He was baptized Louis. Yet let alone the thousands of New Haven Register readers who enjoyed his writing, colleagues, coaches and athletes who knew him for years didn’t know Chip Malafronte’s first name.
“When he was born, he was named after my father,” Chip’s sister Mia said Thursday. “My grandfather was a Lou as well. My mom was like, ‘We got two Lou’s. Why don’t we call him Chip? Chip off the old block.’ ”
Louis Malafronte died at his Orange home around 8 o’clock Wednesday night. He was 48.
For those who came to appreciate his deft, creative writing style, for all he did for college hockey and later lacrosse with his coverage, and for those who know the quiet, courageous fight he gave cancer the past two years, Chip Malafronte lives on.
“I’m just crushed,” Yale lacrosse coach Andy Shay said. “Such a genuine, great person, this absolutely breaks my heart.”
“It was a courageous fight,” Mia said. “For my sisters and me and our mom, he’s a hero.”
When Chip Malafronte walked into a room, everything didn’t stop. He eased in. He eased out. As Ken Sweeten, who has been sports information director at both Quinnipiac and Southern Connecticut State said, you could sit next to Chip for 15 minutes without a word and then spend the next 20 non-stop talking. To know Chip was to know comfortable quiet.
“Chip was a low-key, level-headed guy who kind of balanced out a sports department with all sorts of characters,” said our sports editor Sean Barker. “He was such a talented, clean writer and he’d make little remarks that let you know how funny he was.”
“The subtle humor of a terrific guy,” longtime UConn SID Mike Enright called it.
Mia laughs about his image. She said even her aunts and uncles used to called him, “The Phantom.”
He was an outstanding baseball player at Amity High and in the West Haven Twilight League. Never said one word in 20 years to me about it. He was honored with the “Gold Bat” award, tantamount to the league’s Hall of Fame, along with Al Carbone and Amity’s long-time coach Sal Coppola in 2007. Carbone, the SCC commissioner, couldn’t remember getting Chip out as a pitcher. Chip? Not a word.
“Reserved, quiet, private, all true,” Mia said. “But as a big brother? We were only 11/2 years apart and we were fiercely competitive. I was a tomboy. We were always challenging each other.”
The two had a favorite game: “I Betcha Can’t Do This …” Jump and touch the ceiling, run around the swimming pool or around the house in so many seconds, a trick with a basketball, climb a tree, it didn’t stop.
One early Saturday morning when they were in that golden 8-to-10 age range, Chip broke out one of those big, old hard suitcases and said, ‘I betcha you can’t fit in this.’ Mia took the challenge. She curled inside. Chip said, ‘I betcha I can’t close the lid.’
“I’m like, ‘Betcha I can’ and, of course, he did,” Mia said. “As I’m shouting don’t lock it, I hear the clicks. He picks up the suitcase and is trying to walk up the stairs. I’m squished in, screaming and pushing so hard he can’t open it. He panicked.”
Chip rushed to wake up dad. Suddenly, Lou’s going, “Where’s your sister?”
“I’m in here!” Mia screamed. “I’m in here!”
Lou had to break the locks and pull the suitcase apart. Oh, boy.
“Let me tell you,” Mia said, “the thunder roared.”
Mia, who was a photographer at the Register and a head volleyball coach at Sacred Heart Academy over the years, was an outstanding basketball, softball and volleyball athlete at Amity. She was All-State, all-everything in volleyball. She’s in the Connecticut Women’s Volleyball Hall of Fame.
“Being the competitor, I always wanted to best him and I never could,” Mia said. “He pushed me and there was a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but he taught me how to be competitive, the meaning of sportsmanship, how to be fair.”
Newspaper sports staffs are like sports teams in many ways. It’s a competitive business. You want to get the scoop. You want to write the best piece. Working at The Hartford Courant for 33 years before moving over to Hearst Connecticut Media in 2018, I have known state colleagues as teammates, rivals and, hopefully, still friends. I also know the Register has its own rich history. Loyalties run deep.
“Dave Solomon died nine years ago, also in August, only a few days difference (Aug. 6) and I just can’t help from thinking about that,” our Joe Morelli said. “They both wrote the same kind of column piece. Yeah, that has sat with me.”
Solomon’s notes column was called “I Was Thinking.” Chip’s was called “Sunday Gravy.” They were filled with strong opinions and humorous lines and lots of local insight. Readers loved it. After covering a UConn football practice together, in fact, Chip was the last person to see Solomon before he died on I-91.
Morelli met Malafronte in the summer of 1993 working together for the Milford Citizen. Elm Street Newspapers, the Register, and now Hearst Media, their careers would run parallel.
“I’m so damn proud to have worked with Chip for 27 years,” said Morelli, only a few months older than Malafronte. “To me, he put college hockey on the map in this state. Local sports meant a lot to him, because he was from here.”
There is no arguing his significant impact on Quinnipiac and Yale hockey. Connecticut was a pro hockey, NHL, WHA, AHL, state for decades.
“Chip started in the late 90’s and really pushed before Quinnipiac and Yale took off,” Barker said. “He recognized the excitement, the fan bases, what type of hockey town New Haven is, how important it was. He pushed me and other sports editors.
