By Chris Kazarian
On a chilly Friday morning in the middle of January, all is quiet on the streets of Worcester, Mass., as workers in this proud city in Boston’s shadow have punched their time clocks, beginning the slow descent toward the weekend.
Deep inside the DCU Center, home to the American League’s Worcester Sharks, players who dream of NHL contracts are about to substantially raise the decibel level. It begins minutes after the Sharks’ morning skate in preparation for their home game later that night against the Springfield Falcons. As players walk the short distance from the ice to the dressing room, some throw their practice jerseys onto a rolling gray bin placed directly in the center of their stalls.
But not center Jon Matsumoto.
“Mo,” he calls out in a sing-song voice, holding up his jersey.
“Mo,” he repeats.
Within seconds a “Mo” chant reverberates through the wooden stalls of the Sharks’ dressing room as teammates join in.
‘Mo’ springs up from the corner and in a rocking horse fashion, runs up to Matsumoto, snags his jersey and slam dunks it into the bin, lifting his hands up triumphantly to a roar of approval.
The Sharks have 26 players on their roster, but that number is not entirely accurate. It excludes the person who represents the heart and soul of the team. His name is Marley Sommer and he often is found sipping Gatorade at his stall, his 5-foot-2, 135-pound frame tucked in the corner of the Sharks dressing room, dwarfed by 6-foot-3, 225-pound Jimmy Bonneau on his right.
Unlike his teammates, the sign above Marley’s stall lists no jersey number, just the nickname he is more affectionately known by: ‘Mo.’ He will score no goals, get no assists, but to a player he is just as important as the ones who do.
On a September day 22 years ago, Mo was born to Sharks coach Roy Sommer and his wife Melissa. By all indications, their first child was a normal, healthy boy with a bright future ahead of him. That changed two weeks later during a routine check up when Melissa’s doctor told her Marley had Down syndrome. “I went into that office with a baby that looked good to me,” Melissa says, “and now, within a minute, he looked different.”
Her next stop was a rink in north-central North Dakota, where her husband led practice as then-coach of the Minot Americans in the Saskatchewan Jr. League. “How do you react?” says Roy, now 55. “We were shocked.”
A second opinion confirmed Mo was born with an extra chromosome, suffering from the most common form of the condition: Trisomy 21. “After finding out, Roy said to me, ‘I never win anything,’ ” Melissa says. “They said for our age the odds of us having a child with Down Syndrome were 1 in 2,600.”
Defenseman Nick Petrecki is kneeling down on the ground, his back to his teammates as he scrolls through his iPhone before he finds the song and presses play. From the dressing room’s sound system comes the hybrid country-dance beat of the song Cotton-Eyed Joe. Immediately Mo runs to the front of the room, rocking his torso up and down as Sharks players laugh, shout and clap along. The dance has become a favorite among players and staff alike. “One of the best stories I have of him is from a few years ago,” says trainer Matt White. “We were in Bridgeport and we were getting plastered. I think it was 7-1 and it was late in the third period and everyone was depressed. We just wanted the game to be over.”
That is when Cotton-Eyed Joe started playing. White looked up to see Mo dancing in the aisles. “I just started dying,” White says. “I literally had to duck down behind the bench because I didn’t want anyone to see me laughing because we were getting our (expletive) beat. That’s the kind of levity he brings… If someone asked me what the best part of this job is: Marley. Marley’s the best part of this job.”
As parents, Roy and Melissa decided to push Mo, who was later diagnosed with autism, to live as normal a life as possible. Melissa lobbied hard for educators in each city they have lived to mainstream Mo, giving him the same social opportunities as his peers. The result? He served as water boy, team manager and lucky charm for his high school’s football, hockey, baseball and softball teams in nearby Shrewsbury. When one team’s season ended, another would instantly claim Mo as their own. “He was in the band – they taped cotton around the sticks so when he played the drums you couldn’t hear him,” Roy says. “He was in the choir – he likes singing, so they’d put him in the back.
“Parents who hide their kids from opportunities like that are crazy. We made him do everything.”
And as Roy made his way up the coaching ranks, Mo was usually by his side. “Usually,” because sometimes Mo’s curiosity got the better of him, like the time in Richmond, Va., when five-year-old Mo disappeared inside the arena. Several hours later, after an exhaustive search, Mo was found sleeping on top of the tarp above where players enter and exit the rink.
