Friday, December 27, 2013

Chapter 43: Going Home

Where to start?

Winter break. Other than watching the L.A. Kings continue to have a solid season and a bit of local junior hockey, I’ve been out of the loop.  I booked my son’s flight back to San Diego for the semester recess.  He got back into town last Monday.  Unfortunately, I was called out of town unexpectedly before he arrived, to take care of an ailing parent.  So it turned out I was back in Connecticut when he got back to San Diego.

I’ve spent the past two full weeks being a twenty four hour a day nurse to my dad.  He’s 84, today.  We were not particularly close during most of my life, but after three trips back to help him in the past few months I've gotten to know him pretty well.  Suffice to say, hockey hasn’t been on my mind a whole lot during this time.

Our friend, Chad Ruhwedel got called back up to the Buffalo Sabres last week.  He’s been a healthy scratch for every game since he’s been back up from the AHL.  After watching three games from the press box they sent him back to Rochester.  

Black Ice!
I’m on my flight back to San Diego.  There is a Tilton hockey player on my flight.  I saw his hat and started up a conversation.  He’s a repeat senior and plans on spending one year at Tilton and then most likely a year of junior hockey.

Skates borrowed from Kyle at Whitie Bensen's
While at my folks house I got to watch the lake freeze the way it did back when I was a kid.  We had a couple of days of beautiful black ice but before it was safe to go on, it started snowing.  I visited Whitie Bensen’s and saw my old friend, Kyle Bensen.  This is the first Christmas at the store without Whitie.  I haven’t skated for four years, since my last back surgery.  Despite any pain I might need to endure, Kyle loaned me a pair of Bauers, a pair of gloves and a stick.

Used Skate Wall at Bensen's
I went home and waited for the ice to freeze enough to hold my weight.  Like I said, by the time it was safe the snow was coming down, so the beautiful black ice was now just a memory.   I struggled to bend enough to tie my skates, but I managed. I tiptoed on the blades out to the steps down to the ice.  I was walking on a stone patio and I didn’t want to nick the blades.  I got on the ice and shuffled around getting a feel for the ice.  Every stride came along with freezing cracks from my weight on the new ice. Being all alone on the lake and not sure if I would be falling through the ice at any moment was disconcerting.  I wasn’t able to stay out for long, but just the few moments of being able to feel the freedom of skating was pure joy for me.

Well, so much for black ice
While home, I looked into the West Haven High School hockey schedule.  I was able to make it their traditional season opening Jamboree.  It’s a mini showcase, round robin set of games.  Each game lasts only one period.  There are three teams, so each team plays two games.  West Haven played and tied Notre Dame of West Haven and beat New Fairfield Immaculate.  I ran into an old buddy and high school hockey teammate, Dave Hansen, at the games.  We caught up.  He told me something I did not know.  Dave was telling a story about our playing days and he was referring to what would have been my junior year at West Haven.  According to my memory I missed the entire season due to my spleen injury and surgery on the last day of the football season.  Dave swears I played on the hockey team that year.  I have zero recollection.  He told me he had a photo of me.  In the picture, he says he had just passed me the puck. We were playing perennial powerhouse, Hamden High.  I received his pass and one timed it, hitting the post.  He then told me the rebound came right back to me.  I shot and missed a wide open net.  We ended up beating Hamden 3-2. It was the first time anyone had beaten Hamden in years.  The bigger point is that I will have to do some digging and either write a new chapter or go back and rewrite the chapter where I claimed to have missed my entire junior season due to my football injury.  I still don’t remember a moment of that season.  I have spoken to other teammates and they do recall my being on the team but no one has any specifics.  In addition to Dave Hansen, I spoke to Dave Depew, Frank Longobardi and Mark DeGennaro.  I’ll be back at some point with an update on this.

Getting out of Connecticut was an ordeal.  This home care nursing was taxing.  Yesterday my sister and brother joined me in Connecticut to celebrate my dad’s birthday a day early.  As far as I knew, I was scheduled to fly out of New Haven last night at 6:30pm.  I was more than ready to go.  Taking care of an ill parent is one thing, but toss my mom, who is also 84 into the mix, and I had my hands full.  It’s best you not know how frantic things can get around the two of them.

Sunset on a melting Lake Phipps.  Setting up for the next freeze?
So, I was free at last. My sister drove me to the airport at the end of our time together yesterday.  She dropped me off and I went to the counter to check in, only to discover that I’d booked my flight for the next day, today instead of yesterday, as I thought I’d done.  Noooooooooo…..Another night thrown back into the soup.  I thought I was done.  I missed my wife.  I missed my dog and my kids.   I missed my life.  I just wanted to go home.  

I called home to let them in on my mistake.  The plan was then to have my sister and her husband come back to the airport in two cars, theirs and one of my parent’s.  That way I would be able to drive myself home and they could continue on their way back home to Rhode Island. My sister, Rachel had a party to stop at on the way and she invited me to come along.  I had been so cooped up with my parents that I jumped at the chance.  This was not just any party by the way.  It was at the home of one of Rachel’s best friends, Kiki, from college.  They both graduated from Brown University in 1980.  I last saw Kiki at Rachel’s wedding in 1986.  In the meantime, Kiki became a doctor, a psychiatrist at Yale New Haven.  She also married some guy named Ted Kennedy.

