Colorado College hockey recruit changed forever after dad died in twin towers on 9/11

Joe Paisley The Gazette

James Martello, Jr. remembers little about the day that changed his life and those of so many others.

James Martello on the ice. photo the Gazette

James Martello on the ice. photo the Gazette

The New Jersey Hitmen forward was only 7 when his father, James, 41, died during the collapse of the twin towers following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

The recent Colorado College hockey commit was never the same. Losing his father left a desire for a mentor he found in sports and soon within the National Collegiate Hockey Conference program.

His journey to Division I hockey never may have been completed because he almost died alongside his dad.

The 7-year-old was scheduled to go with his father to work at the Wall Street firm of Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor of the north tower that day. He would have been trapped during its collapse.

“Mom just decided I needed to go to school that day instead, so I did,” he said. “I don’t recall much of that day.”

His mother, Sheila, remembers it as a day her life changed forever.

Now a single mom with two boys, ages 5 and 7, she and others pushed a bill through the U.S. Congress that rebated the past two years of federal taxes paid by victims of the attacks.

She almost never missed a game for James and Thomas, now a Princeton freshman linebacker. The stay-at-home mother does the same now for her youngest, Nicholas, from a recent marriage.

“She is a good mom,” James said. “She cheered when I scored and only got mad at me when I fought. She didn’t know enough to critique me after the game like the other players’ fathers did. That was OK most of the time but sometimes I missed that.”

Not having a dad to look up to prompted James to look for guidance from coaches. Sheila knew he needed a role model and looked for programs with coaches worth emulating.

They both think they found it with the CC coaching staff.

“I knew it was the right school for James when I saw the look in his eyes when the three coaches talked to him,” she said. “He was soaking in everything they said.”

“Coaches have always been someone I can look to for advice,” James said. “When I met (Tigers) coach (Mike) Haviland I knew I could to talk to him about anything.”

That is consistent with the bond CC coaches desire within the program.

“We want to have the kind of program where players can talk to us about anything on or off the ice,” Haviland said. “We want them to feel they can call us 10-15 years from now and ask for advice or just tell us how they are doing in hockey and in life. We want them to be part of the CC family now and in the future.”

That connection and the chance to play college hockey made CC the perfect fit, James said. The Tigers coaches liked what they learned about him after he matured this past offseason.

The defensive forward doubled his point production from his previous All-Star season with 42 points (26 assists) in 43 games after he was challenged by Hitmen coach Toby Harris to work harder this offseason to reach Division I hockey.

He took the advice instead of leaving for a team with a less-demanding coach.

“In this day and age of people leaving for greener pastures and empty promises in other places, James’ intestinal fortitude, work ethic and character paid off big time,” said Harris, who played more than 100 games for Boston College. “He was always looking for someone to look up to and when he was in his mid-teens, maybe he lost his way. But he matured and he really dedicated himself to making that next step in his career.”

His talent and work ethic make him a good teammate, said Hitmen defenseman Ben Israel, who signed with CC last fall.

“I am really excited about being his teammate for another four years,” he said. “He is a quick skater who makes it look effortless and someone who should excel on the big Olympic sheet. He is a good all-around player who does it all well.”

James’ journey to college hockey may have faltered if he hadn’t realized he needed to make the most of the opportunities life gave him; even after the 9/11 attacks took his father away.

“He did it,” Harris said. “I am so happy for James and his family after what they went through. Going to a program like Colorado College says a lot about him as a hockey player. It says a lot about him as a young man.”

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