Sunday, June 30, 2013

Chapter 14: Peewees-Second Verse Same as the First

Second verse, same as the first.  A little bit louder and a little bit worse.   With a state title in our pocket and the first year of peewees behind us we looked forward to next season.  Players spend two years at each level.  At this level age difference means everything.  The first year kids are the freshman and the second year kids are the seniors.  Then the next season everyone moves up.  The younger kids are now the big men and the older kids become the underlings at the next level, bantams in this case.  Puberty is kicking in. Kids mature at different rates.  Some kids who were big and strong stop growing and others shoot up, gaining a foot in height almost overnight.  It turns out our kid would be a late bloomer.  

Joe Noris moved up with his son to coach the Jaguars bantam team. Max and a handful of his Jaguar team mates had another year at the peewee level. Word has it the Gulls hotshot coach, who I now love, was telling everyone these boys would be playing for him in the upcoming season. Sounded good to me.  Besides the Jaguars were a declining organization.  The Gulls were, if not already, becoming the predominant youth hockey club in town.  

Once again the tryout process began.  Once again, skating, drills, scrimmage and the letters were passed out.  They went to the returning players.  They went to Max's Jaguar team mates.  Max did not receive a letter on the first night. Are you freakin kidding me.  There I went again.  Upset. Offended.  Looking for alternatives.  If they didn't want him who might?  

The next morning we drove up to Anaheim.  We went to the Junior Ducks AAA tryouts.  They loved Max.  Offered him a roster spot right off the bat.  Whew!  Validation. 

We went back to the Gulls tryouts later that day.  The club president handed me an envelope with a letter.  Better late than never.    

The California style of play is greatly influenced by roller hockey.  In fact, for a number of reasons, including hockey, we were considering moving back to New England at the time. I spoke about this with Joe Noris and he pointed out that even though you might get more ice time in the east, roller hockey can be a powerful complement to ice hockey in California.  Joe owns a roller rink and has been a big proponent of the sport.  My kid had only recently started playing roller. 

Hockey in California tends to emphasize stickhandling,  dangling and puck control.  Roller hockey is more of an individual game than ice hockey.  Ice hockey tends to stress more of a passing, skating and positional game.   

I mentioned in an earlier chapter that from an early age I stressed to my son the value of head-manning the puck to the open man. My own experience of playing in New England and in Europe reinforced this notion.  When I was a lid the last thing you wanted was to be called a puck hog. The roller boys of SoCal got a different message.  Hold on to the puck as long as you can. Try to take the puck to the net and take a shot.  Pass only as a last resort. 

Max had only recently started playing roller hockey.  he was a "puck distributor". He was very good at moving the puck quickly to the open player.  In the process he became "puck shy".  We had innumerable conversations in the car discussing and contrasting "puck hogging danglers" and discussing the need for balance...I tried to impress on him that those puck hogs would be better if they learned to mix it up and move the puck and he would be better to hang on sometimes, make a move, take the shot. It took while to sink in...over the years and, admittedly with the exposure to roller hockey,  he has struck a very nice balance.  My message to him was that either extreme becomes predictable and easy to defend. Mix it up. Keep your opponent guessing. 

So Max made the Gulls, the coach liked to run the show.  That was understandable. I was still in the doghouse coaching wise but I wanted to help if I could.  I ended up handling video and stats.  I ended up really getting into video and it has become quite a hobby for me. You can see some of my work from the last few years on my YouTube channel.  It covers mostly junior and prep school hockey from the last few years. There is also some summer showcase stuff from various camps including the Chowder Cup and Hockey Night in Boston. 

The Gulls coach wanted stats on everything.  I delegated various tasks to different parents.  We kept track of plus/minus, shots, hits etc.  one dad took on recording hits.  His son was a defenseman.  After the first game he turned in his sheet. Kids were credited with three, four or eight hits here and there.  His son had 28. We stopped tracking hits after that game. 

The team had a tournament weekend up at Lake Tahoe. Two things about that trip are memorable. First, one of the boys decided to take a leak on the rocks in the sauna.  It was near our hotel room and we got to enjoy that aroma for the entire stay. Boys will be boys. 

The other thing that happened involved the coach, who I love, but that wasn't always so.  I wanted to help him where I could.  Like I said, I was handling the video and stats.  He was starting to warm up to me, to let me in.  I was happy to do whatever I could to help. 

The weekend was over. Most of the boys and families were flying back home on the same flight.  So was the coach.  We all got to the airport in Reno and were waiting for our Southwest Airlines flight back to San Diego.  I think we had to stop over in San Francisco. 

Some of the boys went to Burger King. Apparently, although I did not know, the coach headed for the airport bar.  We were still in Reno awaiting our flight. Eventually our flight number was called and we boarded. By we, I mean my family and the others hanging out at the gate.  

We boarded the plane and made our way back to the very last row.  I got comfortable in my seat and do what I normally do. I dozed off, even before the plane took off.  I woke up in flight. We landed in San Francisco.  One of the Dads, Rick Hatch got a phone call. It was from the coach.  