So I went to a Christmas Party at the home of Kiki and Ted Kennedy.  It was pretty cool.  Before I knew it, the party was over and it was just me, Rachel and her husband, John, with Ted and Kiki and one other friend of theirs.  At one point my sister mentioned something about having grown up on a farm in  the Florida panhandle.  Everyone seemed to be intrigued and started asking questions.  Somehow I ended up sharing our family’s history, including my grandfather’s background as a movie studio head back in early part of the last century.

Ted (yeah, I call him Ted, we are close like that) mentioned something that I was aware of but that had escaped me.  He mentioned that his grandfather(Joseph Kennedy) was also involved in the film business way back..

I realized in that moment that his grandfather and mine were probably what could be considered “bitter enemies”.  My grandfather was involved with Paramount Pictures in their early days.  These were difficult time for Paramount and they were facing a possible bankruptcy.  There was a proxy fight for control of the company and it was between one group led by Joe Kennedy and the other group which included my grandfather.  My grandfather’s side won the fight for control of the company and my grandfather was named president, a position he held for over thirty years.  He and Kennedy never spoke again.

Ted pulled out a biography of his grandfather entitled, The Patriarch.  He looked up and found my grandfather’s name in the index and then read the passage.  It covered this exact corporate battle which I’d just mentioned to everyone.

Then I had to laugh and told Ted that I had a story to tell him but he had to promise not to get mad.
Medals & Ribbons from the Pope

The story goes like this; At the end of World War II, the fighting was over in Europe.  It was still going on in Japan.  All of the movie studio heads, including my grandfather were flown to Europe to survey the damage and get ideas for making war/propaganda films.  At one point they were in Rome and my grandfather ended up having an audience with the Pope, Pope Pius, I think the XII.  I will stay away from the politics of the day, but suffice it to say that the Pope was very fond of Joe Kennedy.  During his meeting the Pope asked my grandfather if he would do a favor and deliver a gift, a set of medallions and ribbons to, “the Ambassador”.  That was the nickname for Kennedy at the time.  He had been the Ambassador to England.  My grandfather obliged. After all who says no to the Pope.

My grandfather concluded the trip, went back to New York City where his offices were and had his secretary contact Kennedy’s office to inform them of the Pope’s gift.  Kennedy did not respond.  Another couple of attempts were made.

With my grandfather and big brother
Now I’m telling this story to Ted Kennedy and I only know of the story because my Dad only recently pulled out a little case and opened it and showed me the medallions and ribbons which were intended for Joe Kennedy but now reside in a drawer in my folks house in Connecticut.  I told Ted Kennedy he could not have them, half joking.  When I went home and told my dad the story he said Ted Kennedy was welcome to them if he wanted.  I think I’ll keep them!

Unfortunately, as we were in the middle of this holiday frivolity and the walk down this historical memory lane, my mom called me.  She told me dad had a fever and I needed to get home.  Remember, I was supposed to be on a flight back to be with my family in San Diego. But, being the good son that I am, I immediately dropped everything and drove back to their house.  By the time I got there, they’d calmed down, spoken to their doctor and decided a trip to the e.r. was not necessary.

I went to bed, only to be awoken at 3am and we hopped in the car and drove to the e.r. at the hospital in Milford, CT.  I was there with my dad from 4am until about 11am waiting.  I finally left him to go help my mom at home.  We came back at around 3pm and I left at 4pm for the airport.  I got the hell out of Dodge before I got stuck there for another two weeks. I wish them the best.  I’m outta there.

Christmas with the family, back to my routine.  I hope to get to watch my son play some men’s league or pickup while he’s here.

Rocking the Czech Jersey
Scripps Ranch HS Roller Alumni Game
....Well, back for two days.  There was a special Christmas eve morning skate organized by Sandy Fitzpatrick.  Sandy coaches at the SDIA rink in Mira Mesa.  He used to play in the old pro’s thursday night pickup session I’ve mentioned previously.  He had a decent pro career, playing a handful of games in the NHL for the Rangers and North Stars.

I made a couple of calls and got Max invited to the skate.   When I woke him to go he decided he was too tired and
didn't want to skate.  I bugged him until he relented and I got him there.  He ended up having a blast.

Greg Park and Evan Schmidbauer
While home he also got a lesson from Craig Carlyle, Randy Carlyle's son.  In addition to Max, his buddy Jonny Neal who plays at Hobart, Kai Frankville of Colby and Austin Ortega from the University of Nebraska Omaha participated in the lesson with Craig.

Christmas is over, another skate with my old Thursday night group and then back to school in a couple of days.

Other than my dad's health issues, it's  been a good holiday.

Home for the holidays

Session with Craig Carlyle

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Chapter 42: Brushes With Fame

I could not care less about celebrities.  I live a different world.  We seem to live in a culture obsessed with fame.  Not me, nope, no sir.  I’m not particularly impressed by someone just because they are famous.  

I spent the week before the weekend before Thanksgiving at Elmira.  I got to watch a game and a couple of practices before heading up to Rochester to pick up my daughter. She was flying in on the red-eye from San Diego via a 4 hour layover at JFK.  She didn’t sleep a wink.  We watched Elmira come from behind that night to beat Nazareth College by a score of 6-3 on 5 late second period goals.  The next morning I went back to pick up my wife at the Rochester airport after she made the same exact red-eye flight as my daughter.  She slept, thank god!

