By Mike Dougherty
Jim Tozzo was already well into a career on the bench at New Rochelle High School that spanned three decades, but he was admittedly conflicted about the idea of his son one day coaching hockey.
“Like everyone else, I wanted my kid to be a lawyer or doctor,” he said.
Not a chance.
“There’s a picture of me in my first pair of skates,” C.J. Tozzo said. “I had on a Rangers sweater and a diaper, so I was destined to be around hockey.”
That’s exactly how it played out.
Jim, a special education teacher, started with the junior varsity in 1979 and took over the varsity a year later. The body was getting creaky after 34 seasons on the ice so he retired quietly before the season, passing the reins down to 28-year-old C.J.
The school district was quick to sign off.
“It’s his calling,” Jim said. “C.J. is passionate about coaching, and he’s young enough to get out there on the ice to show the kids how to play the game. That’s important. C.J. has a lot of credibility with the kids because of what he’s done already.”
Vince Tozzo is assisting his cousin.
“I was ready,” Jim said of the decision to watch from the other side of the glass. “C.J. was done playing and was back home. We had a lot of great seniors on last year’s team and I promised I would see them off. Now it’s a young team and they need a younger coach in there because it takes a lot of energy to get things going again. I didn’t have it in me, but I knew C.J. did.”
So a portion of the winter months will now be spent in Florida with wife Christine, pursuing another passion — golf.
Every aspect of the game was different when Jim started coaching.
“We started the same year, and I was the JV coach at Mamaroneck,” longtime Tigers coach Mike Chiapparelli said. “We played all of the games at Ebersole before the roof. It was freezing. All the games were like 9 o’clock. We became good friends. It was like being out in a desert with no water. We had to become good friends. He’s done a lot of things for a lot of young men.”
The lessons went well beyond the ice.
“We constantly had kids coming and going from the house,” C.J. said. “The players always looked to my dad and mom when they needed help, whether they needed tutoring or were having trouble at home.”
C.J. and Vince were always part of the New Rochelle program.
“I was on the bench with my dad from 3 years old,” C.J. said. “I was a stick boy. I filled water bottles. I have been there my whole life.”
He grew up and spent five years on the varsity, and holds the NYSPHSAA record with 218 career assists.
“I didn’t feel a whole lot of pressure,” C.J. said. “I was never told I had to go to the rink when I was growing up, it was something I had to initiate. … My dad was demanding, but he was honest more than anything. When I did something wrong, he let me know. When I did something right, he let me know.”
C.J. went on to play at Niagara University and SUNY Plattsburgh, then played three minor-league seasons with the Brooklyn Aces of the EPHL and the Louisiana IceGators of the SPHL. He is now employed by Erik Nates Euro Hockey.
“He took all of that knowledge picked up from each of the coaches he played for and come up with a philosophy,” Jim said. “C.J.’s real strength is skill development. He learned a lot of tactical stuff in the pros and put in some things the last couple of years that really helped us.”
There will be some tinkering with the X’s and O’s, but the approach off the ice will not change.
“My dad was always focused on improving each person,” C.J. said. “It wasn’t just hockey. Over the years, he taught a lot of kids the right way to grow up.”
(Photo: C.J. Tozzo and cousin Vince Tozzo/Courtesy of Tozzo family)