There was something special in store for the Kusmauls, a quintessential hockey family from the north Boston suburb of Tewksbury, on an otherwise typical January Sunday.
Work Hard, Play Harder
By Chris Rattey
A necessity for all hockey parents, Marty and Sugeidy take a divide-and-conquer approach in getting their three children to the various practices and games outlined on a rigid schedule. Six-year-old Jonathan needs to be in Wilmington at 7 a.m. for a Learn to Skate session, while Danny, 12, has the first of two games in Lowell beginning at 9 a.m. His next one, at 2 p.m., is in Salem, New Hampshire. Not to be forgotten is Michelle, a 10-year-old goalie set to start in net for the Redcats in Medford at 5 p.m.
One goes here, the other goes there. It’s a constant juggling act that requires agility, dedication, patience, and — of course — a minivan.
But on this particular Sunday, the schedule was kind to the Kusmauls. The entire family would be able to travel together and attend everyone’s games. I met them at their Tewksbury home in the early morning and climbed in the back seat of the van. Jonathan kicked things off in Woburn at 8:30 a.m., while Danny’s first game faced off in Lowell at 11 a.m., with a second at 3:30 p.m., right up the road in Tewksbury. Michelle capped things off in Saugus with a 5:40 p.m. tilt.
The hockey family’s stars had aligned.
Michelle’s match would add something special to the family affair, taking Marty and Sugeidy back to where it all started: Hockeytown. The U.S. Route 1 Saugus sports complex is the venue where Marty would introduce the sport of hockey to Dominican-born Sugeidy, bringing her to his floor hockey games when the couple started dating in 2000 – just a year after Sugeidy moved to Massachusetts from the Dominican Republic.
They stood side-by-side in a symbolic moment, watching Michelle mind the pipes after 10 hours of dashing to various ice barns in northeastern Massachusetts.
And Michelle didn’t disappoint. Her lone goaltending opportunity in the first period resulted in a nifty blocker save. A burst of cheers followed. Sugeidy took a deep breath and smiled. “Nice save Michelle,” she said softly.
It’s those five-second moments that make the lunacy worthwhile.
“It is crazy,” admits Sugeidy. “But I love it. I love watching my kids play hockey.”
Hockey Is A Way Of Life
The corridor of I-93 North, heading out from Boston, is decorated with pockets of hockey madness. The towns of Wilmington, Tewksbury, Billerica, and Lowell to the left of the interstate … Melrose, the Readings, and the Andovers to the right. Rinks are littered with skaters of all ages, born into a system unlike any other in the world of youth sports.
When you turn 3 in these suburbs, you learn to skate. From there, if the sport sticks, hockey becomes a way of life. It’s a long, arduous process that’s most evident in its season: Labor Day to Easter. Development is essential and needs constant attention, requiring intense practice with virtually no downtime.
Ask the parents of one hockey player how much dedication it takes to move through the system. Triple that and you’ll have a glimpse of the formula the Kusmauls need to support three hockey-obsessed kids.
One look at the Kusmauls’ schedule raises two questions in the minds of those not embedded in hockey subculture: How and why?
“Hockey is a great sport,” explains Marty from his living room in Tewksbury, located in the same house he was raised in. Marty started playing hockey at the age of, you guessed it, 3.
“There’s so much growth and skill development in the sport. As a coach and dad, you feel proud. You put all the schedules together before the year and then you evaluate each kid. It’s a good feeling to watch them execute.”
This development is not relegated to the ice rink. Danny has nightly hockey homework on top of assignments from school. It could be 50 shots in a net set up in the Kusmaul’s basement, or drills with a golf ball, used indoors to simulate the speed of a puck, to improve his stick handling.
“It’s fun homework compared to school homework,” said Danny.
“It’s a commitment,” Marty added. “A lot of the kids want the commitment.”
Still, what are their thoughts on a sport that takes up so much of their spare time?
“It’s fun,” said Danny. “You learn something every game and practice. And every year, you go to tournaments far away from home with your friends.”
Michelle too is enamored with the social aspect. “You get used to the pattern. Now everyone I play hockey with are my friends. It’s like a family.”
“You just skate,” Jonathan adds. “When you practice more and more, you’ll get better at it. I scored three goals on Saturday. It feels good.”
Marty has been adamant not to push hockey on his children, but to let them learn to love it through development and success. Danny didn’t start until he was 7, but took to it right away. Watching his big brother, Jonathan wanted in immediately. Michelle — an avid dancer — decided to join the fun the year she turned 10, creating a full-fledged hockey family.
