With every move he made in the crease, Jake Martin could hear his father’s instructions for him to cut down the angle, get his glove hand out or watch the winger on his blind side. And one day he decided enough was enough.
“It gave me a headache,” Jake said. “He just kept talking and talking. After awhile it was like, ‘Get to your point’ or I’ll start thinking about other things. Like popcorn.”
Like any sports parent, Mike Martin can laugh now about some of his efforts to help his son succeed at hockey. But in his case, no effort was too outlandish because Jake really does have a blind side.
He was born with CHARGE, a syndrome that affects 1 in 10,000 children with various physical anomalies. Blind in his left eye and deaf in his right ear, Jake manages to play hockey with glasses that help him see out of his good eye and a hearing aid that helps him hear out of his good ear. The wireless contraption his father fashioned out of sound equipment represents only one of many efforts he has made to go the extra mile in hopes it would make a difference.
“I think about that and how we got to this moment [in a clinic this past summer] where I watched Jake play in the scrimmages with some great hockey players and, during one scrimmage, he didn’t let in one goal. It was absolutely amazing,” Mike proudly said.
Getting in the game was something the Martins could not have foreseen for their firstborn child, especially early on when a normal life was something they could only dream about.
Jake’s initial diagnosis, shortly after he was born in Monterey, Calif., was that his parents should start planning a life of caring for a blind child.
It wasn’t until several years later when Mike, a captain in the Air Force National Guard, was re-stationed in Maryland. A neighbor invited Jake to attend a Washington Capitals practice at a nearby rink, and suddenly hockey became the lightning rod that changed his life. Jaromir Jagr was their superstar, but the player who captivated Jake was goaltender Olaf Kolzig.
Though Jake didn’t walk until he was 2½ years old, hockey was his magnet, and his family got him into skates at age 4. Promised a helmet and a chance to play in the hockey program at Benfield Pines, Md., Jake let go of the orange traffic cone he had clung to and shuffled from the middle of the rink to the bench, yelling, “My helmet! My helmet!”
Individual complications aside, CHARGE set Jake back a year from his peers. He was undersize for his age and didn’t run well, so skating was especially difficult. His ticket to participation was goalie equipment.
“He’d fall down and one of the coaches would have to run over and pick him back up because he couldn’t get up,” Mike recalled.
The Martins moved to Rhode Island when Mike retired from active duty in 2004, and Jake was maturing in hockey. One time, Jake recalled, he grabbed a rinkside microphone before a game and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He made a habit of singing while playing goal, and a teammate’s mother nicknamed him “iPod.”
Jake made serious strides until 2006 when he was cut from the Peewee travel team. His confidence took a severe hit, and the family was facing the limitations of CHARGE. Early- morning house-league sessions in neighboring North Smithfield lacked appeal, and it looked like Jake’s career in organized hockey was over. But his fire for the ice never went out, and Jake spent many a night during the 2007-08 winter playing pond hockey near his Woonsocket home.
Mike was at a crossroads when that November legendary Mount St. Charles coach Bill Belisle offered an impromptu on-ice session with Jake so he could decide what was in the boy’s best interests. Jake had outgrown his old pads so Mike scrambled to buy up some second-hand gear and hustle it back to the rink for a short 3-on-1 practice with two varsity players.
Shortly thereafter, Belisle wrote a letter supporting Mike’s request that Jake be allowed to play youth hockey as a 1996 birth year instead of a 1995. According to Mike, Jake is the only Rhode Island resident with such a waiver.
“If he’s at Mount, and it happens to be a year where we don’t have that many good goaltenders, I wouldn’t be afraid to put him in,” said Belisle, who will have eight goalies to choose from this year.
“Checking his academics, he’s a bright kid and he’s got that plus going for him. He knows his minuses in hockey, the things that he’s got to work on.”
Getting up fast, keeping his stick on the ice and, as his father points out, keeping his glove hand in play to the side he cannot see – none are flaws that Jake can’t overcome.
“He’s willing to fight even harder for it because he’s had difficult challenges. His desire to improve and master it is huge,” said goaltending instructor J.P. McKersie, who has worked with Jake the past three years. “It’s very unique to my coaching experience to see a kid with his back against the wall. To see him bouncing off of that wall is an inspiration to me.”
Jake’s ability to inspire was evident at age 5 when he reached out to Bryan Berard following the NHL star’s eye injury that threatened his career. He wrote Berard a letter and delivered his own pair of corrective lenses to the family’s Woonsocket home. The Berards were overwhelmed by the gesture, and Jake and Bryan became fast friends.
Playing on a level field thanks to his waiver, Jake made his 2008-09 season a breakthrough campaign, backstopping his Peewee team to the Rhode Island state finals.
Life is good, but turning 15 on Oct. 20 Jake is already thinking past hockey. The starting position is open at Woonsocket High, but Jake decided to attend Mount St. Charles knowing he’s a long shot.
“If you can’t play hockey, if it doesn’t work out for you, what are you going to do after that? You always need a back-up plan,” said Jake, who has had seven surgeries related to CHARGE and plans on one more to correct a tear duct.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he sees medicine in his future.
“Things in the medical field, or forensics,” he said. “Those are my back-up plans.”
Mick Colageo is a sports writer with The Standard-Times in New Bedford, Mass.