Austin Martin tapped his goalie pads with his glove before Mt. Lebanon battled North Allegheny in the PIHL Class AAA championship game.
Meanwhile his mother, Dana, clutched a chain around her neck that contained a platinum wedding band.
Neither were nervous gestures.
The acts were nods to Jason Michael Martin, father, husband, businessman, coach, avid golfer and hockey enthusiast.
Martin, 47, passed away Dec. 26, 2020, because of complications from COVID-19.
“I feel like (my dad) is watching me, especially during the playoffs,” said Austin, 16. “I talk to him, especially during the last two minutes of a game and I just need him.”
Dana echoes those desires.
“Jason be here. Jason be here,” she murmured as she placed her finger through the ring as the teams are embroiled in a 1-1 deadlock through two periods. “I think about where he should be, where he would be standing and how proud he would be of Austin and this whole team.
“I know he’s watching them,” she added. “Even one of his teammates mothers said her son told her he could feel Austin’s dad on the ice. That’s when it hit me. I really think that’s the big reason why the team did so well. He’s guided us through this. Jason wanted us to win.”
Although the Blue Devils lost the title game to the Tigers, 4-1, and Austin said he was “mad” about that result, he acknowledged the improbable nature of Mt. Lebanon’s postseason run.
“If anyone had told me that we would have been playing in the championship, I would not have believed you,” he said.
Halfway through the season Lebo was out of contention for a playoff spot. The Blue Devils started 1-8 but rallied around a coaching change as well as inspiration from the elder Martin.
The Blue Devils players all placed commemorative stickers on their helmets in recognition of Martin’s passing.
For his part, Austin had his father’s initials emblazoned on his left pad and the date of his death on the right. On the inside of his left forearm, he tattooed in Roman numerals his father’s birth date.
A full life
Jason Martin was born Sept. 1, 1973.
The son of Renee Martin and the late J. Michael Martin, he played hockey at Mt. Lebanon and the drums in the Blue Devil Marching Band.
Although he had met her in Spanish class, Martin started dating his wife 30 years ago on April 11 after she had made the Mt. Lebanon Rockettes, a kick-line style traditional drill team.
After graduating in 1991, Martin attended the Kiski School in Indiana County for a year before matriculating to the University of South Carolina where he earned a bachelor’s degree in hotel, restaurant and tourism administration as well as sports administration.
Martin married his high-school sweetheart Aug. 8, 1998. He proposed by renting an airplane banner that read “Dana, will you marry me? Love, Jason” while the couple vacationed in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
During their early days as a married couple, the Martins resided in Kentucky. Martin was an assistant PGA professional there for six years. At the time of his death, he was director of sales at the Crowne Plaza and Suites in Bethel Park.
When his sons, Blake, 20, and Austin, 16, were born, he introduced them to sports.
Austin recalled starting his career at age 5 in the Mt. Lebanon Developmental League, where players learn fundamentals, how to skate and the rules of the game. Participants rotate through the positions, but Austin admitted to being born to play goalie.
“I loved it,” he said. “I thought it would be so much fun being the main part of the game and the center of attention.”
For Austin, it was the same way with baseball. He gravitated toward playing catcher.
Austin played hockey and baseball until three summers ago when he focused his athletic endeavors on the rink instead of the diamond. Austin played Mites with Mt. Lebanon Hockey Association, Squirts with the Pens Elite team before returning to the MLHA Hornets. He’s been a member of the Pittsburgh Predators AAA U15 and U16 teams.
Austin credits his dad for nurturing his interest in hockey. He said his father and uncle, Jeff, had four season tickets for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“My brother and I would always go to a bunch of games and we always liked watching,” Austin said. “but I never thought about playing hockey until my dad signed me up. Ever since then, he taught or told me everything I need to do.
“To be honest, dad liked golf more,” he added. “It was more his sport and he wanted us to play but for me, I like hockey more.”
So the elder Martin adapted.
“He ended up being Austin’s and Blake’s biggest supporters,” said Dana.
No matter the weather, Austin and his dad traveled the country playing in hockey tournaments from Silver Sticks in Michigan to nationals in 2018 at Notre Dame to regular road trips to Ohio, Buffalo and Philadelphia.
Austin recalled some of his “favorite and fondest” moments with his father occurred not in the rink, but rather on the road. The pair got a flat tire on a trip to Michigan and had to sit on the side of the highway for two hours waiting for a tow because of snow.
“It was just our luck because on the way up there we almost ran out of gas,” Austin said. “It was not a funny situation, but our luck, and we just sat there played games and reminisced about others.”
Together, Austin and his dad visited potential college campuses from Harvard and Yale to Boston College and Boston University.
“Every kid says they want to go to the NHL, but my goal out of high school is to get a chance to play in college first and get an education because you can’t rely on hockey,” said Austin, who maintains a 3.7 unweighted GPA.
Austin, his teammates and fans relied upon Jason Martin for most everything relating to hockey
In fact for the past two years, Jason Martin served as business manager for the Pittsburgh Predators amateur hockey team. He also worked for the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League. He announced and compiled music playlists for games. He also created videos for streaming on different platforms. He even dressed up as Santa Claus one Christmas to surprise the players after a youth practice.
