viewpoint ‘Everybody rides’ for Pagni
It has been five years since Jason Pagni’s death, five years since those who admire him most began to raise money first for his family and then for his state hockey family. And still the memory of two phone calls seem like yesterday for C.J. Marottolo.
“It was a real cold night, I had an outdoor rink and Jason called me,” the Sacred Heart coach said. “I told him how I was outside putting ice down for my kids and their friends. It was Super Bowl week and he was a big Super Bowl guy. He went to like 15, 16 of them in a row.”
Super Bowl XLVIII between the Seahawks and Broncos would be in a few days at Giants Stadium. Pagni couldn’t wait to go. Sacred Heart had a pair of games against Niagara that weekend at Milford Ice Arena, and Pagni told Marottolo he’d pop in for one before he headed to East Rutherford.
Jason and Kate have two daughters, Gabby and Maddy. That’s one family. You should know his state hockey family is too many to count. Pagni didn’t know everyone who ever picked up a stick and a pair of skates in Connecticut, but man, it sure seemed that way. The stuff he did for kids and youth programs over the years, folks line up to tell you stories. That’s why they still honor Jason Pagni, still raise money in his name, and will do it again Saturday night when the Pioneers face Yale at Ingalls Rink.
The second phone call to Marottolo came less than 12 hours after the first, came early on the morning of Jan. 31, 2014. The call still sears the heart of the Sacred Heart coach who counted Pagni among his closest friends.
“Every morning I get up and put the TV news on and for some reason I didn’t that day,” Marottolo said. “I get a call from Billy Maniscalco.”
It was around 7 a.m. Maniscalco told him to sit down.
“C.J., have you seen the news?” he asked.
Reports of the one-vehicle accident in North Haven shortly after midnight were all over TV and radio. Marottolo would hear the awful news from Maniscalco. Pagni, of Hamden, was dead at age 43.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Marottolo said. “It hit me so hard I felt it through my whole body.
“You see the hockey stickers on the back of the car after the accident, you know it’s a hockey guy. It was a sad day for an awful lot of people.”
This will give you a feel of how tight the hockey community is in our state. Maniscalco had received a call from a police officer named Nick Costanzo, another player who had grown up under Pagni’s umbrella. Costanzo played on the state champion North Haven team in 2004, later coached there before moving on to coach Xavier this season. He also had been a volunteer assistant under Keith Allain at Yale. Maniscalco is now a volunteer assistant for the Bulldogs. And Yale assistant coach Josh Siembida and Pagni went back to the days of the Connecticut Yankees.
“It just seems fitting to play a state school and to play Yale at Ingalls. I don’t think you can pick a better venue for the fundraiser,” Marottolo said. “Keith knew Jason. Josh knew him. Billy knew him. It will be a special night for a lot of people.”
About 40 family and friends also are expected to be in attendance.
Pagni played at Avon Old Farms and Merrimack. He was owner and coach the Connecticut Yankees and Hamden House. He created the New England Prep School League. He took kids all over North America for tournaments. He helped place them in college and some developed into NHL players. When Jonathan Quick led the Los Angeles Kings to the 2014 Stanley Cup, he wore “Everybody rides” on his goalie mask in honor of Pagni. The phrase meant everybody pulls together. “Everybody pushes” was another Pags favorite. Yes, he had a big laugh and a big personality. And state NHL players from Cam Atkinson to Kevin Shattenkirk have helped in the fundraising effort.
“Everybody knew Jason and everybody loved him,” said Milford attorney Eric Open, who serves as executive director of the Connecticut Hockey Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit formed in August 2016 to award grants in Pagni’s honor to help young hockey players. “There was a void out there left by Jason. We wanted to fill what little hole we could. This was a guy who ran tournaments, ran youth hockey clinics, coached and mentored kids, some to a very successful level.”
The first game between Sacred Heart and UConn was played in November 2014 at Taft School and they shoehorned folks in that night in Watertown. The next year Sacred Heart faced Arizona State at Danbury Ice Arena. Those first two years raised nearly $25,000 for the benefit of Pagni’s daughters.
“We wanted to keep Jason’s legacy alive, help kids who really need it,” Opin said.
That led to the CH Foundation. There was a game at Avon Old Farms, where Pagni played and where legendary coach John Gardner loved him. The Pioneers played Mercyhurst there in the 2016-17 season and last season’s game at Webster Bank Arena was against Holy Cross.
“The stars really aligned this year,” said Opin, who, like Yale AD Vicky Chun, attended Colgate. “We looked at the schedule, gave our presentation. We’re ecstatic to go to Yale and Ingalls. It’s iconic.”
It has been a slow yet enduring process. The first two grants of $2,500 were awarded a month ago. One went to cover the tuition for Yale Youth Hockey for a Bantam B player who has overcome significant medical problems. The second went to a girls goalie at Taft, an outstanding student-athlete.
There will be a raffle Saturday night at Ingalls. There will be a silent auction of a half-dozen items, each tied to Pagni’s life. There’s a “Shatty Pack,” a signed Rangers jersey, hats and game photos from Shattenkirk. There’s a Dylan Larkin-signed Red Wings jersey, courtesy of his dad, Ryan, the Red Wings assistant GM who played at Avon Old Farms. There will be a Rangers jersey signed by Martin St. Louis, recently inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and whose kids were coached by Pagni.
While on the West Coast, Opin discovered that San Jose Sharks director of hockey research and development analyst Charlie Townsend was a Taft guy coached along the way by Pagni, Maniscalco and Marottolo. There’s a Sharks pack of game tickets and other paraphernalia, too. Townsend told Opin he never forgot what Pags did for him.
Everywhere coast to coast there are stories and they are the same. Jason Pagni made sure everybody rides.
“Helping people who love hockey? That’s him,” Marottolo said. “This is a foundation set up for the perfect reason.”