Last Christmas, NYU goaltender Sam Daley received a one-of-a-kind gift from his parents, a custom goalie mask meant to illustrate all of the things that make Daley who he is: a native New Englander, a proud New Yorker, a strong family man and a hell of a hockey player.
Unfortunately, Daley was diagnosed with a brain tumor less than a week later, had surgery to remove the apricot-sized mass a short time after that and never got a chance to use the mask as he recovered from the sideline during the Violets’ run to a ACHA Division II national championship last spring.
In the months that followed, Daley’s new mask sat at his parents’ Bow, N.H., home serving as a sort of reminder of Daley’s ultimate goal — to return to the ice to help defend his team’s title during his senior season. And on Friday in NYU’s season opener against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Daley finally got to use the gift for its intended purpose.
"It was a little dusty," Daley said of the helmet, which he wore during a 27-save performance in NYU’s 5-4 win. "It’s been sitting in my house long enough, so it was good to finally get some ice on it."
Always one to err toward modesty, Daley demurs when asked about the significance of his triumphant return to the crease, but for the full house that packed the Sky Rink at Chelsea Pier to celebrate Daley Strong night, the importance didn’t need to be explained.
Daley had 27 saves in his first game back.
"It was incredible," NYU coach Chris Cosentino said. "Everyone in the stands knew what was going on. It was a huge crowd there, and everyone knew the story behind it. It was really special, and Sam, you could tell he felt it. Usually you can’t tell, and he’s always got that poker face on, but you could tell that he was excited."
Certainly, no one would slight Daley a few moments to enjoy the spotlight even if he doesn’t want the attention, and from the crowd, his parents, sister and a cast of other supporters reveled in the experience — one no one was totally sure would ever come.
"I’ll be honest, my eyes welled up," Daley’s father, Jack, said. "We didn’t even know if he was going to walk away from the operation, much less be on the ice again. He wanted to come back like two weeks later, he was ready to go, that’s the type of kid he is, but to see him back out there and showing no fear and being back in his form before the operation — he worked hard over the summer, played in men’s leagues, went to the gym a lot. He really wanted to come back, and it showed."
Daley finally got to wear his Christmas gift in a game.
That’s a sentiment echoed by Daley’s coach, who said he never doubted Daley would rejoin the team so long as he wasn’t putting himself in danger by doing so.
"When we got the news in January everything happened so fast, and hockey was really put on the back burner," Cosentino said. "It happened right around the time where we’re trying to get back from winter break and reestablish what we’re trying to do as a program, but all that stuff took a backseat to just making sure Sam was OK.
"When he got the news and he’s going through his surgery and we’re waiting for his tests results and all that, hockey was the furthest thing we were thinking about," Cosentino continued."But once we got word that the tumor was non-cancerous, I think that’s when we said, ‘OK, can we get him back on the ice?’"
In some ways, Daley’s recovery has galvanized the NYU hockey program, and Cosentino admits he got choked up watching Daley from the bench.
"There were so many times, just looking over into the net and seeing him in there, he looked so strong, you didn’t think anything happened over the past year," Cosentino said. "But once in a while you’d remember the situation and you’d shake your head, you’d smile, you’d get emotional. It was like something I’d never been a part of, as a coach or a player."
Still, Cosentino makes it clear that he didn’t give Daley the start out of sympathy for his situation.
NYU has two other capable goalies in sophomores Jack Nebe and Alec Hardman — the former led the team on its title run after Daley’s diagnosis last year and the latter stopped 14 of 15 shots in an 8-1 win over Siena on Sunday — and Daley would be the first to tell you he’d rather have one of them in net if he didn’t deserve to be there.
"Listen, Sam earned it," Cosentino said. "He earned that spot in the game. Everyone knows the story and everyone is rooting for that kid to get back in there, and I’d be lying if I said we didn’t think about that, but he earned it. But Sam is the type of person who would never want something just given to him. He wants to earn it himself, and if he ever sees that something is not in his grasp, he’s going to work even harder to prove you wrong, and that’s what he did."
"He earned that spot in the game."
NYU Coach Chris Cosentino
Daley understands that discussions about his recovery will be inevitable throughout the season, and he just hopes he can keep it from becoming a distraction to his team. Rather, he hopes his story serves as an inspiration for a roster that includes more than a dozen freshmen.
"For our team it’s definitely kind of a motivation factor, a reminder in the back of our heads of where we’ve been and where we still need to go," Daley said. "It’s going to be something that drives the team all year, but it’s also something where I don’t want it to be a thing where people cut me a break or I get played more than I should or people use it as an excuse when I don’t play well as I should.
"I don’t want that to be the reason — ‘Oh, he just came back from surgery, you can’t expect that of him’ — because that’s when the team starts to go downhill. We’ve got a lot of skill, a lot of guys who can play, and I think the best thing for the team right now is making sure we put the best guys out every night."
"It’s special to him, and I think it’s a step in the healing process mentally, too," Jack Daley added of his son earning his starting job back on merit. "We always talk about the physical operation, but that took a mental toll on him, and I think it makes him feel good to have people think of him as a hockey player again and not as a tumor survivor."
Daley led NYU on to the ice last Friday.
At this point it’s far too early to know what lies ahead for Daley or the NYU team. Maybe a repeat as champs is in the cards, or maybe it’s bound to be a rebuilding effort after losing so much talent and experience from last year’s squad.
In either case, the team is better off with No. 34 in net, and after nearly a year of battling to get back in the lineup, Daley’s presence on the ice is a success story in itself.
"The victory that we had was when he survived that operation," Jack Daley said. "Everything after that is gravy. Every day we’re thankful for that, for great doctors, and that Sam was a strong kid. Because when all is said and done, this is college hockey. He’s going to go on to have a life and hockey will be a great memory someday."
"This is just the continuation," Cosentino added. "The story is not over yet."