At least Dana Marek saw the collision coming. That's more than
Jack Connors, a freshman defenseman from Saint Anselm College in
Manchester, N.H., could say. Connors was carrying the puck
through center ice in a Jan. 5 game at UMass Boston's Clark
Athletic Center, his head down, when Marek stopped him in his
tracks with the full force of his 6-foot, 200-pound frame. The
impact knocked the top of Connors's helmet over his eyes, and he
nudged it back up with his glove so he could see again. Marek, a
sophomore left wing for the UMass Boston Beacons, took a quick
physical inventory as well. As the only active college hockey
player born two weeks after the Korean War ended--playing with and
against young bucks who have seen M*A*S*H only in reruns--Marek
needs to listen to his body more than most. This time, the
47-year-old liked what he heard.
"That was the hardest hit I've had yet," Marek says, "and that
let me know I can take it. I'm still nowhere near where I need to
be, but I wanted to make this so it was for real. I didn't want
only to put a jersey on and skate to center ice and that's it."
Now that Marek is skating to center ice and taking the body, he
has completed an unlikely journey from an all-stick, no-study
college freshman nearly three decades ago to his current
incarnation as a sophomore honor student, third-line forward and
father of three. Marek played freshman hockey at Division I
Boston University in 1971-72 before dropping out to play junior
hockey in Toronto. A knee injury less than two months later,
however, required an operation that seemed to end his career, and
Marek found himself back home in Stoneham, Mass., pumping gas and
looking to get on with his life.
He did just fine with that. The gas-station gig led to a career
as an auto mechanic. For the last 16 years Marek has supplied
auto-repair shops as a franchisee of Snap-on tools. He and
Colleen, his wife of 20 years--they met when she was looking for a
guy to fix her car--have three children: Steven, 19, Nicole, 17,
and Jessica, 14.
Yet Marek felt something was missing. He and Colleen preached the
importance of education to their kids, but his own halfhearted
stab at higher education made him feel like a hypocrite. When
Steven graduated from high school in 1999 and took a year off to
play junior hockey, Marek felt a sickening sense of deja vu. So
he enrolled in night classes (he needed to keep his day job) at
UMass Boston, where more than a third of the student body is 30
or older. He also persuaded Steven to take classes at Umass
Boston while he played for the Bridgewater (Mass.) Bandits. The
two even shared an occasional commute to campus. Dana, a biology
major, earned a 3.74 GPA as a freshman and wants to attend
medical school after he graduates in 2003. (Steven is now a
student at Babson College in nearby Babson Park, Mass., while
still playing for the Bandits.)
Not even Marek's most ambitious plans, however, included college
hockey. That changed in October as he was waiting while his
88-year-old father, Anthony, underwent successful open-heart
surgery at Mount Auburn Hospital, which is near the UMass campus.
Marek had his skates--he coaches midget hockey--and wandered to the
school rink, where the Beacons were holding an informal preseason
practice. The players let Marek, attired in blue jeans and a
black sweatshirt, with a white helmet over his gray hair, join
When Beacons coach Joe Mallen, 45, glanced at Marek on the ice,
he saw not an elder skatesman but a warm body. Mallen had
recently taken over the Beacons after seven years as the coach at
Division I UMass Amherst, and his roster was seriously
shorthanded. Marek was adamant about not taking the slot of a
younger player. When Mallen assured him that wouldn't be the
case, Marek jumped at the challenge.
His first day of practice was rough, but nothing compared to how
he felt the next morning. His chest, stomach and legs were so
sore that he couldn't lift himself out of bed; he rolled over and
plopped to the floor instead. In time, though, Marek began to
find his legs and relearn the game. "In practice he's one of the
toughest guys if you get tangled with him," says senior forward
Kenny Goetz. "He's real strong. He's a grown man, and we've got
some 18-year-old kids."
In his first competitive shift in more than 28 years, Marek got
an assist on the Beacons' only goal in a season-opening 5-1 loss
to Williams College. ("All I remember is that I should have put
it in the net," says the nonplussed Marek.) At week's end Marek
has two assists (and two penalty minutes) in 13 games for the
2-10-1 Beacons, having logged one or two shifts a period.
Marek's eagerness to fit in both on and off the ice has endeared
him to his teammates. The could-be Pops earned early props by
staying until last call at the team's outing--the players chose
Polly Esther's, a '70s-themed dance club, so Marek would feel at
home--and then driving his teammates home safely (earning the
sobriquet Designated Dad). Despite their age differences, the
players see Marek as a kindred spirit. "He's a rink rat," Goetz
says. "He's the first guy here and the last to leave. That's the
most impressive thing, just that he's out here every day."
Because Marek wasn't sure his body was up to the physical
challenges of college hockey, he didn't tell his wife for more
than a month that he was playing. Now he's determined to continue
what he calls his "biological experiment" through this season.
"We didn't know how far he was going to go with it," says Mallen,
"but it's gotten to where he had a big hit and played a few
shifts. He makes a contribution, and it's a pleasure to coach
As Marek's story has spread, he's been surprised by the reaction.
He was making a business call in early January when a longtime
customer hugged him, saying, "Thanks for doing it for us old
guys." On the ice, though, Marek has done his best to make age a
nonissue. That's why it may have meant even more to him when, in
the postgame handshake line after Saint Anselm's 5-4 overtime win
over the Beacons, Connors gave Marek a slap on the back and a
booming, "Way to go!"
That was music to Marek's ears.
compared to how he felt the next morning.