We drove down to Elmira, met up with my son and took him out for a pre-game lunch.  Later Elmira faced Nazareth again, this time beating them 3-2 on a last second goal in regulation time.  They’d scored a go ahead goal 8 minutes earlier but it was disallowed. You decide.  I think it was the right call.   
After spending the night in Horsehead, NY, we got up and had breakfast with Max before heading down to New York City to spend Thanksgiving week.  The plan was to hang out, shop, enjoy ourselves and have a family Thanksgiving at my brother’s apartment on the upper west side.  My dad has not been well and ended up going into the hospital on Monday.  Things quickly turned for the worst and we nearly lost him.  Needless to say my folks didn’t make it down for our family gathering.

Back to the celebrity thing.  My wife is a big fan of the Today Show.  She and my daughter decided we would get up early on Tuesday Morning and head down to 30 Rock and try to get on the show. We arrived at 7 am, but apparently if you want a good spot you have to get there by around 6 am.  My wife made a sign and some little fake beards and mustaches to represent No-Shave November, or Movember.  We actually got on TV for a few brief moments.  The cast, Matt Lauer, Al Roker, Savannah Guthrie, et al come outside twice during the program….at 8am and at 8:30am.  Crew members come out ahead of time and try to jack the audience up to be excited when the stars arrive.  It was actually quite fun.  

The cast of The Today Show..Kyle and I are to
the left with Bret holding the San Diego sign behind
After the 8:30 segment was over, the crowd dissipated pretty quickly.  We walked around for a bit and then found ourselves walking through a crowd of paparazzi just as Richard Dreyfus exited the building. He had been a guest on the show and was heading to his “car”.  I nearly bumped into him.  I had time to say something but I didn’t. 

Gretzky Posing with the SD Gulls Bantams
I’ve had quite a few celebrity experiences in my life.  I have some show business background in my family so I can often bring up one of those relationships and strike up a conversation with said famous person.  For example, Richard Dreyfus starred in Close Encounters of the Third Kind with my cousin, Bob Balaban.  I could have easily said, "Hi Richard, I’m Steve Balaban, you worked with my cousin Bob".  I’ve done this on numerous occasions if it seemed appropriate.  I did this once when I bumped into Jerry Lewis in the Gaslamp area of San Diego years ago.  I introduced myself and told him my who my grandfather was. My grandfather, Barney Balaban, was a movie executive.  So he was Jerry Lewis’s boss during much of his career.  He was very friendly and told me what a great man my grandfather was and how he was one of the few men in show business with integrity during those days. That was the time of blacklisting and my grandfather was in the middle of having to deal with Joe McCarthy.
Kyle and I with Michael Richards on the set of Seinfeld

So, as you see, I’ve had my share of brushes with fame.  It’s not an everyday thing, but it’s happened.  I’m not shy about striking up a conversation if it seems convenient and appropriate.  I’ve never had a negative experience. I don’t want to be a jerk and impose on their privacy.  At the same time, we talk to everyone so why not say hi to someone just because they are famous.  

My Uncle Jay Kantor, out with some
As a kid, growing up in the Florida panhandle, this kind of thing never happened.  As an adult though, I’ve had more than my share of encounters.  I spent a week interning on the set of All In the Family in the late 70s.  I met a guy through my business in the early 90's who happened to be the brother of Larry David, and we went to a couple of tapings of Seinfeld.  I got to meet and hang out with the entire cast before and after the taping.  Being related to my cousin Bob came in handy because he’d been a guest star on a few episodes of the show.  On those episodes he was the head of NBC who fell in love with Elaine and then went off and joined Greenpeace.  Of course, I’ve met many NHL’ers including bumping into Wayne Gretzky at a youth travel game at the rink in Simi Valley.  I asked him if he wouldn’t mind taking a picture with the team.  Through my old Uconn team mate, Glenn Adamo, I met broadcaster Gary Thorne, sat in the Pittsburgh Penguins box with the owners during a game at Madison Square Garden

My Aunt Judy(far right) in Princess Grace's Wedding

Mike Bolt-Keeper of the Stanley Cup
and I met Mike Bolt the Stanley Cup protector.

At weddings and Bat Mitzvahs of cousins from my entertainment biz side of the family I had the chance to meet Marlon Brando, Timothy Leary, Gene Kelly and Jody Foster.  I was at my cousin's wedding in Beverly Hills back in the early 80's.  My girlfriend and I were at a table with the some of these folks.  Gene Kelly accidentally bumped into my girlfriend and spilled his drink on her.  He apologized profusely and was extremely embarrassed.  He asked if there was anything he could do.  My girlfriend said, “Sure, you can dance with me”. And he

Basically, I’m nobody, but I know a few people who are somebody and they have been an avenue to meet some pretty cool peeps.

That leads me to Wednesday evening, the night before Thanksgiving.  My sister and her family were arriving into the City and we arranged to meet them for dinner downtown near Union Square at an Italian Restaurant named Morandi’s.  We had 8:30 reservations.  There were nine of us.  Dinner was great.  At one point, my daughter’s friend, Lucia, nudges her and says “Look, that’s Cameron Diaz”.  And so it was.  She was standing about fifteen feet away, talking to someone then gave him a big hug and sat down with her table of friends. 

