Former LI hockey players stage reunion in memory of giving coach
Former members of a Long Island hockey team filled with at-risk teens Saturday honored the man who kept them off the streets -- and on the ice.
Veterans of the Patchogue-Medford Raiders, now in their 40s and early 50s, paid tribute the best way they could: playing a hockey game in Eisenhower Park in East Meadow.
They said their coach, the late Daniel Cleary, went out of his way to mentor them.
The team's origins in 1979 were scrappy. They weren't attached to a school, so in stepped Cleary, a Long Island Rail Road executive.
"The first night it was really funny the way they came on with street hockey helmets and figure skating skates," recalled Cleary's widow, Rosalie, 73, of Calverton.
Practices started at 4 a.m. because that was the only time slot when they could afford to rent the rink. But those predawn practices also kept the boys out of trouble.
John Hawley, 50, who played in Saturday's reunion game, dubbed the Cleary Cup, said he was a misfit when the coach recruited him.
Hawley grew up in a single-parent home until his mother died while he was in high school. He said Cleary helped fill the void, teaching him invaluable life lessons. He learned humility after a fight on the ice that left the other kid injured, he said.
"He took me to the hospital to apologize, and I did," said Hawley, who went on to become a Navy SEAL and now lives in Virginia Beach, Va., employed by a security company.
"They didn't have a father figure," Rosalie Cleary said of the boys. "He took them on as his kids."
He also shouldered some of the team's expenses, family members and former players said.
Daniel Cleary, who was 54 when he died of cancer in 1996, would leave hockey practice and go to work a full day at the railroad, where he was vice president of operations.
"He used to sleep on the train," his wife said.
For Saturday's game, some of the former players donned old jerseys that hadn't seen the ice in decades.
Roughly $600 raised will be donated to cancer research, and they hope to make the game an annual fundraising event.
Matthew Cleary, 44, of Patchogue, said his father's coaching was "never just about hockey. It was about brotherhood."