Wearing a Penguins jersey with “Lafferty” embroidered on the back, Dave Weaver rushed to find his seat at PPG Paints Arena as puck drop neared.
Easier said than done. It seemed everywhere Weaver looked, there was some who knew him and wanted to talk about his step-son Sam Lafferty’s rapidly approaching NHL debut.
There were former teammates who played with Lafferty. Coaches who won state championships and national titles with him. Trainers who put him through grueling workouts. Skating instructors who led him onto the ice for the first time. Neighbors. “Second dads.” Family friends. Even Lafferty’s dentist, who had to fix a couple missing Chiclets from a fight in the AHL last year, was there.
Finally, Weaver made his way through the traffic to Section 108, Seat 20.
“Half of Altoona is here,” Weaver laughed, explaining the delay to Sam’s mother, Jill, and Sam’s two siblings, Natalie and Charlie.
On second thought, maybe he wasn’t joking.
Technically, the Penguins celebrated Mike Lange night during Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to Winnipeg. Just don’t tell the people from Altoona and Hollidaysburg and Bozeman, Mont., and beyond.
To them, this was Sam Lafferty night.
“He got drafted, but you wonder, ‘Is he every going to wear the jersey?’” said Weaver, the man who taught Lafferty the game. “A lot of draft picks never get the chance. To watch him out there is pretty special.”
NHL debuts are always emotional. (And hectic for family members). But this one, maybe even more so given Lafferty’s roots.
Lafferty grew up in Hollidaysburg, a small community about five miles from Altoona and less than two hours from Pittsburgh. He fell in love with the Penguins during the 2000-01 run to the Eastern Conference final and was inspired him to pick up the sport.
His first stick had “LEMIEUX” written on the side. His favorite player, naturally, was Sidney Crosby.
Now, here he was, playing his first NHL game for the Penguins and his first NHL shift right next to Crosby.
“It’s official now,” close family friend Hal Badorrek turned and said to Weaver, as Lafferty raced out of the door and onto the ice for his first shift.
Making it to the NHL is a thrill. Getting everyone to the game? That was a minor miracle.
When Lafferty found out he had been called up to the NHL team, he called his mom and his stepdad. Flights were hastily booked. Clothes thrown into suitcases.
At Lafferty’s sister’s school, an announcement came over the loudspeakers: “Natalie Weaver, please come to the principal’s office… bring your things”
“I thought I was in trouble,” his sister said.
The family got first word that Lafferty had been called up at 11 a.m. By 12:50, they were on the first plane out of Bozeman, Mont. — where they moved recently — to Chicago and then Pittsburgh. As of game time, his brother, Charlie, still didn’t know exactly how he was getting home.
“We went from zero to 500 miles an hour, like that,” his mother said, snapping her fingers for emphasis.
Once they finally made it to Pittsburgh, the entire evening felt like a high school reunion, a family wedding reception and a holiday party at the ice rink all rolled into one. It was a time for both creating a new memory and reliving all the old ones.
Hey, remember how Sam started playing?
Sam and his brother, Charlie, begged their mom to put them on skates. She took them to Galactic Ice, a modest, single-surface facility that was built in Altoona just as Lafferty was getting into hockey. One problem: She didn’t realize you had to sharpen hockey skates.
“Five minutes,” Weaver said. “Then I was like, you need to get these kids off the ice. They can’t move. She brought them back a year later, I was like, ‘Who are these two? They’re pretty good.’ ”
Weaver ran the rink and became Lafferty’s coach … and then something more. They won six straight state championships together and a pair of national titles.
Man, remember how dedicated Lafferty was to skating?
Lynn Troutman, Lafferty’s first skating coach, was the skating director at Galactic Ice and Weaver was the manager. They used to sit on the cold, hard plastic seats and watch Lafferty skate around. He was a perfectionist, even then. In Troutman’s words, he wanted to know where “every hair on his head was supposed to be” when he was skating. He took that approach to almost everything.
“We would sit in the stands and say, ‘This kid has got something special,’” Troutman said. “We always dreamt that it was a possibility. But still, to make it from little old Hollidaysburg to the NHL is amazing.”
Remember when he decided to pick up golf?
“He had a net in his backyard,” Badorrek said. “He’d get up at 8 in the morning, pick up a three iron and hit it for an hour. Then drop it. Four iron. Five iron. All day long.”
By the end of the day, Lafferty’s hands would be raw from blisters. But at the end of the day, he’d still go out with Badorrek, whom he considers like a second father, and walk 18 holes.
“Who does that stuff?” Badorrek said.
As the game went on, the stories kept coming.
Remember how dominant he used to look compared to the kids his age?
Fred Dorman, who eventually became Lafferty’s trainer, was a junior hockey goalie who was working out at Galactic Ice.
“The first time I was like, ‘This kid is special,’ he ripped one over my glove hand, bar down,” Dorman remembers.
Dorman was 19. Lafferty? Ten years old.
“His stepdad Dave, who ran the rink, told him to keep the puck,” Dorman said. “I told him if he scored tonight, I get the puck back.”
That brings us back to PPG Paints Arena. Lafferty had his chances.
He recorded four shots, drew a penalty and delivered four hits in his 15-plus minutes of ice time.
Lafferty’s first NHL points? Those will have to wait at least until Thursday. And Dorman, it looks like he won’t be getting that puck.
But for now, when those family members and friends make their trek back to Montana and Hollidaysburg and Altoona and beyond, they’ll have more than just a Mike Lange bobblehead to share with the other half of Altoona.
Hey, remember when Lafferty made his NHL debut?