Apparently the coach started drinking and after a few beers lost track of time and missed the flight. No one was aware until the phone call to Rick.  Rick was trying to calm him down as he was quite upset.  He made some suggestions to the coach about catching another flight. Then he asked if there was anything else he could do.  The coach replied,  "Yes, here's a thing you can do for me...go and  order a tall glass of  go f**k yourself?"   I tell this story, not to embarrass the coach.  I'm not sure if I mentioned it, but I love this guy.  I tell this story because this is one of my favorite quotes of all time. 

It was another great season. This was a very talented and, might I say, well coached team.  There are a couple of kids from this team playing minor pro and D1 hockey.  One of them was a very talented player who scored over 200 points that season.  All time leading scorer for the Gulls organization at any level. 

Another player, one of the roller boys scored his 100th point.  I heard a parent congratulate him after the game on this milestone.  She asked him how many assists he had and he responded that it didn't matter, all he cared about was goals.  Wow. Really!!??

Near the end of the season, just before playoffs, Max joined the Anaheim Junior Ducks in Quebec for the Tournoi International de Hockey Pee-Wee de Quebec. Max billeted with a wonderful French Canadian family and roomed with goaltender, Jason Torf. Jason attended Cushing Academy and is now the goalie for the Air Force Academy.  Another member of that team was Luke Moffatt.  Like was from Arizona.  He is now playing at the University of Michigan and was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche in 2010. 

The Ducks did so-so in the tournament, losing to the Hershey Bears and beating a team from Finland and a team from Connecticut.   The Connecticut team was sponsored by my old friend Whitey Bensen's.   I was happy to see our boys and my boy could compete with players from my old stomping grounds. 

One night in Quebec City , which is a beautiful city, which is a beautiful city by the way, the fathers and sons were given tickets to go watch the Quebec City Ramparts of the Q(Quebec Major Junior Hockey League). Their opponent was the Rimouski Oceanics.  The Oceanics featured a 16 year old kid named Sidney Crosby.  That was pretty special to be able to watch Crosby as a junior.  He looked like a man among boys even though he was up against players 4 years his senior.  

One cold snowy afternoon we were doing some souvenir shopping in Quebec City.  A person could easily mistake this place for Paris.  It is the most European city I've ever seen in North America. We bumped into Tracee  Chelios, Chris Chelios's wife and one of their boys. I know she is good friends with my buddy, Jaye Park.  You may recall Jaye as the friend who shared shifts at Thursday night pick up with Chelios when he was a kid in San Diego.  So we said hello and had a nice chat.  

We returned from Quebec to rejoin the Gulls heading right into the state playoffs. We managed to win a second straight title and again lost in the Pacific District regionals. All in all it was a very positive season.  Peewees were behind us.  On to summer hockey and Bantams. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Chapter 13: Our Own Miracle On Ice

Next up, summer hockey, then Peewees.  Max got an invitation from Michael Callahan.  Mike coached one of our big rivals from L.A., the Paramount Panthers.  Another Dad coach. This would be the beginning of a fun and valuable experience.  That would be of skating with rivals and making new friends.  The invitation was for Max to go with the Panthers to play in a peewee tournament in Edmonton.  It involved going up to L.A. for a number of practices and exhibition games.  This was my first experience of being a California hockey dad and witnessing our kids holding their own against Canadian teams.  We were usually dismissed as being a bunch of surfers, only to surprise our opponents with our skills.  Our team had the coach's son, Mitch Callahan, who was drafted a couple of years ago out of the WHL by the Detroit Red Wings.  He currently plays for Grand Rapids in the AHL.  We also had Beau Bennett on the team, but he didn't end up playing in the tournament.  He was in the Stampede Challenge tournament in Calgary at the same time.  He made it to the final game in Edmonton, but not in time to play.    You may recognize Bennett from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The San Diego Junior Gulls organization had some big plans for our talented crop of 1991 birth year players.  These boys would be first year peewees. They recruited a hotshot, a full time professional coach.  The first non-dad coach we'd experienced.  He was from Northern California, played D1 hockey and was the tournament director for a national roller hockey organization.  He also coached a roller team out of Escondido. 

I love the guy today.  But it wasn't always so. My initial experience was at an evaluation clinic he ran at the iceoplex.  It was a school night. Max was in the 6th grade.  There must have been eighty skaters there that night.  After the session was over players could stick around to meet one on one with the coach for his evaluation.  Later, that same night Max and I were called into the small refs room where the meetings were held.  It was nearly 11:00 pm on a school night.  Finally we get to see the master, who proceeded to spend most of the interview giving us his background.  When he finally got around to giving Max his evaluation, he actually mistook him for another of the eighty-something skaters.  Mom wasn't happy when we came rolling in around midnight.

The tryout process for the Junior Gulls was always stressful for our family.  It is a three day process.  They were held in May or June and happened over a Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning.  The kids get on the ice, skate, do a few drills then scrimmage for the balance of the session.  At some point during the tryout, the coaches who are observing the players from on high, send down the club president, with big 8 1/2 x 10" envelopes.  The envelopes contain letters of intent.  The letters are offered to the parents of the players while the boys are out working their butts off.