The best I could do getting Cameron Diaz's
My daughter, who would never do such a thing was plotting her approach to go over to her table.  My wife has been told for years that she looks a lot like Cameron Diaz.  My daughter wanted, very badly, to get a picture of the two of them together.  I stole a quick picture with my iPhone when she hugged the aforementioned man.   We discussed whether or not, and how to approach her.  My brother , a New Yorker, said to leave her alone.  It’s proper etiquette in NYC to not bother celebrities.  We should just leave her alone.

And leave her alone we did.  There was no graceful way to make our way to her table and interrupt her with her friends.  So we dropped it.  Soon, we finished up and were all getting ready to leave.  At that point we noticed the restaurant manager actually standing guard to protect her table from us or any other of the unwashed masses who may try to disturb their dining experience.

I headed for the restroom, so I missed what happened next, but apparently as everyone was heading toward the front of the restaurant, my daughter stood up and was putting her coat on.  She looks up and suddenly Cameron Diaz was heading straight for her.  She was actually probably heading for the restroom herself, we don’t know, but she walk right up to Bret.  Bret then says “Excuse me, I never do this, but my entire life people have told my mother she looks like you.  Would it be possible for you to say hi and we could take a picture.”  Her response was “Well, I have a policy of not taking pictures, but I would be more than happy to meet her”.

I walked out of the restroom to witness my entire family standing near the entrance to the restaurant all gathered around Cameron Diaz who was holding court with them.  I joined the group, standing right next to her.  She was as sweet, genuine and authentic as though she were our best friend.  She is, after all an actor, so it was quite convincing, but she made us all feel like we knew here.  She thanked us, wished us a happy Thanksgiving, rubbed my shoulder and said goodbye.  Yep, Cameron Diaz touched me. 

So, that was kind of cool and gave us something to talk about for a few days.  

The next night was Thanksgiving.  We all met up at my brother’s apartment on West 70th St. for our Thanksgiving dinner.  There were supposed to be about thirteen or so of us, but since my dad was still in the hospital and some of their friends would not be coming there were just nine of us; my wife and daughter and I….my sister, her husband and two of their three daughters and my brother.  That made eight.  The ninth was Lois.  Lois was a childhood friend of my dad’s.  She is 86.  Just about the coolest 86 year old you'll ever meet. 

My Grandfather, Barney Balaban, with Audrey Hepburn
We started talking about the celebrities we'd each run into over the years. My sister was once in an elevator with an older woman. They had a brief exchange. As the woman got off the elevator my sister told her she looked just like Audrey Hepburn.  The woman looked back and winked, just as the doors closed, smiled, winked and said "I am". 

Lois was the maid of honor in my Aunt Judy's wedding to Jay Kantor. Jay's best man was Marlon Brando. I never met her, but my Aunt Judy was a bridesmaid for Grace Kelly on her marriage to the Prince of Monaco.  Judy later went on to marry a movie star of the 60s, Tony Franciosa.

Next Lois told us she was recently dining at a restaurant near her West Side apartment.  Two men in suits were standing near the cashier. They kept looking right at her.  She was feeling uneasy about this.  She asked her waiter if he could move her because those men were making her uncomfortable. He said, "Ma'am, they aren't looking at you. They are looking at the next mayor of New York City."  It turns out the men she thought were staring at her were bodyguards for Bill DeBlasio who was sitting at the table directly behind her. 

There were more of these fun little stories we all shared. The evening ended and we disbursed. 

The next night, Friday after Thanksgiving we, my wife daughter and I, were heading to Grand Central station to catch the train to Connecticut. We were going to visit my dad in the hospital. Just before we bought our tickets my mom called and said he wasn't doing well and suggested we not come. 

So Instead, I called my buddy and college linemate, Paul McCormick. Paul lives in Brooklyn with his wife.  They
Left to Right: Henri Langevin, Me and Paul "Corny"
have two kids, Terry and Charlie. Charlie plays D1 lacrosse at Georgetown.  We took the subway to Brooklyn and got to their loft apartment.  Charlie had gone out so it was just Paul, Dorothee and Terry. We hung out, had some wine and talked about old times.  My daughter asked Paul to talk about  what he remembered most about me from our days at Uconn. In his own funny way Paul recounted how I would pull him aside and tell him there was just one thing we needed to work on....arm strength!  I was totally into strengthening my forearms by curling weights on a rope with a cutoff hockey stick.  

Having grown up near New Haven, Ct I consider myself a bit of a pizza aficionado.  A few years ago, Paul took me to Lombardi’s in Manhattan.  Lombardi’s is apparently the oldest pizza restaurant in the U.S.  At least that’s their claim.  I found it to be a tourist trap. The pizza wasn’t that special.  I felt like I’d been there before because the restaurant chain, Bucca Di Peppo must have been modeled after this place, where you walk though the kitchen on your way to your table.   

This time, Paul suggested since I’d already been to Lombardi’s he would now take us to get the best pizza in NY, or at least in Brooklyn.  We called and made 8:30 reservations to go to Lucali’s.  Lucali’s is an interesting business.  They are open 6 days a week from 6-10pm only.  They only serve one size pizza with a limited selection of toppings.  The only other item on the menu is a calzone.  You bring your own wine or beer. They sell no alcohol.  The owner makes every pie.  He and his dad are the only ones who know the recipe.
A poor pic of Jay Z. Beyonce was across
the from him

Even with our reservations it took almost another hour before we got a table.  Once seated, we ordered and enjoyed some scrumptious NY pizza.  It lived up to its billing.  Truly delicious.  

