A Blogger, A Radio Guy and a kid named J.R.Yoniac 9-2-08

7th Woman's picture

It was the Friday before Labor Day and IslanderQueen and I had plans for dinner, wine and chatter.
All the plans changed when I received a text from Islesblogger.com Mike Schuerlein.
“Playing hockey with Mears @ 8pm at Ice Works.” I only had one answer, “S**t”. I’ve wanted to see Mike play hockey for a few weeks now, but they usually play at late hours or when I’m spending quality time with the family. Here was an invite for a reasonable hour, the family was busy and he threw Islanders radio guy Steve Mears in there just as a bonus.
IQ arrived by 6 pm and pop went the wine. “Mike is playing hockey at Ice Works tonight.” I half-heartedly mentioned over appetizers.
“So… Let’s go.” There was no hesitation in her voice.
“I don’t know who else will be there other than Steve Mears.” I said figuring she would lose interest.
“Who cares? Let’s go.” Okay, IQ, twist my arm. We slipped into warmer clothes and headed out the door. Of course, I came armed with my camera, pen and paper. My digital recorder is always with me too, but I hardly ever drag that out.
We pulled up at 8:10 pm, and knowing we were a little late, I grabbed all my things from the car and ran into the lobby leaving IQ in the dust. Uh oh. There were only three men out on the ice and I had no idea which one was Mike. I walked through the glass door and behind the bench. Mike was sitting on the bench, panting, sweating and wincing. Not a good look, but at least he’s out there playing.
“I’m exhausted already.” Because ice skating is so much different from roller blades, and Mike had already played roller hockey this week he was having just a bit of a slow start. I give him credit. So while Mike was telling me about the problems with his skates and his gear and a variety of other excuses (only kidding Mike) Steve Mears skated over to the bench and I almost didn’t recognize him with a full-face cage.
“Dee! You bring your skates? You going to join us?" Yeah, right Steve.
"I guess with the holiday weekend, this is all we’re getting for tonight.” There were now five men and no one knew each other except Mike and Steve. There was no one in either goal. Mike IS very good, even if he is rusty. Nevertheless, he knows his stuff.

Mears skates far better than he gives himself credit for, but he has a tendency to shoot high. “I only have two shots.” and it looks like neither one was working.
However, as I watched these men skate, passing the puck around the ice, I couldn’t help but notice the one thin boy with a red Russia Jersey. He was fast -- very fast. While one man in blue spent a lot of time throwing himself onto the ice, this young, thin figure was graceful and skilled. I knew I was supposed to be there to take photos of my fellow Blog Boxer, but I was terribly distracted.

“Do you know who that kid is?” I asked Mike when he came back to the bench. “No. Everyone just shows up.”

I watched the young man leave the rink and head toward the vending machines. I thought for a moment and then did something I hardly ever do. I followed him out to talk to him. I introduced myself as one of the Blog Boxers there to see Mike and Mears; this way he wouldn’t get the wrong impression as to why I was there in the relatively deserted building.

“You’re really fast out there. Can I ask you your name?”
“J.R., as in Junior, but they call me J.R.” Without his cage on, you could see how young he actually is.
“You're very good.”
“Thanks. But this is nothing. We’re really not playing.” He fumbled looking for change for the soda machine.
“How old are you?” I felt bad asking that question, but I was curious since I cannot seem to tell any more, and I really should have been taking notes, but I didn’t expect to be holding this conversation

J.R. Yoniac is 19 years-old from the north shore of Long Island. He began skating when he was eight at the Port Washington Skating Center. Okay, who knew there was a skating center in Port Washington? To my untrained eye, and me this kid seemed very, very good. I asked if he was playing on a team right now.

“No, not yet. But I played in Europe at an invitational camp recently. I’m going back, but I may try out for some teams here.” I didn’t want to bother the boy, so I went back inside and sat back on the bench.
Within a few minutes, he skated back over to me. This time, I was prepared with my pen and a scrap of paper to take notes.

“Where are you from again?” I explained. He then rattled off so many facts about himself that I couldn’t keep up with him; he talked as fast as he skated -- like the wind.

“You know, in 2004 I attended the Sweden Hockey Institute, and I was coached by Ben Gustafson, the coach of the 2006 Sweden Olympic team. I was the only American in the camp, but I showed him I could handle anything thrown my way. Coach Gustafson told me for an American born skater, I truly skate like a European, because of the way I use my edges, my skating ability, my stick handling and the finesse I incorporate within the game.”

I was getting a cramp from writing so fast. I asked him if language was a problem for him in Sweden.

“No, pretty much everyone spoke English and I stayed with some of Kenny Jonsson’s family. It was great.” Okay, this boy really did have the experience of a lifetime.

“I was born 3 months premature.” He said leaning on the boards. My eyes must have lit up, because as a mother those words scared me.

“Yeah, I was only 1 lb, 7 oz.” Again, my eyes opened wide. “So ever since I was little everything you do tells me that size matters until a coach at the West Point wrote in my weekly evaluation that "Good things truly come in small packages." So, ever since I heard that, I always try to prove that when it comes to hockey, you must know how to skate and develop skill; otherwise, you'll never amount to anything. I'd rather take a player with skill than a player with size. Playing hockey on Long Island makes me see how many players have no skating ability, and if someone isn’t taught how to skate from a young age, they’ll never learn. I feel you can only learn or teach someone so much, and then it is up to that individual to develop their own ability for the game.”

Thinking about the upcoming Olympics in Vancouver I asked him “What do you think will happen to the European players during the Vancouver Olympics when they’ll be using the Canucks arena for the games? They’re sticking with the smaller ice surface.”

“Oh, yeah. I think they’re really going to feel confined. The European ice is so much bigger, there’s more room.” This boy just has a spark and the drive that shines through. If you can see it when he is just playing a pick up game on a small rink with five guys he doesn’t know, I can’t even imagine what he’s like on a team. I just have a feeling he will absolutely get far. I asked him what college he was interested in attending.

“I’m not sure. I’m looking around.” I pointed at my UNH fleece and winked. JR smiled at me and put his helmet back on. “Yeah. That’s a good one. You got enough?”
More than enough. I’m ready to find this kid an agent. It just proves once again, hockey seems to attract those with the greatest will to overcome adversity.
I sat back on the bench to keep writing my notes and Mike came back to the bench. I was overwhelmed. “Oh my GOD, that kid has quite a story!”

“Did you tell him who you are?” Mike asked me.
Huh? “I introduced myself, yes.” I was still looking at my notes.

“Did you tell him who I was?” I couldn’t help but laugh it just struck me funny.

“Did you tell him who Steve is?” Okay, now I was confused.

“Why? Doesn’t he know?” Seriously. Doesn’t EVERYONE on Long Island know our radio guy and occasional TV celebrity? But it seems that when they play these games, no one really talks to each other. They just get out on the ice and play.

“Dee! You keeping score?” Steve called to me from center ice.

“You keep score when there’s no goalie in net?” Again, I was confused. However, it was getting late, IslanderQueen was getting bored, and I needed to get back home to our dinner, wine… and chocolate.