April 7, 2014

A Blessing In Disguise

By Carly Grimaudo
Special to GoHolyCross.com

When young eager athletes enter their local rink, head to their designated locker room and lace up a pair of skates for the first of many times, they don't just become a hockey player, they earn a life-long membership to the hockey community. During that first skate on the slated ground, the longevity of their hockey careers are unpredictable, as a select few will reach professional attainment, others will hang up their sweaters after the collegiate level and some may even cease their participation in the days of youth hockey. One thing for certain, is that no matter how far their passions or talents carry on, they'll always be a part of the tight-knit, interconnected hockey world. As senior student assistant coach of the men's ice hockey team, Jeffrey Reppucci learned being a hockey player isn't just what you do on the ice, it's who you are off it.

The Newburyport, Mass. native was born into not only a hockey family, but into a Holy Cross hockey family as his father and older sister Dara played as Crusaders during their time at the school. With older siblings and a father that was passionate about the on-ice sport, Reppucci essentially entered the hockey world the instant he was born. "It was the life," he noted. "Because of my hockey-oriented family, I started skating at 18 months, when they put these little skates on me and held me up on the ice." 

After several years growing accustomed to skating, Reppucci benefited from his father's hockey knowledge and experiences with his older brother and sister, and rostered on his first travel team at five. "I was fortunate because my dad got to be a crazy hockey parent with my brother so he got to learn all the mistakes of hockey training with him as well as what are the best camps, teams and when I should start," he noted. "I played up a year for the first few years starting at age five, and from there it was just hockey, hockey, hockey."

In these youth hockey years, Reppucci fell more and more in love with the sport and began imagining of where his talents could take him. Unlike most kids who dreamed of heading down the tunnel on an NHL team however, Reppucci's hockey aspirations took him elsewhere. "I was never ever a kid who thought he'd play in the NHL," he said. "When I was outside playing street hockey in my driveway, I never pretended to be in the NHL; I just really wanted to play college hockey," he added. "I wanted to go to a good school, I wanted to be a good college player and I wanted to have a great hockey career."

While Reppucci was able to accomplish the first two by enrolling at Holy Cross in the fall of 2010 and playing for the Holy Cross men's ice hockey team, his third goal of desiring a great hockey career was curbed by an ongoing battle with concussions. "I had quite a history with concussions and started having them during high school hockey," said Reppucci. "My first was back in my freshman year of high school, before concussions became a key focus of sports medicine," he added. "I didn't take any time off for them then and over the course of my four years I had gotten three of them."

Following his high school days, Reppucci played a concussion free year of junior hockey for the Alberni Valley Bulldogs of the British Columbia Hockey League and was prepping for what he intended to be four years of Crusader hockey. "I didn't have a single problem during my year in juniors and my concussions weren't even something I thought could potentially cause an issue when I got to college," he said. Unfortunately however, Reppucci was sadly mistaken. "My freshman year, I quickly learned that being a 5'8" defenseman in college hockey, I'm kind of everybody's elbow height so I got knocked around a lot," he said. "College hockey is so hard-nosed and so rough that I started getting tossed around a bit and I started getting hits to the head my freshman year."

Though Reppucci absorbed quite the hits as a freshman, his first year only resulted in one mild concussion to add to his list. During this first season as a Crusader, he developed an important on-ice role as an offensively minded defenseman, and became an integral part of the Crusaders' power play unit. Reppucci's 16 assists as a freshman tied for fifth among rookies and tied for seventh among defensemen in Division I history at Holy Cross. He was also named to the Atlantic Hockey All-Rookie team and earned Atlantic Hockey's Rookie of the Week accolades twice during the 2010-2011 season.

After an undeniably successful freshman year and just when his hockey career was on the rise, Reppucci had one of his most difficult seasons as a sophomore, in which he got the "hits of the decade," as head coach Paul Pearl liked to put it. In January of his sophomore year, Reppucci took a bad concussion in a game versus UConn that followed with unbearable symptoms and forced him off the ice. As a sophomore, eager to get back in the game, he came back a week before he should have and suffered major consequences. "I wasn't truly 100% and I knew I wasn't 100%, but I though I'd be fine," Reppucci said. "I didn't take the concussion as seriously as I should have and one weekend against Army I took another really bad hit and knew right away I had another concussion."