As I said, the place closes at 10pm.  It was going on 10:30 and the waitress was starting to hint that she would like us to leave.  She said she needed the table, which made no sense since they were closed.  We looked around and there were two other parties still eating.  I’m not sure who noticed it first, but all of a sudden my daughter was nearly hyperventilating.  I didn’t catch on at first, but then I realized everyone at my table was aware that sitting about three feet away from us were Jay Z and Beyonce.  They were just sitting there enjoying a late night pizza in peace.  We badly wanted to say hello, but we left them alone.  My daughter said she made eye contact with Beyonce and got the clear message…yeah, you know who I am…don’t say a word. 

That was that.  The end of our celebrity tour.  The next morning we drove up to Saratoga Springs to watch my son have a career high in penalties in a 3-0 loss to Buff State.  The next afternoon we watched the game sitting in the stands with him.  That was their last game before winter break.   It was a bit of a sour note to end the first half of the season on, but I’ll take it.

A few other pics I found in my files.
Brian Leetch

Randy Carlyle

Max with Pro Baseball player Xavier Nady
in our living room
Martin Brodeur-NHL Awards in Vegas

Sidney Crosby-NHL Awards in Vegas

Martin St. Louis-NHL Awards in Vegas

Jonathan Toews-NHL Awards in Vegas

Our Friend and Neighbor from San Diego-Chad
Ruhwedel making his NHL debut

Willie Geist and Savannah Guthrie
Willie Geist and me

America's Cup Captain-Dennis Connor

CNBC(now Fox) host Maria Bartiromo

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Chapter 41: Road Trip

Road Trip

San Diego Jr. Gulls Squirts
The first road trips were from our house in the North Park area of San Diego, up the 15 to Mira Mesa or Escondido for mite house league games The early days of travel hockey required driving through rush hour traffic to the Iceoplex in Escondido.  What should have taken 30 minutes often took an hour.  We found sneaky ways to get off the freeway and drive through side streets of Poway and Rancho Bernardo to cut a few minutes off of the commute.…then came away games in Riverside or at the Glacial Gardens in Long Beach.  Next were drives and flights to Phoenix, Vegas, Dallas, and San Jose.  Nearly every other weekend or so involved drives up highway 5 to Anaheim or LA.  Depending on traffic those trips took either an hour or three.  

About the time we were in the midst of these biweekly trips for practice the California highway department started an expansion project which was finishing up about the time we sent my son away to prep school.  We ended up with all of the frustration of the construction and none of the benefit of the completed expansion. Missed it by THAT much!

Gulls skiing in Utah
Gulls Midgets getting a tour of NAHL locker room in Dallas
As we moved up through the youth system the road trips stretched to Salt Lake City, Boise, Toronto, Vancouver, Quebec and even Europe.  These became our family vacations. I feel like I owe my wife a trip to Spain or Hawaii. She would agree.

Hockey Hall of Fame-Toronto
Once my son moved off to prep school and then stayed in New Hampshire to play junior hockey, I became a frequent flyer and a frequent watcher on when I couldn’t get there.  I earned many miles flying JetBlue from San Diego to Boston.  Occasionally I would take the red-eye.

That’s where I find myself right now.  I’m taking the red-eye from San Diego to JFK, renting a car and heading up to Elmira.  I don’t think the human body is built for these late night flights.  It’s impossible for me to get a real night’s sleep and then the next day is a grind as my body fights the time difference.  

Hockey dads on the road-phoning home before texting was a thing
Elmira.  When I played at Uconn back in the 70s, we heard about the Elmiras, the Plattsburghs and the Oswegos.  They were always competing for the D2 championships.  We, Uconn, never made the playoffs.  We were thrilled if we ended up with better than a .500 season.  The only New York teams we played during my time at Uconn were Army and Hamilton.  Both beat us regularly.  There were teams we beat up on, teams that beat up on us and teams that we competed with year after year.  Nothing really changed much.  We dominated Trinity, Wesleyan, University of New Haven, Bryant.  We never had a chance against Army, Bowdoin, Colby, AIC.  We competed with Amherst, Lowell, Babson, Umass(Amherst), North Adams State, Salem State, New England College.  We were never good enough to play against Elmira, Plattsburgh and Oswego because the only way we could have met up was in the playoffs.  A few years after I left Uconn played them from time to time.  I doubt they did very well though.  As I’ve said before, Uconn, until this year has never committed to their hockey program.  It was always the red-headed step-child to hoops and football and a casualty of Title IX.

Coach Bruce Miller at the bar with Dale Obinger(RIP)

Ran into this guy at the airport-Brian Leetch
One night in the late 90s, I was skating in my Thursday night pickup group at the San Diego Ice Arena in Mira Mesa.  It was late summer/early fall.  San Diego was home to the minor league San Diego Gulls during those years.  San Diego had been out of pro hockey for most of the 80s. In the early 90s, the Gulls returned as an International Hockey League(IHL) team.  Ray Whitney played for that team.  Charlie Simmer and Ron Duguay played a bit. It was an interesting array of talent.  A few of the guys had had decent to outstanding NHL Careers.  Others would go on to have the same.  Most had never made it nor would they, but they were talented and entertaining to watch none-the-less.  Don Waddell and Rick Dudley coached here before going on to coach in the NHL.  Walt Kyle also spent time coaching the Gulls.

