A Life Saver
By Jeff Howe
AMHERST, Mass. – Will Ortiz is lucky
to be alive right now. He's just as lucky to be a free man.
If he fit into the stereotype of those in his childhood
neighborhood on the south side of Framingham, Mass., there's
a good chance he'd be dead, in jail or somewhere on his
way to one of those.
"My neighborhood was bad," says
Ortiz, a freshman forward for UMass. "Cops were running
at people, gun shots, it happened. I had friends that have
been killed. I had friends that are in jail now. One of
my best friends in middle school was an accomplice to murder.
It happens, but I chose a different path."
|Will Ortiz overcame
several obstacles and grew more mature on his way to
the University of Massachusetts, where he is one of
the talented freshmen forwards in Hockey East. One of
his biggest goals this year was scored against New Hampshire.
His family is a huge reason for that. His
parents, first-generation Americans, did everything they
could to keep him off the streets. They pushed him into
sports, signed him up for after-school programs, and did
whatever they could to hold him on the straight and narrow.
Ortiz's older brother, Tristen, wasn't always
so fortunate. He liked the fast life; he took advantage
of it, too. When asked to describe what types of things
he got into, he responds with, "You name it. Anything
But Tristen could guide Will in a way his
parents couldn't. He could show his younger brother first-hand
the troubles he could find if he went the wrong way down
a shady street — drug dealers, drug addicts, gang
members, didn't matter.
"I let him see everything he wasn't supposed
to do," says Tristen, who is five years older than
Will. "I did everything. I did all the bad things,
and that's made him realize that he didn't want to take
my route. I took the hard route, which I thought was the
easy way out. He saw that and realized it wasn't the easy
way out. He saw what I was doing wrong, and he didn't want
to mimic it."
Tristen took him to the streets for something
else, though: roller hockey. And that is where his rise
from the south side truly began.
Will started playing street hockey when he
was about 5 with his older brother's friends. With the advanced
competition, he couldn't let up. He learned how to play
harder and skate faster.
As Tristen started to enjoy the sport more
and more, he asked his parents if he could take his game
to the ice. Naturally, Will wanted to follow.
Funny, Will didn't even like watching hockey
on television. He'd rather have been watching baseball.
But Tristen got him hooked.
The years passed, and Will got better and
better. No one could match his speed and agility on the
ice — after all, he was finally playing with kids
his age — and his future in the game grew brighter
with each passing day. Unfortunately for Tristen, who wasn't
so bad himself, he left the hockey rinks in the dark.
"I got into a different life," Tristen
says. "I got into the fast life, where I wanted money."
Will moved on, though. With Tristen's guidance,
he stayed clean off the ice. Little did he know, it wasn't
long before he'd meet someone with the same influence inside
the arena's doors.
As he got older and moved up through the ranks,
his game continued to get stronger. Framingham High School
coach Paul Spear knew very well who Ortiz was before he
walked through the doors at Loring Arena. He saw a young,
immature kid with a boatload of potential. He couldn't wait
to get Ortiz into a varsity sweater.
But it turned out, waiting was something they
would both have to do.
Birth of a hockey player
Ortiz showed up for the first day of Framingham
High tryouts with a chip on his shoulder, for two reasons.
He coasted through his youth leagues without
breaking a sweat. He'd recover the puck in his opponent's
zone, fly up the ice without getting touched and bury the
puck in the net as though he were the only player on the
ice. Ortiz was never challenged. Why should he expect high
school to be any different?
But there was something else — something
more personal. During games, he had an attitude, which was
often fueled by players on the other team.
Ortiz was an easy target. He's a Puerto Rican
playing hockey. Other teams couldn't stop his physical ability
so they keyed in on his mental toughness, something he took
awhile to develop.
It's something he can't really be faulted
for, though. It's tough asking a 12-year-old kid not to
react when other players are yelling racial slurs at him
during a game. He got better with it as he grew up, but
the attitude was still something he had to improve at the
high school level, where the taunts continued.
"It was harder when I was younger,"
Ortiz says. "I didn't know how to take it. It was frustrating.
I'd be angry. But as I grew older, I would brush it off.
I'm out here doing what I can do. I'm doing what I'm not
supposed to be doing. I'm — quote, unquote —
not supposed to be playing ice hockey, but I'm out here
doing well. I just laughed at them when I grew older. I
brushed it off."
Spear knew of these things, and he wanted
to send Ortiz a message, himself. He wanted his young phenom
to mature mentally before he played with the big club, and
started him on junior varsity his freshman year.
It was a decision Ortiz didn't understand,
and Ortiz was a talent Spear didn't necessarily like wasting.
"I thought he was doing it on purpose
just to see how I would come back," Ortiz says. "I
felt that I should have been on varsity, but I guess he
didn't. It was a test. I took it and went with it in stride."
So, Ortiz sent Spear a message of his own.
He went out and scored 24 of the JV team's first 27 goals
and notched all four goals in Framingham's 4-3 win over
the junior varsity squad from Catholic Memorial, traditionally
one of the state's premier high school hockey powers.
Spear was in attendance that night, and it
turned out that would be the last high school game he would
ever watch Ortiz play from the bleachers.
"We knew it was only a matter of time,"
Spear says. "We were having trouble scoring goals,
and we called him up. We still had to sit him down and tell
him to be smart."
Ortiz made waves with his play, but despite
the wishes of his coach, he wasn't always smart. Ortiz would
try taking the game over on his own, but defenses were smarter
and faster. He would get whistled for being offside, turn
to the ref with his palms up and let the official know there
may be others who could do his job a bit better. Then, there
was the time he got booted from a game for high-sticking
His antics were tiring Spear, the coaching staff and his
teammates, and Ortiz very nearly got kicked off the team
during his sophomore season. They sat him down and gave
him an ultimatum: Play with the team, or find somewhere
else to play.
