I remember when I met Mark Bavis during my one and only year with the North American Hockey League. He was an assistant coach with the Chicago Freeze franchise, while I was working in the league office in Michigan.
I immediately took a liking to him, even though I was a Boston College graduate and he had attended rival Boston University. He was a real hockey player, mind you, while I was and still remain a recreational one.
I once told him I remembered the name "Bavis" from the 1991 Beanpot Tournament championship game at the old Boston Garden, which BU won by an 8-4 score. BC had taken an early lead and then fell behind, but was just two goals down late in the second period.
The next goal would be huge, and BU got it with just one second left before intermission to effectively put the game away. I asked Mark who exactly was the Terrier player who got that goal, and he replied with a sheepish grin "me."
Mark was a genuinely good, down-to-earth guy, right down to his Boston accent as a native of Roslindale, Mass. I saw him again at the 2000 NAHL All-Star Game outside Chicago that season, and once more at the league office later that year before I returned to New Jersey in August 2000. I didn't know when I'd see Mark again, but I'd figured I'd cross paths with him again at a rink somewhere along the way.
After graduating from BU in 1993, Mark played professional hockey for three seasons in two different leagues in Fredericton, Providence and South Carolina. After he retired as an active player in 1996, he tried his hand at coaching, and worked at Brown University and then Harvard University before joining the Freeze.
It was as a scout soon after, however, that he found his true calling, scouring the globe for up-and-coming hockey talent. By 2001, he had quickly become one of the rising stars in the scouting department of the National Hockey League's Los Angeles Kings.
He was 31 years old, single and succeeding at hockey's top level. He had his whole life ahead of him—and then he boarded United Airlines Flight 175 at Boston's Logan Airport the morning of September 11.
That was the second hijacked jetliner to strike the World Trade Center, as it collided with the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. All 65 people on board, including both Mark and Wayne Gretzky's former mentor, Garnet "Ace" Bailey, the Kings' director of scouting, were lost.
It was certainly a surreal day, especially for all of us here in the greater New York City area. I remember my father telling me before he went off to Princeton that a plane had struck the World Trade Center, and I didn't think too much of it at that time.
Like many people probably did, I thought it was a small piston-powered prop job that had somehow gotten off course and collided with one of the towers, not a commercial jumbo jet commandeered by terrorists.
The first thing I did after getting out of the house was drive over to the Union Public Library on Morris Avenue, from where you could always see the Twin Towers on a clear day. On 9/11, however, the sky was choked with billowing black clouds of smoke that looked as if they'd never dissipate, the Towers never again to be seen from that or any other vantage point.
I was on my way to work in the athletic department at Montclair State University not long after, listening to the radio as I made my way up the Garden State Parkway, when the towers crumbled. I still remember the shock and horror in the voices of the broadcasters, as if what was happening before them could not possibly be real.
My office at the time was in a house just off-campus, which itself was largely barren that day. So was Willowbrook Mall in nearby Wayne—recently it's been known as a flood zone, but that day its doors were open. It's just that no one was there, everyone having closed up shop to go home and be with their loved ones in the wake of the terrorist attacks. I've never seen a mall like that, so eerie in its stillness and emptiness, and I hope to never see one like that again.
I didn't really get much, if anything, done at work that day, as I was still trying to comprehend what had taken place across the Hudson River, in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.
The hardest jolt of all was yet to come that evening, though, when I saw the crawl at the bottom of the screen while watching ESPN. It confirmed in bold white letters that Mark Bavis and Ace Bailey had indeed been passengers on United 175.
I was a zombie for the next two days straight.
I've tried to contemplate what Mark must have seen or felt that morning. Did he know right after takeoff that his flight had been hijacked? Did he know his Boeing 767 was on a collision course with the World Trade Center? Who or what did he think of just before the plane's impact with the South Tower? Sadly, no one will ever know.
I got another jolt months later when I accompanied the MSU women's basketball team to a tournament at Emmanuel College in Boston in November. We had already played our first round game (a win) when I snuck off to Boston College (with permission) a few miles away to watch the Eagles play BU in men's ice hockey at Kelley Rink.
It was the first time I had gotten to see a game at BC in more than seven years, having spent most of the time in-between working in Michigan, and I remember I was downright giddy at the prospect of seeing the two rivals face off again like I did many times before when I was an undergrad.
That euphoria lasted about as long as it took me to climb the stairs to the second level of stands at Kelley Rink, where I turned to see Mark's brother, Mike, an assistant coach with BU—and his twin. He looked exactly like Mark, of course, and I'm sure I stared at him like an abject moron for a few seconds. If he noticed me, though, he didn't acknowledge it.
To this day I still feel guilty I didn't say anything or offer any words of condolence to Mike on Mark's loss, but, in truth, I'm still not sure I would have found the right words. Maybe one day I will. I hope to.
Ten-plus years later, it's still hard to believe that Mark is really gone. He might have been a husband and a father by now, might have helped the Kings to a Stanley Cup or two with players that he recommended they draft into their system. For a while I even wore a BU Hockey t-shirt under my gear when I played, to honor Mark, until it just got too beat up. I may bring it out again for a special appearance one day soon, though.
Mark's family has refused to settle their legal case for any monetary gain, as they want United Airlines and other involved parties to admit they made mistakes and were generally lax in their screening procedures, even before 9/11. That may drag on for a while longer, but they believe it's worth fighting for. So do I.
Mark's memory still lives on, primarily in the Mark Bavis Scholarship Foundation at his prep school, Catholic Memorial. He and Bailey have also both been immortalized in the lyrics of "Your Spirit's Alive," by Massachusetts' own Dropkick Murphys.
As I have every year since, except when I vacationed in Michigan four years ago, I will be home in New Jersey for 9/11. I will also wear the commemorative badge I made for that day, which showcases Mark in his BU uniform, a badge I've worn for every 9/11 except when I was away in 2007, to honor his memory.
Last year, the 10th anniversary, I pinned it to a BC polo shirt I wore while I attended several 9/11 remembrance gatherings.
I think Mark might have even approved.