That pattern continued in Kentucky when Mo sat down in the middle of the basketball court as the Maryland Terrapins practised for a game against the Kentucky Wildcats. “I brought him back, put him in a room, taped the door and put a hockey stick across it to keep it shut,” Roy says. “A half hour later he somehow got out and next thing I know he’s on the bench high-fiving the players and the Maryland coach is shaking his head.”
In Worcester, it is more of the same: “He runs around this building; everyone knows Mo,” Roy says. “You see him walking around and how he interacts with everyone. For a guy who doesn’t say much, he says a lot.”
And that is how the bond between past and present Sharks players has been formed.
“Mo, what’s the score of the game going to be?” Roy asks inside the dressing room, after the morning antics have died down and players have left for lunch.
“Three, three, three,” Mo utters, his eyes squinting through wire-rimmed glasses, stuck on the number.
“Three nothing,” Roy finishes. “Who’s going to score?”
Petrecki, center Tim Kennedy and goalie Alex Stalock, Mo says, listing his favorite players on the team.
At one time, San Jose center Logan Couture held that title. “He was like a member of the team,” Couture says. “If we lost, he was upset like us all. If we won, he always had a smile on his face.”
Couture’s teammate Andrew Desjardins agrees: “The biggest thing with Mo was the energy he gave the guys. He was a great spirit around the locker room. It was always positive with him.”
That is why those in Worcester appreciate his presence so much. At the beginning of this season, Mo was largely absent from the team because their training camp was held off-site and he was working at a Meals on Wheels program intended to support those with developmental disabilities. Soon fliers with Mo’s photo and the word “Missing” were posted in the hallways of the DCU Center. Roy caved into the pressure and brought Mo back. In recent years, Mo has become more of a contributor to the Sharks, assisting head equipment manager Chris Davidson-Adams by folding towels, hanging jerseys in stalls before practices and games and carrying bags onto the bus for road games. “He really likes to be here,” says assistant coach David Cunniff. “I really think he feels that it is his job to get the guys going, get them fired up. And he does his best to do that.”
The Sharks game against the Springfield Falcons, even at 3-3, is now in overtime, and none of Mo’s predictions have come true. But he couldn’t care less. He made it in time to hear the national anthem, a requirement for Mo; had a slice of pepperoni pizza in the first period, a game tradition; received a hug from Worcester’s mascot ‘Sharky’ in the beginning of the third period; and showed off his dance moves in the aisles, to Cotton-Eyed Joe, of course, in the middle of the third.
On this night he is joined by his mom and sister, 16-year-old Kira, with whom he shares an affinity for watching movies. His favorite? Miracle, Kira says, boasting her older brother can recite many of the lines in the film about the 1980 United States Olympic team word for word. What she likes best about Mo is “he’s always happy. And if he’s happy, other people are happy.”
With 4:18 to go in the first overtime, that emotion is on full display when Petrecki shows why Marley has been given the additional nickname of ‘Mostradamus,’ netting his first goal of the season to give Worcester the win.
Marley reaches out his right hand, clutching his mom’s left one to celebrate, before quickly rising from his seat. He heads down the stairs, hurrying through the sea of fans into a freight elevator and to the Sharks dressing room. He finds his comfortable spot, in the corner, his legs outstretched on the wooden stall.
Across the hall, Roy sits in his office, reflecting on the win with his staff. Earlier that day, in this same spot, the long-time coach was asked what Mo has taught him. He responded with one word: “patience.” “That’s the biggest thing,” he says. “You know everyone has a different speed in life. His is a little slower than most. He still can’t tie his shoes. For him to get toilet-trained, it was a chore while our other kids picked it up like that. Everything took a long time and required a lot of different people helping him out.”
That has included hockey, which has played an important role in shaping his son’s life. “I know we are not going to be around forever,” he says. “And he is going to really miss this stuff.”
But on this night, as Roy leaves the DCU Center with his right arm around Mo’s shoulder, there is only talk of the next game in Albany to play the Devils. “Are we going on a road trip?” Roy asks. “Where we going tomorrow?
“Devils,” Marley replies.
“You think you should go?” Roy asks.
Marley flashes a smile, not answering the question. As his father knows for someone who may not say much, Mo says a lot.