Brad Newman sits on the bench, hoping for the tap on the shoulder he’s been dreaming about for 14 years. Just 24 hours earlier, he cried when his coach told him he’d be dressing him for the game.
The first period goes by and Newman still hasn’t had a shift. He’s so close to realizing his dream of playing pro hockey, but it’s a tight game late in the season, Feb. 1, against Asiago, the second-best team in the Italian League, and Cortina SG is in a fight to make the playoffs.
How Newman even got to this point was a miracle. At 36, he hadn’t played competitively since 1999-00, yet here he was in the lineup for Cortina SG after begging for a tryout and playing the role of Rudy Ruettiger at practice for months, with no guarantee he’d play.
Newman, who grew up in Chicago, was a nominal player at Bowling Green, where he had just two goals and four points in 40 games over four seasons. After graduating, he moved to Los Angeles and continued to play, but never anything higher than rec hockey for the next 13 years.
If you’re a cynic, call it a mid-life crisis. If you’re an optimist, call it daring to dream. But in April 2013, the odds be damned, Newman started training six days a week, preparing to head to Italy in September for a shot at the pros in a league that has had players like Matt Cullen, Craig Adams, Andrew Raycroft and J.S. Aubin.
“Once I committed to doing this, there was such a spark and excitement in my life, like ‘I’m just going for it,’ ” Newman says. “It lit up everything. I felt so alive.”
Newman chose Italy for a few reasons. He’d been there before and had business to do in Milan in September. He also knew that Cortina SG had a North American coach, ex-NHLer Clayton Beddoes. Heck, if it didn’t work out for Newman, he’d at least have a great vacation.
“This is why I want people to hear about this, because I know a lot of people are on the fence about pursuing their big crazy goals,” he says. “Whether it’s writing a book, running for office, going to grad school – going for those big goals, that’s what life is about.”
After his business trip in Milan, Newman took a bus to Cortina in northern Italy one Sunday in October. The next morning, with his equipment in tow, he went to the arena and found a player outside the team’s dressing room.
“Is coach Beddoes around?” Newman asked.
“Yeah, who are you?” the player replied.
“Have you ever played pro hockey?”
The player smirked and went to find Beddoes, who then invited Newman into his office.
“I don’t know exactly what was said during that exchange for 15 minutes, I really don’t,” Newman says. “All I know is that I left his office going, ‘Holy s—! There’s actually a possibility this could happen.’ ”
After listening to Newman tell his story, Beddoes gave it some thought, and when practice was over he told him to come the next day for an optional pre-game skate.
“Either he would come in and be a great influence and an inspiration to the team, or it would be a short little one-week thing where no damage was done and it wouldn’t have any impact,” Beddoes says. “He was rusty, to say the least, but I could see he had a big heart and that he was a genuine person. After that I told Brad I was going to leave it up to the team.”
Through captain Giorgio De Bettin, who did the translating, Newman poured out his hockey heart to the players. The vote was unanimous. And for the next few months, Newman practised with Cortina.
“A couple times I would score in the scrimmage, and for me it was like winning the Stanley Cup,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep at night.”
Newman continued to skate with the team for the next few months while staying at a hotel on his own dime. He runs an online marketing company, so he’d practise in the morning and work the rest of the day. By the time his three-month visa was up, however, the team still hadn’t made any commitment to him, so he had to return to the States. But he continued training.
While he was home, he got an email. A spot had opened up and the team decided to sign Newman for the balance of the season. He picked up his visa just a few hours before his flight and headed back to Italy in January.
On Jan. 31, he got the news.
The coach came to me at a team meal and said, ‘I’m going to dress you tomorrow night,’ ” Newman says. “I almost fell over. I hadn’t heard those words in a long time, so it was surreal.”
Newman got to the arena three-and-a-half hours early and was dressed in full gear an hour-and-a-half before the start of the game.
“Guys were laughing hysterically in the locker room,” Newman says. “Like, ‘Dude, we don’t have to go out for warmups for like an hour.’ I was just so fired up to have them drop the puck and get a shift.”
In the second period, Newman finally gets the tap on the shoulder he’s been waiting for. “Brad, you’re up!” Beddoes shouts. Newman hops the boards, jumps into the play, gives a few hits and nearly has a chance to score.
“After that shift, it was like, ‘Wow, I played!” he says. “It was the most extraordinary feeling of my life. I’ll never forget that. I hope people experience it, one way or another. Pursuing something crazy in their own way – it’s the greatest gift.”
It was his only shift, but that’s all it had to be. He’d played in his first professional hockey game. Cortina won 2-1 in overtime.
Newman played only one more game, but he continued to practise with Cortina until the team was knocked out of the playoffs. He returned home and had the jerseys he wore in his two games framed.
“I’m just so happy that he got to live his dream,” Beddoes says. “There are a lot of times in professional hockey when the meaning of the game can get clouded, when it really should be about the passion and the dream of playing the game.”