By Alex Mikoulianitch
The year was 1994. The New York Rangers eliminated the New Jersey Devils, their cross-river rivals in the Eastern Conference finals, advancing to the Stanley Cup finals, where they beat the Vancouver Canucks for their only Stanley Cup since 1940.
For Elvis Tominovic that was enough to spark a passion in the young Croatian immigrant that would lead him to play for his country’s national team.
And there his dream ended. Like Ivo Mocek, Tom Lambertson and Paul Durante, his teammates on the Steiner Stars of Chelsea Piers Division 1 adult league, their dreams of playing in the National Hockey League were not realized.
Even making the national team was long and arduous. From learning to skate, to learning the mechanics of the game and developing “hockey sense,” (the ability to make fast decisions on what to do when) Tominovic stood out. “Hockey was fun from the start, it was fast paced, lots of hitting and a lot of hard work,” Tominovic says. “It came to me naturally, even though I played it from sunrise till sunset as a kid. My first position was defense because I was a big kid growing up, and the coach put all the big kids on defense. I played defense until I was 14 and moved to Long Island, then the coaches put me at forward. I can play both defense and forward in men’s league.”
When he was young, Tominovic’s family wasn’t financially well off, and playing hockey is expensive, because of the cost of equipment.
For a good hockey stick, prices start near $100, and skates and protective equipment are far more. Because of his talent, Tominovic was helped by some of his coaches, and was able to get equipment and start training.
“The coaches started taking me under their wing and gave me old equipment to use and let my mother only pay half the fee for ice time,” he says. “Sometimes they allowed me to work at the rink in order to receive free ice time in return. Without their help I would have never played ice hockey.”
Tominovic developed into a strong, effective skater and played in college at SUNY Fredonia, in Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Succeeding there was the key to Tominovic’s invitation to play for Croatia’s national team.
“I moved on to play for the Croatian National Team and from there they offered me a contract to play for Medvescak of Zagreb in Croatia,” he says. When he returned to the U.S., he played in the Eastern Professional Hockey League, a minor league. There, he realized that he didn’t have what it takes to make the NHL, that “the dream was fun, but hockey will not pay the bills.”
His teammate Paul Durante made it much closer to the NHL. Durante was a late bloomer; his mother didn’t want him to play hockey, saying he was a “china doll.” Only after his parents divorced was he able to play. “In order to get custody of me, my dad told me, ‘Hey Paul, if you come live with me I’ll let you play hockey’,” says Durante. “So I ended up playing hockey because my father wanted to spite my mother.”
He started to play ice hockey at the age of 11, though he says he “played street hockey since he could walk.”
Durante played in a bunch of junior leagues until he finally was invited to training camp by the NHL’s Hartford Whalers (now the Carolina Hurricanes). But injury intervened. While wrestling for his high school team, “I badly dislocated my shoulder and it ended my hockey career,” Durante says. “So I stopped playing when I was about 18 or 19.”
Another Chelsea Piers teammate, Tom Lambertson, came closer.
Growing up in Texas, he and his brother decided to stray from football and took up hockey. Living close to the rink helped.
From a young age, Lambertson attended a regional camp, played in high school, then at Buffalo State University, also in Division III. He left school and was noticed by a coach in the East Coast Hockey League.
The team was linked to the Montreal Canadiens, and some players who didn’t perform well in the NHL were demoted to where Lambertson was playing.
It was there that Lambertson concluded he wasn’t good enough to move on. Among the opponents he played against was Sidney Crosby, now with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who is among the three or four best players in the world when he’s healthy.
“He would just win the faceoff to himself, one guy would slash him on the hands and he would just be like ‘Okay, no,’ I’d try to grab him, he would be like ‘no’ and he’d go down the ice and score a goal,” Lambertson recalls.
Even though the players’ dreams didn’t turn into reality, playing at Chelsea’s Division 1 is more than enough now.
“You know it’s all about having fun,” said Mocek. “And I have that here, at men’s league.”