I've always tried to be realistic about my son's skill level.  During those days I would have placed him in the middle upper half of group of kids who should have been offered roster spots on the team.  Up until this point, I had always heard about the "politics" of hockey, but I'd never experienced it first hand.  Well, here it was.

It turns out that the first group of letters of intent went out to all of the kids who played on the coach's roller team.  Max was not among them.  I thought...oh well, that's the way that is.   Even, the goalie on the roller team was offered a spot and he was trying out as a forward.  He'd never skated out before.  There was always tomorrow.

We came back the next day for the second tryout session on Saturday afternoon.  Again, the boys warmed up, skated, did some drills and then scrimmaged.  Again, the club president circulated among the parents handing out letters of intent.  I saw her give one to the parent of a set of twins whose grandparent was a club board member.  No offense, but these boys weren't very good.  Other less talented players with obvious connections were given envelopes.

I was upset.  And to be honest, offended.  

I made a new friend in the month or so before the tryouts.  His name was Dan Hansen.  Dan was in the Coast Guard and was moving to San Diego to run their recruiting office.  I met him one day when he came to the rink to check out the talent and find out about youth hockey in San Diego.  I'm a friendly guy.  We hit it off.  He had a kid who would be moving to San Diego when his family came out from Florida.  Dan's son's name was Rory.  We would hang out watch the kids skate in some of the pre-tryout clinics.   Rory was a stud.  He was a year older than Max.  He was offered a letter the first night.

When I saw the handwriting on the wall after twins were offered their spots on the team, I decided enough was enough.  I talked to Dan and told him I was going to take Max back to La Jolla and go to the Jaguars second day tryout that was happening a little later.  

I never thought I would ever have anything to do with the Jags again after last season's debacle.  But, My buddy Dave Corbin's son Alex was going to be their goalie.   Dave has always been a champion for Max and he told me that the Jaguars were going to be good this year.  They were coached by Joe Noris.  I've mentioned Joe earlier in my accounts.  Joe played a couple of hundred games in the WHA(World Hockey League) and 55 games in the NHL for Pittsburgh, Buffalo and St. Louis.

I played Thursday night pickup with Joe and I always liked him.  I told Dan, Rory's dad that I was going to head over to La Jolla and have Max skate in their tryout.  He came with me.  

Rory and Max both made the Jaguars that night.  Joe only wanted 12 skaters.  He didn't want to have to deal with the parents of a fourth liners when they weren't getting enough ice time.  They had a great team.  Joe happened to be another dad coach.  His son Johnny was talented.  Joe was probably the best dad coach I'd come across.  He was fair and didn't favor his son the way so many others have.   In addition to Johnny, this team included:

C.J. "Chad" Ruhwedal-now playing with the Buffalo Sabres in the NHL(USHL, Umass-Lowell)
Jon Parker-now playing with the Rochester Amerks in the AHL(WHL)
Rory Hansen-just graduated from Western New England University
Kory Grahl-just graduated from Western New England
Garrett Taylor-out of hockey due to injuries(WHL and USHL)
Gregory Park-now playing at Northern Arizona University-ACHA, club team
Alex Corbin, Goalie-now playing for San Diego State University-ACHA, club team
Pat Mercer-probably the best player on the team-pursued a golf career
Max Balaban-just finished freshman year at Plattsburgh State
Emil Kedbrant, Goalie,-returned to Sweden where he played at the junior level
Tom Plotkin-played at the University of Iowa, ACHA, Club team.  Tom died tragically in 2011 while studying  in India.  He was studying abroad in an outdoor leadership program.  He was on a 57 day hike when he twisted his ankle and fell 300 feet into the Ganges River.  His body was never found.  Tom was a great kid and this broke everyone's heart
Nick Whaley-played a few years of Tier 3 Junior hockey-now out of hockey
AJ Hatch-went to the dark side, Roller Hockey.  Now out of hockey
Johnny Noris-plays roller hockey and surfs 

That was it..twelve skaters and two goalies.  I mentioned this earlier, but the Jaguars ended up having an above average season that culminated in "Miracle On Ice" caliber day...or as I like to put it, they had a great season that day.

We made the playoffs and met up with the Anaheim Junior Ducks for a 6:30 a.m. semi-final game.  Just like the 1980 USA team met the Russians in the semi-final of their Miracle On Ice Olympics, we faced the overwhelming tournament favorite.  I wasn't coaching, but I was helping Joe out with some behind the scenes aspects that year.  We'd played the Ducks twice during the season and they handled us fairly easily.  I arranged an unofficial exhibition game against them to be played the weekend before the state tournament.  The Ducks were pretty much unbeatable...They went 20-0 in our So-Cal hockey league.  I believe they may have suffered one defeat in an exhibition game against a team from Northern California called the Gold Rush.  But it would appear to all concerned that the Gulls didn't have a chance.  As I said earlier, the Ducks parents already had their flights reserved to Nationals.

