By John Rice
Nello Ferrara is a force of nature. On the hockey rink, he was a heat-seeking missile. Now he is imparting his contagious enthusiasm and work ethic to members of the new Ferrara Pan Fitness Factory, at 1425 Circle, where he partnered with his cousin, Stephen Panzarella, to create a state-of-the art facility that features a boxing ring, Jiu Jitsu and top-of-the-line exercise equipment. "If there's a kid in Forest Park with the work ethic," Ferrara said, "we'll take them to the next level."
Ferrara didn't grow up in Forest Park but he put down roots here. He chose to put his gym here because his grandfather told him there was no better place to start a business than Forest Park.
"Forest Park has real, down-to-earth people," Ferrara said. "They're not hipsters, trendies or know-it-alls." He also sees the young athletes in town as being "hungrier" than in neighboring communities.
Ferrara was fortunate to hang out with sports-hungry friends while he was growing up in River Forest. But he considers being a privileged kid a hindrance to having a hockey career.
"You have an advantage with the resources but face many obstacles," he said. "Many privileged kids are messed up. I wanted to be an example for others who are struggling." As scion of the famous candy company, Ferrara felt like he "grew up in the spotlight."
He was recently thrust back into the spotlight when he caught the attention of former NHL star Paul Bissonnette, who gushed to his one million Twitter followers about a scrappy minor league hockey player who one teammate called a "savage to skate with." The tweet went viral.
"The next day, I thought someone had died," Ferrara recalled. "I had 20 missed calls, 100 texts and my Twitter blew up." He received calls requesting interviews from HBO, Sports Illustrated and the New York Times.
He asked the Times reporter, Jason Buckland, why he wanted to do the interview. Buckland replied that he was always reading success stories about athletes who had overcome lives of poverty. Now he wanted to write about an athlete who had overcome a life of privilege. He thought it remarkable that Ferrara could keep his fiery spirit while growing up in such comfortable circumstances. He also wondered why Ferrara had walked away from his family's candy company to ride buses through the hinterlands and make peanuts as a minor league hockey player.
"Hockey is my sacred outlet," Ferrara said. "Hockey saved my soul. It helped me through some dark times" when his personal life was in shambles. His love for the game began in his childhood.
"I grew up with kids from this area who were totally into sports," he said. One of these was Forest Park's own, Tim "Buster" Stapleton, who now plays professional hockey in Switzerland.
"I've known Nello since we grew up together," Stapleton said. "He's the guy you want to shape your game after. His work ethic can't be matched. He's always the funniest guy in the locker room. Hockey and Nello go together. It's his passion. He's a great guy to be around and I'm happy I know him." Ferrara keeps up with childhood friends like Stapleton. "Many of them excelled in college sports," he said. "It gave them confidence for life after sports."
Ferrara didn't have the advantage of a college career. In fact, school was a nightmare for him. "When I was 16, I was diagnosed with ADHD," he noted. "I studied hard but my brain wasn't working right." His failures in school gave him tremendous anxiety that still lingers. When he wasn't doing homework or playing hockey, Ferrara was working for the family business.
"I was 15 years old when I started working on the top floor of the factory," he recalled. Workers there toiled in extreme heat. The company had to recycle surplus candy and Ferrara helped with the process. "My job was to take a case of candy off a pallet, cut every single box open and fill the trays, so they could melt down the candy." The work was monotonous and exhausting but Ferrara credits the job with giving him the great work ethic he would need on the rink.
"I had no athletic ability," Ferrara said. "I didn't have size. We had no athletes in the family. But I had no fear." He credits his "killer instinct" to his grandfathers, who fought in World War II. "They handed down bravery and guts."
Ferrara first displayed his fearlessness playing varsity hockey at OPRF. "I played defense and forward, but I skated well enough to play wing." When he graduated to junior hockey, his position was F1, a fore-checker, whose specialty was separating the opponent from the puck. "I was a kamikaze. I was stocky and fast. If an opponent had the puck, I hit him. I never touched the puck." Teams would bring their enforcer onto the ice to retaliate. "I didn't care how big they were," Ferrara said. "I dropped the gloves right away."
Ferrara had one fight too many in his third year of playing professional hockey. He threw a punch that fractured his hand. Forced off the ice, he returned to the candy factory and worked in the office alongside his father and grandfather. The poor student, who had completed only two years of college, found that his brain really did work. "I absorbed data from my dad and grandpa. You can't put a price tag on that kind of education." Ferrara worked at the company from 1997-2003 before returning to the rink.
"From 2003-2014, I played in the AHL. I played in every league except the NHL."
Not that he didn't try for the top level. His family's company was a longtime sponsor of the Blackhawks, and he befriended Hawks forward Kyle Calder. In 2004, Calder helped him sneak into a Blackhawks scrimmage. It didn't go well. Ferrara's lone shot on goal struck the goalie in the mask and he had to be helped off the ice. The players glared at the imposter who had fired the shot.
The Hawks, however, still let him train with the team in the off-season. He remembers the first time he met Patrick Kane in the locker room. He looked at the 160-pound player and asked, "Did you play hooky from school?" During the skate, he told the team, "There's a kid out there who's going to get killed." When he identified Kane, "the whole team died laughing." Kane was the team's number one draft pick. "Patrick Kane went out there and lit it up," Ferrara marveled. "He's a freak of nature."
Now 41, Ferrara has retired from professional hockey. His new endeavors include launching the Fitness Factory. The cousins already owned the building at 1425 Circle and undertook a huge construction project to turn it into a fitness center.
"We started on Dec. 15, 2016," Panzarella said. "It was a long process and we opened on May 15, 2017." Panzarella had previously worked at a gym in Lombard but this was first experience at ownership.
"Our boxing program has outstanding coaches," he added.
One of the instructors is Lanel Williams, who has been in boxing since 1973. "I've been a fighter and a coach," Williams said. "You can't teach it without doing it." He offers free sessions to fighters, "to see if they like it — 97% sign up." The fitness center offers reduced rates to veterans, police officers and Forest Park residents.
The center also trains young athletes for hockey, football and baseball.
"We take them to the next level," Panzarella said. "We have great success with our speed and strength class. We have members who are professional athletes. We train elite athletes because we have professional equipment." They also have primitive equipment, like truck tires and sledgehammers, which some athletes prefer.
Ferrara said the Fitness Factory is off to a great start, but he is taking a leave of absence. He and his wife, Laura, are moving to Rapid City, South Dakota, where he will coach the farm team for the Minnesota Wild, the Rapid City Rush. He will again be riding buses through the hinterlands, captivated by the sport that he loves.