"He would lose his patience and take
a penalty, come out of his game and not play well,"
Spear says. "We had to tell him that doesn't fly. You've
got to maintain your composure."
"They sat me down and were like, 'You've
got to change. You can't keep acting like this. You're hurting
the team more than you're helping yourself. You've got to
put the team before yourself,'" Ortiz recalls. "Ever
since then, I learned to bite my tongue and just play hockey.
"I was a hot head growing up. I thought
I could go out there and do what I wanted to do, but that
wasn't the way the game was supposed to be played. You've
got to play by the rules and be sportsmanlike when you're
out there. That's what [Spear] taught me. You've got to
respect the referees, especially because they're calling
the game. You've got to know when you can say your voice
and when you've got to hold it in."
Even his brother chimed in.
"He learned to make them pay for it on
the scoreboard, and that's how he was," Tristen says.
"I told him to forget about what they were saying and
to just do your job and have fun. If you're having fun,
That was all it took. One last kick in the
rear finally propelled Ortiz to play smarter — and
more importantly — quieter. He learned a simple science.
If he wasn't in the penalty box for doing something stupid,
he could be on the ice scoring a bit more.
His high school career was taking off, but
another setback loomed. After all, it was just never easy
Towards the end of his junior year, his father
got a tough call from the U.S. government. Billy Ortiz,
an Army Reserve, was being stationed in Fort Bragg, N.C.,
and had to prepare for the possibility of shipping overseas.
He missed nearly all of Will's senior year at Framingham
"It stunk because he wasn't there, and
he was always my biggest supporter," Will says. "It
was horrible not seeing him there in the stands. Every day,
I would go out there and look for him, but he wasn't there."
His father was lucky enough not to be sent
|Ortiz has six goals
and 11 assists in 27 games for UMass this season.
Sticking With Framingham
Ortiz's fan club grows by the day. Visit Loring
Arena, and it's tough not to be overwhelmed with the amount
of UMass hats that sit atop people's heads. But it would
be tough to find anyone in the Ortiz contingent with more
admiration for him than Spear.
"If you take a ride through Will's neighborhood,
that was a particularly tough neighborhood in Framingham,"
Spear says. "Not a lot of kids from his neighborhood
make it to where he is. If he didn't have strong character,
a good upbringing and good parents, he'd probably be down
on the block on that street right now instead of up at UMass."
But that's where he is. Nearly every Division
I program in the Northeast showed interest in Ortiz during
his time at Framingham or Salisbury Prep School, but UMass
was the only place that felt right for him. It provided
something more important to Ortiz than anything else —
a sense of familiarity.
"The kids looked like they came from
where I was from," he says. "It felt good in my
gut. There weren't a list of reasons. I just felt comfortable."
He remains comfortable by sticking to his
roots. His father is back home, and a good amount of his
family travels to every game. Ortiz and Spear still talk
about once a week, and Spear makes it to every game he can
fit into his schedule.
Spear never had a prouder moment than seeing
his former star light up the ice at Boston University on
Back during Ortiz's tumultuous sophomore year
of high school, Spear brought him into the stands at Walter
Brown Arena, the old home of the Terriers. They sat and
talked about hockey, life, anything that was on their minds.
Again, Spear's message was a clear one. Ortiz
had the potential to play anywhere he wanted. Spear just
wanted to make sure Ortiz truly understood that. At one
point, Spear pointed to the rafters where all of BU's championship
banners hung with a sense of aura and mystique.
"I said someday I'm going to watch you
play here," Spear recalls. "It was a particularly
special moment for me to see him here at Agganis. We said
we were going to see it, and that dream came true."
Spear jokes his dream nearly turned into a
heart attack. With two minutes remaining in overtime, Ortiz
led a three-on-one into the BU zone. Ortiz fired a shot
that beat John Curry but rang hard off the crossbar, causing
Spear to nearly jump over the glass. The game ended in a
Ortiz wowed the New Hampshire faithful in
October when he toe-dragged Brad Flaishans, one of the league's
premier defensemen, to set up a Mark Matheson goal in a
UMass upset. He's also scored goals against Boston College
and Maine on his way to six scores and 11 assists through
27 games in his rookie campaign.
"I thought he was going to go into Hockey
East and impress the heck out of everybody, and I think
that's exactly what he has done," Spear says. "I
thought Will was going to make other teams say, 'Jeez, we
should have recruited the kid.' I think the coaches who
didn't recruit him or take him are thinking they should
have given him a longer look."
Ortiz still gives back to Spear. He gives
the coach some advice on how to handle certain situations
with the kids, has been back to skate at a handful of Framingham's
practices and was able to take a game in. The way he puts
it, he is forever indebted to his old bench boss.
"He never laid off me," Ortiz says.
"He always kept on my back on all the little things
when I wasn't doing well in school. He would just get on
me. He forced me to do well. I've learned so much from the
little things to becoming more mature, to academics and
athletics. He helped me down a road that could have been
so long, but he made it smoother than it should have been."
Maybe Ortiz isn't lucky. Fortunate might be
a better way to describe him. He is fortunate to have been
surrounded by a brother who sheltered him from the Framingham
streets; fortunate to have a coach who wouldn't allow him
to get by on skill alone; and fortunate to have fallen in
love with hockey, which has given him a free education and
kept him out of an orange jumpsuit and a wooden box.
Without that fortune, Ortiz doesn't know what
he'd be doing or where he would be right now.
"Not here," he says from outside
the UMass locker room. "I'll tell you that much. I'd
be somewhere else."
Jeff Howe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org