We played the exhibition game.  We lost 5-0.  The best player on the Ducks was a kid named David McKenna.  They had a play they ran off of the opening face-off where McKenna, a forward would line up as a defenseman.  When the puck dropped, their center would tie up ours, McKenna would rush through the face of circle, pick up the loose puck, bust through our defense and go in all alone on the goalie.  He scored at least two goals in this game using that play.  Joe studied the play. The exhibition game also gave Joe a chance to study their break out and see that we could stop it by having our defense pinch on their wingers on the boards.

After practice the next week, we played the Miracle On Ice documentary of the 1980 USA Olympic team for the boys.  Our rally cry became:  "Beat those Commie bastards".

And beat them we did.  Between Johnny Noris's hat trick and Alex Corbin standing on his head we pulled off our own miracle, ending the Ducks dream season with a 6-3 defeat. we got to face the Finns, er I mean the Gold Rush in a few hours for the Championship game.  The Gold Rush were coached by Ernie Hicke and his son Shane.  They've had their share of controversy during their coaching careers together.  Ernie played 520 NHL games for the Minnesota North Stars, the Islanders, California Golden Seals, the Atlanta Flames and the L.A. Kings for eight seasons in the 1970s.  We played the Gold Rush earlier in the tournament and lost 5-2. Not this time though.  Thanks again to Alex Corbin's outstanding performance in net we won, again by a score of 6-3.  We were the champions.  

The next stop was the Pacific District regionals.  We beat a team from Spokane that featured a fantastic player named Tyler Johnson.  Tyler played for the USA u-20 Junior team twice and just finished this past season with the Tampa Bay Lighting with 3 goals and 3 assists in 14 games.  We lost in a heartbreaker by one goal to the California Wave in the regional championship game.  End of a great season.  

Next up:  back to the Gulls and another state title.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Chapter 9: On Becoming a Hockey Dad

 Max wasn't yet a year old.  We bought him a tiny little pair of skates and headed up to Mira Mesa to take him out for a public skate.  It was really Kyle and I on either side of him holding his mittened hands and pulling him around the rink.  He enjoyed it.  The next winter we were back in Rhode Island and then Connecticut at Christmas time.  Not even two years old and he was skating on Lake Phipps.  It was a beautiful crisp cold winter day.  There was not a soul around.  The ice was like glass.  I took him out and let him hold himself up by pushing a chair on the ice.  He looked better than I did my first time out there.  He was a natural.  

A year later we took him to the ice rink at the University Towne Centre(UTC) mall in La Jolla.  We enrolled him in a "learn to skate class".  This didn't work out so well.  He wanted me on the ice with him, but that wasn't allowed.  So he stood there crying in the corner for most of the sessions.  

A new rink was built in Escondido, It was originally called "IceFloe".  It was built by a family that was taking advantage of some California energy laws.  The rink was actually built as a cogeneration power plant.  The local utility company was required to purchase excess power produced by the rink.  Ultimately the scheme didn't work out and the rink was sold to Ice-O-Plex.  

We took Max up to the new rink to sign him up for Mini-Mite hockey.  There really wasn't much of a program and I ended up running it for a few dozen little four and five year olds who showed up every Friday evening for their weekly practice.  It was your basic cluster bee-hive mass of post-toddlers stumbling and bumbling all chasing the puck at the same time. 

I stressed to my little one the importance of not following the pack and of passing the puck when he got it.  He took this to heart, somewhat to his detriment for much of his youth hockey career to come. I'll explain later.  

The mini-mite program was a family affair.  There were almost as many dad/coaches on the ice as there were players.   All the mom's gathered at the glass with their cameras and video camcorders. 

As I mentioned the practices were on Friday nights. This was after a long hard week of preschool and fighting Friday evening rush hour traffic to make the 30 minute trip that usually took an hour.  By the time we got these rugrats on the ice they were usually in full A.D.D. Mode.  

There was one little boy named Garrett who had no ability to pay attention.  I was truly worried about him. He would not, could not pay attention or listen. He was in his own world.  One night we we decided to have him be the goalie. The kid transformed before our eyes.  He was focused. He knew what he was supposed to do and he did it. It was a mini-mite miracle. 

One night we got on the ice and there was a new dad skating around. I skated over and said hello, introduced myself. His name was was Kirk McCaskill. "What do you do Kirk?" He replied, "I'm Retired". "Where do you live Kirk?"  He lived in Rancho Santa Fe. A very exclusive community.  

He was wearing green UVM hockey warmups.  We started talking. I found out he knew Kyle Bensen, from West Haven. I think they roomed together at Trinity Pawling. He also told me he had played hockey at Vermont.   I was curious why this guy in his early thirties was retired so I asked him what he retired from.   

He retired from Major League Baseball. He'd pitched for the Angels then the White Sox. He attended UVM because they allowed him to play both hockey and baseball. He was a Hobey Baker finalist in hockey.  He was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 1981. He played one season of pro hockey for the AHL Sherbrooke Jets. He dressed but did not play in one NHL game. 
He retired after that season to pursue his successful baseball career which allowed him to retire to Rancho Santa Fe at the age of 34.  I hooked him up with my senior league. He was an incredible beer league player. All roads…

One last point about Kirk. One scout 
was asked to describe his hockey career. He said that Kirk played hockey like he pitched...about once every four games. 