“That was just Jason,” said Dana. “He was kind, loving and supportive. He loved our boys and all the players. Even if you were not related to us, you were his kid, you were family.
“Jason put his all in everything that he did, his whole heart, every step of the way, whether it was at his work, at home, with me and the kids or in sports.”
At home with his family Dec. 7 watching the Pittsburgh Steelers fall to the Washington Football Team on Monday Night Football, Jason Martin looked at his Apple watch.
The timepiece indicated his oxygen was low.
Martin had fallen ill Dec. 4 and was tested for COVID-19, but the results had not come back yet.
So Dana called the doctor.
“He said, ‘you need to call an ambulance,’” she said. As she walked him out the front door, Dana kissed Jason.
It was the last time she, or the family, saw Martin alive.
Upon his arrival at St. Clair Hospital, Jason received a rapid COVID-19 test. Results read positive for the disease. Within 24 hours, he went from the COVID-19 unit to the intensive career unit. Because his oxygen level was so low, he was placed on a BiPap machine.
“It was extremely hard,” Dana said. “We would FaceTime. He would sign ‘I love you’ and blow kisses.”
By Dec. 12, Jason was placed on a ventilator. The family relied on the nurses as their lifeline to Jason. The following days were up and down and Dana documented everything on Facebook because former classmates, college friends and colleagues from all over the country were inquiring about her husband’s health.
About the same time, Dec. 10, Dana started to cough. She had contracted COVID-19. She went on medication and was quarantined. Scared, she thought she too would end up in the hospital because she has asthma just like her husband and sons.
On Christmas morning, the Martins talked into Jason’s ear, but by the afternoon his vital signs began dropping. Doctors called later that evening and told the family they needed to tell Jason everything they wanted him to know and that there was nothing else they could do.
Austin repeatedly told his dad, “I love you. I love you.”
I was just talking to his ear so I hoped he could hear us,” he said. “I told him everything I wanted to say to him.”
At one point the nurse came back on the phone and encouraged Dana to say goodbye. She did and hung up.
Fifteen minutes later the phone rang again. This time with the worst possible news.
Jason was gone.
“I didn’t know how to feel or what to do,” Austin said.
Dana said she remembers her son then asking a question.
“‘Do you think dad waited because he knows how much you love Christmas?’ and I said ‘I do,’ believe in those kinds of things,” she said. “So, I think maybe he did.”
Each holiday season, Dana Martin decorates every room in the house and trims the tree.
This year though the family watched a movie. Austin selected the “Greatest Game Ever Played” as a tribute to his dad.
“This Christmas was very different,” Dana noted.
New Year’s Day was another anomaly.
About 75 vehicles lined up in the pouring rain for a funeral process in Jason’s memory. Parents, kids, colleagues and friends turned out for the police-led procession from Ice Castle in Castle Shannon to the ice rink in Mt. Lebanon.
“It was just unbelievable. Incredible,” Dana said of the funeral parade to honor her husband. “You realize how much he meant to the community.”
While the coronavirus caused Martin’s death, the pandemic afforded the family quality moments together when they look back upon the the early days of 2020. The Martins enjoyed family dinners together, played board and card games, watched movies or spent time outdoors on nice days playing catch or shooting basketball. In July, the family even traveled to Myrtle Beach for a last-minute vacation.
“I am so thankful for those special times and that trip especially,” said Dana. “That’s a special place for us and I am grateful for the time we spent their together because who have thought?” she said. “I kept saying ‘you never get this time back.’ Boy, wasn’t that the truth.”
Nearly four months have passed since Martin died and while some semblance of normalcy has returned to their lives, Dana and Austin remain vigilant about a pandemic they say is far from over.
“You take all the precautions,” Dana said of wearing masks and socially distancing. “You don’t think it’s coming into your house and there it was. It was right in our face.”
“This disease is real,” Austin agreed.
“I want people to know that,” added Dana. “We were a careful family. You can catch it anywhere. Keep yourself safe.”
By getting vaccinated, Dana has protected herself. She held a picture of her husband and clutched his wedding ring as she received her shot.
“I did it for Jason,” she said.
Austin, meanwhile, grappled with emotions before he returned to the rink. At first, he said his father’s death didn’t seem real and that he would walk through the house expecting to see him there. He longed to sit at the table where he watched and edited videos with his dad.
At times, he said he got angry.
“Obviously, him being at home I missed most but I also knew I would miss seeing him at the rink but I knew playing hockey was something I needed to do. The right thing,” he said. “It felt good. It’s something my dad would have wanted me to do. I’m playing for him now.”
“It’s exactly what Jason would have wanted,” agreed Dana. “Jason would want us to keep going.”
Seeing Austin get out of the car and take those steps toward the rink to play his next game also propel Dana.
“I tell him ‘good luck, I love you, go play the game you love,’” she said. “He goes and he does it. Just like Jason would do.”