In the past few years, Stephen Mallaro had thought he detected signs that his father, Marc, was growing a little soft and mushy. Marc, a stoic man with an uncompromising sense of right and wrong, started concluding his conversations with his son by saying “I love you.” When Stephen left his house in Onondaga on the night of Dec. 17, 2008, to skate with some friends, he shouted a goodbye up the stairs to his father. “All right. Be careful. I love you,” Marc replied before Stephen hurried out the door.
They were the last words Stephen ever heard from his father. Around noon the next day, Marc, 48, who worked for the Solvay Electric Department, was electrocuted while doing wire work in a cherry picker. He was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
Stephen, at home at the time, got a call from a family friend that his dad was hurt. He was initially only mildly concerned, because the dad he knew had an unbending body and spirit. When he arrived at the hospital and parked his car, he started running because a sense of dread overtook him. The crowd around the scene inside confirmed his fears.
Thirteen months later, virtually everything is going great for Stephen. He’s worked his way into the lineup as junior defenseman for the Oswego State hockey team. The Lakers are ranked No. 1 in the country in Division III and he paces the team’s blueliners with 12 points (6-6). It’s all almost perfect, except that the man who spent his life putting Stephen in a position to succeed isn’t around to enjoy it. Wait. That’s not exactly how Stephen views it. The way he phrases it, Marc isn’t there in person. But he knows, Stephen explains, exactly what’s going on. “Every time I score a goal, or do something great, and someone says, ‘Good job,’ I can picture my dad saying, ‘Good job,’” Stephen said. “I just think about him all the time. That’s enough for me to succeed.”
Whenever Stephen would catch Marc’s eye at games — whether they were at West Genesee, Northwood prep school or Oswego State — Dad was usually standing off by himself near a railing or right behind the glass. Mom Tracy and any combination of Stephen’s two sisters and one brother might be sitting together in the stands. Marc liked to remove himself from the fray, analyze without emotion.
“I don’t think he liked to hear other people complain a lot. I think he liked having his own thoughts,” Stephen said. “He’d give me the details after the game. He always was honest with us. He would never say anything to us that didn’t mean something.” Marc’s voice was always the one that Stephen ran to. When the children played around the neighborhood, Marc’s booming call from his doorway was the signal to come home. Their return pace had better be brisk. There were the usual scraps and tiffs between the four children, but nothing out of the ordinary. They knew better than to let their raucousness elevate to the level of a problem that might reach Dad’s ears. Marc would tell Stephen that fire and aggressiveness are acceptable traits if channeled in the right direction, especially when it came to hockey.
“Growing up, I was always competitive. He taught me a lot about how to control my aggressiveness. He taught me a lot about life,” Stephen said. “He stayed on me to stay out of trouble. He always had my back. My mom was on top of me for school. My dad was on top of me for hockey. He always had this saying, do well in school for your mom. Maybe he didn’t want her to get mad at him.”
Tatoos? Pierced ears? A baseball cap worn askew? Not under Marc’s roof. Marc worked long and hard on his job and his home projects, and everything proceeded best with a sense of order and cleanliness. Those are two of Marc’s many traits that live on in his son. “If I start cleaning one thing, I have to clean the whole place,” Stephen said of his campus residence. “I hate being messy. I like everything organized.”
Stephen, 22, played at West Genesee through his junior season before switching to Northwood in Lake Placid for a couple years. Marc and Tracy made the four-hour commute to his games as often as possible. Stephen’s last Northwood competition was a tournament in Indiana. When he saw Marc’s vehicle in the parking lot before the game, he thought, no way. But Marc had made the surprise drive. Northwood won the tournament, and Dad shed his cool veneer to snap pictures like an awestruck fan. Stephen said he thought he saw Marc cry for the first time. “He was a tough man. It was the first time I saw that emotion,” Stephen said. “He just said, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ That’s something that’s burned in my mind, I’ll always have.”
After Northwood, Stephen played one season of juniors in Nepean, Ont., before moving on to the Lakers. That was his biggest hockey challenge. Oswego State’s roster was stocked with veteran players who had helped bring it a national title and Mallaro didn’t play much as a freshman. “He’s not a complainer,” said Lakers coach Ed Gosek. “He rode it out. His story should be an inspiration to other kids.”
Mallaro’s sophomore season began much like his freshman year ended — with a lot of healthy scratches. But, as the Christmas break rolled around, there was finally reason for optimism. Gosek decided that Mallaro had earned more minutes, and he was going to get them as soon as the second half of the season started. Mallaro finished his finals and headed home to settle in for the Christmas joy that was about to be shattered. And, just as Marc had envisioned on so many cold winter nights, Stephen was in Oswego State’s lineup for the team’s first game back on Jan. 2. Tracy sat in the stands, barely able to control her emotions.
“I was crying,” she said. “But I loved hockey. I know my husband would have wanted me there. You do what you have to do. You have to support your children. That’s what my husband would have expected me to do. I have to think my husband is watching (Stephen). What else is there to think?” Hockey remained Stephen’s passion, more than ever. But it also became his haven.
“Coming back and skating with all my friends was easier for me than sitting at home thinking about it more than I should,” he said. “What keeps me going is the guys sitting next to me (on the bench). It’s almost a sense of pride for my dad. I’m not going to go out there and feel sorry for myself. My dad raised me to be tougher than that.”
Stephen could honor the memory of his father by keeping his picture in his locker, or writing his initials on his skates, or coming up with some other symbol of personal significance. But that’s just not him. There’s only one way to appropriately remind himself of what he’s lost.
Stephen looks in the mirror. “I am who he was. I feel like I’m pretty much the same person as him,” Stephen said. “All the time I have with him I have in my memory. He taught me everything.”