Anyone who knew and loved Suszka, before his untimely death at the age of 47 from cancer last August, would have realized that was Tommy's way. He never wanted for anyone to make a big deal over him. He was always thinking of others, never thinking of himself.
It's the reason why his close friend and colleague at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, Jerry Colagiovanni, organized the event, along with fellow Jersey City native Tom Shine, getting members of the New Jersey Devils Alumni Association to skate against a team of local hockey enthusiasts to raise money for an educational fund for Suszka's three young children, Thomas, Matthew and Elyse.
The event was magnificent, with more than 800 fans in attendance to greet such former Devil greats as Bruce Driver, current Devils' assistant coach John MacLean and legendary defenseman Ken Daneyko, whose No. 3 jersey was set to be retired by the team in a special ceremony at the Continental Airlines Arena Friday night. Although popular goalkeeper Glenn "Chico" Resch, currently the team's television color commentator, didn't suit up with the other old-timers, Resch was also on hand to lend his support, signing autographs for all the fans in attendance.
Other former Devil and NHL standouts to play in the game included Garry Howatt, Michele Petit, Alexi Kasatonov, Rob Skrlac and Kerry Huffman.
Obviously, the biggest cheers were reserved for guys like Driver, MacLean and Daneyko, guys who were heroes on some of the Devils' three Stanley Cup champion teams. In fact, Daneyko is one of five guys to have played for all three of the teams (1995, 2000 and 2003).
"It really was a great turnout," said Daneyko, who has been keeping busy in his retirement, having just recently opened a health club in Hoboken. "It was a lot of fun. I didn't know Johnny [MacLean] was going to be there. I know he has a busy schedule with coaching. I don't play as often as I used to. I just don't have the time to do so and I really don't have the desire to do so. But over the years, I've done a lot of charity stuff and I'm glad when I get the chance to give back. When I heard about the cause, I wanted to help out any way I could. When someone passes away young and there are children involved, you want to do whatever you can. It's a nice feeling to be able to do something to help. I had a good time."
Driver, who is the president of the Devils Alumni Association, rounded up the players to participate after getting calls from Colagiovanni and Shine, guys who used to work for the Devils and have had long-standing relationships with the team.
"This is exactly what the Alumni Association is for," Driver said. "We do about 10 charity games a year and we've done them for large charities, like Juvenile Diabetes and the American Cancer Society. But nothing hits closer to home when it's a family like this. When I received the call from Jerry and he told me what he wanted to do, it was pretty hard to say no. I think we all wanted to open our hearts as much as we could to the family."
Before the game, the locker room was opened to the Suszka boys and they were able to meet and hang out with the Devil heroes, posing for pictures and getting autographs. The warmth and the camaraderie were evident from the first embrace. The players might not have known Tommy Suszka, but they were certainly getting to know his wonderful kids.
"It's all in the spirit of the game," Driver said. "We were just glad to help."
MacLean also was happy to take part in the festivities.
"I usually don't have the time to take part in the charity games, but this one just happened to work out," MacLean said. "I know Tommy [Shine] well, so when he called me and asked if I would help out, I was glad to do so, even though it's a rare Saturday night off. I was glad to be able to do something to help these kids. If you can do it, you do it, raising some money for a family that needs it."
The final tally was a staggering $17,000. It didn't matter what the score of the game was, which definitely didn't feature the Devils' famed center-ice trap made to cut down on scoring. Everyone was a winner.
"We really had a great time," Colagiovanni said. "I think Tommy [Suszka] was here, watching over everyone else. The players donated their time and I couldn't thank them enough. I was blown away by the support. Words can't express how amazed I was."
Even Daneyko was amazed when he was told the final total raised for the fund.
"That's really incredible," Daneyko said. "It's nice that we were able to do something like that."
And somewhere, Tommy Suszka is smiling that broad smile, knowing that he still is so thoroughly beloved by so many people.
- Jim Hague