Another player, turned for coach for the Gulls was a fellow named Steve Martinson.  Steve was an enforcer.  Look up his name and type in the word fights on youtube.  You will be entertained. He played at St. Cloud State before starting out on a minor league career.  He spent a few years in the IHL and AHL before being called up to the NHL.  He played 49 games, mostly with Montreal. A few with Detroit and one game with Minnesota(North Stars).

I also skated with Steve in those days during the summer pick-up sessions.  At one point near the end of his playing career and before he started coaching, he was selling furniture for the Comries at Arnolds.  The Comries owned the Gulls.  They owned “The Brick” in Canada, another furniture chain.  I asked Steve to help me with a community fund raising event I was doing.  He was very generous with his time.  After that I suggested he come work with me at Smith Barney.  He was my assistant for a short period of time before striking out on his own.  He was not cut out for the investment business.  He kept sneaking of to play hockey.  In the brokerage business, you need permission to take on any outside jobs.  Steve snuck off a few times to play for the Houston Aeros of the IHL.  Soon he was hired by the Gulls to take over as their head coach.  He won a few championships before being edged out of the job by the son in law of the owner of the arena.  He’s gone on to continue having a successful coaching career.  I just realized he coached the ECHL Elmira Jackals for three years before moving on to the Chicago Express and now the Allen Americans of the CHL.  He’s won 7 championships in his 15 years of coaching.  

Please do yourself a favor and take about 10 minutes to enjoy this raunchy clip.  Steve is the coach on the bench.  This is hilarious, but NSFW.  

I was warming up before the pick up session and there were a number of the Gulls players who’d come back to town for their training camp.  A lot of our regulars had played various levels of pro hockey and were friends with the Gulls.  This was the best pick-up group in town.  I was stretching and skating, getting the feel of the puck on my stick. One of the new Gulls was skating next to me.  We started chatting.  I found out his name.  It was Jason.  Jason Courtemanche
Pretty quickly we realized we were both from Connecticut.  I mentioned I’d played at Uconn, graduating in 1977.  He told me he was 7 when I graduated.  I think this may have been the first time I realized I was old.  I was 40. 

I got to know Jason pretty well.  I watched him play for the Gulls.  They’d become a West Coast Hockey League(WCHL) team by then.  They later merged with what is now the East Coast Hockey League(ECHL).  The ECHL is still going strong as a Tier 3 Minor league.  The Gulls folded in 2006.  Jason was an exciting player to watch.  He was physical and he could score.  He wore #96.  My son met him and Jason immediately became my Max’s favorite player.  Max started wearing #96 on his junior Gulls team.  We used to go down to the glass during the Gulls warm ups before games and Jason would always toss Max a puck.

So Jason was from Connecticut, as was I.  He went to prep school at New Hampton in New Hampshire, just up the road from Tilton where Max attended.  He played his college hockey at Elmira before having a ten to twelve year minor pro hockey career.  He stayed in San Diego for a few years after retiring from hockey and became a sales manager for a radio broadcasting company.  I used to ref senior league games where Jason played.  He was pretty intense.  As you know, all roads lead to the beer leagues.  The last game I reffed in which Jason played I had to eject him for fighting.  He had two fights on the same play.  

Now Max is playing at Jason’s alma mater.  I don’ know if he needed it, but I do know that Jason put in a good word for Max with the Elmira coach.  

I got to see my first game last night.  Elmira has struggled early in the season.  Not much was expected of them this year by those who think about these things.  Coming off of their worst season in years, plagued by injuries and relying on a very young team they struggled.  So, when they beat a ranked team, Neumann, in their season opener, I think folks were saying, “Hey wait a minute, what have we here?”  A young squad with a difficult season under their belt.  Maybe they will contend.  

A loss, then another loss against, 4-3 against Utica, the third ranked team in the country left the team still thinking they had something to show the world. This would be followed a win and two more losses.  So last nights game was important.  The team needed to get back on a winning track.  I chatted briefly with the radio announcer before the game.  His name is Bob Michaels.  I told him I always bring good luck. So I expected a win tonight. He laughed because I was pretty bundled up in a down coat I bought at the truck stop on my drive from JFK airport to Elmira.   I didn’t expect it to be so cold.  After the first period, my buddy, Dave Corbin called me from San Diego.  He was laughing and held up his phone to the computer so I could listen.  Bob was interviewing Max on the radio.  Bob was making fun of my new coat during the on-air interview.  

I was impressed with the speed of the game.  Max’s line mate, Jesper Strale scored 1:46 into the first period.  Max got an assist on the goal. It turned out to be the game winner as they went on to win by a convincing score of 5-0 for freshman goalie, Sal Magliocco’s first career shutout.  Nick Owen, a freshman defenseman in his first game scored on a slap shot to make it 2-0.  Notice #19 Captain, Josh Burnell recovering the puck to give to Nick.

My wife and daughter are flying in and we will catch two more games this weekend. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Chapter 40: Game Day!

Hockey Guy Part 4

It's a great day for hockey.  It's game day.  I'm excited, can hardly wait.  Today will be filled with silly superstitions.  There will be things I always do on gameday and things I never do.  My buddy Dave, is coming over.  I'll have the laptop with the hdmi cable set up so we can watch on the big screen.  Hopefully the internet connection will be good and the broadcast will be at least acceptable.  All I ask is that I be able to tell what's going on.  It doesn't have to be high def quality. I just want to be able to follow the game.