At this point in his hockey career and in his life, Reppucci had been diagnosed with six concussions and was forced to sideline himself for the remainder of his sophomore year. With low spirits, after realizing he'd have to take a hiatus from the sport he loved, Reppucci was given an alternative way to maintain an important role on the team. "What was a true testament to coach Pearl was when he called me into the office, after he knew that I was going to sit out for six weeks, and said hey let's find a way for you to still contribute, let's keep your mind sharp let's keep you in the mix," said Reppucci.

Thanks to coach Pearl, Reppucci was able to not only continue to influence the team's success, but he learned hockey from an entirely new perspective through video. He broke down game clips and coded games as they happened with a video program the team used to learn both where to make improvements and what they do well. "It was pretty cool to learn that system, be part of the game day operations and have a role every day," said Reppucci. "It was great to have a role in the rink and something I was responsible for while I wasn't on the ice." Once sophomore year concluded, Reppucci began readying for his junior season with a summer training regimen. "I personally think I had the best summer of training I ever had. I got to early August and felt unbelievable," he said. "I was gonna crush all of my lifting and smash all my goals out of the park. I was all fired up for the big comeback; America loves a comeback." Again however, one unlucky hit during a summer skate at the University of Vermont, during Reppucci's time studying at Middlebury's intensive language school, changed that all. "I'll never forget it," he said. "We were skating in the corner and a kid kind of pulled up, we weren't even hitting because it was a loose skate. He pulled up, my head just tapped the back of his and boom. I just felt it hit me."

Reppucci's vision went out, his head felt strange, he was sensitive to loud noise and light and just like that, all of his symptoms returned, flushing away his big comeback. He called coach Pearl, went to the neurologist and still tried to save not only his hockey career, but his junior season too. "I came back to school and was still in pretty good shape so I did all the early lifts and testing with the team and felt like I was going to be okay, but I wasn't," he said. "I got terrible headaches from the lifting, went and started seeing the neurologist again and was told to sit out for an extended period of time if I wanted any chance at a senior season." 

Following a Post Concussion Syndrome diagnosis, he and coach Pearl drew up a plan where he would recover for four months, from the fall until Christmas, and then start back on the ice after the New Year in a red, non-contact jersey. Yet again, the plan didn't go as anticipated as Christmas turned to March, March turned to April and Reppucci didn't find himself back in the gym until the end of the spring. Throughout that time however, Reppucci began seeing "the concussion man," Dr. Robert Cantu, who is the Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University and a prominent leader in treating concussions. "It took six months to see him and he was unbelievable," Reppucci said. "We dissected every hit, and he basically said that with the way junior year unfolded, it's probably quite unlikely that I'd have a senior season, but there was no harm with trying to train over the summer."

This summer before Reppucci's senior year, he was all over the world doing work for his non-profit organization Students Helping Children Across Borders, or SHCAB, but kept hockey at the forefront of his mind as he again hoped for a big comeback. On July 24, he was stricken with a horrible headache, and once again came the onset of concussion symptoms that lingered throughout the remaining weeks of summer. "I got back to the United States in August and talked to coach Pearl about the circumstances and at that point it just became clear to me that I would not have a senior season," Reppucci said. "Because of my history of concussions and all the patterns I have, Dr. Cantu said that I'd be deemed high risk for long term issues, if I sustained another concussion," he added. "High risk for long term problems is obviously a big deal."

His entire collegiate career, Reppucci battled with these concussion problems, and until this moment there was always a bit of hope that he'd be able to take the ice in a Crusader sweater again. "I kept telling myself I'd be back to keep my spirits up and that was no longer possible," he said. "It was awful not being able to play, but I took on a new role that I really fell in love with."

After learning the video programs his sophomore year and stepping on the ice to help with skating drills once he felt better junior year, Reppucci had already taken on roles similar to that of a coach, which he ultimately became his senior year. Reppucci continued his video tasks and helping with on ice drills, but took it up a level and picked up more responsibilities along the way. "Coach would give me stuff to look for and I started taking game notes differently. In between periods I'd go into the coaches room and talk about the period and talk strategy," Reppucci said. "Coach was just incredible; he embraced my role which he didn't have to do."