Max was becoming a pretty good skater at the ripe young age of four and five.  It was then that I formed my little thought experiment.   He was starting hockey at such a young age.  I didn't start skating until I was twelve going on thirteen.  I always wondered how much better I would have been had I started playing earlier.  So I kept an eye on Max.  I'm still watching. 

After a year or so of house league mite hockey I started to notice as some of the kids got older and better they moved on to something that would come dominate our family and our finances for the next decade or so.  

Travel hockey!  Sheesh, if I'd only known, I might have saved the money and stuck it in a 529 college savings plan.   But noooo.   My kid was gonna get a D1 scholarship.  Maybe even go pro. So we poured thousands of dollars down that drain.   

I'm joking. Kind of. My goal for my son was for him was to have fun, enjoy himself and play as long as he wanted, seeing how far he would go given his young start.  I'd already heard about and witnessed kids "burning out". These were the kids who started young and were pushed relentlessly by their parents. There are people, and I admit I've been one, who lived through their kids.  I would deny this, but I have family members who might think otherwise.  Of course the other hockey parents and I could live in denial of this with the silent agreement never to acknowledge this sad fact to each other. 

The next year we graduated to a travel tournament team.  I say we, not only because I was living vicariously through my kid, but because while he played, I coached. 

Steve Terry and I coached the San Diego Dragons. Steve was the guy I was in Finland with at the same time 25 years earlier. 

The Dragons were a fun team.  They played out of the rink Mira Mesa. The other team playing there was the San Diego Stars. Those boys were a year older than our kids. 

My friend Jaye Park coached the Stars.  Jaye and I played Thursday night pickup together. He was the one who shared his shifts with Chris Chelios years earlier.  There was a kid on the Stars that Max would go on to play with off and on over the next decade. He was called CJ.  

CJ was a smooth skater. A natural.  He wasn't big. He wasn't fancy. He was smart. He could do just about anything but for some reason he seemed to always find a way to not finish.  A few years later CJ and Max and twelve  other very talented peewees would play for ex-pro Joe Noris on the La Jolla Jaguars.  They, not we, as the era of dad coaches was ending(although Joe's kid was on the team), played at the shopping mall at UTC in La Jolla. Early in the season after a couple of games, a very mature CJ and his buddy Kory went to Joe and offered to play defense. The team turned around and by the end of the season shocked the California youth hockey world by defeating an undefeated Anaheim Junior Ducks to win the state Peewee championship. We laughed because the Ducks parents were so sure they would win it all that they already had their plane tickets to nationals. 

There has always been a big debate in San Diego among the elite youth players as whether to stay home or go play for the AAA tier programs in Los Angeles.  It was clear that if the local kids stayed home and stuck together they could be competitive with anyone. 

The L. A. Programs have been putting out NHL draft picks at an impressive rate.  Bennett , Blum, Etem, Zucker and others with more to come. Our boys played against these kids in those early days. 

A lot of good San Diego boys made the trip and paid the $25,000 a year to play for L.A. Selects or The Wave or L.A. Hockey Club or the Junior Kings.  Some are still playing. Jon Parker is with the AHL Rochester Amerks in the Sabres organization. Some are playing college hockey.  One hit the jackpot. 

CJ was the poster child for making the case that you didn't need to leave home to go far. CJ played AA hockey for the San Diego Gulls, the premier youth program in town. He played there every season until his last year of youth hockey when he did finally play one season for the Jr. Kings. The argument made by the San Diego youth hockey coaching community was if you are good they(the scouts) will find you. 

CJ  had a good year with the Jr. Kings then signed with Sioux Falls in the USHL, the premier junior league in the U.S.  After two solid seasons in Sioux Falls he was offered a scholarship to attend Umass-Lowell.  Fast forward to this past season. CJ who is now called Chad and Umass-Lowell were defeated in overtime by Yale in the semi-finals of the NCAA Frozen Four. Had they won Chad would have faced Quinnipiac for the championship on Saturday.   As it was his season was over.  

At least his college season was done. On Saturday morning, rather than preparing to play for the NCAA championship, Chad Ruhwedel was signing an entry level contract and played in his first NHL game with the Buffalo Sabres that same afternoon.   He played in each of the last seven games for Buffalo. Watch for him next season. 

Back to the Dragons. By this time Kyle and I had our second child, our Daughter-Bret. I know, I know, Bret is a boys name. It was a deal I made with my wife. The day Bret was born I had a game that night. The deal was I could go play and Kyle could name our child.  So my wife with the boy's name gave our daughter a boy's name. 

By the time Max was playing for the dragons he was seven and Bret was five. Funny enough besides me and Max the dragons had; a Max, a Kyle, a Steve and a Brett(two t's) on the team. 

