St. James, NY, a small town out on Long Island, is home to 2016 Team USA Masters Forward Joseph Ondrush. Joe is currently employed as the Chief Operating Officer for an architectural, metal, and glass front office company in Manhattan. This is his second time on the Team USA Masters. In 2014 down in Tampa, FL, he was a key part of the Bronze medal winning team. Being able to continue to play ball hockey at the highest levels after a long career that has spanned some four decades and over 30 championships, Joe considers himself a very fortunate man. It is that belief in his good fortune that led him to want to give back to those less fortunate. During our conversation, it became very apparent that while a chance to compete for Team USA is one of his greatest honors, the chance to give back to others is perhaps his most humbling and satisfying honor.
#93 Joe Ondrush
Thanks for agreeing to talk with us, Joe. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Smithtown, NY. It’s a fairly large town in Suffolk County on Long Island. I lived there up until my twenties.
Do you have any family? Wife? Children?
Yes, I’m married 18 years. My wife Jessica and I have two beautiful daughters. Alexa is 15 and Isabelle is 11. I’m sure my kids would want me to include our dog Cashmere as well.
The Ondrush Family
When did you first start playing street hockey? Did you play ice hockey as well? Who introduced you to the game?
I first started when I was about 8 playing in the street with the neighborhood guys. I then moved into organized leagues of Dek hockey which i did up until around 15. I eventually moved strictly into ice hockey and in the off-season I would train playing roller hockey. Finding a tennis court became much easier than finding an ice rink so I moved to just roller hockey. At 23 I joined the professional league RHI team called the New Jersey Rockin Rollers. I played professionally for about 5 years which is when I got married and left the sport completely. I missed it so much so I decided to get back into it. I bumped into some old Dek hockey friends from my childhood days and it started all over again.
Who do you credit for being an influence on you growing up playing street hockey?
There was a friend of mine in my neighborhood who was a few years older than me. His name was Phil Molnar, he was tall like me and he had amazing hands and an incredibly accurate shot. I always pushed myself to get to his level. I remember having my parents take the cars out of the garage when it was raining so I could practice stick handling and shooting.
When did you realize you were getting pretty good at the game? Who and what helped you improve as a player and how?
Sometime around age 12 I started to notice that my shot was much harder and more accurate than a lot of the other kids. Teams from older divisions would ask me to play. I think what helped me the most was watching as many NHL games as I could. I would study their form when shooting then go in my garage and try to emulate it. It would drive my family crazy to hear that ball hit the garage door for hours every day. I must have painted those doors twenty times.
You’re known throughout the ball hockey community for having one of hardest shots of all time. Have you ever had it clocked?
I actually have. I use a radar gun for the clinics I give the kids and I usually fire a couple at it. The highest I got was 110 mph at the beginning of this year.
Joe winding up from the point
When did you get involved in the competitive side of street hockey? What was the first championship you ever won?
When I was around 8 my parents put in a league at my local church. I loved it so much that I wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before a game. My second year there we won the championship. I cam remember it like it was yesterday. This sport has been very rewarding.
What is your best hockey memory growing up?
In 1990 I won Nationals in Leominster and was awarded the MVP. One of the best parts about it was I won it with Anthony Cillo. Now 26 years later we can go for gold together. He is like the Mark Messier of ball hockey. He is a true competitor and a friend for almost 30 years.
Team USA strategy meeting
I understand that you do quite a bit of work through a foundation/charity?
The foundation is called “Silent Night Foundation” and I started it with my wife and kids in 2014. We had done a fair amount of charity work over the years but we wanted something to call our own. We wanted a direct connection to the beneficiaries. Not only do we meet all the families we help but every penny we raise goes to helping these families. I believe if your fortunate enough to give back you should. My parents did an amazing job always making the holidays special for me and my siblings even though they didn’t have much not just because of the gifts but because of the family being together. My foundation focuses on making the holidays brighter for underprivileged and ill children during the holiday season.
Why did you choose to focus your charity work in this particular area?
There is no greater feeling than being able to make the face of a child light up whether with a gift they have always wanted or flying in a family member or friend. Maybe paying bills for a struggling family to relieve their stress so they can focus on taking care of their child. I can’t tell you how rewarding it is, especially having my daughters part of it and seeing first hand how fortunate they are.
What are some of the challenges you face currently with the foundation?
Our biggest challenge is probably that we are a new foundation so the public is a little hesitant to donate. Hopefully as time goes on and through word of mouth the public will become more trusting and help us grow the foundation. There are so many children who never get to enjoy the magic of the holiday season.
What aspect of the foundation work do you find really makes you enjoy it?
Sometimes when I am out people will come over and thank me for helping someone they know or I’ll get a letter in the mail thanking me. It’s little gestures that make you feel good about giving back.
Are there any recent stories that you’d like to share regarding the foundation’s efforts?
There was a little boy Bradley this year. He’s 5 and he has cancer. What an amazing kid, he has an 11 year old brother Philip who has missed out on a lot in life because of his brothers constant trips to the hospital and time and money Bradley’s illness has cost the family. We got a list from the pediatric hospital he was in of things the family would want. In most cases we would buy some of the items. This time we wiped out the whole list and then some. When we showed up at their house on December 23rd with two packed SUV’s the feeling of joy on the children’s faces and the appreciation from the parents is something I will never forget. That night was magical for all of us. We even gave the parents a trip to go away and spend time together for just the two of them, something they hadn’t done since before Bradley was born. There was a lot of happy tears for a change in that house. Our goal every year is to accomplish that with as many children as we can and if anyone would like to help they can check out our website silentnightfoundation.org.
Getting back to hockey, in 2014 you were on the Team USA Masters that won the Bronze medal. What was that experience like for you?
Amazing!!!! I will never forget sitting in the locker room before the bronze medal game and hearing the crowd chant “USA USA USA”. Just thinking about it gives me the chills. Spending time at the resort with the players from the other countries was a lot of fun too. It was an unforgettable experience.
Certainly the loss to Team Canada in the semi finals with 1 second left on the clock was perhaps the toughest loss for a lot of guys in their career. Have you put that behind you or are you using that loss as some kind of internal motivation for 2016?
Both. Even though it was two years ago and I’ve moved on, I will never forget it. It’s a memory I continue to play in my head and when I’m tired from training I remember that feeling of disappointment and it pushes me to keep going. I think the group was pretty confident that had we won that game we had a real good chance at winning the Gold. We can’t wait to give this another shot. We have unfinished business.
Joe getting ready to fire on the power play vs Canada
What message do you have for the youth of this sport who are just starting their ball hockey careers?
If you love this sport than work at it, you never know what stage you might be playing on someday. I never thought it would take me to a place of representing my country. Maybe today’s youth can represent the USA in the Olympics.
How can people donate to your foundation?
The easiest way is through our website. There is a donation button on the home page. Checks can also be mailed directly to the foundation.
Is there anything besides money that people can donate?
Absolutely, plenty of people donate product and services based on the business they own or work for. Some are able to offer discounts where they work. Others will donate their time. One of the most important things people can do for the foundation is just spread the word.
ASHI really appreciates you taking your time to talk to us, Joe. We wish you and The Silent Night Foundation nothing but the best going forward. Is there anyone you’d like to mention?
Sure, most importantly my wife for being a amazing single parent every time I’m at the rink, the gym ,or away at tournaments. With two kids and a house to take care of it makes it easier for me to do this. Also, my teammates over the years that I have failed and succeeded with. I have made some life long friends in this sport and I have some incredible memories to go with it.