With its gorges, lakes, and sunsets, an Ithaca summer is full of God-given splendor. Add in Joe Nieuwendyk ’88 and Lord Stanley’s Cup, and suddenly a midsummer’s eve in July becomes a hockey addict’s paradise.
But, as unbelievable as it may seem, those who made the pilgrimage to Lynah Rink for this year’s annual men’s hockey alumni game were able to witness something of an even greater beauty:
The gifts of charity and love.
Mike Tallman ’90 can recall the day perfectly. April 24, 2003 was sunny and the sky was a perfect blue. Tallman can even recall lacing up his skates and stepping onto the ice for his daily pickup game.
But of all the things Tallman can still do, there’s one he can’t. Tallman has lost the ability to walk.
During a play to the net, he hit a patch of bad ice and went careening into the boards. He felt pain everywhere. Everywhere except for his legs, which now lay dormant.
Others might be crushed by similar injury, but not Tallman. If anything, the injury has helped him to focus more on the positives in his life.
“These things happen,” Tallman told his friends during the game.
And so do life-long bonds, like those created on and off the ice.
Neal Patterson ’90 was Tallman’s freshman roommate, and while both played during Nieuwendyk’s final Cornell season, neither could claim him as a close friend. What they could do is claim him as a teammate, and above all, a fellow Cornellian.
It was Patterson who set up the events of July 11, 2003. It was Patterson, thinking of his friend, who called men’s hockey head coach Mike Schafer ’86 and asked if the annual alumni game could be used to benefit Tallman. And it was Patterson who contacted Nieuwendyk to help comfort his fallen teammate.
But Nieuwendyk didn’t just comfort his friend with words. He hoisted him onto his back, celebrating the bond that can only come from a program such as Cornell Athletics. Nieuwendyk came back to Ithaca this summer carrying two things. One was the Stanley Cup, the other was Mike Tallman.
Hundreds flooded Lynah Rink to see Nieuwendyk, the cup, and the game. The Red and White teams, manned by alumni young and old, turned in a stellar first half. A buzz ran amongst the capacity crowd as Thomas Fox ’71 made save after amazing save, and splits that most of the college-aged crowd couldn’t attempt in their wildest dreams. Goals were scored, elbows were bumped, and a community’s need for hockey was soothed.
Then came the break between periods.
The electricity and excitement that filled the air turned suddenly to respect and reverence. There, on the ice before the crowd, was Tallman; and while the television cameras and news photographers may have been on Nieuwendyk, the public’s eyes were on him.
“What makes this day easier is the support that I’ve had at home, my family here in red and white, Coach Schafer, and the brothers that have adopted me when I came here to school,” said Tallman. “Without them, my life would be a heck of a lot harder than it is today.”
Tallman grew up in Ithaca, dreaming of someday donning the red and white. In 1986 he got his wish. In 2003, however, part of it was taken away.
While some might say that a world in which Tallman could lose his ability to walk just by doing something he loved is cruel and twisted, others need only to turn to the next chapter.
What happened in April is no doubt a tragedy, but what happened in July is a parable for the ages and a true testament to the greatness and strength of college athletics.
While professional teammates may bicker and argue over who takes too many shots or makes more money, Cornell hockey teammates, and even Cornellians everywhere, will always be something more. A family.
“I’m going to get there,” said Tallman.
And in four (or maybe five) years, so shall you.
Members of the Class of 2007, welcome to the family. Welcome to Cornell.
Matt Janiga is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. No. 12 Bus will appear every other Wednesday this semester. He can be contacted at TheSportsGuy@cornell.edu.
Archived article by Matt Janiga