This is a good time for a break. Let me get my thoughts together and I'll be back in a bit. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Chapter 12: A Year To Forget

By the last trip to the Czech Republic my hockey career began a serious down slide.  I started having issues with my left leg.  It was like skating with a bad wheel.  Sometimes I could count on it but more and more often it would let me down.  

The summer after we returned from my fourth and final trip to Europe I signed Max and myself up to participate in the "Joe McMeekan Two Way Hockey Camp" held at the SDIA rink in Mira Mesa.  

Joe McMeekan was an old school, hard core, no nonsense coach.  He stood only about 5"7 or so. He was Canadian, must have been 70 years old. His approach was similar to boot camp.  There was no fooling all.  He would skate up behind little kids and whack their stick out of their hand if they didn't have two hands on it.  There was no resting with your stick on your knees or against the boards.  If he caught you doing so he would make you do push-ups or do a lap around the rink.  

I fully participated in the camp with about two dozen kids and a couple of other adults. 

The curriculum was based on a progression of skills, starting with the most basic stride and finally near the end of the week he broke out the pucks.  It was hard work, serious business and not much fun at all. 

It was in the middle of this torture that I finally realized the extent of the issue with my back and leg.  Up until attempting some of these skating drills and having trouble doing circles and crossing over I didn't know I was falling apart.  It was embarrassing being talked to by this little skate-nazi like I was a beginner.  He didn't know who I was. He didn't know how I used to be able to fly like the wind.  All he saw was this middle aged guy who couldn't keep up with a bunch of kids.  

This set off a series of visits to an array of doctors.  I had X-rays, nerve tests, MRIs.  They looked at my lumbar and were shocked at the amount of disk degeneration.  "You need surgery right way", they clamored. 

"Yes", I replied. "But what about this thoracic injury I sustained when I was younger, could that have anything to do with the loss of function in my leg?"   They responded, "Yes, we should take a look at that". Tests were done and surgery was suggested. 

OK, but what about my neck pain.  Could all that pounding my head playing football in high school be causing this problem?

They examined my neck as well.  Oh my. It was really bad.  We must operate immediately.  Otherwise I was at risk of becoming a quadriplegic if I would happen to be hit from behind in my car.  I now suspect that is a line surgeons use to sell surgery, but at the time all I wanted was to regain my leg function. 

While going through all of these tests, I was coaching Max's AA Squirt team for the La Jolla Jaguars. This was our one and only nightmare youth season.  I've always felt lucky about that.  I've seen so many people suffer through such terrible seasons that I think we were fortunate to only have this one.  There would be one more forgettable seasons to come. We will get to that when the time comes.  

The thing to know about my coaching days is that if you didn't know it, you wouldn't realize I had a kid on the team.  I never talked to him during practices other than to give the same instruction I would give any other player.  I made a point of not treating him in any way that would cause another parent to be aware or concerned.  I had been around enough dad coaches who favored their kid, made then team captain, etc.  Not cool. 

We had a talented team, but the rink management required us to take on too many kids.  This didn't help us in the winning department.  We had a couple of good games early on.  I had one of the parents video tape our games.  After a game we should have won we came away with a tie.  I reviewed the game tape. 

I noticed a glaring problem.  Our shifts were way too long.  Oh yeah, I should mention that the old school, no nonsense mentality of the Joe McMeekan hockey school had influenced my coaching style and I adopted some of his "attitudes" as my own. 

Our next game was against the Jr. Kings in El Segundo at the LA Kings new practice facility.  At our practices all week I stressed the importance of keeping our shifts short.  I was shooting for 45 seconds to one minute long shifts. No longer than a minute. We worked on it in practice. We discussed it in our pre-game meeting.  I'm pretty sure everyone got the message…short shifts. 

We get to El Segundo.   The game is going well.  It was near the end of the first period.  The next line goes out on the ice. They were out for about a minute. The other coach and I start yelling for the kids to get off. It was Jon, Mikey and another kid whose name I forget. 

We are calling them to get off, it's over a minute. Yelling, shouting, screaming.  It was the other coach and I yelling.  The other kids on the bench are screaming.  Two minutes go by.  And then a third.  They finally skate over to the gate at the bench. 

Remember, these are squirts. They were nine and ten year-olds.  Still not tall enough to jump over the boards.   We had a system for changing the lines.  The kids coming off would skate to the gate, but wait and allow the new line to get out and into the game first.  Then the old line would come on to the bench. Otherwise we would have no forwards in the game for that brief moment.  

Not this time though.  Jon, Mikey and the other exhausted kid skate right to the gate and onto the bench at the same time the fresh line was trying to get on the ice. Logjam at the door.  The other coach and I are pushing players out the door and grabbing jerseys and pulling kids through trying to untangle this mess. 

Cue the Joe McMeekan old school, hard core, no-nonsense outrage. The last player I happened to grab was Mikey.  I had a hold of his sweater. I pull him through the crowd, plop him down on the bench, give him an old fashioned helmet slap and yelled something about "what were you thinking".  

Well, I'm not sure what he was thinking but now he is crying.  Oh crap!  That was the sound of my coaching career being flushed down the toilet. 

