On the day of the skate, as the N.H.L. players arrived at the rink, Ferrara slipped into the facility through a door on the opposite side of the arena. “Snuck in like Batman,” he later joked. Calder had secured all the official gear he could — Blackhawks pants, gloves, a practice jersey, any equipment he could find, Calder recalled, that would help Ferrara appear to be a bona fide member of the team.
Ferrara dressed on his own in a separate locker room. There, he said, he waited. Finally, he donned a Blackhawks helmet with a visor that obscured much of his face, and when the N.H.L. players took the ice and began to glide in circles, Ferrara opened a door to the rink. He hopped onto the ice, lowered his gaze, and hoped no one would notice.
As the cool ice passed beneath him, it was time to prove that he belonged.
The first drill began, and Ferrara gathered a puck while skating toward Blackhawks goalie Jocelyn Thibault, an All-Star who had missed time in previous seasons with concussion-related symptoms. Just two minutes into the practice, Ferrara teed up his first shot to put on net. He watched in horror as the puck rocketed away from its intended place, crashing into the forehead of Thibault’s mask.
Thibault doubled over, and all Ferrara could do was slink away and pray that nobody had seen. But as Thibault skated slowly off the ice, obviously hurt, heads began to turn.
Mortified, Ferrara spotted the Blackhawks enforcer Ryan VandenBussche, a famed pugilist most known for ending the career of Nick Kypreos during a preseason fight in 1997, glaring in his direction.
“My life,” Ferrara thought, “is over.”
History, Sweet and Bitter
In 1900, the Italian baker Salvatore Ferrara arrived on the shores of the United States. Eight years after that, he opened a Chicago storefront selling pastries and candy-coated almonds, and over the next century his Ferrara Candy Company, which would later roll out iconic sweets like Lemonheads and Red Hots, grew into the largest maker of nonchocolate confections in the country.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Nello Ferrara was being readied to take over the business that carried his name. For the family, it was to be a joyous time. For Ferrara, those days were filled with darkness.
He was becoming the right-hand man to his father, Salvatore II, then the company’s president and chief executive, learning how to run each part of the flourishing enterprise. Ferrara had played three seasons of junior hockey as a teenager, and had relished his years on the ice, but suddenly there was no longer time for the sport.
Things were changing in the Ferrara family, too. In 2000, when Ferrara was 24, his parents were going through a divorce. Devastated, Ferrara sought ways to cope. He found himself in downtown bars five nights a week, downing Absolut Mandarin vodkas without regard for much else.
“I’d pound 10 of them, then drive home at night,” he said. “It got to the point where I realized I wasn’t having fun while I was out. That was my escape from everything in my family kind of falling apart.”
The drinking was a sign of something more. “The person I was becoming, I hated,” Ferrara said.
And so he needed to find a new path. By 2002, Ferrara left his office in the candy company’s headquarters to oversee its warehouse, which happened to have unused space on its floor. He built a gym, using an old hockey workout plan he found to get in shape. At first, hockey was not on his mind. He had stopped drinking and merely wanted to bring order to his life and grow stronger in body and soul.
In time, though, hockey was all that was on his mind. After many years trying to bury the feeling, Ferrara finally allowed to himself that he wanted more than the family business.
Hockey tugged at him, but he had not played since 1997, his last season in juniors, where he scored precisely one point over stints with five amateur teams. Who would possibly give him a shot?
Thus commenced the legend of Nello Ferrara, a career out of the script pages of “MacGyver,” in which he used every trick in the book to cobble together 10 seasons in minor league hockey when perhaps he should not have had one.
For his first crack at the minors, Ferrara deployed a favored con he would use time and again. In 2003, he called up the Bakersfield Condors, a team in the East Coast Hockey League, and pretended to be his own agent, claiming he had this tough, gritty kid named Nello Ferrara the Condors ought to see. He caught the ear of the team’s general manager, who instructed the man on the phone to tell Ferrara to report for training camp.
When Ferrara arrived in Bakersfield, he was cut almost immediately, yet word got around that there was this guy trying out for the Condors who had impressed with his work ethic. He soon received a call from a United Hockey League team, the Rockford IceHogs. Ferrara shipped off to northern Illinois and played his first games as a pro.
He had traded a lucrative career at the family business for life in the far reaches of professional hockey, in outposts short on glamour and shorter still on pay. When members of his family found out, they were upset, even heartbroken. Yet Ferrara had never been happier. He was making a few hundred bucks a week and loving it.
Ferrara lasted only five games in Rockford, and that would become a trend. Though he grew to be a beloved locker-room presence and a valued teammate, he had no real prospects of becoming an elite player.
Continue reading the main story