Like most OHLers who have achieved a measure of success in the league, Lively native and Ottawa 67's standout Danny Battachio absolutely dreamed of playing in the NHL. A key part of the Brian Kilrea led 2004-2005 Memorial Cup contending team, Battachio's tournament was highlighted by a 62-save double overtime victory performance that still stands as a record to this day.
Despite his impressive junior resume, the local netminder was to remain in a group with the overwhelming majority of those who play junior hockey, never to see the light of an NHL game. Which is not to say that the well-liked, talkative puck-stopper has not enjoyed a lengthy and quite memorable hockey career.
Last month, the 32 year-old one time member of the Sudbury Northern Wolves would see his jersey hoisted to the rafters of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Centre, only the second player to be so honoured as a member of the Rapid City Rush (ECHL).
It was a fitting tribute to a career that spanned six seasons with the South Dakota franchise, Battachio making more than 250 starts in the uniform. Between 2009-2010 and 2015-2016, he was a model of consistency, boasting an annual goals against average that ranged from 2.47 to 2.79. Similarly, his save percentage, every single season, varied only from .907 to .917.
Yet his attachment with the Rapid City faithful traveled so much deeper than the numbers alone.
“I tried, my whole career, to be that player that takes the time to interact with the fans, especially the younger ones,” said Battachio recently, having closed out the 2017-2018 campaign by suiting up as an emergency back-up when Adam Vey was sidelined due to injury.
“I was fortunate enough to grow up in our community in Sudbury,” he continued. “Going to those Wolves' skates, approaching a player and knowing how much it meant to get an autograph or just say hello. Just to make someone's day by doing that, I've always thought, is very important. It's important to return that to the community and to the kids whose shoes I was in at one time.”
“You play this game and one of the bigger reasons is the fans,” Battachio added. “They come and support you every night. If it wasn't for them, you wouldn't be able to be in the position to enjoy the game and play the game and do it for a living.”
Still, the notion of a jersey retirement never once crossed his mind.
“It was at the end of January when I first found out,” said Battachio, dubbed the “Batman” during his time with the Rush. “At the beginning, I was kind of in shock, a little bit. I wasn't expecting something like this. It was a little bit of everything in terms of emotions: joyful, surprised, honoured.”
“You grow up and think of having a successful career, winning championships, winning hockey games, but you never really think that at the end of it all, you did enough to have your jersey retired. It's something that doesn't happen very often, and only to a few, so it's a tremendous honour to have this happen to me.”
Such was the magnitude of the heights that he reached within the sport that he loved that it's easy to forget it was almost all taken away. A Christmas Day seizure in 2003 appeared to threaten the fledgling OHL career of the athletic young goalie, diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation and undergoing an eight hour operation early the next year. Certainly, this added a sense of perspective to the young man who went on to play three years at St Francis Xavier University before taking his game to the Badlands of South Dakota.
There would always be an appreciation for that simple opportunity to don the pads for another winter of competition. “You have to take care of your body, take care of stretching, watch what you're eating,” he said. “You have to put the work in – there's no real secret.”
Through it all, Battachio has always remained grounded, a tribute to the family environment that provided his initial base of support in his days with the Walden Minor Hockey Association. “You are always trying to be the best at what you do, get to that top level, but sometimes, things are just not meant to be. Saying that, I don't regret anything.”
“This path that I've taken and what I've been able to do, it's pretty phenomenal. There's a reason life takes you along a certain path, and this one was meant for me, and I've enjoyed it.” The healthy balance between his personal and professional lives was evidenced again in the week or so leading up to the jersey retirement ceremony.
Already blessed with a pair of boys (Aaron – age 11; Easton – age 2), Danny and his wife Jami welcomed a fifth member to the family with the safe and healthy arrival of baby Declan (now three weeks old) just in time for the big event.
“It was just awesome to share it with everybody – the fans, all of my family, the ownership, the organization,” he said. “It was just great to celebrate it with them. It was a special night, a special night to have everyone there.”