By Tom Hanson
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – As an infant, home for Florida Everblades center Paul Vincent was an old, rusty shopping cart.
The basket his brother pushed around the streets of Utica, N.Y., for almost a year.
Vincent never has known his biological father.
And he doesn’t care to ever see his birth mother.
When Vincent was six months old, she abandoned him and his brother Curtis, a 4-year-old at the time.
The two survived by eating food — and whatever else — from garbage cans.
Now, Vincent, 29, endures as a hockey vagabond.
His 10-year professional resume includes more stops than a Greyhound bus schedule.
After being selected in the sixth round of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Vincent has bounced around among 23 different minor-league hockey teams in 13 states and three countries.
The No. 8 he wears for the Everblades is the fifth different sweater he’s donned this season alone.
Despite constantly having to change his address and fill U- Hauls, Vincent never gets tired of the trades and the waiver wires.
As long as there are skates on his feet, a stick in his hands and the dream of winning a hockey championship in his head, Vincent never feels homeless.
“Home is wherever I’m playing hockey,” Vincent says. “I’ve had a lot of homes in my career, but at least for now I have a home.”
A forgotten life
Vincent was born Tyrone Davis on Jan. 5, 1975.
His mother didn’t accept him because he wasn’t black.
According to Curtis Vincent, his mother was a drug addict and just didn’t care about anything but finding her next fix.
“She would be gone for days,” says Curtis Vincent. “It was real bad. So bad I try not to remember it. We had to go out and fend for ourselves and get food from whomever or however. And stay with whoever would take us in. It hurts just talking about it.”
Finally, the two boys ended up at a friend of the family’s house, who knew of an orphanage in Boston.
For three years, Tyrone and Curtis Davis called this home. It wasn’t the Ritz-Carlton, but at least they weren’t eating paint anymore.
When the courts finally caught up with their mother, she wanted to keep Curtis. But didn’t want anything to do with Tyrone.
“She told the judge, ‘I don’t want Tyrone, he’s not black,’ ” Curtis Vincent says. “The judge then decided that she wasn’t fit to have either of us.”
Paul Vincent calls being rejected by his mother “a blessing in disguise.”
“At the time I was hurt, but who knows what would have happened to us if we went back to her,” Paul Vincent says. “I’d probably be a junkie just like her.”
It’s a part of his life he doesn’t like to talk about. In 1997, he met his wife, Leslie, in Peoria, Ill., while playing for the Rivermen.
Three months later, they were married.
Yet it took almost a year before Paul told his bride about his horrific upbringing.
“It’s a story that should be on Oprah,” Leslie said from her mother’s home in Illinois. “Some people don’t believe it, but sadly it happened.”
A new beginning
After three years in the orphanage, Tyrone and Curtis Davis were adopted.
Tyrone was excited finally to have a father and mother who cared.
So excited that he wanted to change his name.
“The judge asked me what name I’d like to take,” Tyrone says. “Without thinking I said I’ll take his name, pointing to my father. ‘Why?’ The judge asked. I said ‘because I’ve never had a father.’ ”
Paul Vincent Sr. was a Boston police officer. His love of kids came from coaching a youth hockey team. The Vincents, who were unable to bear children, adopted six youngsters, including Paul and Curtis.
Paul, the youngest of the lot, immediately took to his father.
Which meant he headed to the rink with him as he helped out college teams such as Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute in Troy, N.Y., and Boston College.
Paul Vincent Sr. says his son could’ve played any sport he wanted.
“He was just a natural athlete and he was probably a better baseball player,” Vincent Sr. says. “But he wanted to be a hockey player and that was probably a curse.”
The curse that followed the youngest Vincent was the fact he was abandoned as a child.
With his curly blonde hair and blue eyes, he became adept at manipulating the system. Paul Vincent Sr. says his son managed to get what he wanted with minimum effort.
Hockey proved to be a great outlet. It helped him stay out of trouble. It helped him get through school.
“Paul had a learning disability because he ate paint as a kid,” Paul Vincent Sr. says. “But hockey was a way for him to feel good about himself.”
