By Nancy Haggerty
BREWSTER — It’s obvious that he possesses a touch of the acrobat — a dash of former NHL goaltending great Dominik Hasek.
Anything to stop the puck — diving, rolling, making snow angels.
That’s one reason Horace Greeley’s hockey team had 14 wins during the regular season.
But goalie Neil Hershman also has a touch of the Blue Angels in him.
The 17-year-old senior, one of four players remaining from the Quakers’ 0-18 squad of three years ago, is a licensed pilot, who has flown his “not-a-big-fan-of-excitement” mom, Ingrid, and dad, Jack, up and down the East Coast for his college visits.
As a kid, Hershman decorated his room with hockey sticks and airplanes, loved roller coasters and flew remote-control planes.
Now he flies as high as 6-7,000 feet and has logged 250 hours in the air.
He sees parallels between crease and cockpit, explaining, “You have to have the psychological mind-set to be very focused and to set simple goals for yourself.”
But to him, big hockey moments – even his 25 saves in Greeley’s huge 2-2 January tie against powerhouse Rye – can’t compare to flying.
“There’s nothing as thrilling as flying planes at 200 miles per hour,” said Hershman, who began taking lessons at age 15 at Westchester County Airport.
His top thrill to date was flying to an air show in Oshkosh, Wisc. Fifty-thousand planes land for the show during two days. Hershman’s plane landed the same minute and on the same runway as six others.
Of what flying gives him, Hershman said, “The cliché way to answer is freedom and no roads to follow. But it’s also the power to control the plane and also it’s very relaxing. Flying on a clear night, you can forget reality for a few hours or minutes.”
Goalies, of course, like to forget bad goals.
More often than not, Hershman has been solid. He has allowed 2.78 goals per game with an .869 save percentage. But there are moments he’d like back.
One on Jan. 25 left him face down on the ice as Fox Lane players celebrated nearby.
In a sudden-death overtime game tied 3-3, Greeley had a 5-on-3 man advantage. But it lost an offensive-end faceoff and, quickly, Hershman had the puck behind his own goal line.
He needed to make, in football vernacular, a Hail Mary, and then he needed someone to quickly beat goalie Conor Bunyan, who was having a stand-on-his-head, 47-save night.
It didn’t get to that. Hershman flung the puck, but the Foxes’ Matt Stewart, batted it down, and, with 12 seconds left, shot it into the open net as Hershman dove late across the crease.
Goals like that can leave an indelible stain on a goalie’s psyche.
And it didn’t seem like a good sign when Hershman lay on the ice.
After all, from the bench, Greeley coach Zach Dargaty often hears his netminder jabbering away, “trying to get himself psyched up or trying to clear his head (after a goal).”
“Some goalies bang their sticks,” Dargaty said. “He’s a talker. I can’t make out what he’s saying. He’s just going on.”
Hershman noted his comments often include “profanity and such.”
But after this loss, he was largely quiet, and teammates gave him space. Fellow senior Nick Girardi said, “In those kinds of situations, he just wants to be by himself.”
Two days later, Hershman responded with 20 saves in a 5-1 win over Yorktown.
“He’s a little unorthodox,” Dargaty said. “He can be a bit of a flopper. He’ll be scrambling, throwing his body around. It’s not always pretty but it is effective.”
The 14-3-2 Quakers, as a whole, aren’t always pretty or flashy. But they earned the third seed for the Section 1 Division 2 playoffs. They have a bye and will play on Wednesday.
“I don’t really think we have a superstar. I think we have really talented players who often get overlooked,” said Dargaty, who tells players, “You don’t have to be the best skater, the best passer, the best shooter to be an effective hockey player.”
In Hershman, Girardi, Blake Davis and Noah Ives, they’ve got players who can appreciate where they are. The four were on the 12-player, 0-18 team.
They could have bailed in frustration but believed Dargaty, who said help was on the way in the form of talented eighth-graders.
“Everyone understood there were better days ahead,” Dargaty said.
And he knew those then-freshmen would improve. In part, the coach said, Davis has been the Quakers’ most versatile and effective player the last four years and Girardi’s the team’s toughest, grittiest player — “kind of a force.”
In a sense, this is a last hurrah for his seniors, since none expect to play in college, except perhaps club hockey.
Dargaty, who has seen Hershman play his best against better teams, is optimistic they might exit strong, explaining, “(In the past), our best game would not beat Pelham, Rye or John Jay. This year is different.”
Davis said the Rye tie proved Greeley can “hang with anyone.”
“I think the sky is the limit with us,” Davis said.
Well, maybe not.
After all, Dargaty’s got so much confidence in Hershman that, if invited, he’d “absolutely” go even there with him.
Of course, he may want to take that flight before Hershman, who’s working on instrument certification, takes his flying a bit further.
“I definitely want to get into aerobatics,” his goalie said.