Last weekend, the kickoff weekend for the season, I was unable to get a video feed for the first period.  I had the radio broadcast.  My son's team, which had an uncharacteristic losing season last year, has some pretty low expectations for this season.  Two and a half minutes into the game they scored a powerplay goal against the favored visiting team.  I had yet to hear my son's name on the broadcast.  I wasn't sure what line he was on.  Seventeen seconds later I hear the announcer proclaiming another goal and he's shouting my son's name.  Well, I missed seeing it, but I was so happy to have that first one out of the way.  I think this season may turnout to be much better than last for both his team and for my boy.

I started this blog, this story of my life as a hockey player, coach, ref, dad and fan in the middle of this past
This was not the Jaguars team mentioned above.  This
is the miracle Jaguars State Champions from the next season
summer.  It was the height of the off-season.  It was also in the midst of an identity crisis for both my son and myself.  I started writing, pretty much as therapy for myself to deal with the prospect that the dream may have ended.  After many amazing and successful years of supporting, watching and encouraging my son through youth, prep school and junior hockey he ran into a brickwall last year, his first year of college.  It was the first negative experience he'd had since a miserable year as a first year squirt with the La Jolla Jaguars when he was 10 years old.  That team had JT Osborn(Western Michigan) Jon Parker(WHL and Rochester Amerks/AHL),  Garrett Taylor(WHL and USHL), Brandon Calrson(USHL and Univ of Alabama, Huntsville) and others who went on to play junior and ACHA club hockey.  I coached….for part of the season.  I told this story earlier, but there were a number of problems that year.  

First, the club made us take on too many kids.  So even with a core of great talent, we were only competitive on days where some of the lower level players were no-shows.  Next, we had a devil child on the team.  He disrupted everything.  Finally there was me.  I’d just gone through a hockey camp as a participant with my son with a guy who taught old school hard core, no-nonsense discipline.  Still glowing from the effect he had on me, I ended up smacking one of those little shits in the helmet after he pulled a bone head move on the ice.  That pretty much ended my youth coaching career for a few years until that blew over.  9/11 had just happened.  I ended up having neck surgery a short while after that.  The team was terrible..we tried to get a release and transfer Max back to his previous team, the San Diego Gulls, but there was a bureaucratic hangup and that didn’t happen.  Speaking of the Gulls, you have to see this. The team may have won four games all year.  It was a difficult year for sure.  

That was followed by ten solid, fun, successful seasons.  There isn’t one that I don’t look back on and feel anything but pride and satisfaction.  The last year of juniors was one of the best.  The team was successful. Max was a team leader and near the top of the league in scoring.  He was getting plenty of notice from colleges.  The D1 opportunities never really happened.  I kept hoping.  He took recruiting trips to a number of top rated D3 schools.  There was plenty of interest from many of the coaches in the Boston and surrounding areas as well.  

I'm torn on how to proceed with the rest of this story.  Up until now I think you would say this has been a fun, hopefully interesting and light hearted tale of our journey.  As we start to bump up against the present day I'm not really sure how to relay what has been happening lately.  I do not wish to come of as petty.  I don't want to bad mouth anyone and yet I'm baffled with some of what has gone on in the past year.

I'm a big boy.  I think I know about as much about hockey as anyone who has played at a decent level, coached, reffed, broadcast and videoed many games, has attended tryouts, games, showcase camps and festivals as all of the above.  Yet, last year left me dazed, frustrated and helpless to do anything about it.  All I could do was listen and advise when asked.  

I also don't want to call any unwanted or unnecessary attention to my son as he fights to find his way through what has been a struggle and a tough period in his life and hockey career.  I've thought about, written and rewritten the following account a number of times trying to decided to include or exclude names and specifics.  I've decided to leave out personalities and just go with the story.  You can obviously tell from some of the pictures I'm including who the involved parties are, but I've decided to keep it fairly general.  

This is a story of D3 college hockey and the recruiting/over-recruiting situation my son found himself in.

The most persistent, most aggressive and most promising of these opportunities came from one school in particular.  It was arguably one of the most successful D3 programs in the country.  The coach called Max a lot.  He was constantly pressing for him to commit.  He had a reputation as a real hard ass/hard core coach.  That appealed to Max.  He responded well to that kind of leadership.  Pat Norton at Tilton was fairly demanding.  Bill Flanagan of the Cyclones was “off the charts” intense.  He’d heard from people about this coach's reputation and he found it appealing.  He thought it brought out the best in him.

The coach also called me.  We had a nice conversation.  He was very friendly and open.  I was invited to call him anytime with any questions I may have.  I never spoke to him again.  Not even when we bumped into each other a few times the following season.  He looked right past me on those few occasions.  

It was a very tough decision, but in the end he committed, with great enthusiasm to this school and this coach.  He and nine other freshman forwards.  Max felt confident that he would have the chance to contribute and be an impact player and he was excited for what was next.  He spent the summer working out and skating.  He showed up and skated with the team in the captains practices.  He seemed to do well in the preseason conditioning reaching personal bests in bench pressing.  He passed the strength and fitness testing with flying colors.  Some didn't and they sat until they did, including their incredibly talented starting goalie.
The preseason came and he did well in the exhibition season.The first game of the season was upon us and he was a healthy scratch.  Well, there were a lot of freshman to test and he got to play in the next game.  He took two penalties in that game, not something that will impress this coach.  They were aggressive plays and not bad penalties. While these penalties didn’t sit well with the coach, he sat well as a healthy scratch for the next few games.

