Dan Farrell isn’t like most professional hockey players. Farrell wasn’t supposed to be able to rush up a flight of stairs, let alone jump over the boards to play in a pro hockey game. So if Farrell’s pro career ends up consisting of just a single game in a fledgling Class A league, you won’t find him complaining.
Just the opposite in fact, as the chance to suit up for the Delaware Federals last Friday night against the host Whalers in Danbury, Conn. was an opportunity Farrell will cherish for a lifetime.
“It was a milestone I wanted to reach my entire life,” Farrell said. “And to be honest with you, it’s the best thing I ever did. I really feel that I completed a missing part of my life.”
Farrell overcame more than most players who ever laced up a pair of skates to live out that dream. He suffers from a condition known as pectus excavatum. His breastbone is sunken into his chest, which hampers his breathing and causes heart problems. Farrell has had several heart attacks as a result, and noted that, “Research has shown it can take up to 23 years off your life.”
Farrell was born with the condition, which has gotten progressively worse over time. There is a surgery to correct the problem called the Nuss procedure, named after Dr. Donald Nuss, which Farrell hopes to have done in the future. It’s an expensive and excruciating process, though like in his quest to play a professional hockey game, Farrell is undeterred.
“What they do is take titanium bars and drill holes in your side and replace your ribs, putting the titanium bars under your ribs,” Farrell explained. “They say it’s the most painful operation you can imagine, but I’m not really worried about that. I want to be able to breathe and take a full breath. I get about 10 percent of the oxygen that I should be getting for a man my age. Doctors say for someone like me, I’m not even supposed to be walking up stairs, let alone playing hockey. But I’m a determined individual.”
That determination led to one of the more unlikely professional debuts for the 37-year-old native of Cumberland, Maine. “I actually turn 38 on April 13, so I’m one really old rookie,” joked Farrell, who now lives in North Attleboro, Mass.
Farrell’s not new to the game, however. He grew up playing despite his condition, even playing for his high school team. His last high school game was actually exactly 19 years to the day before his pro debut last Friday. In between, he stayed connected to the game by designing protective equipment, including pads and gear used by many current NHLers, and coaching locally in the junior ranks.
That coaching experience led to his unexpected chance to finally play again, as Delaware, which is actually a traveling team formed after the Vermont FHL franchise folded, sought some help behind the bench.
“I was actually asked to coach, and jokingly made a remark that it’s amazing I’ve been able to accomplish everything in the sport expect the one thing I always wanted to do, which was to skate a pro shift,” Farrell said. “And they said if you want a shift, we’ll sign you.”
Farrell didn’t just want a ceremonial shift though. He wanted to actually play, and set about training to make it happen.
“I took it very serious,” Farrell said. “I didn’t take it as a token. I took it as this is my shot to play in a professional game and I conducted myself in that manner.”
Farrell got medical clearance to play, and then he got his wish. He estimated that he played about 7-8 shifts in the game centering one of the Federals’ lines, though he admitted he “didn’t really go into the corners” and had “only a little bit of contact, nothing too crazy.”
Farrell even managed to pick up a point, setting up former Boston University star and AHL veteran Mike Pomichter for the first of five unanswered Delaware goals in the third period as the Federals rallied for a 6-3 victory, the team’s first win.
“We were doing a reverse cycle and the puck came off the wall,” Farrell said of his assist. “I was playing center and I noticed Pomichter over my shoulder busting down through the high slot, so I just threw the puck on my backhand to the high slot where I knew he was going to be, and sure enough he buried it. I don’t know who was happier, Pomichter for getting the goal or me for being able to put the puck on his tape.”
Farrell, who was honored with a ceremonial face-off before start of contest, was presented with the puck from his first pro point after the game.
“The Danbury organization was phenomenal,” Farrell said. “The fans were great. They had an idea that I had some kind of medical issue and that I was just really out there giving it my best, and that energy really seemed to radiate throughout the building. It was just an unbelievable night — packed house, the fans were phenomenal, friends and family there. It was just such a great night.”
It got better latter in the week, when Farrell heard from some of the NHLers he had worked with during his days designing equipment, including Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid.
“It was really cool, I got a call the other night from Quaider, and he was like, ‘Sniper, I’m so happy for you,'” Farrell said. “I heard from guys like [Blues forward] David Perron and [Kings forward] Dustin Penner. It was really neat because you could actually watch the game on-line and a few of those guys got the game and I know Dustin and a couple of the guys in the Kings locker room were watching the game. I buy the Center Ice package every year to watch their games, so it’s just kind of cool to think they watched mine and were being supportive. That’s one of the things that I love about hockey and hockey players. They’re really down-to-earth guys and really support each other.”
Farrell may not have to wake up from his dream just yet. He was signed to a standard player contract for the season, not just a one-day deal. “Believe it or not, I was actually very pleased to find out they haven’t waived me,” Farrell joked.
Farrell isn’t sure if he will actually be able to play again, but even if his career ends with just one game in the books, he’ll have no regrets.
“This really meant the world to me,” Farrell said. “Honestly, it’s made me a much happier person. The high off of this is something I don’t see going away for a very long time.”