A long journey
Paul Vincent Jr. had the talent to play college hockey — but lacked the grades.
He had the talent to play in the National Hockey League — but lacked the work ethic. “Adam Oates, who stayed with us for three summers, said Paul had the most amazing hands,” Paul Sr. says. “He had the talent.
He just lacked the desire.”
In 1993, the Toronto Maple Leafs selected Vincent in the sixth round. Because of his tremendous promise, he signed a three-year contract.
It would become a promise that never was fulfilled.
Vincent never played one minute in hockey’s top league.
Vincent showed he had ability.
In 1994-95, while playing for the Swift Current Broncos in Canada, he scored 59 goals in 62 games.
The knock against Vincent was his heart.
He admits now he didn’t have that drive. He didn’t develop the work habits it took to get to the next level.
“It just never panned out,” Vincent says about his NHL aspirations. “I wasn’t ready. I was a little immature. I know I had a lot of skill and talent but I never understood the other part of the game. This part of the game (pointing to his heart). That slipped by me and I have no one to blame but myself.”
Even though he didn’t get to the next level, Vincent still loved to play the game that helped him get out of the streets.
This is when Vincent became a traveling warrior playing wherever there was ice.
From the mecca of high school football — Odessa, Texas — to a red-light district in Europe (Amsterdam), Vincent laced up his skates in some strange places.
He’s played in 13 different states — one for every tooth knocked out of his mouth. And he can rattle off the names of the podunk towns like they were the ABC’s.
He’s played on teams with no money. In Lakeland this year he played just three games before they decided he was too expensive.
He’s played on teams where he had to wait two weeks before he cashed a check. In San Angelo, Texas, during the 2001-02 season, the players were paid out of what he said was a bogus account. The team appropriately was named the Outlaws.
When he was put on the waiver wire just before the trade deadline early this year by the Augusta Lynx, he thought about retiring. He considered heading to South Carolina to teach hockey and run a rink for a friend.
Then the Everblades came calling.
One last chance
With the birth of his daughter, Rylie, four months ago, Vincent’s outlook on life has changed.
But the dream of winning a championship hasn’t.
In Game 1 of the Kelly Cup Finals, Vincent scored Florida’s only goal. In Game 2, he was put on the inactive list by the team.
He says having a chance to capture a title was the motivation for moving his family once again.
“I’ve never won a championship and that’s why we play,” says Vincent, who spent most of his time in Florida on the injured reserve list with a broken right pinkie finger. “I’m too old for the NHL now. But I can still play and I have experience on my side. And I feel it’s my job to teach the younger players to help whatever way I can.”
His wife says she has grown accustomed to moving around.
After seven years of marriage, she says she’ll support his decision to continue to play. But she feels that the birth of their daughter will make up his mind.
“Because of his upbringing and being adopted I didn’t have any doubts that Paul would make a great father,” Leslie says. “But from the minute she was born there has been a love affair. He would do anything for her and if that means giving up hockey, that’s what he’ll most likely do.”
Paul and his adopted father were estranged for the past five years. With the birth of Rylie, they recently reconciled. Now Vincent Sr. hopes his son will take his fatherly advice. He says he hopes Paul’s own childhood will make him understand the importance of a stable family.
“We never forced our kids to play hockey, we just wanted them to be the best at whatever they did,” says Vincent Sr., who runs a hockey rink in Bridgewater, Mass. “He could be the best UPS driver and I’d be proud of him. I think there is a point and a time when you need to realize you need to give it up.”
Giving up just isn’t in Vincent’s blood.
Which is why he probably survived living on the streets with his brother. Which is why he’s been able to adjust to playing for so many teams in such a short time.
And even though his $12,000-a-year salary barely pays the bills, it’s more than he ever could have dreamed of as a kid.
“No matter how bad it’s been, it’s never been as bad as it was or could have been,” Vincent says.
“We had it tough as kids but it made us stronger and that has helped me survive. And thanks to hockey, I’ve never had it bad.”