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......

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