Sunday, May 02, 2010

"One Last Chance" to Play Motivates Trenton, CC Alums

No one will ever know if the Trenton Trojans hockey team would have completed the comeback that night. But momentum was on their side. A three-goal deficit had been erased. Their building was thumping with noise.

Then just like that it became eerily quiet.

“I knew I was in pain, like full body pain,” Kurt LaTarte said as he recalled the moment. “But no one knew how bad it was until I went back to the bench, and the trainer looked under my chin.

“His eyes got real wide and the last thing I remember was seeing a lot of blood.”

LaTarte , Trenton H.S. Class of 1999, gazed out onto the ice at the Kennedy Center in Trenton as he told me the story. We sat in a tiny set of bleachers in the frigidness of the rink. The temperature matched his tenuous relationship with what happened to him.

LaTarte knew it would be this way. He knew he’d have trouble opening up about the night an errant skate slashed his throat, which led to his collapsing at the bench moments later. Hence the eery quiet.

It’s obvious that LaTarte still isn’t quite ready, even 11 years later, to embrace talking about the incident that, for all its horror, has now become the source of a unique reunion of two storied high school hockey programs.

His voice trailed off several times as he took me through that night in Trenton, in 1999, when a fierce rivalry turned into a makeshift mass prayer circle in a heartbeat.

Trenton and Detroit Catholic Central owned Class A high school hockey in the 1990s. They were the Lakers and Celtics of their sport. One school would win the state title, then the other would win the next year. Their games were intense, exciting, dramatic.

Then one night it got way more dramatic for anyone’s liking.

Earlier in 1999, Trenton beat CC, 1-0, in Redford. Andy Greene, who now plays for the New Jersey Devils, scored the game’s only goal.

Later, the teams met again, in Trenton. Their records were both 11-1 in the conference. The CC Shamrocks got off to a great start in the game, racing to a 4-1 lead.

Then the Trojans scored, and scored again. The building got louder. The tradition of Trenton hockey isn’t like it is in most cities. They are the Detroit Red Wings of high school hockey. As LaTarte told me, “The whole city gets behind you when you play for Trenton.”

The city was behind them that night, as usual. Especially when the Trojans finally tied the score, 4-4.

LaTarte went chasing for a puck in the noisy din of the Trenton arena. His teammate laid a terrific bodycheck on a CC player who went after LaTarte.

“It was a textbook check,” LaTarte said.

And almost deadly.

The CC player’s skate was suddenly where it wasn’t designed to be—off the ice, dangerously high in the air.

The out-of-control blade caught LaTarte as he skated by, the “wrong way,” he said.

LaTarte’s throat got it. Good.

He managed to skate off the ice on his own power, in terrific pain.

His coach, Mike Turner—who’s still the coach today—didn’t think LaTarte was the worse for wear.

“The action moved to the other end of the ice,” Turner told me. “The next thing I know, the CC principal, who was also a priest, was leading both teams in prayer at center ice.”

LaTarte was wheeled away on a stretcher, his jugular cut. In a building in which moments earlier you couldn’t hear yourself think, you could now hear a pin drop.

LaTarte, in his semi-consciousness, urged the game to continue. His first question upon awakening in the hospital was, “What was the score?”

They told him the game had been suspended. The players didn’t feel like continuing.

“I know players get hurt all the time, and games continue,” LaTarte said. “But at the same time, I understand why it didn’t continue. Everyone was pretty shaken up.”

That year’s Trenton squad, in a program traditionally competing for state titles, didn’t even make it out of regionals. And that 4-4 suspended tie with their arch rival Catholic Central hung in the air like a bad odor.

That odor is about to waft away.

Thanks to a TV series sponsored by Gatorade called “Replay,” in which high school teams get the opportunity to replay rivalry games, those 1999 Trenton and Catholic Central squads will get it on next week, some 11 years later, to replay their game, from scratch.

Ironically, LaTarte, who still wrestles with the memories of that horrific accident, was the one who got the ball rolling for the reunion game.

“I saw the commercial [for the series] on TV, and I was near my computer and brought up the website,” he said after practice last week. “I just started filling it out. I knew sooner or later I’d have to open up about [the injury]. But I knew my teammates would love the opportunity. When I weighed the pros and cons, it became a no-brainer.”

Over 2,000 applicants submitted their stories to Gatorade. The human drama of what happened to LaTarte, combined with the Trenton-CC rivalry of the time, proved too much for the show’s producers to resist.

The game will be played on Sunday, May 9 at the Compuware Arena in Plymouth.

And as if the game needed any more pomp and circumstance, the Gatorade folks, who routinely bring honorary coaches into their series, are placing ex-NHLer Brendan Shanahan (Trenton) and legendary coach Scotty Bowman (CC) behind the benches to assist the team’s regular coaching staffs.

Shanahan was present the night at Joe Louis Arena when Red Wings teammate Jiri Fischer had his career ended thanks to a scary heart-related collapse on the bench in 2005.

“When I saw the video of what happened [to LaTarte] in 1999, I thought of Jiri,” Shanahan told me. “I know what it’s like when a teammate is in a situation like that, when the game becomes secondary for that moment.”

For LaTarte, he has no doubt both teams will be ready to play on May 9.

“In 1999, we didn’t think it was going to be our last game,” he explained. “But now, we know that this is the last full-contact, competitive game of hockey that we’re ever going to play. I have no doubt that it will be extremely intense.

“Everybody better be ready to play, or it won’t be good.”

The Trenton-CC replay game will air on Fox Sports Detroit later in May.

“It’s great to reunite,” Turner said, “and get one more chance.”

No one would second that more than LaTarte, whose life hung in the balance that night in 1999.

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