink.

“Take a knee,” he says, after a particularly nasty touch-the-dots drill. So that the group can catch a breath, Sacco tells stories:

“Whatever a child has to say is important. A lot of the time it may be stupid, but you have to entertain it. (‘Is he talking about us?’ thinks the group) There’s a reason. You have to guide them. I’ve had the opportunity to guide players that have gone on to play college, play pro. One is a third year Cadet at West Point. I’m very proud of that. I might have contributed to that in some small way.”

Hockey is my religion.
God tells me and I tell you.

His own hockey story began with roller, as did most kids from Brooklyn, and he didn’t start playing ice until he was twenty, at the old Chelsea Sky Rink. His coaching career had a less-than-formal beginning. “My kids were playing at the Skating Pavilion on Staten Island, and a guy said to me, ‘You want to help me with in-house?’ I said sure. I turned around and he was gone. So I wind up running their in-house.”

While at the Skating Pavilion, he fell in with a group of Russian coaches. “I was like their big brother. I’d guide them, get them out of trouble. In that community, they don’t go to outsiders.”

Just before getting his first official coaching job, Sacco worked for Alexei Kasatonov (of the Soviet National Team, the New Jersey Devils and other NHL teams). “I worked for nothing, just to be in his presence. I learned so much from him. Incredible hockey knowledge but a very uncomplicated man. He used his words sparingly. Probably because his English was terrible.”

Sacco studied the Russians, going all the way back to Anatoli Tarasov, considered the father of Russian hockey. The legendary coach, who reportedly introduced the pylon into the training process, went beyond the fine-tuning of skill.

“Tarasov made me understand that athletes can’t perform optimally if you don’t know what makes them go. I care about my players, I know my players.”

Sacco had an opportunity to know Tarasov’s daughter, Tatiana, the world-renowned figure skating coach. 

“We had a chance to spend a week together. I brought her one of her father’s books. She held it against her and started to weep. ‘I can’t believe you know so much of my father.’ A wonderful woman and, like her father, strict with her athletes. But she cares.”

“Keep your stick on the ice even when standing in line for a drill,” he says to the clinic skaters. “Get into good habits.” The occasional drink is allowed, but grudgingly, and probably for legal reasons. “We’re being recorded,” he says with a nod to a vague spot above, “so my boss can keep track of what I’m doing here.” The thought occurs, ‘What would he do if we weren’t being recorded.’ This is all getting very Russian, Soviet-era. From a pure hockey approach, according to Sacco, around the time of the Summit Series in the early ’70s, the Russians took the game from Canada and changed it for the better. A favorite Sacco axiom: “If your feet aren’t moving, there’s something wrong.” Very Russian.

Knee, story:

“I had a mother come up to me, with a very serious look, she says to me, ‘Coach, I really need to speak to you.’ ‘What can I help you with?’ I ask her. ‘I’d like to talk to you about my son’s career.’ I asked which one was her son, and she points to him. ‘That’s him over there,’ she says. These were my mite minors, five- and six-year-olds. ‘What career are you thinking he’s going into,’ I ask her,  ‘Law? Medicine?’ ‘No, his hockey career.’ ‘My dear, he’s five years old. He has no hockey career. He’s playing a game. When he gets to about 16 years old, we’ll have a serious discussion. Let the kid have fun,’ I tell her.”

There are no unhappy faces at a hockey rink, so the oddity of seeing Sacco’s default scowl is further confused by the number of folks of all ages who approach him for a hug, probably the aforementioned mother, and probably her son. He must be doing something right.

As the clinic ends, one participant approaches the coach as the Zamboni begins to clean the ice. “I should’ve started when I was young,” he says. “No,” says Sacco. “You weren’t meant to. That’s why you’re here now.”  The coach is high-fiving the skaters as they leave the ice. “You’re right where you’re supposed to be,” he says. •