I sat down next to Mikey and apologized.  The other coach and I locked eyes.  This wasn't good. After the game(we lost) I found. Mikey's dad and told him what happened.  He didn't seem particularly upset. 

The next night I got a call from his dad. "Mikey's brain hurts. He's scared of you and wants to quit the team". 

I handled it the best I could.  I told him his son was not quitting.  I would resign before I would allow that. I asked him if I could talk to Mikey. I did and apologized again. I offered to remove myself and only return if and when Mikey was comfortable.  I spoke to the hockey director and then the rest of the parents.  Everyone supported me.  Until the rink manager decided I was a potential lawsuit.  That was the end of my youth coaching career for the most part.  I did make a bit of a comeback as an assistant coach for a couple of seasons in bantam and midget hockey once this incident had blown over.  Funny enough Mikey was on our team that final midget season. All went well.  

This all happened before November.  It was right after 9/11.  I ended up having neck surgery in early November.  The jaguars won only one more game that season. I was miserable.  Max was miserable. We ended up requesting a release and a transfer back to the Gulls where he'd played the previous season.  

The Gulls coach, who I'd "co-coached" with the previous season was another psycho dad coach.   He had a talented kid who peaked as a squirt.  Team captain, leading scorer, played on every power play and penalty kill.  The year before, I was set to coach the squirt B team and the other guy was to coach the squirt A team.  The problem was, none of the kids who made his team wanted to play for him, so they all headed over to La Jolla and joined the Jaguars.  So my team and the remainder of his team combined to form a squirt BB team.  We won the Southern California title that year.  Not without this coach pissing off about half of the team's parents.  At this level, he favored his kid and the top half of the team and would often sit the other half.  

My son's player release and transfer never went through.  It got hung up on an administrator's desk.  The Thanksgiving tournament was set to start, so he ended up playing in that and sticking it out with the Jaguars the remainder of the season.

A month later, with my neck still in a post surgery brace I was playing pond hockey in Rhode Island over the Christmas break.  When I got back to San Diego I joined on as an assistant coach with the San Diego State University club team.  I coached there for a couple of months.  It was at SDSU where earned my undefeated college coaching record.   

SDSU are known as the Aztecs.  We had a weekend series versus a school from Valencia, north of L.A. called The College of the Canyons.  I was the assistant coach.  The head coach was unable to make the Saturday game.  He coached the Friday night game at the iceoplex in Escondido.  We lost.  We beat ourselves.  Our boys had a bug up their butts and decided they wanted to hit anything that moved.  We took a lot of dumb penalties and compounded that with a bunch of retaliation calls and misconducts for yapping at the refs.

The next day we played the same team, but at the SDIA in Mira Mesa.  Before the game we had a team meeting.  I asked them one question.  I asked what the purpose of a hockey game is.  After a few responses, I suggested the purpose was not to take any one's head off, not to get pissed off and retaliate but rather to simply score one more goal than your opponent.  The point of hitting is to separate the player from the puck so that you can accomplish your purpose of scoring one more goal.

They responded by going out and playing a focused, clean, penalty free game.  We crushed the other team. I think the score was 7-0.  I retired from college coaching with a winning percentage of .1000 and an undefeated record.  

Meanwhile, back at the neurosurgeon's office.  One of the older Jaguars players, a midget,  was the son of  well known surgeon.  I went to Dr. Lance Alteneau with my results and made arrangements for the neck surgery.  He was hopeful but in no way sure that the operation would improve my leg issues.   I had the surgery in early November of 2001.  I was in the hospital for two or three days and back at work within a week.  I had to wear a cervical collar for about a month.

I asked Dr. Altenau when I could play hockey again.  He told me with all the plates and screws the vertebrae in my neck were virtually indestructible and if I had the talent I could play hockey in the NHL within three months.  So, as I said, two months later I was playing hockey on the Lily Pond in Newport, RI.   

By April, I was back to playing a bit of league and pickup.  I was skating at the San Diego Sports Arena, the home of our local minor pro team, the Gulls.  The Gulls played in the ECHL by this time.  The team started out in 1990 as an International Hockey League franchise.  A few years later they moved to the West Coast Hockey League.  Now they are defunct.

I remember skating into the offensive zone with the puck and let a wrist shot go.  I'm a right handed shot.  That sentence doesn't sound right, but that how hockey players talk.  To be precise, I shoot right handed.  As I followed through with my shot I felt a sharp pain in my lower back on the right side.   I spent the next few weeks in the worst pain of my life.  Dr. Altenau performed a lumbar discectomy.  The pain was caused by a loose bone fragment sitting on the nerve root.  Ouch, but he removed it and the pain on that side was gone.  I still had my overall back pain and my loss of strength in my left leg, but at least that excruciating agony was over.

I was playing Thursday night pickup hockey a week later.   I told you earlier, mommas don't let your sons grow up to play hockey.   I know I'm an idiot.

