The year was 1994. The New York Rangers eliminated their cross-river rivals in the Eastern Conference finals, fulfilling the promise by captain Mike Messier that they would win, and advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.
For a young Elvis Tominovic, watching as the Rangers won their first Stanley Cup since 1940 was enough to spark a passion in the young Croatian immigrant that would lead him to play for his country’s national team. Unfortunately, like many who strive to reach hockey’s top echelons, his road would end in the minors just like a few of his current teammates, Ivo Mocek, Tom Lambertson and Paul Durante, who play for the Steiner Stars at Chelsea Pier’s Division I adult league. Their dreams of having a career in the NHL were not realized.
Regardless, the road to making even the national roster was long and arduous. To reach that level, a player has to meet a long list of prerequisites before beginning to play hockey, let alone playing the sport professionally. From learning how to skate, to learning the mechanics of the game, to developing the infamous “hockey sense,” (a player’s ability to read the ice and make fast decisions) Tominovic picked these things up almost effortlessly.
“Hockey was fun from the start, it was fast paced, lots of hitting and a lot of hard work,” said Tominovic.” 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 however in a competitive full contact game I am a forward.”
It was thanks to this natural talent that Tominovic was able to play in the first place. His family wasn’t exactly financially well off to support an economically demanding sport such as hockey.
“Hockey was very tough because of financial reasons,” Tominovic said. “My mother and father are immigrants from Croatia and hockey is a very expensive sport. From the equipment to ice time it was tough at first to play.”
Of all sports, ice hockey is perhaps the most difficult to maintain if your wallet is thin. With a decent stick going for just under $100, the skates and other pads will make the stick seem like a piggy bank purchase. And while it is possible to rent out equipment or get used ones, learning to play hockey competitively in it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. But Tominovic endured, and grasped at any chance that he could. With the help of some his coaches, he was able to get some equipment and start his 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 said. “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.”
This free ice time helped develop Tominovic into a strong and effective skater and his talent landed him in the nationally ranked SUNY Fredonia Division III hockey program. Getting noticed on the hockey level was the key to Tominovic’s invitation to play for his national team. Yet while for many this would seem as the top of the mountain, for Tominovic it was evident that making a living off of hockey was not reasonable, and the National Hockey League, the dream of every kid with a hockey stick in his hands and skates on his feet, was out of reach.
“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 said. “After I got back to the States I played minor pro in the EPHL (Eastern Professional Hockey League).”
Yet the professional level of play was much different then what he expected and caused him to realize that this wouldn’t be enough to make a living.
“In college it’s about working hard and playing a fast, hard hitting game and we always played to win,” said Tominovic. “In minor pro we also played to win but it was more about fighting and entertaining the fans than working hard and playing hard. Minor hockey is fun but at the end most of us have to come to the reality that it was a nice dream [...] the dream was fun but hockey will not pay the bills.”
His teammate, Paul Durante, made it much closer to the professional level but it was something entirely different and much more unfortunate that took him off that path.
Durante was a late bloomer, although he loved hockey since a really young age. His mother didn’t want him to play hockey, claiming that he was a “china doll.” Yet an event that most would consider traumatic for a child, brought Durante access to a sport he intensely wanted to play: his parents got a divorce.
“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’,” said Durante. “So I ended up playing hockey because my father wanted to spite my mother.”
Durante began playing ice hockey at the age of 11, though he “played street hockey since he could walk.”
After rising up to the junior level, Durante played through a bunch of junior leagues until he finally got invited to the NHL’s Hartford Whalers (now the Carolina Hurricanes) training camp. At the time, Durante was on his high school’s wrestling team and a sport he had no dreams of pursuing ended a dream that was part of every Canadian kid’s life growing up.
“I badly dislocated my shoulder (wrestling) and it ended my hockey career,” Durante said. “So I stopped playing when I was about 18 or 19 [...] my shoulder took a long time to heal and I didn’t play until I was 29.”
It’s a memory that still causes regret and something that Durante always thinks about. Not being drafted and going to an NHL training camp did not necessarily spell success but it was definitely better than not going at all.
But while Durante was the closest to reaching fame, another teammate Tom Lambertson was the closest to playing with fame.
Growing up in Texas, he and his brother decided to stray from the popular pastime of football
and ended up taking hockey as their sport. Living close to the rink didn’t hurt their new hobby either.
Playing from a young age, Lambertson attended a regional camp where he was ranked as #256. From there, after playing in high school, Lambertson moved on to Buffalo State University where he played Division III hockey. Yet after enduring a losing season, he ended up being done with that and later ended up in California, where he was noticed by an ECHL (Easter Coast Hockey League) coach. That was the closest he would get to getting paid for hockey.
“For me that was professional,” Lambertson said.
The team was linked to the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens and any players who didn’t perform well at the pro level would be sent down to where Lambertson was playing.
He noticed at that point, when he played with sent-down players, that he wasn’t going further than this level. They were “in your face” and were basically “f****g everybody up.”
If that wasn’t enough to crush someone’s dreams, then playing against Sidney Crosby, currently a center for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and arguably the best player in the world, definitely could put the nail in the coffin.
“He would just win the face-off 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 recalled.
When looking back on it, he still has regret.
“Yeah, I mean, I drank and smoked and all of that,” said Lambertson. “Maybe if I hadn’t done that, I don’t know.”
Even though their dreams didn’t turn into reality, playing at Chelsea’s Division I is more than enough now.
“You know it’s all about having fun,” said Mocek. “And I have that here, at men’s league.”