While coach Pearl's immense support and desire to keep Reppucci as a key part of the team was highly valued by Reppucci, the feeling was mutual as Reppucci's decision to maintain a role following his injury was valued by coach Pearl too. "One of the many great attributes about Jeff is his character," said coach Pearl. "The fact that he wanted to remain so involved did not surprise me in the least, but that is because I know him so well," he added. "Stepping back and looking at it now, it really was a great thing for him to do and he helped the team greatly."

Though Reppucci wasn't on the ice at game time, to his coach and his teammates, he was just as much a part of the team following his injury, if not more than when his role was a defenseman. "I felt 100% like a member of the team, but that wasn't something special I did," he said. "It was the team and coach Pearl, and how creative he was with me, keeping me involved in things and giving me responsibilities," he added. "Treating me like a part of the team like he did, set the precedent and I mean the guys were just there for me the whole way. I owe it to them; They looked out for me and it's been incredible."

While other players may cut ties with their team following a career ending injury or take away the experience as a negative one, Reppucci did the complete opposite and calls it one of the most valuable, and profound ones he's had. "I'm realizing this all now, being a senior who's getting ready to move on at 23 years old, but these concussions may very well be in a positive way, a really important pivotal experience that changed my life," he said.

SHCAB was started his sophomore year after the idea was tossed around his dorm room between him and teammate Derek Kump (Falmouth, Maine). The following year, the organization and the Working For Worcester project picked up momentum with the help of his growing team. "I had this whole junior year in front of me, where once I got the concussion stuff under control, I had all this energy," he said. "I was getting fired up about it, but it wasn't just me it was Derek and these new guys and new girls," he added. "I just realized that entrepreneurial spirit, community work, mobilizing people and helping people all feels great, but there's a rush about it too."

Together with members from his athletic team and his entrepreneurial team, Reppucci launched the Working For Worcester project, through SCHAB where he and the organization's members revamped public spaces and recreational sites around Worcester on April 20, 2013 and will again on April 12 this year. Reppucci's passion for the project stems from another that he's had since he was introduced to the hockey world at just 18 months old. These projects became a way to stay involved in sports, while giving the children of the Worcester community an opportunity to get involved too. "When I started non-profit work, I didn't realize they're all about sports," he said. "Realizing now sports are a huge part of my life and I really believe in sports and what they can do for kids," he added. "Sports empower people and empower communities. I wasn't able to play my sport, but I still wanted to do sports, so this became my outlet to exert energy and still interact with all kinds of athletes on campus."

While Reppucci has done some incredible things for the Worcester community and beyond through his non-profit organizations, he wouldn't have been able to do so without the foundation and character he's developed in 23 years of hockey. "What enabled the Working For Worcester team and enables me to become a leader and work on these things was hockey," he said. "These teamwork, goal setting, mental toughness skills and all these things that hockey has given me over the years, I started to see becoming a part of me outside the hockey rink."

Hockey players are one of a kind, and Reppucci embodies that through applying the skills he's learned on the ice to the world beyond the rink. "All the things hockey gave me weren't pushing me towards being a better hockey player, they were pushing me towards being a better human being," he said. "I realized that being a hockey player and being an athlete isn't just physically playing a sport. Being a hockey player is really an attitude; It's about how you value the concept of a team, how you value and practice goal setting, how you work together, how you handle adversity...those are skills that change our lives much more off the field or off the ice."

Four years ago, Reppucci entered Holy Cross a Division I hockey player, now he's that and much more. Being a hockey player isn't simply a title reserved for those who shoot pucks, make saves and score goals. Once a player hangs up their sweater for good, whether its by choice or not, they'll carry their character and identity as a member of the hockey community throughout the rest of their lives, as does Holy Cross student assistant coach Jeffery Reppucci.

 

Check out Reppucci's organization webpages here:

Students Helping Children Across Borders (http://www.shcab.org/index.html).

Working For Worcester (http://www.workingforworcester.com/)