By Phil Stacey
---- — Facing 85 mile-an-hour slapshots from close range, putting your masked head in the middle of a swirl of skate blades and swinging sticks, standing as the last line of defense for an entire hockey program — those things aren’t tough.
Tim Birarelli knows this.
Tough is seeing your 44-year-old father, your role model, your hero, stricken with liver cancer. Tough is watching the man you’ve tried to emulate -- lobstering at a young age on your own boat like he did -- go from a gregarious, always-happy guy to one constantly exhausted from the treatment coursing through his system.
Tough is seeing your mom watch her husband suffer. Tough is having to be as much a father figure as older sibling to your two younger brothers, 13-year-old Tommy and 10-year-old Trey. Tough is not knowing when, or if, it will ever get better for your dad.
Birarelli, a 17-year-old junior goaltender for Beverly High regarded as one of the best at his position in Eastern Mass. high school hockey circles, deals with it the same wy he approaches the sport he loves: Take it one day at a time, be thankful, and don’t look too far ahead.
“Some days are good, some days are bad. It’s a lot of ups and downs,” admitted Birarelli, who leads the unbeaten Panthers (7-0-1) into battle against Northeastern Conference North rival Marblehead (5-2) for the second time in eight days tonight at Salem State’s Rockett Arena (6 p.m.).
“Hockey is my escape, two hours every day where I can just not think about anything else happening off the ice. It’s my ‘me’ time to have some fun. Being around my friends, doing what I love ... it’s a release.”
While the health of his father, Joseph, weighs heavily on his mind, it has not affected Birarelli when the puck his dropped. Coming into tonight’s contest against the Headers, he sports a 6-0-1 record with a 1.05 goals-against average and .934 save percentage to go with three shutouts (all tops on the North Shore). He began the season with 11 straigh shutout periods.
“The rink has been Timmy’s sanctuary,” says his mother, Nicki Birarelli, who has been married to Joe for the last 17 years. “I think Timmy has really focused his energy into hockey or thinking about hockey. When he’s not at school or not on the boat, he’s thinking about hockey.”
While Birarelli is fortunate to tend goal for a deep, talented and experienced team, he is an enormous piece of the Panther puzzle. A shade over 6-foot and about 170 pounds, he’s agile, talented and fearless between the pipes, a big reason why Beverly has lost only two of its last 29 games dating back to the start of last season.
He also has the full support of his Panther mates, both on and off the ice.
“Timmy’s always been one of our favorite kids on the team not only because he’s a great goaltender, but he’s a great kid, too,” senior captain Matt Hamor said. “We try to keep him strong ... and he’s pretty good keeping himself strong.”
But the memory of that day six months ago — July 2 — when Birarelli got the phone call saying his father had been diagnosed with cancer is never far away from his thoughts.
“He has a mass growing on his liver and it’s partially on his lungs, too,” said Joe Birarelli’s eldest son. “The doctors are trying to knock that out with chemo. My dad had kidney cancer when he was a kid, and they think now from all the radiation he had after it was removed (that) this cropped up, and it’s taken this long for it to be noticed.
“I’m just trying to do whatever I can. It was explained to me shortly after we found out about this that I’d have to pick up a few things, which I expected. My brothers and I, we do whatever we can for my mom. We try to comfort her as best as we can.”
The Beverly hockey family, and the community at large, have followed suit. Nicki Birarelli said folks bring meals by their home and check in on them to see how her husband and the family are doing.
“It’s so wonderful to have the support that we’ve had,” she said. “It’s true of certain teachers of Timmy’s, too, who’ve been very good to him, both before and after all of this with Joe came up.”
‘Always pretty even keeled’
Joe Birarelli, says his wife, was never into hockey or sports in general. He grew up in the Ryal Side section of Beverly (one house over from where the family now lives) and went to the old Patten Vocational School at Beverly High to learn a trade. After graduating in 1987 he went to work lobstering, like his father.
His boat, Shooting Star, was a mainstay to fishermen in the waters near Beverly, Danvers and beyond. His passed along his love of the ocean to his two oldest sons; Timmy started going out on his own boat, The Hat Trick, with his best friend and BHS hockey teammate, Ted Leathersich, four summers ago. Tim’s brother Tommy now rounds out their crew of three.
