From pain comes perseverance, and from resolve comes resilience
The Enterprise — Jordan J. Michael
Looking back at a shot that passed over his shoulder during last Saturday’s practice is Brandon Rathwell, the starting goaltender for the Clifton Park Dynamo 18U hockey team, which won the New York State Tier 1 AAA Championship. Rathwell, a senior at Guilderland High School, has a 26-7-4 record, nine shutouts, a save percentage of .916, and a goals-against average of 1.77. The Dynamo is playing in a national tournament in Green Bay, Wis. this week.
GUILDERLAND — We are entering the climax of hockey season in the United States. The National Hockey League is embarking on the playoffs, the Frozen Four caps off next week, and Brandon Rathwell is competing in Green Bay, Wis. this week for a national tournament with the Clifton Park Dynamo.
Wait, how does Rathwell, of Guilderland, fit into the equation?
He’s at the top of his game for his age.
And his father, Terrence, before him, was part of a team that then and now, at Union College, is a hockey powerhouse.
At last Saturday’s Dynamo practice at Clifton Commons, while his 18-year-old goaltending son was making save after save on the ice, Mr. Rathwell sat at a table in an almost empty lobby, looking up at a flat-screen television that aired a live broadcast of Union’s NCAA Division I tournament regional final against Providence. The winner would advance to the Frozen Four, and Union was ranked first in the nation.
Union scored to go ahead, 2 to 0, but Mr. Rathwell was confused for a moment on which team had found the net; a terrible head injury during a recreational softball game in the summer of 1988 — and his 17 days in a coma afterwards — has left the father of four with slow recall and retention. Once Mr. Rathwell realized that Union had scored, he was excited.
“U, U, U!” Mr. Rathwell cheered as a maintenance man, whom he seemed to know well, mopped the floor; they both laughed. “I just like watching hockey. It’s a pet peeve,” said Mr. Rathwell.
With complete control of the game, Union College made the Frozen Four. Mr. Rathwell, a Union graduate, is a proud man, but he’s more pleased with the efforts of Brandon than the accomplishments of his own past.
Brandon will guard the Tier 1 AAA CP Dynamo 18U team’s goal in Green Bay, Wis. this week. This is the first Tier 1 Dynamo team to win a New York State Championship in 16 years.
Brandon said that he wouldn’t be anywhere without his father, or, for that matter, his mother and grandparents. Mr. Rathwell’s goaltending career was cut short — he never played again after the accident — but his love for hockey burns within his son’s heart.
Never really giving Brandon any advice on how to play goalie, Mr. Rathwell has taught his son about enjoying the game, being respectful, being a genuine person, owning responsibility, and trusting others.
“I’ve learned how to carry myself, and it carries onto the ice,” said Brandon, a senior at Guilderland High School. “It takes an amazing person to overcome what he did, work as hard as he did. If he can do that, then I should take that extra rep, or run that much faster.”
Brandon spends most of his time these days skating on ice. The perseverance and hardship that has surrounded his father and his family for so many years — 26 to be exact — does not need to be explained.
“The game wasn’t over”
“People say that goaltenders don’t skate,” Mr. Rathwell interjected; he may talk slowly, but he’s smart. “They carry an extra 20 to 25 pounds, so they have to be better skaters than the rest of them.”
Mr. Rathwell, originally from Cobden, in Ontario, Canada, makes sense most of the time, but he gets rambling on.
“Everyone needs to learn how to skate first,” Mr. Rathwell said; Brandon started at a very young age because there is a pond in the family’s backyard. “If you know how to play the puck, and then go to goaltender, you know what’s coming to you, to play the defense.”
Brandon never had true fear of being hit with a rocketing piece of rubber; goalies with worry would never last. He says that all goalies are weird.
“You have to be [weird] if you like getting hit with 90-mile-per-hour shots,” he said. “You get used to it. Yeah, you may get one on the collarbone, and it stings, but I don’t really care.”
Mr. Rathwell pulled out his mobile phone to show a picture of Brandon after the New York State championship game, which the Dynamo won over the Buffalo Jr. Sabres, 1 to 0, in double overtime. Brandon had a bruise on his forehead from a shot that hit him in the mask during the second overtime; his mask flew off and hit the ice.
With Brandon’s goalie mask sitting on the ice, play continued, and the puck ended up in the net. The Jr. Sabres thought they were now the 17th straight Buffalo team to win a title, but the goal was waived off because Brandon had lost his headgear.
“The puck had been played with a high stick, and a glove, too, so there’s three reasons why it didn’t count,” said Brandon last Saturday. “It was a scare, but I was worried about my helmet, so I didn’t even know where the puck was.”
