A pro for a night, Max Sherman displays his hockey chops

Vineyarders cheered for two locals in Saturday's game: Max Sherman (left) and former NHL player Mick Vukota, both from Edgartown. — Photo by Ezra Newick

Max Sherman sat on a bench in the empty locker room at the M.V. Arena early Saturday afternoon and considered the question.

“How do I feel? I’m a little nervous, but I feel like I belong in this game. That I can play,” he said.

Mr. Sherman, 27, assistant coach of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) boys hockey team, was five hours away from becoming a professional hockey player with the Cape Cod Bluefins (Hyannis) of the independent Frontier Hockey League (FHL). The FHL has eight teams spread around the eastern U. S.and Canada, from Illinois to Ottawa. Teams play 50 games in just over four months.

Mr. Sherman has the hockey chops to be comfortable in his pro debut. “I started skating at three years old, played youth hockey in this building,” he said.

He was a defenseman on two MVRHS state hockey championship teams and played two more years at St. Mark’s School before matriculating at Northeastern University, from which he graduated in 2008.

He got noticed in high school despite a senior year injury and received college hockey offers but chose Northeastern University. “I chose academics, though I thought about walking on (trying out, but without a scholarship) for hockey (at N.U.),” he said.

Instead, Mr. Sherman took a degree in four years and worked real world jobs in several parts of the country for a couple of years. Hockey was always a focus. “When I thought about moving someplace, I always checked out where the hockey was,” he laughed.

Mr. Sherman returned to the Island three years ago, volunteered to work with the boys hockey team and this year became assistant to Coach Matt Mincone. On Saturday, Mr. Sherman was scratching an itch that many athletes have but few get to try, namely testing themselves at the professional level.

Fans love stories of players emerging from obscurity to play on the big stage. Just think Lin-sanity, the current craze over Jeremy Lin, the New York Knick who has emerged from basketball obscurity to star on one of the most famous sports stages of all, Madison Square Garden. Independent, minor league baseball player Daniel Nava, for example, stunned Boston and the baseball world two years ago by hitting a grand-slam home run on the first pitch he saw in the big leagues – to date his only homer in his only major league season.

On Saturday, Mr. Sherman wasn’t thinking about a Cinderella career story for his one-game contract. “No, this is not a new career, just something I’m glad to be able to do. I have a job. I’m establishing a career,” he said, referring to his work as a personal trainer. He also knows that the minor league hockey circuit is a grind. “These guys play five games in six nights for $300 a week,” he said.

“I can’t prepare (for this game) any more than I have. You just have to play the game. It’ll be faster, I’ll have to adjust to the tempo,” said Mr. Sherman, who has played against some elite players, including Brian Boyle of the National Hockey League’s New York Rangers.

At 5:15 Saturday evening, with heavy metal tunes from the rafters, Mr. Sherman heard his name announced as the Bluefins’ starting left defenseman. He skated to the Bluefins’ blue line for the national anthem, lining up beside teammate and Vineyarder Marinko “Mick” Vukota, facing the Danbury (Conn.) Whalers.

Mr. Vukota, 45, a native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and now an Edgartown resident, spent 11 years in the National Hockey League, mostly as an enforcer for the New York Islanders, for whom he is the all-time leader with 2,071 penalty minutes. He un-retired for this game to add an Island flavor to the community’s first pro hockey game.

Hockey at the lower professional level is a fast, tough, and occasionally nasty game played by grown men looking for a lucrative career or enthusiastically reliving past exploits. They know the dirty tricks and they skate with their heads up.

When the first puck dropped, Mr. Sherman, at 6′ 3″ and 230 pounds, established his place early, moving the puck well and handing out some big hits along the boards. One first period check earned him the game’s first penalty, as he dropped one of Danbury’s small, quick forwards in open ice near the boards in the defensive end of the ice.

Mr. Sherman took a regular shift on defense, occasionally rushing the puck in the offensive zone. His play quickly blended with that of the other pros. He became just another good player in the Island’s first pro hockey game, dubbed The Fish Bowl, which Danbury eventually won 4-3, capitalizing on two late third period goals.

The home crowd of 200 to 300 paid attention, cheering Mr. Sherman’s steady play. He was also watched closely by his high school players. Aside from Boston Bruins goalkeeper Tim Thomas, few hockey players are noted for their speech making, and the MVRHS varsity team, seated as a group in the stands, was not the exception. After the first period, with the Bluefins holding a 1-0 lead, the players assessed Coach Sherman’s effort as “pretty good,” and “he’s doing okay.”

“I hope I see a fight,” one player ventured. The young Vineyarder got his wish in the third period, when Mr. Vukota dropped his gloves briefly with Whalers’ tough guy Jason McCrimmon. Mr. Vukota chastened the 6′ 4″ forward, despite giving away nearly 20 years in age.

The punch-up followed a last minute second period hit by Whalers’ netminder Peter Vetri, who inexplicably charged out of his goal and starched Bluefins center Brad Surdam against the boards. Mr. Vetri earned himself a game misconduct and some hard feelings on the Bluefins bench. Hockey, like baseball, has a payback rule. You hit my guy, I’ll hit your guy.

As the game progressed, a reporter remembered a comment Mr. Sherman made in the empty locker room earlier that day. “I have a passion for hockey, and my job now is to pass it on to young players. This game tonight will be more of a benchmark, a validation of my hockey experience,” he said.

Jack Shea writes frequently for The Martha’s Vineyard Times.