Thursday, June 20, 2013

Chapter 11: Czech Please

We are in the late 90's, early 2000s.  I ended up switching senior league teams about this time.  Too many Mustangs moved away including the goalie, who organized the team.  So I found my way onto the Hecklers.  The Hecklers were nowhere near the talent level of the Mustangs, but they were a heck of a lot more fun.  Specifically, the goalie who ran this team, Chris Heaney, is a one of a kind.  He owned a popular night club in San Diego called Brick By Brick.  Chris was very much into finding fun tournaments for the Hecklers to play in.  We played in Las Vegas and Phoenix. He got wind of a USA Hockey adult tourney in the Netherlands and in 1993 he started packaging and organizing trips to play in this tournament in Europe.  That first tournament was in a small Dutch town called Zoetermeer.  I wasn't with the team for the first few trips but word has it that they met up with some Dutch players from another town called Enschede.  Enschede sits on the northeastern border of Holland and Germany. 

The new Dutch friends told Chris about another tournament happening the next weekend in the Czech Republic.  They made their way to Enschede for a few days to hang out then travelled across Germany past the old East German border and into The Czech Republic.  The Czechs were mostly older and drank Slivovitz and smoked on the bench. And they skated and passed circles around the Hecklers.  A tradition was born and Chris just completed his twentieth year of taking teams to Europe.

One of the traditions the Hecklers came up with during these trips was something called a Shawarmafest.  Shawarma is a middle eastern meat dish, similar to Gyros, very popular in the Netherlands.  One night each year, the boys would get together at a Shawarma restaurant and hold an eating and drinking contest.  Back in the Czech Republic at the bar one night after getting shellacked by the older, drunker Czech team Chris was chatting with some of the Czech players.  They scored a bunch of goals against the Hecklers with the following play:  The puck carrier would come down on one wing, cut to the net and then take the puck behind the goal.  The very moment the goalie would start to shift to the other side of the goal mouth, the player would drop the puck back where he had just been hitting a trailer who would easily shoot the puck into the now, open net.   The Hecklers adopted this play and to this day if you watch the current Hecklers team play, every so often you will hear a player yell "Shawarma" and you know what to expect.

One of the factors that I'm sure contributed to the popularity of the Shawarmafests was that when the team arrives in Amsterdam most of them made a beeline to the "coffee shops".  A very popular stop on the tour.

I went a total of four times.  Trips of a lifetime.  The first and third times I went on my own.  The second and fourth trips I took my wife and Kids.  Max was ten for that fourth and final trip.  In addition to my family, I organized a squirt team from the U.S. to come along.  It was a challenge to come up with enough kids to field a team.  Our team was comprised of ten skaters and no goalies.  We ended up borrowing a local goalie and often a couple of skaters at each game.  Seven of our kids were local San Diegans.  The other three came from Spokane, WA.  One of them, J.J. MacGregor recently graduated from Connecticut College and just finished the year playing pro hockey in France.  J.J. was a local stud whose family had moved to Spokane a couple of years earlier.  I was friends with his dad and he enrolled a couple of J.J.'s teams mates from Spokane.

Our boys wore San Diego Gulls uniforms.  We gave our local Czech opponents Gulls pucks as souvenirs.  We won every game.  I don't think we were necessarily better than the Czech teams.  This was a time when the Czech Republic had just won the Olympic gold medal and they were quite proud of their hockey heritage.  The reason we won is because we were a team of ten skaters while our opponents teams typically included the entire town or village.  They must have had thirty kids on their benches.  Everyone wanted to play.  I suspect if they picked their top two or three lines it would have been a different story.  

One of the most popular alcoholic brands in the Czech Republic is Becherovka.  We found it curious and amusing that Becherovka was the big sponsor of many of their youth teams.  There is no minimum age to consume alcohol there.   It would be like your little Johnny having a Jim Beam on the crest of his jersey.

The tournament in the Czech Republic was held in a small town called Klasteric, about an hour and a half northwest of Prague.  We were the only team from the States.  Besides the Czech teams, other countries represented included; Finland, Switzerland and Russia.  The Russian team was ridiculous.  They had some really good younger skaters, but two of the older guys played on the 1980 Red Army team that faced the U.S. Miracle team in the Olympics.  These guys made us look silly.  I remember looking at the scoreboard in one game and before I knew it and we were down 11-0.  One year, as a joke, my wife and one of the other player's girlfriends went to the store and bought a porn magazine and held the centerfold behind the glass to distract their goalie.  He got a big kick out of it.  We still lost big time.

Klasteric was out in the hinterlands.  All the kids from the village would show up and line up for our autographs.  Chris married a girl from the neighboring village, Kadan.  He ended up selling Brick By Brick and opened a neighborhood bar in San Diego with a Czech theme that he named Kadan.  He also changed the name of the hockey team from the Hecklers to Kadan.

Each year on the final evening of the tournament the entire town held a huge celebration for all the teams.  It was called the Gallabender.  Everyone was there, the mayor, the town fathers, little old ladies, families and friends.  The evening always starts out as some kind of presentation by the school children.  A dance or performance of some sort.  Soon thereafter, the kids would be escorted out and it would turn into a raunchy show...I recall a drag show, a full on strip show and a mud wrestling event where bikini clad women would select hockey players from the crowd and pull them into the mud pit.  By the end of it everyone including the hockey players would end up butt naked.  Stay classy Klasteric!  

There was an American journalist who came out from Prague to do a story on us.  After the tournament he got me a press pass to attend the Czech Elite League playoffs.  The teams were Sparta Praha vs. Litvinov CHP.  There were a handful of NHL players on both teams...The biggest name was Robert Reichel for Litvinov and David Vyborny for Praha who played most of his career with Columbus.  Reichel spent most of his career with the Flames, Leafs and Islanders.  With my press pass I got to spend the game with the rest of the photographers right on the boards between the bench and the corner.  There was no glass.  I was there with my little Canon with professional photographers with their huge zoom lenses.  I got a lot of great pics and it was a blast.

One of Max's very first teammates, a kid named Cassidy April and his family came on the trip.  Max and Cassidy were mini-mites together when they were four.  They were now ten.  The would go on to play on teams together through midget hockey.  They met up again as twenty year olds for their last year of juniors hockey with the Northern Cyclones in the Atlantic Junior Hockey League in New Hampshire.  Cassidy just finished his freshman year at the University of New England in Maine where he plays defense for my old college teammate, Brad Holt.  Another theme.  The hockey world is small.

No matter what the restaurant, as we made our way through the Czech Republic, Cassidy would always request ranch dressing with his meal.  It wouldn't matter if we were in a McDonalds in Prague or in a quaint little pub and grill in a tiny village he would ask the waiter or waitress for ranch dressing.  He never found any.  By the way, at this time it was fairly common that very few of he Czech people spoke English.  On the final day of the trip we were touring around Prague with the team and their parents.  Cassidy and his family had to leave for the airport to catch their flight.  We said our "goodbyes" and soon we were sitting in a quaint little restaurant near the center of Prague.  My kids, 10 and 8 years old, were legally sipping on Budweiser, the real Budweiser, not what is sold in the states.  Beer lovers will understand.  

There in the center of the table sat a bottle of salad dressing.  On the label was the word, "Farmsky".   Sooo....that's how you say "ranch" in Czech.  We snatched the bottle, put it in our back pack and delivered to Cassidy when we returned to San Diego.  He still has the bottle.

Next up, how my coaching career crashed and burned, the beginning of the end of my playing days, my refereeing career was born and my son found his groove.

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