Mr. Rathwell again pulls out his phone, this time showing a video of the Buffalo goal that was not to be. With not a care in the world, Brandon skates over to his helmet and picks it up. Eventually, he says, he realized what had happened.
“I knew the game wasn’t over,” he said.
“Someone I look up to”
Long ago, Mr. Rathwell’s hockey career ended abruptly, but his passion lives on vicariously through his oldest son, as well as his middle son, Travis, who also plays in goal.
Growing up, Brandon always knew about his father’s misfortune, but he couldn’t really comprehend it until he was in fifth grade, well into his hockey playing. The Rathwells are religious, so Brandon believes God had a reason for it, however awful that sounds.
“He wouldn’t have it any other way,” Brandon said of his father, adding that hockey is no religion. “It’s a sport, and I love playing it, but there will come a day when it ends. You have God, family, schooling — above everything else — above hockey. I take my blessing for what I have now, and I just play.”
“You have to make something last as long as you can if you really care about it,” added Mr. Rathwell.
Again, you may have to wait for Mr. Rathwell to make his point, but his happiness is infectious.
Returning to Union College in the fall of 1989, Mr. Rathwell graduated in 1993. It was there that he met his wife, Maurisa, and they went on to sprout hockey-playing boys and a talented softball player, Victoria, a sophomore at Guilderland. Mr. Rathwell works as a lock inspector for the New York State Canal Corporation.
Brandon fully understands what his father deals with every day, and he’s helpful and patient with him. When the two pulled out of the parking lot last Saturday, Brandon was the one driving.
“He never forced me to do anything, and I know a lot of fathers…a lot of kids end up hating the sport because their fathers are always on them,” Brandon said, “but he’s been amazing, just supporting everything I do, never getting on me. I go to him for advice, instead of him coming to me. He’s someone I look up to.”
The comforting hand of help goes both ways, equally. There is no criticizing.
Brandon’s success makes Mr. Rathwell feel better about his life.
“We are alike”
“That’s the whole thing; I played, but I didn’t finish,” he said. “I was hurt, and, because of that, I don’t know what I could have done after my college. From that, I see it through the eyes of my kids, how competitive they are, and, therefore, myself in my kids.”
If Brandon makes a big save, maybe a piece of Mr. Rathwell’s soul makes the save, too.
“Biologically, we are alike,” said Mr. Rathwell. “I see it as they are, but I don’t take it away from them.”
“He understands the joy and excitement,” Brandon added. “He’s been out there on that ice.”
Excitement, jitters, and nerves are shared by the parents sitting in the stands, Mr. Rathwell said. “You think all that is in the player, but it’s mostly in the parents.”
Some of Mr. Rathwell’s favorite moments come when he watches his kids persevere and win, and Brandon has been doing that a lot this season. Mr. Rathwell also knows how to be quiet after a loss; those two or three hours after are dismal.
“It satisfies me to see them play as hard as they can to win that game,” Mr. Rathwell said. “And they do, they always play hard.”
Brandon says that making a humungous save is the “greatest feeling ever,” and his goals against average this season is 1.77 with nine shutouts and a 26-7-4 record. The Dynamo is 43-11-5 overall, and Head Coach Brad Shaver said that it’s one of the best teams he’s ever coached.
Dynamo goaltenders usually go on to play in college, whether Division 1 or III, so Shaver knows that Brandon will end up somewhere. A successful showing at this week’s national tournament could attract some important scouts to look at Brandon.
“He’s a hardworking guy, and he’s become a winner,” Coach Shaver said of his behemoth (6 feet, 4 inch, and 220-pound) goaltender. “He’s a competitor, and it rubs off on the team. He wants to be a hockey player, and he will be. I’d take him any day.”
When Brandon is playing in goal, he said he doesn’t really think. He’s on autopilot.
“If you watch goalies on television, they’re different than everyone else,” Brandon said. “They’re in their own little world.”
So, the Rathwell boys make up a family of weird, ready-for-any-shot-life-throws-at-them goaltenders. Most interestingly, no one ever told these guys to suit up for goal.
It’s a unique competitiveness and passion that only the Rathwells inherit, and they’ll skate this path for as long as life allows.
Mr. Rathwell’s youngest son, Gavin, is picking up hockey. When The Enterprise asked if he’s going to be a goalie, Brandon and his father busted out laughing.
“It’s at home, on the floor, with the little sticks, little nets, and whatever,” Mr. Rathwell concluded. “They’re going at it, they’re playing hockey, and they are not going to let anyone else score.”
Mr. Rathwell’s goaltending career was taken away, but Brandon was there for the save.