I had a couple of other Gulls stories you might find fun.  First, I was playing pickup hockey one night in Mira Mesa. There were a couple of Russians in the locker room before the skate.  One of them was huge.  He was dressed in brand new Florida Panthers gear.  I remembered wondering if he might be a pro.  The other guy was dressed in gray sweat pants.  He looked like a guy out for a Saturday afternoon skate on the lake.  He had shin guards, gloves, elbow pads and a helmet.  I didn't wonder if he was a pro.

Once on the ice, I noticed the big Panthers dude could barely skate.  The other guy was amazing.  Everyone was impressed.  I got to be friends with him over the next few weeks.  His name was Dmitri, Dmitri Doulebenets.  He spoke very little English. He was a really good player.  I once blocked his slap shot from the point.  The puck hit the shaft of my graphite stick and snapped it in half right in my hands.  Before you knew it all of the senior league teams were offering to buy hockey equipment and pay his league fees for him to play for them.

My friend Barry MacCarthy organized a team to go play in the Phoenix Memorial Day adult tournament.  We all chipped in and covered Dmitri's cost.  Our team had another really good  Russian player, a guy named Grecia.  Dmitri tore it up through the three game round robin and the semi-final game.  We were undefeated.  Dmitri played defense, but he could score almost at will.  I watched him wind up from the center ice red line and beat the goalie top corner, glove side.

We won the championship game by a score of 6-3.  Grecia scored 5 goals.  Dmitri was named MVP of the tournament. Grecia was pissed.  Of course the nominations and selection was made prior to the final game but that didn't matter to Grecia.

When we got back to San Diego I introduced Dmitri to the Monday night Dobek group skate in Escondido.  It was summer time and as the pro Gulls players were coming back to town for camp they would join this skate.  Steve Martinson, the Gulls coach was a part of this group.  During his playing career Steve had been an enforcer.  He played 49 games in the NHL with Detroit and Montreal, but most of his career was spent in the AHL and IHL, fighting.

Steve noticed Dmitri and invited him out to the Gulls camp.  He made the team, played one game and then was traded to the Colorado Gold Kings where he ended up leading the league in plus/minus and came in second that season for Rookie of the Year honors.  He played a few more seasons with the ECHL Wheeling Nailers before moving back to Russia.

The other Gulls story involves a knucklehead named Billy Tibbetts.  Google this guy.  He was a real piece of work.  He spent a few years playing major junior hockey then a season with the Johnstown Chiefs in the ECHL.  If you look him up on you will notice it is listed as "did not play" for the next 4 seasons.  Tibbetts was from Boston.  He was involved in a statutory rape incident and he had  run in with the police and apparently was also convicted of assault and battery(shooting at police with a bb gun) witness intimidation and disorderly conduct.

When he got out of prison he resumed his promising hockey career.  He played 82 games in the NHL with Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the Rangers.  He continued to be a head case and was never far from trouble and controversy.   He was talented but nuts.  After his NHL career fizzled he spent the rest of his career bouncing around the minor leagues.

He landed in San Diego for the 2003-04 season.  I was a Gulls fan.  It was fun hockey.  The tickets were cheap.  The beer and hot dogs were good.  The Gulls Girls were hot.  Tibbetts was a force.  He had played in the NHL the previous season.  He stood out.  I'd say he was one of my favorite players to watch. I admired his skill.

The following season Tibbetts returned to play with the Gulls.  It was preseason.  The Gulls had a home and home weekend exhibition series with the Long Beach Ice Dogs.  They played in front of a full house at the SDIA in Mira Mesa for the first game.  There may have been two thousand fans jammed into the rink, standing room only.  Tibbetts played in this game, but he did not make the road trip up the 405 to play in Long Beach the following day.

I was just recovering from yet another surgery.  In case you are counting, by the time this is all said and done I've had a total of six.  I went to another local rink in San Diego, the Kroc center to skate in an afternoon pickup session.  It was a fairly uneventful skate.  Maybe twenty minutes or so into it, someone came out of the locker room and stepped on the ice.  It was Billy Tibbetts.  Cool.  

A little while later Tibbetts was carrying the puck into the zone to my left.  As he crossed the blue line, the kid who was back checking him hooked him and then the stick came up and clipped his chin.  Tibbetts' response was about the most classless thing I've ever seen.  He retaliated by slashing the kid.  I say Kid, he was in his twenties.  Then he proceed to chase, pester  and harass the poor kid all over the ice.

So what did I do?   I did what any self respecting fifty year old fart recovering from back surgery would do.  I skated out and told him to cut the crap.  I told him it was an accident and if he couldn't control himself he should leave.   He didn't leave.   But he didn't beat the crap out of me either.  He did harass me for the rest of the session and then he continued to bully and berate me in the locker room.  I simply picked up my phone and called his coach.  I am friends with Martin St. Amour.  Martin was the head coach of the Gulls at the time. He is the Gulls all time leading scorer.   

That was pretty much the end of it.  Mr. Tibbetts, it turned out was with the Gulls on a zero tolerance basis due to his checkered history.  Within two weeks he was let go.  What a joke.  He's still bouncing around and getting into trouble. 

More to come......