“Mr. Birarelli is one of the most upbeat people you’d ever meet. He was always asking me, ‘Teddy Man, how are you? How’s your day going?’ It’s weird not having his personality around,” said the 16-year-old Leathersich, a forward on the hockey team who also golfs and plays baseball at Beverly High. “His knowledge of lobstering, saying stuff like ‘the wind’s blowing this way and the tide is that way, so you should set up here’, it was great for us younger guys.
“One day he said to us, ‘I’m having some pain in my intestines,’ and we thought he maybe was just deyhdrated or had diverticulitis. Then when we found out what it really was, and it just floored me.”
While Timmy grew up playing hockey and gravitating toward the goal, Joe and Nicki would look at each other and smile when other parents in the stands would be a bundle of nerves, yelling themselves hoarse.
“We didn’t know much about the game and certainly weren’t in a position to give Timmy any advice,” Nicki Birarelli said with a chuckle. “He was always pretty even keeled out there, anyway. Other parents would say, ‘Aren’t you nervous?’ when a game would be close or go to a shootout, and I’d say ‘Timmy will be just fine.’”
A starter at Beverly High since his freshman year, Timmy tended goal while his parents made all of his games, home and away. Up until the last two weeks, when chemotherapy left him too weak to leave the house, Joe Birarelli had never missed one of his son’s games.
Tim Birarelli is hoping his father will be able to make it back to his customary spot in front of the press box at Salem State for a Panther home game before season’s end. “I’d love to have him there, but either way I still have to perform,” he said. “It’s all about getting the Ws.”
More like family at this point
Best friends since being put next to each other in Mr. Brune’s sixth-grade reading class at Briscoe Middle School, Birarelli and Leathersich joke in the way that best friends are fond of doing. Leathersich said he can beat the all-star goaltender on his glove side during practices; Birarelli fires back and says Leathersich can’t score on him anyplace else.
Inseparable wouldn’t quite be an accurate way to describe them, but it’s close. “We’re not really friends any more; it’s more like family at this point,” said Leathersich. His parents, Lew and Leslie, are extremely tight close with the Birarellis, and Ted said it wasn’t uncommon for him to spend four or five nights in a row at Tim’s home during the summer.
They “think of ourselves as equals” on their 34-foot wooden boat, said Birarelli, and fish inside Baker’s Island all the way to seven or eight miles offshore. They’ll spend the winter doing maintenance work on the boat and their equipment, getting ready to go again in April.
“There’s never a dull moment out there,” Leathersich admitted. “It’s great money and I get to hang out with my best friend and little brother every day. I love it.”
This may be Birarelli’s last season at Beverly High; a season after going 14-1-1 with a 0.99 GAA, .943 save percentage and seven shutouts, prep schools have shown interest in his goaltending skills. He knows that if he wants to realize his goal of playing college hockey, that might be his best path to do so. If that becomes the case, Birarelli would likely repeat his junior year to get two seasons of prep school hockey under his pads.
“I haven’t made too many decisions yet because of what’s going on in my life outside of hockey,” he said, “but it’d be nice to get noticed and have that chance (to play collegiately).”
But there is unfinished business for Birarelli and the Panthers. An 18-1-1 regular season last winter was marred by a second straight opening round playoff loss — this one to archrival Danvers, whom the Panthers had handled twice during the regular season. “Stunned would be the word, even now,” said Birarelli. “I’m over it; what happened happened and that’s the way it goes. It (stinks) it had to be us, but it was a great learning experience. We just have to do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“We only lost two guys, and everyone that’s back hates that taste in their mouths from last season,” added Leathersich. “No one has forgotten that feeling.”
It’s often unspoken, but everyone that pulls on the BHS sweater knows what their ultimate goal is this winter: bring the program its first-ever Division 2 state championship. For that to happen, Birarelli will have to have a huge role in that outcome.
“Timmy takes what he does very, very seriously when he’s in goal,” said Hamor. “He’s definitely the kind of goalie who can lead you to a title.”