“He didn’t know a lot about college hockey when he started. He kept building his knowledge and gained a reputation around the state, the region that he really knew his stuff.”
Barker remembers putting together a list of 10 sporting events you need to attend in New Haven. Malafronte, the quiet one, the always pleasant one, burst out for what Barker called a “super-strong” argument that made Yale hockey No. 1 on the list.
“I was so thrilled that Chip got to see Yale’s 2013 hockey and Yale’s 2018 lacrosse national championships,” Steve Conn, Yale’s longtime SID. “When he breaks into the business and starts his coverage, Yale isn’t competing for national championship in either sport.”
Just as with hockey, Chip moved in quietly before Yale gained the national lacrosse spotlight and became the “go-to” guy in the state.
“Chip is the one guy who can verify everything we went through in building our program,” Shay said.
He always had a smile on his face. Even if a coach was being difficult. Both Sweeten and Conn stressed he was so easy to work with, always prepared, able to put athletes at ease, never intrusive.
“Even with guys who had only been interviewed a few times in their life,” Sweeten said, “He’d put them at ease and make them forget they were being interviewed.”
“Even the toughest coaches loved Chip,” Conn said.
A couple hours before his team played in the 2019 NCAA tournament, Quinnipiac hockey coach Rand Pecknold made a point of asking our Jim Fuller for an update on Chip’s condition. Every college hockey game Fuller covered last winter brought the same question: “How’s Chip?”
From time to time, Fuller would text him, “There’s room in the press box.”
In 2012, the Register celebrated its 200th anniversary with historical sports stories and Barker was amazed at how Chip immersed himself. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Jim Thorpe all the way to Patrick Ewing he found ties to New Haven. He got lost in microfilm and archives and talks with historians. He made that series his own, Barker said.
“Chip Malafronte never had a bad day in the office in all the time I knew him,” Fuller said. “He was the voice of reason even as people as combustible as me would be worked up about something. He would always crack me up at least once a day during the long days at the Connecticut Tennis Center.”
The first bout of cancer hit in 2015. He beat it. He was cancer-free for three years. In August of 2018, it returned with a vengeance. Chip’s dad died of cancer when he was 51. Chip was 20.
“My father instilled in us the mental attitude of never give up,” Mia said. “That was my brother’s MO. He was going fight absolutely anything that was going to be thrown his way. He fought it. He got treatment. He was doing OK. He’d had some good months.”
Barker once kidded Chip he has the greatest head of hair of any sportswriter he ever met. I saw a photo of his family once and kidded him, “Team Malafronte: The Good Looking Family.” He looked like Andy Pettitte to me. It was difficult yet inspiring to see him jaundiced, thin, a bald head from chemo under a cap. He’d keep working, occasionally getting out to cover events. When we were together covering the 2019 NCAA lacrosse championship in Philly, he looked much better, wrote terrific.
“In September, he was hospitalized,” Mia said. “He had a tracheostomy, because the cancer started in his neck and he had to have a feeding tube. He couldn’t touch food. Seven doctors walked into his room and told us he wasn’t going to see October.”
Chip refused to go a hospice. They brought him home.
Morelli remembers the email Barker sent out to the staff.
“It was Oct. 2,” he said. “I remember exactly where I was. He said it looks like Chip won’t make it through the week. Think how long he battled. He fought valiantly and privately.”
Sisters Gina, Nancy, Mia, mom Shirley and a couple other family members cared for him around the clock for three months.
“This guy clawed his way back to the point where we could walk him back into the doctor’s office in December,” Mia said. “He said I want to be treated. I thought the doctor was going to fall over. We had a wonderful Christmas.”
Chip had the feeding tube removed. He was able to work. He was driving again.
“We went bowling,” Mia said. “It was like he was handed his life back. Those months are so precious.”
This was Chip Malafronte: He wished me well before I underwent open heart surgery last year. Two months later, he texted me to say how happy he was I had recovered. Knowing he was suffering, I pressed him on how he was doing, “I’m doing well. Thanks!”
Man didn’t complain in two years.
This was Chip Malafronte, too. He was still writing three weeks ago. He wanted to be the one who wrote about the retirement of Yale deputy athletic director Wayne Dean.
“None of us could believe he asked for his computer in his hospital bed,” Mia said.
Knowing the end was near, Conn texted Chip last Friday, “How you doing?”
“I’m doing well. How is your summer going?”
“I want to see you at a game soon.”
“I really want to be at a game soon.”
It’s like Conn said, Chip didn’t want anyone to carry his burden.
Over the last few years, Chip would bring his son 12-year old son John Paul along to events. I loved it. I’d pepper him with a hundred questions. How’s school? How’s Little League? Who’s your favorite ball player? I can be insufferable at time.
Chip didn’t say a word. He’d just smile. He adored that boy.
“He was so determined to work and provide for his son,” Mia said. “His son drove him and I’m sure that’s why we got him back for those months. He defied every statistic with this disease. He fought it with everything he had. He was an inspiration.”
Mia couldn’t have been surprised. After all, she knew the best “I Betcha Can’t Do This …” player there ever was.