As one can imagine, Marty is one proud hockey dad, with all three kids on board, playing the sport he loves.
Marty works full time as a maintenance supervisor at Tootsie Roll in Cambridge. Outside of work hours, he’s coaching Danny’s Tewksbury team, assistant coaching Danny’s Top Gun Youth Hockey club (Danny is on three teams), and directing the town’s Learn to Skate program. Learn to Skate can have anywhere between 100 to 150 kids between the ages of 4 and 8, rotating through different skill stations systematically.
“It is intense,” said Marty. “But that’s hockey. They learn responsibility, and they need to be more responsible as they get older. They start with learning how to tie their skates. Then you give them a little more responsibility in practice. Then they’re in charge of their own equipment. You watch them grow up and build these relationships with their teammates.”
Danny’s Top Gun team is on the Janus Arena ice in Lowell. A poster hangs on the wall in the lobby. It’s a picture of a young skater, decked out in hockey gear, and reads:
“Fall Down … Get Up … Fall Down … Get Up … Fall Down … Get Up. Hockey is more than just a game.”
The sport is a learning mechanism. Hockey is a way of life.
Back To The Minivan
The youngest Kusmaul finishes up an early game in a tiny rink in Woburn. The word ‘game’ is used loosely; two 25-minute periods of running time and no score kept. The occasion is spent watching a constant flow of young skaters showcasing their budding skills, while catching their balance and innocently barreling into one another.
It’s adorable chaos.
“This is the fun game,” says Sugeidy. “They are always falling down. They’re so cute.”
It’s back to the minivan with Janus Ice Rink as the next destination. It’s a building with a chilly reputation — as in freezing — requiring a Tootsie Roll fleece blanket for extra protection. But, there’s still time for a spin through Dunkin’ Donuts’ drive-thru to indulge in the usual hot chocolate recharge.
“Is this the tradition?” I asked Marty.
“Yes, we usually do it before the game, but we were running late,” Marty responded and looked wryly at Sugeidy. She turned to Marty, gave a similar look, and smiled.
Four hot chocolates with whipped cream and a pumpkin spiced coffee. Jonathan asked for a chocolate chip muffin, and the order was nearly forgotten.
“Dad, chocolate chip muffin!” he chirped as Marty started pulling away from the menu.
“And a chocolate chip muffin.” Marty snuck in the order.
“I want one,” said Michelle.
Without hesitation, Marty covered his bases: “Make that four chocolate chip muffins.”
Danny dug into an apple as we hit I-95 North toward his first game of the day. You could see the excitement in his eyes. He said he loves the feeling right before a game, and he loves his apples.
“He could eat a whole bag of apples,” said Sugeidy.
There was slight bickering between Michelle and Jonathan. The feisty 6-year-old gave Michelle a shove from his car seat. The two settled down, as Danny realized he misplaced his phone.
“Were you using it at Jonathan’s game, Danny?” asked Sugeidy.
“I don’t know,” Danny replied as he grabbed another phone to try and track it down. Marty turned the music down and everybody stopped moving, listening intently for the hopeful vibration of discovery. A wave of relief traveled through the minivan as the phone revealed itself behind the front seat.
“Crisis averted,” I chimed in from the back. Marty looked at me in the rearview mirror and smiled.
It was just your typical journey from one rink to the next, in a never-ending series of jaunts.
The Extended Hockey Family
Sugeidy had no idea what hockey was when she moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in 1999. Hers is a baseball country.
Today, she wouldn’t trade in a puck for a ball, and certainly not her hockey mom sweatshirt and coffee mug for a glove and cap. But, it does get tough at times. When she’s invited out with friends during the season, she must regularly decline because of their hectic schedule. And her friends, like the majority of those outside the hockey family inner-circle, don’t quite understand.
“They always ask me why I do this,” said Sugeidy, who works part time in a nursing home between her full-time gig as a hockey mom. “I say I get to watch something my kids love to do. And going to games with Marty and watching my kids play, I learned to love it.”
She paused. “I have to love it,” she said with a laugh. “Sometimes I spend more time with hockey moms than my own family. It is like a family.”
An extended family that, apparently, really knows how to party.
“People on the outside say hockey parents are crazy,” said Marty. “But then you hear comments that they have the best parties.”
If you look closely at the Kusmaul schedule, you’ll see good times carved out to ensure hard work is rewarded with some good old-fashioned fun.
They had a great time at Fitzy’s, the whole family was there.
And the mantra beats on … work hard, play harder.