March 21, 2012

From NEHJ: Danbury's graybeard goalie still going strong

By Brion O’Connor

Last month, 45-year-old Tim Wakefield, the Boston Red Sox knuckleballer, announced his retirement from baseball. Wimp. Ten days after Wakefield bid adieu, Peter Maro Jr. celebrated his 47th birthday without a hint of hanging them up. And he’s not tossing flutterballs, either.

As a goalie with the Danbury Whalers, Peter Maro Jr., 47, is playing pro hockey with and against players half his age. (Photo courtesy of Bill Thebert)

Instead, Maro — who is married, with three children, and a thriving orthodontist practice in Connecticut and New York — routinely dons his goalie gear and faces hockey pucks fired by professional players half his age. Maro is a reserve goaltender for the Danbury Whalers of the Federal Hockey League.

By comparison, the Whalers starting goalie is former UMass-Lowell netminder Peter Vetri (Windham, N.H.), who is two decades younger than Maro.

“There was never a time when I got burnt out on hockey,” said Maro, owner of Blue Wave Orthodontics. “I’m always chasing it.”

The man might be old enough to be the father of many Whalers teammates, but the lure of the game is the same that many beer-leaguers can attest to.

“It’s the camaraderie in the locker room. That’s what I love,” Maro said. “There’s nothing better about going in the locker room, and everyone’s got a joke or a story.”

Few FHL players have as many stories as Maro. Raised in New Milford, N.J., Maro attended Paramus Catholic before transferring to Taft. Despite the prep school degree, he was a blue-collar kid, unafraid to let his fists do his talking.

“My dad was from New York City, and he taught me never to back down,” Maro said. “And if anything happened, it was go time. You just settled it. From the time I was 12 to 18, I probably had 200 street fights under my belt.”

Today, Maro is something of a cross between the new hockey movie, “Goon,” and Jean Pierre Savard, the fictional goalie of Jack Falla’s novel “Saved.” He is often called upon as much for his fisticuffs as his skill at stopping the puck.

“I’m kind of like the novelty, but I’m treated like everybody else,” Maro said of the Whalers. “I have a job to do, which is to stop the puck, and if anything ever happens, rough-wise, I’m to take out their goalie. If that’s my role now, and it gets me some playing time, I do it.”

Though Maro garnered interest from Yale and Dartmouth after high school, his family couldn’t afford an Ivy League price tag. So Maro took his game to SUNY Potsdam. As a sophomore, he got a last-second invite to play in a New Jersey Devils practice, and his performance caught the eye of assistant coach Lou Vairo. The coach said he’d keep tabs on Maro.

After transferring the SUNY Geneseo, Maro noticed pro scouts — including the New York Rangers, the Devils and the Boston Bruins — began showing up. Deferring his acceptance to dental school, Maro went to the Rangers camp, where Hall of Fame goaltender Eddie Giacomin took him under his wing.

“I played in two games in the exhibition season, had a really good camp, and got called into (coach Phil Esposito’s) office thinking I was getting assigned to either Denver or Flint,” Maro said. “And ‘Espo’ cut me. When I walked out of his office, I was almost in tears.”

“Giacomin was (ticked),” Maro says, adding that the Rangers were stocked with quick, but smaller, goaltenders. “He said, ‘I finally have a big goalie.’ Here I was, 6-foot-1½ and weighed 215 pounds at the time. I took up a lot of net, and I was athletic. I tested No. 2 in the entire Ranger camp for overall physical fitness.”

Giacomin put in a call to New Jersey, which assigned Maro to play at Utica behind Craig Billington. After riding the pine as Billington’s backup, Maro asked for a demotion so he could play. The Devils obliged, sending him to the Johnstown Chiefs. There, Maro learned the harsh reality of pro hockey — players with large contracts always were going to get preferential treatment. So Maro decided to pursue a second dream and become an orthodontist.

“It was a tough decision for me,” Maro said. “I knew I had seven years of college still to go. To be an orthodontist, you have to do four years of dental school, and three years of orthodontics. I didn’t want to be 30 and starting school again.”

Still, Maro never completely let go of his first love, embarking on a circuitous and sometimes crazy tour of minor-league hockey. While at the University of Louisville, he practiced with the Louisville Ice Hawks of the East Coast League.

“One game, against the Gainsborough Monarchs, one of their guys got cut,” Maro said. “I used to work with the oral surgeon on call. I actually went into the opposing locker room, in uniform — I was the backup goalie — and had to stitch somebody up.”

From Louisville, Maro went to the University of Maryland in Baltimore, where he once served as a backup for Barry Trotz’s Skipjacks, and played for the Molson Ice.

“These were guys who had jobs, and we’d fly out on the weekends,” he said. “We’d play the Anchorage Aces, the Chicago Chargers, Fresno, Bakersfield, and teams in New York like the Road Warriors. It was basically senior men’s hockey. You didn’t get paid, but basically everything was free. You played for love.”

From Baltimore, Maro and his wife, Lynne, moved to St. Louis, and then back East, where they settled in Rye, N.Y. Twenty years later, he was still being recruited, playing — and sometimes brawling — for minor teams such as the Danbury Stars and Hudson Valley Bears.

“I was getting shelled, seeing 50 shots per game, minimum. I think my GAA was 6.00, but with a save percentage of .890,” Maro said of his Bears squad. “We finish the season 3-45-1-1, and I finished 2-9-1 in goal, and actually got nominated to the All-Star ballot. In the middle of the season, the Reading Royals called up the coach, and ask ‘Who’s this Maro kid?’ And he tells them, ‘He’s not a kid. He’s 44 years old. He’s a doctor with a wife and three kids.’”

Which is why Maro continues to answer the bell, every time it rings. Asked how long he expects to keep playing, he replies: “Until they tell me I can’t. But somebody else will have to tell me. I’m not going to be the one.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Brion O’Connor can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com