CLIFTON PARK Terry Rathwell, standing on the outside looking in, learned the hard way.
His coffee was jarred off the narrow ledge of the hockey boards and spilled on the floor once, but just once, he tells me.
Almost on cue, some players slam into the glass in his favorite corner of the Clifton Park Arena rink last Sunday, and Rathwell sees it unfolding in front of him, his hands shooting forward to cup the big Dunkin’ Donuts and save it from disaster.
“See, I still have the reflexes,” he said with a sideways grin, never taking his eyes off his son, the goalie.
What Rathwell doesn’t have is 17 days of his life in the summer of 1988.
He spent those days in a coma after suffering brain damage from an outfield collision during a rec league softball game while home in Canada.
He had just finished his sophomore season sharing goalie duties with Ron Kinghorn on the Union College hockey team. He never played organized hockey again.
Now, his 17-year-old son, Brandon, is a reflection of the father, not in stature or goaltending style, not in some self-pitying vicarious rewind of the career Terry should’ve had, but in a much simpler and profound way.
On this day, Brandon Rathwell barely sees any action in net as his team, CP Dynamo of the Eastern Junior Elite Prospects League, pounds a team from Rhode Island, 9-1. Thirsty for more, but unflaggingly cheerful, Brandon shrugs it off. And that’s when a hard lesson his father learned years ago shines back at you — to be grateful for each save, each game, each day.
“You’re blessed,” he said after the game. “Every opportunity you have to play is a blessing, and every moment you have, you have to enjoy it and make everything you can out of it.
“You only get one shot in life, so you’ve got to do everything with what you have.”
What Brandon Rathwell, a senior at Guilderland High School, is doing is attempting to carve a path to college hockey, hopefully Division I.
What he has is a 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame, a good glove hand, a bright mind, aggressive puck-handling ability and a butterfly style mixed with some of the elements used by his father.
Perhaps most importantly, he has perspective.
Terry Rathwell grew up in Cobden, Ont., about 75 miles west of Ottawa, and was recruited to Union by Dan Fridgen, then an assistant to Charlie Morrison.
“I know he was pretty good,” Brandon said. “He always gave me the story about how he went out and tried out for the Ottawa 67’s and got scored on from half-ice.”
Not much separated Rathwell and Kinghorn, on the ice or off it, where they were fraternity brothers.
They split time for two seasons, then Kinghorn inherited sole possession of the job in 1988-89 because of Rathwell’s accident. Kinghorn went on to earn Division III All-America second-team honors, and three seasons later, Union moved up to Division I.
Rathwell, meanwhile, was just trying to get his life back together.
Playing shortstop, he chased a short fly that got out of the infield, dove for it and went head first into an outfielder charging in for the ball.
The impact jarred his head back, pinching his cerebellum, the small lobe at the base of the brain that is responsible for bringing precise control to movement, including speech.
Paralysis wasn’t a big concern, and his doctors believed he would come out of the coma, but it took 17 days, then Rathwell spent six months just regaining the ability to do simple things, like walk.
“I kind of remember that day, but I don’t remember anything of the game itself,” he said. “I was told about it later, and said, ‘Well, did I make the out?’ ”
Backed by his family, he took information from his doctors to heart, especially the warning that, after a two-year window, regaining function would be a much slower process. He didn’t mope, choosing instead to stay upbeat and be thankful for each new day.
Part of the rehab was to prepare to return to Union, if not as a hockey player, then as a student.
Toward that end, his father, a telephone repair man for Bell Canada, assigned a book report.
“So I read the book, I do the report, I give it to him and he balls it up and throws it in the garbage,” Terry said, laughing. “He just crumpled it up.”
The point wasn’t what he wrote, at least not yet.
Eventually, his doctor suggested that he keep a journal of his rehab process.
At some point, the physical portion graduated to skating at his high school rink and working at a feed store, where he hoisted 60-pound sacks onto a truck.
He held out hope that he might play hockey for Union again, but he was too much of an insurance risk.
“It was a one-in-a-million accident, and I was worth one million dollars,” he said.
The schoolwork was more than enough, anyway, once Rathwell returned to Schenectady in the fall of 1989, over a year since the collision.
Union allowed Rathwell to lighten his civil engineering course load from three classes to two until he graduated in 1993, for which he is eternally grateful.
By then, he had met his future wife, Maurisa, also a Union student, and they stayed in Schenectady. Rathwell is a lock inspector for the New York State Canal Corporation.
“I married the most — like everyone says — beautiful, encouraging lady,” he said. “If I hadn’t had the accident, I wouldn’t have met my wife. Things would’ve been different. Again, that’s the way I’m positive all the time. Things happen for a reason. That’s why it happened.”
Besides Brandon, the Rathwells also have a 15-year-old daughter, Victoria, and sons Travis (12) and Gavin (6).
Brandon has been with the Tier 1 AAA CP Dynamo for four years and was called up to the Midget Major U18 team last year as a 16-year-old.
A 95 student who loves chemistry and would like to pursue a medical career, he has Division I potential, coach Brad Shaver said, as long as he continues to work on improving his speed and flexibility.
Brandon is still relatively young and could pursue the prep school route first, like many college players do.
“He’s tough to play against in practice and doesn’t take things lightly. We have spirited practices because of that,” Shaver said.
“The things that you can’t teach him, the things that you can’t put into a kid, which is work ethic, focus and drive, he has. He’s also got the size. So if you couple that with the intangible things about learning more and getting better prepared for every situation in every game, he’ll be fine.
“So he’s got a shot.”
Terry is careful not to be overbearing, and Brandon concurs that “he never pushed me to do anything I didn’t want in my life.”
As a youth player, Brandon was encouraged to play forward and defense by his father, from which Terry sees benefits now. Brandon is constantly honing his timing and range out of the net for loose pucks and actually prefers that forwards rushing toward him from the opposite direction get as close to him as possible, because that means the teammate he intends to pass it to will be that much more open.
The father also passes on the same type of positive reinforcement he received when he was recovering from the accident.
There are lingering signs of that terrible day on the softball field.
Terry’s speech is a little halting and out of rhythm.
He has pesky bouts with short-term memory loss.
But there’s a twinkle in his eye. The coffee is cold, we get interrupted at one point, then neither can remember the topic: “I was in a coma; what’s your excuse?” he said.
In a nod to that softball game, Terry titled his rehab journal “The Longest Out”, and Brandon asked to read it this summer.
“It really packed a punch,” Brandon said. “It’s really taught me a lot. Every time in the gym, every practice, every chance you have to get better, it could end the next day.
“A guy could come down and break a leg, and I could be done, so every chance I have, just appreciate it.”
The journal ends by asking a question, and answers it with another one:
“The old Terry Rathwell is dead and gone . . . is the new one better or worse?”
“Who wants to be worse?”