Janice Cavaretta was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and congratulations she received after she was announced as the latest winner of the J. Micheal Duffett Award, presented by the Buffalo Sabres to the individual who best exemplifies “the knowledge, teaching, love of the game and gentle humanity of Mike” in support of youth hockey in western New York state.
After all, while it might be a big deal to others that Cavaretta is the first woman to claim the award in its 30-year history, she was simply following her passion.
That’s why it seemed a little strange to be recognized for her long career in youth hockey that includes serving as a coach of a boys’ Bantam team in the Buffalo area, working 14 years (and counting) as the executive director of the Western New York Amateur Hockey League, and serving 11 years as USA Hockey registrar for the region.
“I was taken aback and certainly very surprised,” Cavaretta said. “I did not expect it, I did not think that I would be considered, and certainly did not think I would win the award with so many deserving people, especially when you consider the credentials of the past winners. I know a few people that have won it over the years that I have a lot of respect for, and I know that it is a privilege to be awarded this honor.”
To David Braunstein, president of the West section of the New York State Amateur Hockey Association (NYSAHA) and a member of the selection committee, Cavaretta was such an obvious choice he couldn’t believe he’d never thought to nominate her before. So when he finally did, Cavaretta was enthusiastically voted the winner by the panel of Western New York luminaries that include Mike Gilbert, the Sabres’ public relations director; Seymour H. Knox IV, whose father and uncle were the original owners of the Sabres; Michael Duffett’s widow and son Brian; and several other people deeply entrenched in the area’s youth hockey scene.
“Everyone that is involved in youth hockey in western New York, whether it’s in administration or coaching, knows Janice Cavaretta,” Braunstein said. “She’s the executive director of the largest youth hockey league, a 28-member organization, so they know her from that, but she quietly coaches also.”
The award was established in 1984 to honor J. Michael Duffett, a former Clarkson University player who went on to coach local youth hockey and worked in the Sabres’ hockey operations department until he lost a long battle with cancer.
Cavaretta, who earned her Masters Level 5 USA Hockey coaching accreditation since 1989, was presented the award during the Sabres’ home game on Dec. 19 against the Boston Bruins, and was a little overwhelmed by having the spotlight shining so bright on her.
“Gosh, that was over the top,” she said of the experience that night. “The Buffalo Sabres, what a class act. It was a whirlwind. I honestly do not remember much of the game. I enjoyed watching the kids delight at being able to sit in the press box to watch a game, and being able to talk to so many people who came over to introduce themselves. When it was announced at the arena, the Sabres put together a multimedia presentation that was shown on the Jumbotron and lasted a few minutes. It was also shown on TV, and hearing the crowd cheer and chants from people that knew me was pretty cool. Some of my current players were at the game, which was very special.”
Beyond all the pomp and circumstance of the presentation, Cavaretta was deeply touched by the reaction she received from current and former players she’s coached, as well as numerous people she didn’t even know.
“My phone blew up with text messages, tweets, emails and voice mail,” she said. “One of the tweets I received touched me: ‘huge congrats to the inspiring #hockeyhero.’ I remember thinking, ‘This is beyond special.’ I never saw myself in that light, yet many people do.
“So many parents have contacted me about their daughter playing hockey and some struggles they have encountered, asking for advice. To be seen as a role model to so many that I do not know is unbelievable. To hear from parents of kids I coached, present and former players, some who are now adults with kids of their own, was phenomenal, too, and the emotions that surface are indescribable.”
And while she has encountered occasional barriers as a woman in an overwhelmingly male environment, Cavaretta has overcome those obstacles in impressive ways and used any setbacks as further motivation to forge ahead.
“A lot of what I faced was people telling me that I couldn’t do things, I shouldn’t do things or that I don’t belong there,” Cavaretta explained. “That never stopped me. At times, it was frustrating. However, my silent reply most of the time was, ‘Watch me and you’ll see what I can do.’
“Yeah, I had to prove myself, put my time in, try to get people to see me for me — not a female, but someone who knows and loves the game. I started in the game at 3 years old, playing hockey with boys much older than me. I had to prove I can play all the time or they wouldn’t include me. Once I did, the rest was history. I have always had confidence in who I am and what I could do, I just needed the opportunity.”
Coaching a competitive team of teenage boys, she has earned the respect of not only her players but also their parents. Her experience as an elite-level player herself, back before the days of competitive women’s college hockey, still serves her well occasionally in practice.
“Any challenges faced coaching were mostly with administrators and parents,” Cavaretta said. “The kids were always easy to work with. They still are. Once they see that you know your ‘stuff’ and understand the game, they are very accepting.
“Making a few moves on them during practice doesn’t hurt either.”
Added Braunstein, “Janice was quite an accomplished hockey player when she played. If they’d had collegiate hockey at the time she played, she would have been a Division I player. She probably would have been an Olympian, too, she was that good.”
Ultimately, Cavaretta is just being herself and following the path her father, Tony Rozek — who passed away in March 2013 — helped set her on. She thought it was fitting that it was Nov. 8, Rozek’s birthday, when she first heard the news that she would receive the Duffett Award, because Rozek helped instill that love for the game when she was just a child, and in the process, cemented a lifelong connection between them.
“We spent so much time together, as so many parents do with the kids traveling to practice and games, but our relationship went further,” Cavaretta said of her dad. “We bonded. He was there for me and my family all the time. We could talk about anything and he would do anything for me. We talked hockey and sports all the time. He was my main mentor and encouraged me to be all I can, academically and in life. He told me at a very young age not to cry or pout when things didn’t go my way. ‘Don’t get mad, just prove them wrong,’ and show them who I was.
“He taught me so much on dealing with people and on the administrative side of the game, and how doing the little extra things will always make a difference. You never know who is watching and who you are making an impression on.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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