Proud Hockey Mom
Friday mornings became painful.  I would wait for his text after 9:00 am pacific time, noon on the east coast, when the coach would post the roster for that night’s game.  More often than not he wasn’t on the list.  I flew out the week before Thanksgiving to watch a few games.  My daughter was with me.  We went to a couple of road games.  He played in both.  On his first shift he came down with the puck, made a great play and hit the post.  So close.  His team ended up losing 3-2.  The coach wasn’t happy.  The next night they won.  We headed to New York and met up with my wife and went to my brother’s in Manhattan for Thanksgiving dinner.  On Friday we drove up to Vermont to watch a tournament.  We sat in the stands, with my son, and watched his team get beat.  The next day we watched his team win in the consolation game, again with Max in the stands.  

He didn’t play much after that either.  He came home for Christmas, then flew back Christmas night to join the team to prepare for their tournament over New Years.  He didn’t play in that either.  Nor for the next few games.  They faced a top NESCAC team a few weeks later, the team who’d beaten them 3-2 at the earlier tournament.  Max got to play in that game.  He had two goals and and assist and nearly had a hat trick. They won easily.   The team spent a month on campus with no school.  I think he nearly went stir crazy.  I think that was the last game he played for the season.  

All those seasons of my feeling badly as I watched other dads suffering as their sons sat came flooding back to my memory.  All those dads protesting that their kids weren't playing had more to do with politics than their kids skills levels.  Now I was the one silently suffering. Wondering what was going on that the coach didn't see my kids potential.  I can only imagine how hard it was for my son.  

This was another difficult year for sure. It was heartbreaking watching his spirit fade. It was a frustrating and confusing situation.  I understand there are some players better than others.  Everyone reaches their maximum potential at some point.  But something just didn’t make sense.  I knew my son had the skill to play at this level.  He had the work ethic and the character.  He had the drive.  But his value was never realized.  I don’t think I was just some proud pop who was looking with a skewed fatherly perception.  I knew many of the freshmen that came in with his class.  A few of them had outstanding seasons.  Just as many played nearly every game and without much impact on the scoreboard.  I understand there are intangibles.  But I’m a hockey guy.  I get it. But I didn’t get this.  It made no sense.  It still doesn’t.  

There were questions about what to do.  I’d suggested around Thanksgiving that it was pretty obvious his coach didn’t value him and that he might want to think about transferring.  He told me on two separate occasions that he would stick it out, he was in the right place and it would be better next year. I remember being impressed with his maturity and loyalty.  Unfortunately it didn’t seem to go both ways.

The boys were told the team would not be bringing in many if any forward recruits.  The team only lost a couple to graduation and they had this huge freshman group already.  Then, one by one new recruits were committing…I think there were at least four new forwards coming in.  Again, the handwriting was on the wall.  But it took until the end of the year before he really got the message that he was fighting an uphill battle. It turns out this type of over recruiting is not unusual. It happens at this school regularly.  It happens at others as well.  It seems to me to be a flaw in the system that deserves more attention.  

Transferring colleges is an ordeal.  It created a lot of stress and uncertainty and made for pretty much the worst summer ever.  It started with an NCAA form called a “conditional release” that allows the student/athlete to contact the athletic directors at any school.  Once the release is received, the player is then able to confidentially contact the coaches at each school.  A number of the schools and coaches contacted let him know that they were fully committed and there was no room.  His top pick wasn’t looking good.

The coach told Max he’d love to have him, but that he was awaiting word from one final recruit.  If that player committed, then there would be no open positions.  If he didn’t then he could fill that spot with Max. The coach knew Max, had recruited him the previous year, but he had to be loyal to the player he'd been recruiting for over a year.  That showed integrity.

This all took place around the 4th of July.  Two weeks later that kid did indeed commit.  The coach let Max know.  He was crushed.  That was about the time I started writing this story.  For the first time it looked like my son was ready to hang em up.  He said the dream was over.  

This was something I was just not prepared to hear.  I did a little snooping and found out that while the coach had fulfilled his recruiting, Max was welcome to go ahead and transfer, go throughout the tryout process and take his chances.  Best players play.  His interest in this school, this coach and this hockey program were sufficient for him to take that chance.  Since he made that decision things have fallen nicely in place.

Brad Holt #21 back row
Me #12 Standing left end
I said I wasn't going to be specific or name names. But there is one person who was a big part of this decision who I'd like to acknowledge.  Specifically, Brad Holt.  You may recall Brad was my teammate at Uconn and is the head hockey coach at the University of New England in Maine..  His dad was the legendary UNH coach, Charlie Holt.  Brad and I have stayed close, especially in the years since Max headed off to New Hampshire for prep school and Juniors.  Brad was one of Max's biggest supporters. He may have watched him play more than any other college coach over those years.  He was extremely helpful in advising Max on how to sort through the transfer experience and was super supportive of his decision.  He would have loved for Max to play for him, but he was selfless in his support and advice.  Again, I was blown away by his integrity.

It's early in the season.  Things could barely have gone better so far this season.  I couldn't be happier.  We are planning a trip back for Thanksgiving.  It's been really nice to wake up on game days and not have to stress out whether he's going to be in the lineup or not.  It's nice to see him be able to make a contribution.  I will continue to write about this journey and our experience as my son continues his relentless and unwavering march toward the beer leagues.